December 21, 2013
CR Holiday Interview #04 -- Brian Cremins
I met Brian Cremins
this fall in Columbus, Ohio, where it was my honor to introduce his paper on Pogo
. I was intrigued by his thesis that Walt Kelly
was writing as much about his beloved Connecticut home town and its now-lost early 20th Century glory days as he was any more widely-accepted culprit on the map of the United States. I found him engaging in person as well. Cremins is one of a growing group of comics academics between 35 and 50 years old that are as comfortable negotiating the public sphere in which comics exist as they are theory and jargon. I asked him to join me here to talk about elements of his work and the changing world of comics academia, and was happy when he accepted. As much as I've benefited from their work, I know very little about what scholars with a focus on comics actually do. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Brian, before we get into some basic biographical information, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the academic conference we both attended at the front of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum opening weekend. First, could you walk through how you approach a conference like that? Like really basic stuff. You hear that this is going to happen, and you think of presenting why, and how do you determine what that might be, and what do you hope to get out of it?
Before I get started, let me thank you again for asking me to do this, Tom. It's been fun to work through these questions with you, and thanks also for sending the follow-ups. Let me apologize in advance for being long-winded, but I figure that, since I tell my students to read the directions and to answer questions as thoroughly as possible, I need to follow my own advice!
SPURGEON: There is no such thing as a long-winded
CR Holiday Interview.
Generally an academic conference will make a very broad call for papers, but the CFP for Columbus made a few specific suggestions -- like papers about Charles Schulz
and Walt Kelly. Kerry Soper
, who just published a great monograph on Kelly and Pogo
, and I had been corresponding over email, so I asked if he'd be interested in putting together a Walt Kelly panel. 2013 would have been Kelly's 100th birthday, so a panel on his life and work seemed like a great idea for the academic conference that opened the Festival.
Once I submit a proposal for a conference, it's usually two months or longer before I get a response. Sometimes I'll submit an abstract based on a paper I've already published, as in the case of the article on Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix
I presented at Michael Chaney
's Dartmouth comics conference
in the spring. I was in the process of writing that essay for the Journal of Medical Humanities
when I saw Michael's CFP. I adapted some of the material I already had, added some material on Kane and Spider-Man's adventures in the Savage Land, wrote an abstract, and submitted it.
For the OSU paper, I started with the Kelly essay I'd published in Brannon Costello and Qiana Whitted's collection Comics and the U.S. South
in 2012. I took a look again at that one, which I'd started writing and researching in 2008, and discovered that my ideas had changed significantly.
Since I'm in the middle of writing a book about the Otto Binder and C.C. Beck's run on Captain Marvel, I felt very distant from the Kelly research, until I realized that the issue of nostalgia -- and the theories of nostalgia I've been reading in the work of Svetlana Boym
and Susan J. Matt
-- are also present in Kelly's work.
I still struggled with what I wanted to say until we visited my parents in Connecticut and I had the opportunity to work in the clipping files at the Bridgeport History Center
in Kelly's hometown. As I read the newspaper reports from the Bridgeport Post
, and Kelly's Barnum series from the early 1930s, I had a new idea for my paper. Without that trip, and without that drive from Waterbury to Bridgeport through the Naugatuck River Valley, I don't think I could have written this new essay on Kelly. I needed to be there to understand why he writes so affectionately about his childhood in Bridgeport.
As other academics and artists will tell you, conferences are a good way to see old friends. At its best, a conference is also an introduction to new ideas, or books, or artists, or writers, or theories. I know I've been to a great conference when I get home and I'm still taking notes, still thinking about the people I'd met and considering their ideas. The Billy Ireland Festival this year was one of those conferences. When I got back to Chicago, I bought a copy of March, because I remembered Qiana's paper, and I was reading The Eternals
again because John Jennings
had shown all his Kirby remixes during his talk, and I was looking at Eisner because of James Vance's talk. Those are just a few examples.
SPURGEON: Until this year, I haven't done one of those since 1997 or so, one of the ICAFs in the room above the Holiday Inn conference room where they had SPX. I assume you've been doing these a while in some form yourself. Two things I noticed is that there seems to be a post-TED talk approach to visuals and dramatic presentation style, but it also seemed to me -- and this just might be that particular event -- more open to independent scholarship and maybe more something that a general audience could understand. Can you talk about how they've changed? Will that continue, do you think?
Since my Ph.D. research was focused on early African American film, I'm accustomed to the use of technology at academic conferences, although in the late 1990s, when I first started presenting at places like the American Literature Association, we were using VHS tapes and praying that we'd synced them correctly before we got on the plane! My very first comics-oriented conference was the Popular Culture Association in Toronto in the spring of 2002, which, to this day, is still one of the most memorable conferences I've ever attended.
Gene Kannenberg had invited Thierry Groensteen as a keynote speaker on Martin Vaughn-James' The Cage
, and we all did field-trips to The Silver Snail and to The Beguiling. I walked into The Beguiling and there's Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown. "They really do hang out together," I remember thinking. It was like stepping into one of their comics. I remember great presentations from Jeet Heer
on Harold Gray and José Alaniz
on the X-Men and disability studies. Anyway, at that conference I remember very rudimentary slide shows, but I also remember being disappointed in myself for not bringing along something more sophisticated than the photocopies I had in my briefcase.
So I think the use of multimedia in comics studies conferences predates the TED talks that have become so popular in the last few years. It's very difficult to talk about comics and film without using clips of some sort. I think the technology has caught up with the presentations, and we're seeing academics and artists taking full advantage of the technology available.
In Columbus I overheard several people remark that there was a good range of presenters -- academics, independent scholars, writers, artists. I think this mixture is what makes comics studies so unique and vital. I would not be able to do the research I'm working on now without all of the writing from independent scholars, dating back to the fanzines of the early 1960s. One of the reasons I try to write for as many different venues as I can -- peer-reviewed academic journals like Studies in American Humor
, popular comics magazines like Alter Ego
, my zines
and my blog
-- is that I feel the need to balance my writing for fandom with my writing for a purely academic audience. I think -- I hope, anyway -- that writing for those two often distinct worlds has sharpened my skills.
