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Let’s You and Him Fight: Alternative Comics—An Emerging Literature
posted November 14, 2005

imageThe following is a week's worth of missives in a week-long exchange of letters about issues raised in and around the new book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578067197) by its author Charles Hatfield and a colleague of Hatfield's in comics academia, Bart Beaty.

Dr. Hatfield is a member of the Department of English at California State University, Northridge. He has written several articles for publication on comics and children's literature, including a long stint as a reviewer for The Comics Journal. This is his first book.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the Euro-Comics For Beginners column at The Comics Journal and the Conversational Euro-Comics column here at The Comics Reporter. His first book, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture is out for Christmas.

We are pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.


Bart Beaty to Charles Hatfield:

Hi Charles,

I want to thank you for agreeing to be the first guinea pig in this little book club experiment, and for taking the time this week to discuss your book,
Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. I'm thrilled to be starting with this book because I feel like I've been waiting about a decade to read it. Indeed, I think that we first met at the Chicago Comic Con in 1994, and some of the ideas in here we were arguing even back then. With some luck, we should be able to get into some of the interesting and provocative arguments made by your book over the next few days.

Before we start, though, it's probably best to go into full disclosure mode. As I have already noted, you and I go back a long way, and we used to bat these ideas around at conferences and on the late, great comix@ mailing list. I don't want to be accused of pulling any punches simply because we've been friends a long time. I should probably also note that I'm quoted or referenced six times in the book (yes, of course I counted). So while it's clear that you've used only the finest research, I'd hate for people to get the idea that we're totally sympatico about all of your conclusions. Also, and this might be my own megalomania talking, I'd like to think that I'm responsible for getting the name "Pierre Bourdieu" into your book -- even if it is only to dismiss him!

I think that the area where I suspected that we would find our greatest disagreement stems right from your title, the idea that comics are a "literature" (emerging or otherwise). To my mind, this flies in the face of my understanding of comics as a particular communicational form. Having read past the title, however, we're not as far apart as I might have thought, largely because your book does pay a lot of attention to the visual forms of comics. Indeed, I think you might even pay more attention to visual elements than to narrative ones. Nonetheless, I'm skeptical of claims that comics are "primarily a literary form" (xiv). I'm much more sympathetic to Thierry Groensteen's suggestion that comics are a narrative form, but not a literary one. Further, to my mind, they are much more implicated in visual culture than a literary one.

I realize that your book is far from dogmatic on this issue, but nonetheless I remain curious about that title and how it reflects your intentions. You mention in the conclusion that it was not your first choice, but I'm wondering specifically about your use of the word "literature". Are comics really a literary form in your view, or is the title merely superior to "An Emerging Narrative Form"?

That question leads me to another, which is related to your audience. There are a few moments where your book takes a slightly defensive tone with regard to its subject. In chapter two, for example, surveying the history of writing about comics, you dismiss claims that comics are simplistic or simple-minded. Fair enough, but is it your sense that there are possible readers for this book that aren't aware of that? I know that this book is based on the work that you did for your dissertation at Connecticut, and I'm wondering if this is a legacy of coming up through and English literature department? In your experience, is there still work to be done to establish the validity of the form, or have we arrived at a stage that it can simply be assumed?

I have plenty of other questions about the undergrounds, Gilbert Hernandez, autobiography and the rest of the topics addressed in your book, but maybe we should start with these broader issues first.

Over to you,



Charles Hatfield to Bart Beaty:

Hi Bart,

First off, thanks for inviting me to hash out some of the issues raised in my book (thanks to Tom too, for the venue). Your memories match mine: we have indeed been gabbling about certain of these issues for a decade, in person and in the ether. For all that time I've been interested in seeming differences between your take on comics and mine, and, yeah, you are responsible for pointing me to Bourdieu and getting his name into the book. Ha!

Now, to brass tacks:

You've suggested that our strongest disagreement may have to do with the ways we define "literature," and therefore the ways we understand a subtitle like "An Emerging Literature." Yes.

