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Alternative Comics Roundtable

I’ve got a post up at The Hooded Utilitarian today as part of their “Blog vs. Professor” roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature.

Here is the whole article, for posterity...

I enjoyed rereading Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. I’m not the argumentative type, I don’t have any real objections to the book. I primarily feel a certain sense of distance from many of its chapters.

The first chapter offers a historical overview of the “Rise of Alternative Comics.” I’m not a history buff, or even a comics history buff, so I have no idea how Charles’ (I’m going to call him Charles since we’ve met a few times) history compares with others on the subject, if there even are others on the topic. The first time I read it, it was quite the eye-opener, getting that background understanding of the underground comics, the direct market, and alternative comics. By the time I started reading comics, the direct market was well settled into its boom years as was the glut of self-published (or small publisher published) black and white alternative comics. Having never warmed to any of the underground “comix” (I still recall the sign above the front of my local comic store, which read “COMIX” in the stark lines of electrical tape), this mapping of the historical context provided some much needed perspective for me.

The latter chapters of the book focus on a number of comics artists and works which, I have to say, I have no real affection for (Gilbert Hernandez, Pekar, Crumb), have never read (Green), or haven’t read in a decade or more (Spiegelman/Maus). I’ve always found it hard to really engage with criticism that doesn’t use texts which I have read or appreciate, the insights seem less incisive, less powerful, the readings less able to expand through one’s own context/memory of the original. It’s rare that I get past that point (Genette’s Narrative Discourse, which primarily deals with Proust, a writer I do not enjoy, being a notable example where I have gotten past this issue).

So it is to Charles’ credit that I have read those chapters twice now. I have long been the reader who bought and read Love & Rockets exclusively for Jaime’s material (those days when the brothers had separate books were my favorite), I find Gilbert’s work not to my taste on a number of levels. Charles’ writing was one of the pieces of criticism that finally did get me to go back and read all of Gilbert’s work from volume 1 of L&R (the Palomar book and the Poison River book). (The others being Douglas Wolk’s reading of Love & Rockets X in his Reading Comics (that book being the one Gilbert Hernandez volume I do own and have read a few times), and a piece by sometimes commenter David Turgeon that I translated for du9 about ellipses in Poison River.) And while comments on earlier posts in this roundtable have focused on the political over the formal in Hernandez’s work, it was the formalistic reading that Charles brought to the examples that drew me in.

It is on this reading that Charles has tempted me to re-engage with Harvey Pekar’s work, in particular, Our Cancer Year, though perhaps that is more an element of coincidental connections with my personal life than anything else (my father was diagnosed with lymphoma this past year). After reading that book, I’ll probably dip back into Alternative Comics and reread that chapter to see how my impressions change.

I’d be interested to hear how Charles’ looks at his last chapter of the book (“Whither the graphic novel”) considering the changes that have occurred over the past 5+ years since the books publication. His focus on serialization starts to seem a little out of date now, with the quick decline of serialized comics and the rise of all-at-once publication of longer works, as does his “discouraging outlook” for such books. I’m tempted to read a certain nostalgia for the floppy pamphlet in this last chapter, a nostalgia so many comics readers have but which I don’t share. His analysis of the effects serialization has on a larger work is quite astute. When we read serialized works as a single total, some of the seams start to show and certain aspects of readerly time are lost. You can feel this effect almost immediately by reading most collections of comic strips, particularly the serials. The instant gratification of knowing what happens next seems to undermine the efforts of the creators to build suspense and mystery. He notes that “serialization seems essential” (161) and I have to wonder if the recent/current years might make that statement look false now but in time prove it true. I expect we’ll see more digital serialization (both online and as e-books) as time goes on, monetization options increase, and reading devices become more suitable for comics work (the new color Nook anyone?).

Chapter two, the formal chapter, is naturally where my attention fails the most, as it, more than history or autobiographical issues of authenticity, is where my primary interests lie. Charles’ framework for addressing comics as a series of tensions is such an apt description. It works on many levels (even beyond what he addresses here, I think) and opens up a number of potential areas of investigation. But what most struck me on this latest reading is how focused the formal readings are addressed to a rather traditional narrative comic. While many of the comics discussed in the book are autobiographical, they primarily still maintain a certain novelistic narrative structure. A story told, characters, settings, plot.

How then can we apply the series of tensions to comics that do not fit this narrative model? If the comic has no “text” to read as a code against the image, does a large part of the chapter become useless? If the comic is abstract or non-narrative or starkly experimental do the notions of time and space become unnecessary? I had the idea to try to apply all these tensions to a work that falls as far outside a conventionally representationally drawn narrative as I could find, but alas, I haven’t had the time to work up such a reading (perhaps another time). But here a few thoughts on the subject…

Code vs. Code here is primarily an image versus word division. A brief section address wordless comics that use pictographic signs as a replacement for language, but this won’t apply to all (or even most) wordless comics. I wonder if we might also apply the idea of “code vs. code” to the images themselves. Images are not uniform. While most comics stick to a consistent representational style, many comics put the image itself into tension through stylistic variations or variations in the level of representation (i.e. from completely abstract through photorealist (or photography)). This tension could provide fruitful readings of many unconventional works or even conventional works, a case in point being the section later in the book on the use of photographic reproductions in Maus. One might also approach Tintin in this sense, looking at the tension between the caricatured characters in a detailed, realistic world and how the clear line attempts to smooth that tension.

The tension between single image and sequence is very much in line with the writings of Thierry Groensteen (it is what he bases his iconic solidarity on) and Benoit Peeters (on which more here) and is, to my mind, the closest to defining characteristic that comics have.

The section on “Text as Experience vs. Text as Object” is problematic to me. The discussion of stylistics seems here much less about “Text as object.” For most comics, no matter the media of the art or its style, the final material object is a printed book, yet no discussion of the actual book as object takes place. While I think stylistics and the media of the image is an important element of comics, I don’t see the connection there to experience and object. To say that the “Clear Line seems to deny the materiality of the comics page” (60) is, I think, a misnomer. If anything the clear line embraces the flat printed materiality of the comic. The origin of that style goes back to the technical and economic limits of the original printing (done first in black and white for the serialization, with an eye towards clear reproduction, then later filled in with color for the albums). And I’ve never bought the oft-discussed readings of said style as creating an equality between figure and ground through the “evenness of line.” Rather, I see the evenness of line as a way to better assimilate the abstracted and caricatured figures into a realistic world. (Or perhaps that is saying the same thing? I wonder.) In this reading I had some kind of revelatory understanding of the mark making of Gary Panter as discussed in this section (perhaps another coincidental confluence of reading and my current drawing practice looking at Chinese ink painting and its mark making).

Though it is rather outside the purview of the book, it would have been interesting to see a discussion of the printed materiality of the comic in its various forms (pamphlet, book, minicomic, etc.) and how that materiality effects the reading experience (some of which, Charles’ does discuss later in the book in regards to serialization).

In the end, I will be thinking about these tensions when I next sit down to write about a comic, and over time, we’ll see how useful they are in critical practice.