And the relationship between academia, independent scholarship, and fandom has existed for decades in people like Trina Robbins
, R.C. Harvey
, M. Thomas Inge
, the late Jerry Bails
. I'll give an example from a couple of decades ago: When I was in high school, I wrote a letter to CBG
's "Information, Please" column in which I asked for help on a project for a Spanish class. This was in late 1989 or early 1990. I was thinking of writing a report on the Hernandez Brothers. A few weeks later, I got several responses in the mail -- one from a comics fan named Hec Rambla from New York City, who sent me a stack of beautiful Condorito comics, and another from Tom Inge. I also remember an envelope from Cat Yronwode. I didn't have known it at the time, but I was experiencing the critical discourse of fandom, a discourse that has provided the foundation for the more formalized academic study of comics.
SPURGEON: I was also sort of fascinated by the social milieu both of the shows I attended presented, particularly this one. Is there specific value for academic in what still seems a loosely organized focus to see one another, to interact with one another? Is that ever overstated?
I attended three conferences this year -- Dartmouth, the CAKE Festival
in Chicago, and OSU
-- and I kept thinking about something Edie Fake said recently regarding his work, his comics, and his gallery shows. This is from an interview
he did with Thea Liberty Nichols earlier this year around the time of his gallery show Memory Palaces
Cross-pollinating is how ideas spread and get expanded upon. Sharing what we can is how we help each other thrive on this messed up planet. It creates networks, emotional bonds, kinship, thought, and physical resources. You can't always give and you can't always take.
I don't think the significance of community to comics studies can be overstated. Although writing and research -- like cartooning -- can be solitary pursuits, the work always exists within a larger social or historical context of ideas and texts. The networks Edie talks about are significant and vital -- those networks make it possible for us to communicate and to survive or, as he puts it, to "thrive."
SPURGEON: This may be impossible to answer, but what is the state of comics in academia in broad terms? It seems like the popularity of the classes and the aging of some very skilled and popular professors program to program are starting to generate more institutional interest, but I don't have a good read on this.
I'm stunned by the popularity and acceptance of comics in academia. When I was an undergrad at Dartmouth College in the early 1990s, I began to see some casual interest in comics as a field of study. Marianne Hirsch
, for example, was teaching Maus in her Holocaust course with historian Leo Spitzer, and she would eventually transform some of those classroom ideas into her analysis of Spiegelman in her book Family Frames
(1997). But I remember some of the other students in that class resisting the idea of a comic book about the Holocaust. Why are we reading this? What is it? Is it some sort of joke? It's hard to imagine such resistance now that Maus
is such a canonical text.
Many of my Studio Art classes were even more challenging. I'd originally planned to complete a double major -- studio art and English -- but I found the English department, at least at that time, more open to the idea of comics as an art form.
I mention that because, when I took Hirsch's course, I was able to write papers about Maus
and its relationship to other books in the 1986/87 comic book "renaissance," like The Dark Knight Returns
. I had the opposite experience in most of my art classes. I still recall my first group critique, in which the professor took one look at my drawings and said dismissively, "So here we have a picture-maker." I got tired of struggling in those classes but I found a home in the English Department because of faculty like Melissa Zeiger, Bill Cook, Jonathan Crewe, and Peter Bien. When I first heard about the Center for Cartoon Studies
opening in White River Junction, I wanted to send a message back to my 18-year old self -- just wait until you see White River Junction in 20 years.
Now, having said all that, I also learned a great deal in those art classes about Modernist and Post-Modernist art movements, knowledge I draw on in my writing two decades later. I sometimes wish I'd had more guts and stuck with that double-major.
So, yes, I think comics are gaining more acceptance within academia as an area of study. In fact I think we're well beyond the early phases of that acceptance. With all of the conferences and academic journals now devoted to the field -- not to mention the faculty across disciplines incorporating comics into their courses -- we're witnessing an exciting time for comics studies. Some of the scholars in Columbus even suggested that the opening of the Billy Ireland might be a culmination of this first wave of comics scholarship. Just as there are a lot of great cartoonists working right now, there are a lot of amazing writers and critics.
SPURGEON: For that matter, do you see one or two things that are out there to be done, immediate things you'd like to see happen for this area of interest?
As a field I think we need to be mindful of what we might lose or forget as we continue to build a canon of comics studies. I mentioned earlier the relationship between academia and fandom, and I think it's important that we not forget or ignore the works of comics scholarship that existed before comics began generating more widespread, formal academic interest in the 1990s.
In the interview you did with Jeet Heer
a few weeks ago, he mentioned his desire to publish a collection of critical work from the fan press. I think he also joked that he might be the only person interested in reading it, but I'll line up to buy a copy, too. I think a collection of that sort would be essential and I'd love to see him edit one.
I think any critical discourse that seeks to define and understand American comics of the last century must engage seriously with these early works of criticism, while at the same time understanding how issues such as race, gender, and identity have shaped the history of comics in the United States and around the world. There's a lot of work to be done, but we have access to the raw material that we need, especially in archives like the Billy Ireland at OSU and in the amazing archive
Randy Scott oversees at Michigan State.
I should mention that I'm trained as a literary scholar or historian rather than as a theorist of aesthetics. I'm often less interested in how comics work than in the historical forces that shape them. In several of my essays I'm writing as much about the advertisements in newsstand comics as I'm writing about the stories themselves. I'm interested in comics not just as art but also as material objects with a history all their own.
Also, I tried to fight that battle -- are comics "real" art? -- in my undergraduate art classes, and I decided it was better to focus my energy on making things -- on writing about what interested me -- than in wasting time trying to convince those who might never be persuaded in the first place. Before I got to college, in fact, I was entirely ignorant of the divide between high and low art. I was immersed in comics fandom but I was also reading Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. Maybe my inability -- or unwillingness -- to distinguish between Ulysses and the artfulness of an old issue of Mighty Samson
reveals my questionable taste! But my family was always very supportive, and none of my teachers or fellow students -- until college, anyway -- seemed to care all that much when I'd bring a stack of comics to school. I think everyone was happy that I'd developed a love of reading.
