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A Short Interview With Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester
posted June 26, 2005
 

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Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester have done a tremendous favor for comics scholars, both the academic kind and the kind that play them at home. Their Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, collects more than 25 essays from public intellectuals on the comics. Included are writings you may have seen excerpted (Gilbert Seldes on Krazy Kat), some you may have only heard about (Dorothy Parker's love letter to Crockett Johnson's gem of a strip Barnaby) and others that are just as striking you may have had no idea existed (Robert Warshow on his son's affection for EC Comics). If you've ever had a halfway serious thought about comics, there's probably something in Arguing Comics for you to read. It should be a foundational book for all sorts of comics readers for years to come.

I contacted Heer and Worcester and asked them about how the book came together and about their favorite writings in it.

TOM SPURGEON: Can you tell me about the genesis of the book and how you guys decided to work together?

JEET HEER: Kent and I knew each other as writers before starting on the book. I had been familiar with Kent's writing for The Comics Journal, and we had both written for Lingua Franca. Also, I had gotten Kent to do some reviews for Left History, a journal I was then editing. So we shared a common interest in comics and intellectuals. We met in 2002 at the Popular Culture Association Conference in Toronto. During a wide-ranging talk, Kent mentioned that it was interesting that many of the New York intellectuals in the middle 20th century had written about comics; I think he mentioned Warshow. I mentioned some other examples, like McLuhan. It suddenly occurred to us that we might have enough material for a book. I had already gathered some of these essays as background for my doctorial thesis and Kent had his own file. So we swapped material and decided that there was a book there. In some ways, it was a natural turn of events because of our shared interests.

SPURGEON: How did you decide on the parameters of the book?

HEER: We wanted articles that 1) appeared in general interest magazines or books, rather than specialized academic tomes 2) were written by writers of some accomplishment and note 3) appeared between the 1890s and 1960s. The reasoning for these decisions can be contested but here is what we thought. 1) General interest writing is preferable because it's engaged in a public debate, rather than addressed to a particular field or discipline. 2) If we had noteworthy writers, our readers would be able to see the connection between comics and other developments in literature, art, and culture at large. 3) While there were comics before 1890 and debates about them, as we discuss in our introduction, still the intensity of the debate changes once comics become part of the fabric of daily life in newspapers. Plus, as we also note, after the mid-1960s, the terms of the debate change and you start seeing critics who specialize in comics, in both fandom and the academy

KENT WORCESTER: One of our objectives was to suggest the history of comics analysis and comics criticism is much richer, more interesting and more idiosyncratic than many readers might assume. Comics fans and even scholars often write as if the only commentary on comics that predates Feiffer and the fan journals of the 1960s is Werthamite in character. A figure like Gilbert Seldes, who wrote with insight and enthusiasm about Krazy Kat in the mid-1920s, is incomprehensible from the standpoint of alarmist narratives about how comics were denigrated and dismissed prior to our age of comics enlightenment.

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SPURGEON: What was the process of securing permission for the works? Were some hard to gain than others?

WORCESTER: The process of securing permissions was time-consuming but almost everyone we dealt with recognized that this is a worthwhile scholarly project. In a few cases it was difficult to determine who owned or controlled the copyright, and in a couple of cases we had to work with multiple rights-holders. One literary estate asked for what struck us as an enormous sum of money but fortunately we were able to negotiate something reasonable.

SPURGEON: Tell me about the decision to run excerpts of certain essays -- who did the editing, and why go with those sorts of writings rather than all complete essays?

HEER: The excerpts were either from pieces that were very windy and repetitive -- the three essays from the early 20th century -- or were part of a long book -- the Legman essay. In each case, we decided to take a characteristic or representative passage that summed up the argument.

SPURGEON: Who is the book aimed at and who's been reading it so far?

HEER: I hope that there are several audiences for this book:

imagea) General readers interested in the history of comics, who buy books like Brian Walker's The Comics Before 1945 or RC Harvey's The Aesthetics of the Funnies. For such readers, our book will provide a fresh perspective on the past, showing people how the comics discussed and reprinted in those books were first viewed when the newsprint was still fresh and stained the fingers.

b) Cartoonists who are interested in thinking about their craft in formal and aesthetic terms -- which includes just about every good cartoonist now working. Much of the best current writing on comics comes from cartoonists: Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware. I think artists like that know the benefit of having a theory-informed sense of art. When I was interviewing Art Spiegelman recently, I was quite pleased to learn he had a copy of our book and liked it.

c) College students and university students, who are taking courses on the history of comics. Such courses are increasingly popular. I think our book will be a great resource for such students, helping them to orient themselves to the past and see what the debate on comics has been like.

d). Academics who study comics and popular culture. Our book offers such readers a revisionist history: not everyone who wrote before the 1960s was a dolt; there is a rich tradition of writing that we need to return to and build on.

