Back in January, Brett Warnock from Top Shelf asked me to write a series of posts about my experiences in teaching comics for his Hey Bartender! blog on their recently-renovated website. This is the first of that series, and it appeared on HB! back in February; you can check out #2 and #3 over there now, but I’ll eventually repost them here as well.
PictureBook Pedagogy #1: Defining the Term(s)
My tenure on The Internet predates the World Wide Web (the fact I call the web the “World Wide Web,” and do so using capital “W”s should leave little doubt); hence, I’ve long known ye olde interweb-a-ma-bob prides itself on perfecting The Confession. It’s undoubtedly the oldest rhetorical trick in the book out here, but nonetheless a potent one. After all, how else can we really explain the fact that filmmaker and as-interested-as-he-wanna-be comics writer Kevin Smith not only is going on 20 years of gainful Hollywood employment in the post-Clerks multiverse, but commands large enough audiences on Twitter and Facebook to both develop and charge 99 cents for an official iPhone/iTouch app? Dude has been enjoying some pretty successful runs with The Batman as of late, too, in case you haven’t noticed.
So without further ado—and in the immortal words of Sir Austin Powers—please allow myself to introduce myself. And to probably do this effectively, there are simply some things you need to know.
Confession #1: I Never Appreciated Sandman Back In The Day(TM), b/w #1a: The First Time I Read Watchmen Was For Some Eggheady Class In Grad School
I worked in a comic book store in Moscow, ID in the early 1990s. The store, Safari Pearl, was then located in the attic of a now-defunct secondhand bookstore called Twice Sold Tales; my roommate and I begged and pleaded its owner for summer jobs, and we were grudgingly allowed to watch the counter on weekends for trade credit. In grade school, I grew up on Frank Miller’s runs with Spidey and Daredevil, but had already left comics before DC’s The Dark Knight Returns miniseries; in essence, I got out of superhero books just as shit was getting really interesting in them, and I hadn’t yet discovered Crumb (I was only 9, after all, and I did grow up in southern Idaho. I had however, perfected Smilin’ Stan’s smooth stylin’ “Nuff said!”, if that counts for anything).
So when I returned to comics again, Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman was already underway, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how the DC universe I knew as a kid could have possibly arrived at the place in time it had. When I first started working at her comics store, I started asking its owner and patrons what I should be reading. The near-unanimous answer, of course, was “Sandman!! Are you fucking kidding me?!” And because I’ve always been quite sucked in by peer pressure and marketing hype (I was, after all, an only child spending my first full summer away from the dopey little town of barely 20,000 people I grew up in…), I began pulling monthly copies starting with issue 14. But I never made real attempts to read the series because, frankly, I just didn’t get it. Meaning: I couldn’t figure out how Sandman existed on Planet Spandex, and Dave McKean’s gorgeous mixed media work for the covers didn’t help matters at all.
And there certainly wasn’t any help waiting for me in academia when I returned to school later that fall. The only whisper I’d ever heard about comics in my undergraduate education involved Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize only a year or so before I started taking classes and working at the comics shop), and was usually found on the supplemental/recommended reading lists for some of the history courses I was taking to round out my minor and elective credits. At the time, Maus was considered important because of its content; its medium was left largely undiscussed, if it was addressed at all. Literary scholars I studied with could (and occasionally did) discuss Spiegelman’s work within conventions of identity politics, confessional traditions (did you catch that by the way? The nod to the confession within an actual confession? Pretty clever, right? Most definitely you should be able to nail the exact date/time/picosecond I secured my undergraduate degree), and post-Lacanian psychoanalysis), but they would most likely ignore the medium in which Maus worked its magic.
When I finally did buckle in and read Watchmen, it was because my faculty advisor made me, when I took his graduate-level literature seminar titled “Postmodern Theory and Fiction.” The 12-part miniseries (quick snark here: I don’t care how it’s formatted, tracked and analyzed now by DC, The New York Times or bourgeois culture as a “graphic novel.” Watchmenwas conceived, executed and published as a comics miniseries. Big difference.) was not merely the only work in comics we read for the course, but juxtaposed with prose novels written by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Ishmael Reed and Kathy Acker and social-historical theory by the likes of bell hooks, Frederic Jameson and Stephen Greenblatt. Needless to say, my introduction to Watchmen was at least a full step removed from the comics world that produced it; even though I’ve now taught the miniseries at least half a dozen times (including a full-blown literary analysis course which tackles Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterwork much the same way I might Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy), Watchmen still feels foreign to me, as if I’m playing from behind somehow or trying to fit the octagonal block into the square hole. And there’s more than a little bit of guilt buried in there, since I had ample opportunity to read the damn thing long before I had a head full of semiotic soup.