Two of my non-comics heroes, I should mention, are Queer filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith
and early punk musician Peter Laughner
. I did some sound design for a couple of experimental theater pieces in New York in the 1990s, so I got exposed to a lot of radical, often politically engaged, inventive artists I probably never would have encountered otherwise, filmmakers like Smith and directors like Richard Foreman and the late Reza Abdoh. Those movies and those plays still inspire me. If you see Smith's films, and listen to Laughner's music
with Rocket from Tombs and Pere Ubu, you find a willingness to cross genres and forms -- high art and trash, literature and music, movies and live performance. That punk sensibility informs a lot of my writing and thinking about comics. I think it's unlikely I would have discovered Smith and Laughner anyway if I hadn't first been exposed to the idea of an underground in the form of the small press artists and zine-makers who advertised in the Classifieds section of CBG
in the 1980s.
SPURGEON: To take us all the way back, I always assume that an academic's interest in comics preceded their focus on it as an academic. Can you talk a bit about your comics background, what was significant for you in terms of what you read and when you read it?
My first exposure to comics must have been the Power Records sets that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Do you remember those? Before I could even read, I was looking at the pictures in those books and listening to the records. I was born in 1973, so I guess I'm part of a generation of American comic book readers who grew up surrounded by comics merchandise. My exposure to all that merchandise -- Mego action figures, T-shirts, superhero Slurpee cups at the 7-11, the Shazam! and Super Friends Saturday morning TV shows -- was an important part of my childhood. All the toys, the shirts, and the cartoons might also explain my interest in comics as artifacts, as material records of post-War American consumer culture.
Both of my parents also read comics when they were kids. I once found a stack of Batman comics in the basement of my dad's childhood home in Waterbury, CT, and my mom tells me she mostly loved Nancy and Sluggo, the Lone Ranger -- I think the TV show more than the comics -- and Mad Magazine. So I grew up with two parents who themselves had grown up with the pop culture of the 1950s and with a grandmother who loved old time radio shows. My sister read some comics, too. I loved her copies of Marvel's Star Comics, especially anything by Trina Robbins. I'd like to see Meet Misty
back in print. My mom also likes to draw, so when she saw that I was also taking an interest in drawing and in comics, she bought me a copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way
I remember being disturbed by the violence of those issues of Avengers
where Yellowjacket abuses The Wasp. I was a kid, but this didn't seem like a comic book just for kids. And it was on the newsstand like all the others! At some point late in 1983, my dad and I visited Jim's Comic Book Shop on East Main Street in Waterbury. Jim's is long gone. I'd never seen so many back issues, or things like Eisner's A Contract with God
, or the Marvel Graphic Novel series, so I started reading as much as I could, and at some point I also got a free trial subscription to the Comics Buyer's Guide
That's when things really opened up for me. I started reading a lot of the old pulp magazines, and I got interested in writers like Harlan Ellison. At the time, the CBG
letters page and the features and columns were very important resources for me. As I mentioned earlier, in those pages, especially the letters and the small press column, I entered a world of discourse that, at the time, must have seemed very old-fashioned when compared to the pop music and video games that were popular with so many of the other kids my age. And I started reading comics at a perfect time: within a couple of years, I was following Tim Truman's Scout
, Matt Wagner's Mage
, Chaykin's The Shadow
. I read Marvel and DC comics and titles from indie companies like First and Comico. I also loved Deni Loubert's Renegade Press and Cat Yronwode's Eclipse.
There was a long period of time where I dropped out of comics, or only read them occasionally. I did a few zines in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then, when I got to college, I found it was too difficult to keep up with what was happening in the comics world. There were no comics shops in Hanover, New Hampshire. I also got burned out during the black & white implosion. There were way too many radioactive gerbil comics being published, so I started listening to the Velvet Underground and playing guitar. That was a good thing for me, I think, because my interaction with comics fandom at that time, while rich, was also limited to letters and letter columns. It was a little lonely. It's hard to be lonely with a guitar and a band. I met a lot more friends and allies when I started playing music.
Anyway, I have three comics that I guess I'll say have had the most impact on my life. When I was a kid, it was those issues of Avengers
and Moore's Miracleman
. Then in grad school it was James Sturm
's The Revival
. Within a few years of moving to Chicago in 2005, I discovered Edie Fake
's Gaylord Phoenix
. I carried a copy of Gaylord
around in my messenger bag for almost a year after I first read it. I started passing out copies to friends. You have to see this. I don't know of another comic that's had the same emotional impact on me as Gaylord Phoenix
. Edie's work was also a gateway for me for other artists in the Chicago scene -- Corinne Mucha
, Julia Von De Bur
, Marnie Galloway
, Anders Nilsen
, John Porcellino
's older work. I've also been lucky that artists like Mucha, Nilsen, and Porcellino have all visited my comics classes at Harper
. Those visits have been very inspiring for me and for my students.
SPURGEON: Am I right in looking at your CV that you might have been at the UConn when Charles Hatfield and Gene Kannenberg were there? Are there any stories there?
Actually, I was going to mention that if it weren't for Gene and Charles, I don't know if I would have gotten back into comics again in the mid-1990s.
I think I met Gene first. As soon as he discovered that I'd been a huge comics fan, he and Charles invited me on a field trip to a great comics shop in Putnam, Connecticut. I forget the name. I hope it's still there. They gave me copies of James Sturm's The Revival
and early issues of Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library
. I felt the same way about Sturm's The Revival
as I did about Moore's Miracleman
. Suddenly all the promise of the comics of the mid-1980s seemed to be coming true. Are there more like this? And Gene and Charles kept making suggestions -- Jessica Abel, Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown.