WORCESTER: The book should also appeal to general readers interested in the so-called culture wars. The essays in our book make clear the extent to which contemporary cultural controversies are grounded in longstanding debates over censorship, politics, childhood and adolescence, and art. They also suggest the extent to which conflicts over comics and cartoons have encapsulated larger cultural controversies.

SPURGEON: For each of you, is there an author for whose views you feel a special sympathy?

HEER: There are several writers dear to my heart. The Warshow piece on EC comics is the most beautifully written. It gains special poignancy if you know the back-story: Warshow died not long after writing the essay. His teenage son Paul, who is a real presence in the article, went on to carry on his dad's legacy: Paul donated his comics collection to the Harvard University library and worked as a film critic in the 1970s.

Donald Phelps is a close runner-up. He's easily the deepest reader of old comic strips and we capture him at the beginning of his career. The Leslie Fiedler essay bristles with wit, and refutes many of the misconceptions of earlier writers.

imageWORCESTER: I am also an unapologetic fan of Robert Warshow. His book The Immediate Experience is a must for anyone interested in popular culture. As far as our collection is concerned, I remain struck by the gap between the delicacy and sensitivity of the essays by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and their two-dimensional public reputations as modernist-centric art critics. I defy anyone reading this to point to a better opening sentence in comics criticism of any era than Rosenberg on Saul Steinberg: "Steinberg's line is the line of a master penman and artist; it is also a 'line' -- that is, a kind of organized talk."

SPURGEON: I found Robert Warshow's essay really fascinating for what it revealed about this profound ambivalence -- or almost impulses competing to exhaustion -- regarding the lurid underbelly of comics, particularly EC. Why is this kind of engagement with the act of reading comics, even secondhand, so rare among even those who are writing about them?

HEER: So much of popular culture is prefabricated -- i.e., follows strict genre rules -- that the response to it, whether positive or negative, tends to be also rote and predictable. Thus people look at a horror comic and think: this is so gory, I hate this. Or conversely, ah this is exactly the type of gory stuff I love. It takes a rare individual to actually look at a piece of popular art and analyze it, looking at what it can do or can't do. Warshow had that ability -- and so did a young film critic who learned a lot from Warshow: Pauline Kael. As Warshow once wrote, a man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man. That is to say, the critic must analyze not just the movie, but also his response: step outside of himself and see what his response says about the work of art. -- sorry for the sexist language: Warshow was writing in the 1950s. Also, pop art is rarely just good or bad, it is always mixed, adulterated. So a critic needs to be able to respond to both what is good while acknowledging the bad. Warshow had the skill, rare as mint copy of Action Comics #1, to keep his response balanced: or to use Keat's phrase, he had the "negative capability" to hold two contradictory ideas in his mind at once, allowing them to tug at each other without allowing any simpleminded conclusion to emerge. It's this tug of competing claims that makes his essays exciting to read: they are not just exposition, but have an inner drama to them, like hearing an actor read a great monologue of a Hamlet, tortured by uncertainty but pressing forward.

imageSPURGEON: Where does Jules Feiffer's essay for Playboy stand in relation to works presented here? It doesn't seem totally out of step with appreciations like ee cummings or Dorothy Parker's.

HEER: Feiffer represents a real watershed: he's the end of the tradition we gathered together, and also the beginning of a new wave of writing on comics that is more informed by cartooning experience and/or fan interest. The only reason we didn't include his essay is that it had recently been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books. But I would recommend The Great Comic Book Heroes as a companion to our volume.

SPURGEON: You mention this briefly in your introduction, but which essays do you feel still stand up as insightful criticism of the comics themselves and why? Which essays do you think primarily have historical interest only at this point?

HEER: The early essays by Ralph Bergengren, Sidney Fairfeld, and Annie Russell Marble are of historical interest. We reprinted only choice excerpts from these pieces, because they show how people wrote about comics in the early days and they got the debate in motion. But you have to really pick at their writing to get any meat.

