Posts Tagged ‘A Comics Studies Reader’

Against Purity in Comics (and everywhere else)


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

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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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