I think one of the many reasons I'm in Chicago now is The Acme Novelty Library
. The first time I visited Chicago in 2002, I said to a friend of mine, So this is why he draws the brownstones the way he draws them. Those pages suddenly came to life. It all made sense.
Both Gene and Charles have always been kind and supportive. When we were at UConn they would often introduce me to guest artists like David Mazzuchelli and Steve Bissette. One of my most vivid memories is grading papers in my grad school office, probably in 1997 or 1998. Gene or Charles walked in and asked me, "What do you think of David Mazzuchelli?" What did I think of him? I'd spent years trying to draw eyes and foreheads the way he drew them in Daredevil! "Well, here he is!" So I'm standing there over this stack of student papers from English 101 and talking with David Mazzuchelli about art school. A few years later, after both of them had finished, I got the opportunity to teach my first comics class as their mentor, Tom Roberts, was in the process of retiring. One of my students from that class, Andrew Drozd, even got a Xeric Grant
for his work. He had no idea the Xeric even existed until James Sturm visited our class, and I was able to invite James because of Gene and Charles. I can't tell you enough how much affection and admiration I have for both of them.
SPURGEON: I was going to ask if comics was always going to be a part of the things on which you focused as an academic, but I guess I should couch that in terms that you have a broader range of interests than that comics focus. Can you talk about making comics a part of what you do, and how your other disciplines inform your approach?
This is a great question, and it's one I've been thinking about quite a lot over the last two years. Although I'd written a little bit about comics for Marianne Hirsch's class at Dartmouth, I had no idea that it might be possible to write about comics for an academic journal or magazine -- until I met Gene and Charles and a few other friends at UConn. My dissertation, however, touched on issues of pop culture.
I wrote about Oscar Micheaux
, the pioneer African American filmmaker and self-published novelist. I have a chapter in my dissertation on the detective novels and films he produced in the 1930s and 1940s. It's important to remember that Micheaux is also an interesting figure in the history of hip-hop culture and underground cinema. In his autobiography, Chuck D. from Public Enemy draws a comparison between Micheaux, who often sold and distributed his films door-to-door, and early hip hop entrepreneurs. At the same time, film critics like J. Hoberman and artists like Ken Jacobs
claimed him as part of the same avant-garde lineage that later produced Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. When I first read Micheaux, at the suggestion of Clare Eby
, my dissertation advisor at UConn, I began to think of him as an indirect ancestor of the indie and underground comics and zine culture that had meant so much to me in the 1980s. So one of the chapters of my dissertation focuses on Micheaux and the pulp magazines of the 1930s. That dissertation also gave me the theoretical training and primary document research skills I needed in order to do the kind of work on comics I'm now pursuing.
It was only in 2001 that I started to take the idea of writing about comics seriously. I hadn't yet started my dissertation, and I wasn't sure yet if I'd finish it. I thought I might complete my secondary teaching license and leave the world of higher ed. I was also going through a pretty severe bout of depression and anxiety, and my escape was in the comics I was reading and collecting again -- not just art comics, but Peter David's Captain Marvel
and whatever Kirby back issues I could get my hands on. I decided my only way out of the depression was to write my way out. I think I'd read that phrase in William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac -- I had to write my way out of whatever was afflicting me, so I sat down and wrote that first essay for John Lent's IJOCA
. That's when I started to notice a pattern -- comics for me are always about nostalgia, and they have always been a safe place. They remind me of home. But I wanted to know why, over the course of my life, I'd returned to them again and again.
Right now I'm working on two projects, but for me they're linked together. I'm writing and researching the book on Binder and Beck's Captain Marvel
and theories of nostalgia, but, at the same time, that research is allowing me to explore the life and times of my maternal grandfather, a working-class, World War II vet who died when my mother was only 12 and he was only 46. For years I've wanted to know what happened to him, what caused the "nervous disorders" that eventually took his life. That's why in the recent essay for Alter Ego
, I wrote about Captain Marvel Adventures
No. 12, in which Billy Batson tries to join the Army. The comic was published the same month that my grandfather was traveling around the US as part of the Army War Show before he was sent overseas to Tunisia. I want to know what happened to him, and I want to understand the world that shaped him and my grandmother and the other people I was close to when I was a kid. Writing about them means writing about nostalgia, which also means writing about comics. I think I'm still trying to write my way out, not only for myself, but also for him and for my family.
So I guess I've probably always been writing about comics, and probably always will, but not necessarily in a form readily apparent to the reader. In that way, I think I'm very limited as a writer, and I don't think of myself as much of a critic. I think I'm trying to get at those images Albert Camus talks about in this quotation -- which I know not from Camus but from Scott Walker
's fourth solo record, where he uses it as a statement of purpose:
A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
I'm sorry if this all sound very ponderous. It's also a lot of fun, which is another reason I think I responded so strongly to Edie's work when I first read it: here is a universe of loss and sadness, but also of humor and mischief. I have that sensibility, too, which probably comes from my years of being a musician -- if a song is a little too sad, maybe it's best to step on a fuzz pedal and make some noise. Bug the neighbors. Maybe even make them smile a little.
SPURGEON: The thing I found fascinating about your essay on Scout is how your observations are kind of built -- but also kind of not -- on a specific critical reading of that material. I think something that critics find problematic with a lot of academic writing on comics, just in general, is that some of its sees depth and majesty in genre comics that for the critic doesn't exist, that there's an assumption of intentionality regarding factors attributed to the comics that aren't there, and that there's a general allowance for some weak material that flatters either the academic's own taste or even the narrative of comics self-climb out of childishness. How much do you find it necessary to question your own taste in comics when engaging with a comic series like Scout as an academic? Do you think that some academic work projects qualities onto comics that may not be there? Is there a danger in slipping away from critical inquiry and into an apologetic?