You'll notice that the book's claim for comics as a form of literature is presented in just those terms: I speak of "a form of literature," or "a literature," not simply Literature with a capital L as traditionally understood. In other words, I try to carefully frame, that is, hedge, the book's perspective on literature.

That's because, one, too many claims for comics as literature strike me as anxiously grasping after status, and I want to avoid that too-common reading of the situation (though I asked for it, of course, by choosing the book's title!). In blunt terms, I don't want to make a too-desperate, or at least too-simple, bid for status. And, two, I see Literature as a moving target: the field is constantly moving (just like comics), and so what works within literary study today is quite different, and more diverse, from what worked decades ago. Rocco Versaci made this point not four years back in an essay for the academic English Journal: that we can actually use comics to usefully destabilize the whole idea of "canonical Literature," to invite questioning about how value is ascribed to some work but not others.

So the distinction you've made, that comics are a narrative form but not a literary one, doesn't have a lot of force for me, or, rather, doesn't seem essential to me. In my teaching and writing, I'm open to seeing all sorts of printed and graphic materials as literature, or at least of reading them within a literary context. To me the term "literature" doesn't necessarily imply gentrification or a bid for entry into certain company.

So, why refer to comics as "literature" at all? Why not hang my shingle from, say, Cultural Studies, another recognized academic field? Again, to me the distinction isn't strongly operative, but I will admit that I describe my work differently -- either as literary study, or as cultural study -- depending on context and audience. I avoided invoking Cultural Studies in the book's title because, one, too many books have already been titled "Comics and/as Culture," or some such, with approaches varying from the literary to the sociological to the in-between; and, two, I wanted my first book to be one that unabashedly made aesthetic claims for comics.

Properly speaking, I think literary study really ought to be seen as a subset of Cultural Studies. Among many literary readers, though, I think the default assumption is that Cultural Studies pertains to stuff that is interesting to write about but ultimately too fragile, or too ephemeral, or too rudely populist, to justify on aesthetic grounds. Of course that's too narrow a way to construe Cultural Studies, but I didn't want to seen as capitulating to such a view. "Literature" seemed a good way, let's say an almost polemical way, to take an unapologetic aesthetic or art-first position.

You;ve argued that comics are "more implicated in visual culture than a literary one," a point I think you made most concretely in your recent review of Posy Simmonds' Literary Life for Indy. There you said that Simmonds; visual artistry shifts our appreciation "from the literary to the visual plane," and offer this as dramatic proof that "comics are not, in fact, a literary form, but a painterly one" -- your final point being that proponents of comics as literature have been thinking in the wrong terms.

First off, I concede that comics are more implicated in "visual" as opposed to "literary" culture. Secondly, I think you could make the same argument about literature, if you took a populist, centuries-long view! The image you paint of literary culture in the Simmonds review strikes me as a pretty rarefied one, or at least highly specialized -- and, while I would admit that this image of Literature is the traditional one, it's not one I'm interested in buoying up with my work on comics. To me, the study of literature ought to include the popular, the visual, the liminal and uncategorizable: visual poetry, illuminated books, broadsheets, chapbooks, yellowbacks, magazines, artists' books, art installations, comics, whatever. This comes I suppose from studying children's literature as well as comics; it may also reflect the attractiveness New Historicist work had for me in grad school, during my previous, brief incarnation as a wannabe eighteenth-century specialist.

So I suppose what I want the book to do is, not simply elevate comics, but poke and prod at the whole traditional, hidebound notion of what "Literature" is, without surrendering at all my aesthetic claims for the best comics (and, yes, I do believe in distinguishing the "best" from the rest!). That's why the book's Introduction walks the tightrope between "high" and "low" culture positions so carefully. You'll note that I warn against simply absorbing comics into existing canons of literature without regard to their special nature and origins (that warning is a leitmotif in the book, I guess).