This leads me to:
Confession #2: I Am, More Or Less, A Bloodthirsty Colonizer
Quick tangent here: Espen Aarseth is a new media theorist who specializes in games studies. These days, academics can use terms like “games studies” and largely get away with it, and maybe even have people catch the gist of what they mean, but a fair amount of readers of even this nimble website could consider bringing pop cultural artifacts inside academia problematic at best. Aarseth argues that games and games culture are currently going through a stage of intense academic colonialism. This most often occurs when something historically ignored by The Ivory Tower(TM) is suddenly “discovered” by a bunch of competing disciplines within the humanities (social science, philosophy and literature departments are usually the ones on the bottom of the dogpile fighting over the bone, it seems).
Aarseth justifiably has a big problem with people like me (specifically, writers and scholars largely trained to see the world and all contained therein as little more than one big box of narrative tissue paper) discussing things called Games (that’s not just me capitalizing the word, by the way; I am talking about academia here, after all) within a larger thing called Games Studies (except he doesn’t call it that, he calls it Ludology, because going Greek on top of the capital letter thing definitely simplifies things, yeah?). And I don’t begrudge Aarseth a bit for this because his underlying concern isn’t as much about marking territory as it is asserting that an entire medium cannot and should not be boiled down to a single user function. In other words, a medium’s value isn’t exclusively found in its ability to buoy a narrative, even/especially when the narrative is actually compelling. Let’s face it, folks: novelist Gilbert Sorrentino was definitely on to something when he boldly declared “plots are absurd.” Because most of them are. Maybe you haven’t played its underwhelming videogame adaption just yet, but you’ve probably seen Avatar. Nuff said(?).
In his introductory essay to the McSweeney’s #13 anthology, Chris Ware declares, “without the critical language of fine art to surround it, comics are…perceived more clearly than any other art form.” What he means by this is that people like me tend to be ruinous polluters, for once we establish our base camps on the gentle slopes of a given medium’s mountain, it’s usually only a hop, skip and a jump from curious exploration to full-blown gentrification and gated communities. And who loves to throw around the phrase “gentrification” more than the academented?
That’s right. Nobody.
Confession #3: I’m 98.6% Convinced Warren Ellis Was Right
If you’ve read this far, I’d take 4:1 odds that you’ve also read Warren Ellis‘ “Old Bastard’s Manifesto,” a missive from those cheery days post-Y2K and pre-9/11, in which he lambastes the comics industry for stagnating on superheroes and refusing to grow up. In the event that I hit snake eyes on that bet, though, here’s the nitty of the gritty: “Comics are not habitual entertainment that need to remain static and require broadcasting regularly until death do us part,” Ellis declares. “Comics, like their related media of novels and cinema, must be allowed to tell complete stories…Those who support us will be rewarded…and given the gift of the Future.”
The “gift” Ellis refers to is not only that comics would tell “complete stories,” but (more importantly) that intelligent, invested, and–yes–mature readers could begin having more complete conversations about both the stories and the medium which buoys them than “Wolverine is really really cool” or “Maus is really really sad.” This isn’t difficult for us to imagine ourselves doing, by the way, at least not in theory anyway. But here in the United States, our capacity to talk about most things is modulated by our internal Like/Dislike barometers, which of course are plugged into the larger cultural-consumer matrix of Want And Desire that effectively stops conversation at the point of purchase. As a writer, reviewer and literature professor, I’ve found those barometers particularly tough to crack; it often feels to me that the anti-intellectual climate surrounding both the production and discussion of art here in the United States has effectively stopped with Roger Ebert. Gods help us if the man ever loses control over those golden thumbs.
Let me try saying this another way, and then we’ll get out of here for the day: we are routinely asked what we prefer, but rarely asked what we think. A preference can be indicated incredibly efficiently (a show of hands for who likes pancakes? Great! Now how about waffles? Awesome! Thanks!), but real-to-goodness thought takes time and often involves risk.
So what, then, about comics? To me, they might well be the purest artistic expression of time through risk. And I mean this with full cosmic bravado, too: capital-T time, capital-R risk. Anyone who has ever tried executing a simple page of sequential stickpeople (you remember Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, right? Snapping the lead off his #2 pencil, erasing furiously, pushing way too hard into the paper?) can attest to the staggering amount of time often involved laying one panel next to another, hoping the chemicals firing in her brain somehow spill onto the page in a coherent, orderly pattern that somehow resembles the synaptic original deep inside the skull. To attempt the translation process into not only words or not only images but both is a highwire act at best, sado-masochism at worst, and this is probably why the gulf between The Can and Cannot is appreciably wider in comics than in any other medium.
Nearly a decade ago, The Old Bastard, Mr. Ellis, wrote, “We might not be a grown-up medium yet, but if we dress like it, we might just bring it on.” Tell me what you really think, now: we currently occupy the Future he was hinting at back then, so what are we going to make of it? Not the Future, of course. The Present. ‘Cuz there simply aint no time like it.
One last question then. What’s another word for “Present”?
That’s right. “Gift.”
Bring it on, indeed.