One of things I hope to avoid in my writing is the question of value, or taste -- that is, whether or not a comic is worth the time and effort it takes to read carefully and analyze. I'm not interested in the relative merit or value of a work of art. It might be my training in African American literature and literary theory, but I am always suspicious regarding questions of a work's transcendent worth or power. When I wrote the Scout
essay, I was most interested in exploring the social context in which it was published -- the way in which publishers like Eclipse, as Ron Goulart
has pointed out, combined the genre conventions of Marvel and DC with the politics, aesthetics, or values of underground comix. I was also interested in exploring something Tim Truman
mentioned in an email to me when I was researching the essay -- that Cat Yronwode
thought of Scout as a kind of "left-wing Rambo." I wanted to explore what a left-wing Rambo might look like, what sorts of adventures he would have.
My writing students at Harper will often ask me if they're in danger of, as they put it, "reading too much" into something. I usually respond that I'm not interested in finding the "deeper meaning" of a work of art or literature. I'm interested in its context. Was it a popular work that had an impact on readers, on other artists? If so, why? Was it a more obscure work known only to a small audience? My work is heavily influenced by what German historian Alf Ludtke
describes as "the history of everyday life," a concept sometimes also referred to as microhistory
-- the record of those voices who too often have been kept out of the historical record because of class, race, or identity. I was talking with a friend just last week who asked if I thought of myself more as an archaeologist than as a literary critic or literary historian, and I would have to say yes. I'm interested in how we might understand and reconstruct the past by drawing on its popular culture -- those otherwise ignored or dismissed artifacts that reveal for us, here in the present moment, what the world looked like to those who came before us -- especially those whose voices are too rarely heard.
What's interesting for me about the Scout
article, which I wrote when I was in my late 20s, is that it was the first essay in which I removed myself from the research process. While I had read Scout
when I was in my teens, I remembered very little of it, but when I returned to it as an adult, I was curious to see what impact it would have on me. As I began reading it again, just for fun at first, I became fascinated with Truman's use of Native American folklore and African American popular culture, especially his use of the blues. That was the first piece I published in the third person. In writing that essay, I didn't set out to elevate Truman's work, or to ennoble it in any way. Rather, I was curious to understand how those comics reflected the era in which they were published. What I discovered was that Scout was more complex than I'd imagined because of the ways in which Truman toys with the genre conventions, and also because of the ways he employs African American and Native American oral tradition and folk cultures.
The other writer whose work has shaped my consciousness is Walter Benjamin
, especially the Benjamin of "Theses on the Philosophy of History" and of the Arcades
. My understanding of Benjamin guides and shapes how I approach my writing -- not just on comics, but the other, more autobiographical work I do in my zines and in my essays on music and on my family and on Connecticut. Let me include a passage from Harry Zohn's translation
of "Theses on the Philosophy of History" that came to mind when I read your question.
Benjamin says that "every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." So, that seems clear enough -- a writer must recognize the value of the past as a way of understanding or shaping the present. In that sense, the past is a lens through which we view the present -- or, to bring us back to comics, making the past manifest in the present, through history, art, literature, is a kind of x-ray vision, one that reveals the inner workings of that present moment. But then Benjamin adds this parenthetical, paradoxical statement: "(The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth)." I read this as Benjamin's admission of the impossibility of ever retrieving the past as it was lived and experienced. But in the notes for his Arcades project Benjamin also reminds us that consumer culture has left behind for us artifacts that we might read just as we would read a narrative. Those material objects offer brief moments of revelation. Earlier in the passage from "Theses on the Philosophy of History," he writes, "The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at that instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again." I can't read German, so I don't how Benjamin describes these ideas in the original essay, but I read Zohn's English translation as suggesting that the only chance we have of seeing those flashes -- maybe even of documenting them -- is by recognizing their significance.
This is one of the dangers I sense in the idea of a canon or hierarchy of comics: once we become too certain of the greatness of one work of art, we run the risk of failing to recognize these brilliant "flashes."
I think the idea of a canon poses significant problems for writers and artists. The free play of ideas is essential for the creative process. Good taste does not always make for good art, I don't think. I'll go back to my earlier example of my undergraduate art classes: twenty years ago, several of my professors bluntly told me that comic art has no value as real art. Were they right? Do comics as a form still lack value? What's changed in the last twenty years? The art itself, or the way we understand comics as an art form?
Then again, I love Van Halen
-- with or without Diamond Dave, though I do miss Michael Anthony on bass -- just as much as I love Chekhov or J.G. Ballard or Anna Kavan
, so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask this question!
I want to come back to an artist I mentioned earlier. Sylvère Lotringer
once asked Jack Smith to imagine an ideal society. Smith replied,
I can imagine other types of societies... Like in the middle of the city there should be a repository of objects that people don't want anymore, which they would take to this giant junkyard. That would be a form of organization, a way that the city would be organized... the city organized around that. I think this center of unused objects would become a center of intellectual activity. Things would grow up around it.
In some of my writing, such as the Scout
and Captain America
essays, I want to see what might "grow up around" material others see as junk. I'm also curious why some works are considered junk while others are considered art.
SPURGEON: I don't know that I recall a lot of academic work in indy comics -- by which I mean genre comics published independently from companies whose bread and butter is superheroes. Can you talk a little bit about what comics like that may have to specifically offer academic study?
If we're talking about the indy comics companies of the 1980s -- Comico, First, Eclipse, for example -- I think a study of the forgotten or neglected books from that era might offer us more perspective and insight into how the contemporary idea of the graphic novel, at least as understood by the world outside of comics, came into being. How did the fandom of the 1980s, for example, respond to these smaller companies, and what was the relationship between genre comics published by these companies and what we now might call art comics? The world of comics we inhabit today has its roots in that world, so I'd like to read more about the work the Hernandez Brothers and Seth did on Mister X
, for example. I also think a series like Wendy and Richard Pini's Elfquest
is long overdue for a reevaluation.