Finally, you ask why I spend so much energy in the book attacking claims that "comics are simplistic," and suggest that prospective readers of the book will already know better. Maybe. It could be that some of my attacks are based on spending too much time with the censorious educational literature of the forties (my dissertation director initially said that that stuff was too "K-12" to be of interest to literary readers). But it's been my experience that even strong proponents of comics (take for example advocates of comics as teaching tools) traffic in unexamined assumptions about the ease, simplicity, or accessibility of comics. In other words, some people try to take the old charge about the "simple" or preliterate nature of comics and make it a virtue rather than a shortcoming. Consider for instance Spiegelman's claim that comics capture the way we actually think, or certain recent claims for comics as a "universal" visual language. I think those assumptions are deeply questionable. I don't think comics are a simple or preliterate or atavistic form at all, and I think arguing that they are, even with the best of intentions, reinscribes a set of beliefs we could do without, having to do with childishness, primitivism, etc. So that may explain some of the animus behind certain passages in my book.

Do I think there's still work to be done to establish the validity of the form? My sense is that the best way of establishing validity is to keep on doing focused, interesting work, to let the larger rumblings about "validity" and "respect" take care of themselves, and to cut the hemming and hawing to a minimum. Advice I'll be trying to follow from here on out -- though I was glad to use Alternative Comics to clear my mind a bit. J

Your go, bart,

Charles Hatfield



Bart Beaty to Charles Hatfield

Hi Charles,

I knew that I would learn some things from this exchange, but I never realized that I would learn that you once longed to be an 18th-century specialist. I think you'd need a beard.

I agree that you usefully hedge the definition of "literature" in the book, which is one of the reasons that I brought up the title, where it is placed so prominently. You describe your book as walking a tightrope, but I'm not sure where the ropes are attached. On the one hand, you say that you're not interested in "capital L Literature", but, at the same time, you are very much interested in distinguishing the best from the rest -- which is getting very close to slapping that big letter on individual works. I'm not entirely convinced that this is a line that can be walked. That is to say, that once you separate the best from the rest, you're automatically invested in the canonizing process. Indeed, many would argue that this is precisely one of the strengths of your book, the fact that you make such strong arguments about Gilbert Hernandez (and others) as significant artists.

On the other hand, you have an uncommonly catholic notion of what constitutes "literature", which you subsume usefully under "culture". This helps to remove the dogmatism from the issue, I think, but it also raises the question: if so much of culture can be subsumed under the rubric of literature, is there any sense in calling it literature? That is, do we have to sacrifice too much specificity in order to regard comics as a literary form? Once we can qualify wordless culture (which comics can be, as you point out in the book) as "literary", have we lost all sense of what the term means? And should we want to? Maybe I can put it this way: Has literary studies overstayed its welcome? If literary studies is going to incorporate art exhibitions, have we reached the end of literature as a useful concept?

You also concede that comics are more visual than literary, which makes me look like a bully for coming back to it. But I will anyway. Thanks for noting the Simmonds review, but I'd like to bring in another witness. This weekend, Tom interviewed Dan Nadel on this site and Dan had some interesting things to say about the contemporary comics that I think get closer to the heart of the issue. Dan writes:
You know, there's a huge disconnect between Alex Robinson and Ben Jones. I don't think people have figured out how to talk about those two kinds of artists in the same sentence. It's like comparing Norman Rockwell and Picasso. It's two entirely different approaches. I'm not dissing Alex Robinson, but they're just different things.

