Against Purity in Comics (and everywhere else)


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Comics Studies Reader, an anthology of comics criticism and scholarship edited by Kent Worcester and myself, has just won the 2009 Peter C. Rollins Book Award. The Award is given annually to the best book in Cultural Studies and/or American Studies. I’m very proud of the Reader, both for the work Kent and I put into it and also for the quality of the contributors (who include Art Spiegelman, Ariel Dorfman, and Anne Rubenstein).

I thought it might be interesting to give a concrete example of how the Reader might illuminate the broader conversation about comics, held not just but academics but also by cartoonists, journalists, fans, and free-lance intellectuals.

In The Comics Journal #300, there is an interesting conversation about the idea of “pure comics” where Art Spiegelman and Kevin Huizenga thrash out the possible meaning (or meaninglessness) of the term. Here is an excerpt:

Art and I haven’t talked about it before, but, briefly, it was this: Art referred to both Harvey Kurtzman and George Herriman as examples of pure cartooning or pure cartoonists, and you [Kevin Huizenga] expressed skepticism at the idea of “pure” cartooning.

At the time I had received this exhibition catalog of the Krazy! exhibition. There was a couple times in that book where you [Spiegelman] referred to something as “pure comics.” I wrote a quick blog entry about how I have an issue with the whole concept of purity. Whenever someone starts talking about purity, I always take notice, because it’s one of my pet peeves. In the time since I’ve written that entry, I’ve realized that obviously you don’t think that there’s such a thing as “pure comics.” I mean, you’re the guy who talked about the whole concept of mix, “co-mix,” with an X. So it’s not that I think that you have this idea of “purity,” it was more just that in that exhibition catalog you use “pure comics” a few times and I used that to as a springboard to sound off.

I think, if I was trying to parse my words better, I would have called it essential cartooning, maybe, rather than pure. There’s not like, “Oh, and I don’t like the impure stuff.” But, to me, the essence of comics is a little bit like what we were talking about just a minute ago when we were talking about an architecture. It has more to do with things that aren’t like anything else that are the essential aspect of what makes it itself.

As it happens, in the Reader, there is an essay by the distinguished literary theorist W.J.T. Mitchell which takes up this very issue of purity in comics. Mitchell argues that no art form is “pure”, that all media are mixed media. I think Mitchell’s arguments are congruent with Huizenga’s sense of things. Here is an excerpt from Mitchell:

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11 Responses to “Against Purity in Comics (and everywhere else)”
  1. Eric Reynolds says:

    How have I never seen this book!?!

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Good question Eric. The reason you haven't seen this book is that the publisher — University Press of Mississippi — focsed on selling it to the academic market. I'm not sure it was ever even listed on Diamond. That's a shame because I think there is a lot in there that non-academic comics folks will want, including the famous Benson/Kasakove/Spiegelman analysis of "Master Race".

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    Here is the Table of Contents for the book:

    (01) Introduction – Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester
    (02) Thierry Groensteen – “Why are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?”
    (03) Historical Considerations
    (04) David Kunzle – “Rodolphe Töpffer’’s Aesthetic Revolution”
    (05) Robert C. Harvey – “How Comics Came to Be”
    (06) Gilbert Seldes – “The ‘Vulgar’ Comic Strip”
    (07) Fredric Wertham – “excerpt from Seduction of the Innocent
    (08) Amy Kiste Nyberg – “William Gaines and the Battle over EC Comics”
    (09) John Lent – “The Comics Debates Internationally”
    (10) Peter Coogan – “The Definition of the Superhero”
    (11) M. Thomas Inge – “Two Boys from the Twin Cities”
    (12) Craft, Art, Form
    (13) David Carrier – Caricature”
    (14) W.J.T. Mitchell – “Beyond Comparison”
    (15) Thierry Groensteen – “The Impossible Definition”
    (16) Charles Hatfield – “An Art of Tensions”
    (17) Joseph Witek – “The Arrow and the Grid”
    (18) Pascal Lefèvre – ““The Construction of Space in Comics”
    (19) Robert S. Petersen – “The Acoustics of Manga”
    (20) Culture, Narrative, Identity
    (21) Roger Sabin – “Ally Sloper: The First Comics Superstar?”
    (22) Martin Barker – “Jackie and the Problem of Romance”
    (23) Anne Rubenstein – “Home Loving and Without Vices”
    (24) Bart Beaty – “Autobiography as Authenticity”
    (25) Adam Kern – “Manga versus Kibyôshi”
    (26) Fusami Ogi – “Beyond Shoujo, Blending Gender”
    (27) Scrutiny and Evaluation
    (28) Ariel Dorfman – “The Innocents March into History”
    (29) Thomas Andrae – “The Garden in the Machine”
    (30) John Benson, David Kasakove, Art Spiegelman – An Examination of ‘”Master Race”’”
    (31) Gene Kannenberg, Jr. – ““The Comics of Chris Ware”
    (32) Annalisa Di Liddo – “Crossing the Boundaries of the Medium”
    (33) Hillary Chute – “History and Graphic Representation in Maus”

  4. Archibald Banker says:

    you havent seen it because this comic is only for goons in Kings County – the comics wasteland of America.

    Try checking the intelligent library and book shop at MoCCA, and I believe you can find it.

  5. Dan Nadel says:

    I am in awe of our pet lone wolf angry guy who loves MoCCA so much he's always angry and incoherent. He's like our own personal booger swinging from the tip of our collective schnoz. Thank you angry MoCCA guy!

  6. killkillkill says:

    Congratulations Jeet! I got to take a comics crit. class with Kent at SVA and it was one of my all-time favorite classes. The Reader is a great book and the Spiegelman dissection of "Master Race" is worth whatever amount of money one would pay for the book. Mitchell's short but epic piece still sits inside of me today and I get excited every time I bring up the "image/text" problem in a conversation or when it enters into a thought I'm having. I also got to have a great conversation with Art at a BAC reading about his "Master Race" piecce. Thanks Jeet for putting out a challenging and exciting read and can't wait for the next work you guys put out. Jude Killory

  7. Alan says:

    Congratulations Jeet!

    Just requested it from the Toronto library…

  8. Inkstuds says:

    Don't forget the great discussion on the inkstuds that we had about this book

  9. Gene Kannenberg, Jr. says:

    Yes, congrats to Jeet and to Kent! FYI, I blurbed the award yesterday. I've not had an essay in an award-winning book before, so my thanks again to you both for inviting me to this party.

    Now I need to check out that Inkstuds conversation!

  10. Kevin H says:

    WJT Mitchell's book Iconology is highly recommended… Anyone interested in comics as a form can find a lot to chew on in Iconology, especially the politics of it all, which hardly ever gets talked about in comics circles. My allergies to talk of "purity" of form developed in large part due to "Iconology," so this blog entry is right on.

    Not to steal the promotional spotlight, though…buy Comics Studies Reader first…

  11. john adcock says:

    This is a great collection, Jeet, by the way Roger Sabin has since written another article on Ally Sloper, "Sloper on Stage," which appeared in a European magazine. Well worth the search.

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