But we're already beginning to see some exciting work being done on 1980s American comics like Brannon Costello
's work on Howard Chaykin. There are so many other artists and series from that era I'd love to learn more about. For example, what impact did Reggie Byers
and his work on Shuriken
have on the popularity of manga in the United States? And earlier I mentioned Deni Loubert and Cat Yronwode. How did their critical and aesthetic sensibilities shape the work they published? When I was at the comics archive at Michigan State this summer, one of the librarians was in the process of cataloging Cat Yronwode's papers. Those papers alone might provide a scholar with unique insights into the indy companies of the 1980s. There are a lot of great books waiting to be written.
One last question -- why were there so many radioactive gerbil comics at the end of the 1980s? I'm still waiting for a scholarly essay on Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters
Captain America essay on relevance in comics, issues comics-making, interested me because you seem to have a broader response to those notions than to a) see it as genre correction, b) see it as progressive development within the art form, c) see it as a cynical sales pole -- at least not just those things. Can you talk about how you see those issues, and how a wider understanding might change how we view comics.
One of the reasons I began writing that first Captain America
essay for IJOCA
was because of Gene Colan
. I've always been fascinated by his art, especially the pencil-only work in Nathaniel Dusk
and his and Cary Bates' adaptation of Robert Silverbe
, which is one of my favorite science fiction novels and one of my favorite comics of the 1980s. His disembodied figures are so strange, so unreal and ghostly, that I was curious to understand how an artist whose work is so ethereal -- and therefore perfectly suited to a poetic, metaphysical novel like Nightwings
-- would look in the context of a work produced during the era of "relevance" that Bradford Wright
and, before him, Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs talk about in their book
on American comic book history. As I read the comic, I also became curious about its letters page, about the way in which the story itself, and Gene Colan's telling of that story, related to comments from Captain America fans and to the pages filled with advertisements.
Much like Colan's art, I think there are nuances to a comic like Captain America #133
that we can only recognize through careful analysis and research. I don't think genre comics should be ignored or dismissed just because they're genre comics, and, at the same time, I don't believe they should be celebrated either. Rather, I think we need to approach them for what they are -- or, at least, examine what we believe those comics to be, although such an analysis might reveal more about the writer than about the comic itself.
When I presented my research on Gaylord Phoenix
at the Dartmouth conference earlier this year, I shifted from my original plan, which was to discuss the book in the context of Queer theory. I included portions of the essay I'd published in the Journal of Medical Humanities
, but I also felt compelled to place Fake's work in a larger context. Gaylord Phoenix
is about a lot of things but one of its major concerns is the body itself. I'd been reading John Benson's classic Alter Ego
interview with Gil Kane, and began thinking about Kane's study of human anatomy, his interest in form and design. I began to notice parallels between Kane's work with the human form and Fake's experiments in Gaylord Phoenix
. As I put the presentation together, I decided to juxtapose Fake's art with Gil Kane's splash pages from The Amazing Spider-Man, just to see what they might look like together. I find those possibilities exciting. How might these two artists, working in two different eras of comics, speak to each other?
SPURGEON: For that matter, how much do you view any of your academic writing in the way that a critic might, as in part a dialogue with the work's creator. It seems like enough of that work is rich in ideas that it would work, but I'm not sure if you think that's important at all, or that if people write in that manner.
I don't feel I'm entering a dialogue with the writer or artist. I might be entering into a conversation with the work itself, but then again I'm not sure that's even an accurate description of what I'm after in my writing. I want to go back to Benjamin for a moment. One aspect of his work that is often ignored is his mysticism. Ultimately I believe Benjamin wanted to understand what Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin in the Arcades translate to English as "affinities." I borrowed the title of my dissertation, in fact, from these lines from the Arcades. As Benjamin studies these objects of nineteenth century consumer culture, he writes, "A world of secret affinities opens up within: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, prostheses and letter-writing manuals" (see The Arcades Project 540). He then calls this collection of items a "rebus" and wonders "how one ought to read" them.
I'm fascinated, for example, in how to read an old comic book in its entirety. For me, those advertisements are part of the narrative itself. For Benjamin, this process of reading clearly owed a debt to the surrealists and to film. When I read Benjamin now, I think of William S. Burroughs and his cut-ups, of Public Enemy and their production team the Bomb Squad, of Kathy Acker
. Benjamin draws together all sorts of objects, juxtaposes them in order to create a moment of revelation, of truth. In order to do so, he's looking for the truth he believes -- or that he hopes -- exists beneath the illusion of these material objects. Benjamin's desire might be a Platonic one -- a search for ideal forms -- but I also sense his desire to locate the right combination of words, the phrases that will dismantle time and space himself. He's looking for a kind of magic or clairvoyance.
I'm sorry if I'm getting too Doctor Strange, here, but I guess I want to take that same journey in my writing. I want to know how a copy of Captain America
or Gaylord Phoenix
and my responses to each one will reveal to me why I was born at the particular moment in history when I was born. I'm really asking a pretty simplistic question -- not, why are we here making these marks, but how does the interaction between the present and the past find expression in works of the imagination, no matter how humble they might be?
SPURGEON: Your presentation on
Pogo I thought fascinating because I'm always looking for ways to enter back into material that is slowly fading from those generations that experienced the work in question first hand and may not be able to see it for their assumptions as to its value. I don't know if I inferred this, but it seems like you were almost suggest that what we might assume of Kelly's interest in depicting the south, say, was actually a more personal exploration of a sense of the community in which he lived, but that this gets somehow masked according to the general branding of a cartoonist seeing a certain kind of success. Do you see a lot of value in going back over older work in terms of how we might conceive an artist engaging with work in the present day -- those personal aspects -- or are there dangers in that kind of projection that outweigh potential benefits?
I don't think the approach I took in my OSU paper on Kelly's work and its Bridgeport roots would work for every cartoonist. When I was writing that paper, I had in mind a stray comment from Will Eisner's interview with C.C. Beck. Eisner begins the interview by asking Beck a few biographical questions and Beck responds by describing his upbringing in Minnesota and his experiences in Chicago and in New York. Then Eisner says, "The reason I'm questioning you about that is that I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably" -- you can read the entire interview in the Shop Talk
collection or in Will Eisner's Spirit Magazine
, No. 41, June 1983. Eisner doesn't return to that point, but I began to think about his idea in relation to Walt Kelly.