SPURGEON: There seems to be an element of reacting against the new in the essays, a kind of automatic distrust or skepticism about visual art in general, or developments in the art. How much do you think the immediacy and disposability of early comics played into analysis of the art form?

HEER: I think especially in the Anglo-American culture, there is strong distrust of visual culture, particularly in its popular, vulgar form. This goes back, I think, to the Reformation. Catholicism made its arguments through visual media like architecture (think of all those great cathedrals), painting (the Sistine chapel), and stained glass windows. Reacting against this, Protestants argued that truth resides in words alone: only reading the Bible can give you truth. To the Protestant mind, pictures are always suspect: babbles to confuse children and the weak-minded. This attitude, secularized in the 19th century, is the undercurrent of most hostility towards comics (and cognate art forms like film). Combined is a general suspicion of popular culture as debased and dehumanizing. Of course, if you read a lot of the crappy comics of the past, you realize that there was ample evidence to support this point of view.

WORCESTER: You can trace the hostility to visual culture right back to one of the founding texts of Western thought -- Plato's Republic, which expressly warns against the artistic sensibility and insists that only those artists who willingly subordinate themselves to the interests of the community as a whole should be allowed to paint, draw, and sculpt.

SPURGEON: What do you think is recognizable from the authors you reprint in today's discussion about comics.

HEER: Questions about violence and debasement never go away: looking at manga horrifies some people the way EC did in the 1950s. The general question of whether art can harm children; the dangers of over-exposure to violence. These are issues that are still with us.

On the positive side, many of our essays have a formalist interest in visual language; these issues are increasingly prominent. I'm thinking particularly of Manny Farber's two fine essays. His celebration of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy was decades ahead of its time.

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SPURGEON: Following up on that, how did the onset of popular culture studies really change discourse about comics? Were there other factors that have as significantly shaped the cultural conversation of comics since 1962?

HEER: I think the academy has helped to legitimize comics to some degree, particularly masterpieces like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo. In art history books, these are taken for granted as great chapters in the history of American culture. Aside from cultural studies there has also been: 1) the rise of an articulate fan culture, starting with the early EC fanzines, going on to Michael Barrier's writing on Barks, and Groth and Thompson's Comics Journal. 2) the rise of articulate artist/theorists like Spiegelman, McCloud, Eisner, who have shown how much thinking goes behind comics. 3) the rise of pop art: not just Warhol and Lichtenstein, but also Philip Guston and Tony Calzetta, who demonstrate the richness of comics as a visual source material and 4) the rise of underground and alternative comics.

SPURGEON: What does the reader stand to gain by really immersing themselves in your book? What does understanding the shape of that particular conversation grant us other than satisfying our curiosity?

HEER: A reader of our book should be left with a richer sense that comics are very much part of a larger cultural conversation that includes literature and fine arts. Comics don't exist in a vacuum or in isolation, but are part of a larger social debate. This was true even before comics became respectable as a field of study. What this means, I think is that comics readers -- and cartoonists -- shouldn't stay in a little ghetto but realize that they're work is part of culture as a whole.

SPURGEON: Is there enough material for any additional volumes, and if so, what would the parameters of such a project be?

HEER: Kent and I have talked about several different ways of proceeding. There are a lot of great essays that didn't make it: Hugh Kenner on Milt Gross, John Steinbeck on Li'l Abner. So if we just wanted to do a sequel, that would be fine. But it might also be good to do a volume of the best fan writing of the 1950s and 1960s -- Mike Barrier, Bhob Stewart, John Benson. These were all fine writers, and much of what they wrote is worth preserving. A third possibility is to expand outside the English-speaking world (which we largely stayed inside with Arguing Comics) and collect essays from countries like France and Italy, which had a large and lively discourse. So, there are many roads to go down yet.

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Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium was published by the University Press of Mississippi as part of their studies in popular culture series. Its ISBN is 1578066875, and it lists at $22.

Kent Worcester sent this in just in time to be posted with the interview: "If it is not too late, you could mention at the end of the interview that MoCCA will be hosting an event for Arguing Comics and Walt and Skeezik on Monday, August 1st from 6:30-8:00 pm. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is located at 594 Broadway (Suite 401)."