This distinction is very much one that I see as well, particularly given the type of comics that I tend to be reading coming out of Europe. You cite Stefano Ricci, Jean-Claude Gotting, Thomas Ott, and Debbie Drechsler among artists known for their painterly manipulation of texture. These are artists (particularly Ricci) that I see as emblematic of a very non-literary form of contemporary comics production. I might add Ben Jones to that list, and any number of the Paper Rodeo people as well from the American scene. I agree with Nadel that there seems to have been a divide that has happened between a primarily literary and a primary visual camp. One could, I suppose, say that one group emphasizes the former and the other the latter term in the phrase "graphic novelist". In Europe, I think that this division happened sometime around 1990, notwithstanding obvious "painterly" cartoonist precursors like the Bazooka Group. In the US, I would place the divide later, around the creation of
Paper Rodeo, Ganzfeld, Kramer's Ergot, and so on, notwithstanding obvious precursors like Gary Panter. And not that these terms are hard and fast; there's a lot of bleed between the two categories, if we can even agree that they are categories at this point in time. Nadel, for example, exalts Los Bros Hernandez, cartoonists that I would place firmly on the literary side of the equation, but I don't get the sense that he would necessarily agree. This is one of the reasons that I'm not sure of two things -- whether it's useful to term these works "literature" (particularly given how at ease so many of them look in the gallery and the museum), and whether the literary trend is "emerging" or not (I'll have to pick on every clause in your title sometime).

I think that my resistance to the term "literature" is partly because it is freighted with all the baggage that you mention about high/low distinctions, and partly because I have trouble conceptualizing the writing that I do as a subset of literature. I also know a lot of historians, art historians, and mass communication scholars who might balk at it as well. While Cultural Studies might seem more apt, I can understand your own reticence given your interest in aesthetics, a field that Cultural Studies has long sought to problematize. That's not an easy fit, but falling back on literature raises all those ghosts of the big L, no matter how much you might try to duck it.

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure how much you do want to duck it. As I've said, I think that one of strengths of the book is the individual cases that you make on behalf of various artists. I'd like to talk about your discussion of Gilbert Hernandez, but maybe I'll just ask first of all if you see him as a cartoonist whose strongest emphasis is on the visual aspect of his work, the written aspect, or do you find the question irrelevant?



Charles Hatfield to Bart Beaty

Hi bart,

I like the line about not being sure where my "tightrope" is anchored. Funny, trenchant. You got me!

First off, yes, I am invested in a canonizing process, insofar as I find pleasure and value in making aesthetic distinctions among comics. I thank you for casting that as a strength of the book rather than a shortcoming. In my eyes this canonizing process need not entail the narrowness, exclusivity, or prescriptiveness that so often is ascribed to "canonicity." It's simply a way of recognizing -- of imputing significance to -- excellent work.

For one thing, I have no totalizing ambitions for my canon. I do not aspire toward a single, unassailable master list of "greats" who I think should loom over everybody else. That sort of list-making is fun for parties, but paralyzing. Yes, taste distinctions are at work in my book -- I think you can see a particular aesthetic formation working there, one that favors certain aspects of contemporary alt-comics production -- but I believe little of interest gets done by people who are preoccupied with policing narrowly-defined canons. That kind of canonization seems to me a sort of desperate rearguard resistance to change.

You can tell I like to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to comics, but I'm leery of having my list of greats etched in stone as if to forestall change. Personally, I see building a "canon" as at best a kind of heuristic, an exercise that is hopefully illuminating but lacks prescriptive force.

This sort of list-making has greatest influence when it comes to getting out of my own head and selecting texts for classroom purposes. Building my teachable "canon" requires tapping into my own aesthetic judgments, sure, but doesn't stop there; it's often a matter of pragmatically defining a range of excellent or historically significant works (available works, works in print) that I think I can use within a certain course I'm prepping to teach. The fine-grained distinctions I make in such cases have a lot to do with shaping an entire syllabus, pairing up readings for dialectical purposes, and simply keeping costs down.

You may have noticed that high/low distinctions are fairly muted in all the above. Yes, I make such distinctions, and this does raise the charge of elitism (looking down the long slope of one's nose). I think that's what many readers associate with capital-L Literature. But I believe it's salutary to make such distinctions among comics without letting those distinctions elbow you into a corner. Salutary, because we learn from sifting, comparing, even ranking (and then, hopefully, reshuffling the ranks when we come back to reread the previously-read with fresh eyes).

You ask, do we have to sacrifice the specifi