In my older essay on Pogo
in Qiana and Brannon's Comics and the U.S. South
, I mention the fact that other critics, notably Eric Jarvis and Edward Mendelson, have discussed that Kelly, despite the Southern setting of his strip, is from the Northeast. R.C. Harvey talks about Kelly's first visit to the Okefenokee Swamp in an article in The Comics Journal
from 2002 (No. 241). With all of those points in mind, I began to wonder what Kelly was writing about if he was not writing about the South.
The more I read of his essays -- which, by the way, I hope one day are collected and published -- the more I began to wonder about his affection for his childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Kerry Soper also talks briefly about the impact the city had on Kelly. Again, I don't know if the biographical, geographical approach I took with Kelly would work for all cartoonists, but I find myself thinking more and more about Eisner's remark to Beck. In what way does "geographic origin" influence or inspire a cartoonist's work? This is a question I'm exploring in my research on Binder and Beck, who are both Midwesterners. I'm beginning to read their Captain Marvel stories in the same way that I read Booth Tarkington's novels about Indiana. There is a regionalist sensibility at work, I think, that makes their comics very different, for example, from Jack Kirby's or Joe Simon's. But is there a distinctly Midwestern style? That's a question that came up in passing this summer when Jake Austen
interviewed Chris Ware at the CAKE festival. It's a question worth exploring, too. Thinking about the role geography -- the home, either real or imagined -- plays in an artist's work is another possible way of writing about comics without those questions or merit or value we talked about earlier.
SPURGEON: One of the criticisms lobbied against criticism in general is that it's writer oriented -- either outright, in an assumption of authorship for writers as opposed to co-authorship with artists or even service to the decisions made by an artist making the writers not the authors at all, or as an outcome on looking at the work as a whole, as a storytelling event or artistic effort in which all creative facets play a contributing role. Do you struggle at all with a sophisticated treatment of art in your work, when engaging these comics? Are there academics you admire that engage the art aspects of comics more directly?
Most of the writing I've done on comics has focused on creators who write and draw their work -- Tim Truman, Walt Kelly, John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch
, Bill Mauldin, Edie Fake. I've actually written more frequently about single creators than about creative partnerships, with the exception of the Captain America essay and now with the major exception of Binder and Beck. I feel that in my writing I'm facing the opposite problem.
For the last few months, I've been reading all of the letters and essays in which Beck praises Binder and the other Fawcett writers, and claims that without them, the comics would not have been successful. He claims again and again that, at least from his perspective, the writer -- or, anyway, the story -- is more important than the art itself. So I've found myself looking for ways to describe Binder's work, how he adapted the themes and ideas, for example, that he and his brother Earl first explored in their science fiction stories. As I've been writing about Binder and Beck's relationship, I've begun to think that I've ignored the writing of comics, the narratives themselves, in favor of the visuals. Some of this no doubt has to do with my background in drawing and studio art, but I also find that I enjoy writing about images, finding a narrative in them, describing them.
Late last year at Pencil, Panel, Page
, Adrielle Mitchell
wrote a great essay
about critical writing on comics and ekphrasis, writing that describes a work of art. That post has influenced my thinking about how I approach writing about comics. And there are other academics writing about comics who I look forward to reading because of their willingness to engage in detail with lines, with texture, with color -- I'm thinking of Charles Hatfield's writing on Kirby, for example, and Qiana Whitted
's essays and posts.
SPURGEON: You're working with Binder and Beck right now, and there are some component works available. You have a very interesting theory as to why, maybe, that Captain Marvel resists transformation into the same kind of movie character that has proven successful thus far, pointing out that this is something that very much worked for the World War 2 audience. I was wondering if you could talk about that uniqueness a bit, and what exactly changed in our national character that this is less interesting as source material when similarly aged superheroes have adapted to modern storytelling.
These are issues I'm working on in my research, and I don't know if even at the end of the process I'll have all of the answers. But I'll make a few quick observations about Binder and Beck's work (and the work of their editors and Beck's assistants). First, I came to the Captain Marvel stories in my late 20s. Although I'd grown up with the Saturday morning live-action TV show
in the 1970s, I don't think I'd read any of the old Fawcett comics until the first DC Archive editions, and I don't think I read any of Binder's Captain Marvel work until I started looking for the DC reprints of some of those Golden Age stories. So, aside from the TV show and maybe my old Mego action figure
, I had very little nostalgia for the character or for these stories. But when I was reading the black-and-white ashcan edition of Whiz Comics
#1, probably sometime in the early 2000s, a friend of mind remarked, That looks like it could have been published today. Beck's drawing style reminded her of Seth, or of Jaime Hernandez. Then I started tracking down as many of the 1970s-era DC reprints as I could find, especially the 100-page specials that include reprints of the Fawcett stories.
What I think I've discovered is this: Binder and Beck, in addition to being masters of the form -- especially in the Mr. Tawny stories -- were also theorists. By the end of his life, Beck had developed a very clear, articulate vision of what a comic book should be, of how a comic book, for example, differed from a comic strip or a pulp magazine. Trina Robbins has been kind enough to share with me her letters from Beck, and they've been a revelation for me. Meanwhile, in the science fiction fanzines of the 1940s, and in his letters to the fan press of the 1960s, Binder also speculated on comics as an art form and imagined what shape they might take in the future (you can read some of those letters in Bill Schelly's book on Binder). So I'm interested in Binder and Beck not just as creators but also as theorists, while at the same time I'm exploring how the character lived on, not so much in the popular imagination, but in the nostalgia reminiscences of writers like Dick Lupoff, Roy Thomas, and -- to some extent -- Alan Moore. The story of Captain Marvel -- the character's incredible popularity, sudden disappearance, and return in the fanzines of the 1960s -- has given me the opportunity to explore all sorts of issues, from psychiatric evaluations of soldiers during World War II to critical theories of nostalgia from psychology
and cultural studies
Of the bits and pieces I've written about Captain Marvel so far, I think the piece in Alter Ego #121
that came out this November is the most interesting. It draws on the critical material I published in Studies in American Humor, but it combines that scholarly research with material on my own family, and my grandfather's experiences in the war.
First, I wrote a nonfiction essay on the Army War Show itself that's gotten rejected from everywhere. It's still here on my desk! So I had a literary essay about what I'd discovered about my grandfather. I combined that material with my research on the Captain Marvel comics. Roy Thomas and Fawcett Collectors of America editor P.C. Hamerlinck strongly encouraged me to make the essay more personal than the scholarly work I'd already done, so it seemed like another interesting juxtaposition of those two worlds -- the public and the personal, the popular and the intimate.
I like that essay. Even though my Captain Marvel book will be a more formal academic study of Binder and Beck and their work on the character, that piece for Alter Ego is the secret narrative I'm trying to tell, only I'm trying to tell it by talking about a superhero a lot of people don't remember all that much anymore. In your interview with Jeet Heer he mentioned that some of his critical, scholarly work might be read as a secret autobiography, and I find myself really inspired by that idea.
SPURGEON: The photo we're running up to has you in the classic King-Cat t-shirt. Chicago is one of the great comics areas, and I wonder if you had any insight as to why. Do you have any sense of Chicago that way? Are there elements of Chicago in your work?
I should probably explain that picture a little. My band played a benefit gig at Schubas last weekend. It was hosted by Chicago writer Jake Austen, probably best known in comics circles for his long-running underground music and comics zine Roctober
. We had to pick a theme for the cover songs we played, so we decided to learn a few songs about animals -- or at least indirectly related to animals. So we did "Needles on the Camel's Eye" and "Horse with No Name" and even "Foxy Lady." I wore the King-Cat shirt because it seemed to fit our theme, and I love Porcellino's work, especially Perfect Example
, which I teach quite a lot in my composition classes. Then Jake asked if he and Lil' Ratso, the puppet co-host of the cable access kids' dance show Chic-a-Go-Go
, could interview me. I had to pick a song kids might enjoy listening to before going to school in the morning. My singer suggested "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
." Towards the end of the three or four-minute interview, Lil' Ratso -- or Jake in the voice of Lil' Ratso -- asked me why I still play music -- no one knows who you are, you're not famous. Why do you keep doing this? I remembered an old NPR story in which a reporter asked a street musician, I think somewhere in Moscow, why he kept playing. Who was he playing for? Well, for God, of course, the musician answered. I've always remembered that story, and I think it sums up my experience of Chicago. I get that sense in so many of the minicomics and zines I find at Quimby's and Chicago Comics -- these artists are going to make this work, whether or not people are listening closely.
I think Jake asked Chris Ware a similar question at CAKE this summer -- only without the puppet: why has Chicago produced so many cartoonists in the last two decades? In the report
I wrote on the Festival, I asked the same question -- what is it about Chicago and the greater Chicago area that has given us Otto Binder, and Grass Green
-- he was from Indiana but I'm including him anyway -- and Edie Fake, and Corinne Mucha? As I write this, Lilli Carré
is having an opening at the MCA, and we've got Ivan Brunetti
teaching comics at Columbia, and Anne Elizabeth Moore
at the Art Institute, and Noah Berlatsky
writing his book on the original Marston and Peter issues of Wonder Woman
, and Hillary Chute
of course doing amazing, groundbreaking theoretical work on comics at the University of Chicago. Corinne Mucha has been teaching classes on how to make comics for kids and adults at the Old Town School
in Lincoln Square. And we have Chicago Comics
, and arts collectives like Spudnik Press
. Edie Fake did a much better job than I'm doing right now of describing the Chicago scene for The Comics Journal
a couple of years ago!
I think we have the best or one of the best comics scenes in the country, both for cartoonists and for those who write about comics. But we also remain one of the most segregated cities in the country, and we're dealing with the threat of privatization of public services like our new CTA fare-collecting system
. If I take these reflections any further I'll start quoting Carl Sandburg, so maybe I should stop. But, for me at least, I don't think I'd have the confidence to do the work I'm doing now if I hadn't moved to Chicago, if I hadn't found the small community of writers and poets and musicians in which I live and work. I've only been here for nine years, so I still feel like an outsider. Maybe that's why I write so much about southern New England, though I'm trying to break that habit in my work on Binder and Beck.
Chicago for me will always be my first ride through the Loop on the Blue Line, in November, and it was cold, but there was so much sunlight coming through the windows that even though it looked cold and desolate outside it was orange and gold inside. It was like magic. I kept thinking, people live here. This is a place where people live their lives every day. Could I survive here? What would that be like? I'm not describing it well at all. You're better off reading Stuart Dybek
's "Pet Milk" in The Coast of Chicago
. That story sums up best what I feel about Chicago, but it leaves out one thing: the music. I think of the city in the same way I think about Howlin' Wolf
and Koko Taylor
and Curtis Mayfield
and Muddy Waters
. The animating spirit of the electric blues and soul music that came out of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s comes from the South. Charles Shaar Murray
talks about some of those issues of music and the Great Migration in his books on Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. So that music is Chicago for me: always in two places at once, here and there, the present and the past, living side by side. There's a lot of ghosts here, and I think a lot of them came from someplace else, and some of them are still dreaming of what they left behind.
* Brian Cremins
* photo of Cremins supplied by the professor
* classic Pogo
* article on Walt Kelly
* early Kelly effort
* Gaylord Phoenix
, by Edie Fake
* a Mighty Samson
* a Power Records cover image
* Miracle Man
* Army War Show ticket
* article about Cremins' grandfather
* more Edie Fake
* Amazing Spider-Man
* another piece of Walt Kelly history
* from the Captain Marvel re-launch
* a copy of Cremins' 'zine
* his favorite page from Miracleman
posted 2:00 am PST
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