Tuesday, April 21, 2009

trapped in the gutters

When I was a kid, I was never really close to the world of comics. Certainly, I knew that world existed, but that was about it. My parents only ever bought me the Harvey comics--either Richie Rich or Casper the Friendly Ghost--and those weren't really good enough (or even, for that matter, non-gag-worthy enough) to inspire a habit. Furthermore, I didn't have any comic book friends, so there was no hope of becoming indoctrinated by an acolyte in the cause.

So I was never really a comic guy. I had no preconceptions of the medium, of the quality of the texts, of the limits of the form, because I really had no earthly idea what they could do.

I never even considered comics in high school...they would've distracted from my horror novel phase. College was no better, particularly as I was in an English department. Don't get me wrong, though...this had nothing to do with prejudice. I was all about breaking literary boundaries (I did in fact write a Freudian analysis of a Bugs Bunny cartoon), but again, comics were too far off my radar to hold the level of a preconception which needed to be shattered

Trust me, though, I had a lot of preconceptions at this point. Fortunately, I left my hometown in order to get my Ph.D., and in addition to changing my physical location, I also decided to revisit and actively undermine most of those preconceptions. As I was going to be teaching popular culture, I decided that I needed to know more about that popular culture. So I began a program of total immersion: I saw more movies, I started watching a few of the Star Treks, and some friends introduced me to wrestling.

Somewhere within my second year, a professor offered a class on comic book culture, and I took it out of the same spirit of exploration and boundary-stretching. Not only did I get to read a bunch of enormously important texts for the first time (including Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns) and wrote a paper which would eventually become part of the dissertation, I also became a fan of the medium. I found favorite writers. I developed the expensive habit of my own comic pull list. In many ways, I started to make up for lost comics time.

Comics did (and still do) fascinate me. There are several reasons for this. Not only are they a relatively open field for me personally (I had, after all, few preconceptions to overcome), graphic fiction still has the feel of a medium on the edge. While comics have been around for ages, and superhero fiction specifically has been around since the thirties, comics really only came of age in the eighties. There are still numerous possibilities for innovation within the medium, and it still harbors writers (such as Warren Ellis and Brian Micheal Bendis) who could never really work as well in a different, more established tradition.

But then there's the quandary of the comic-obsessed academic. As there's still room for cutting edge fiction within comics, there's likewise room for cutting edge interpretation. There's the growing role of comics in determining the timbre of our popular culture as a whole (as movies and television is increasingly either based off or inspired by comics). Comics is, in short, a medium which should be very attractive to academics, to scholars looking for mediums to make their own. And indeed, there's lots of exciting scholarship coming out of comics studies.

However, comics also bring their own baggage. Up to the late eighties, most comics were, frankly speaking, really awful. In my research, I've found myself stuck reading 50s Captain Americas, 60s Thors, and 70s Avengers...and they were all painful to read. They were, for the most part, the type of fiction obviously written as a "product" rather than a serious endeavor. Worse still, lots of it was written as "dumbed down" children's literature...simple plots, unrealistic dialog, and the utter and complete lack of complexity, moral, ethical, or otherwise.

Unfortunately, I am wiling to bet dollars to donuts that most people have the latter impression of comics rather than the former. Many people still must think of comics as being simple, and therefore, comic scholarship as inconsequential. Do serious scholars study comics? I imagine that many (including a sizeable chunk of the intellectual "powers that be") would say the answer is obviously "no."

This is something with which I really struggle. I love comics. Moreover, I love writing about comics; I've done it many times, and I think I've done it rather well. But do I keep doing it? Do I try to become a big name in an unrespected field that I nonetheless love? Or do I try to avoid typecasting as a frivolous scholar?

It's not just comics that bring up these thoughts. I wrote my dissertation (and am writing my book) on eighties culture, so I've also been wondering if I really in fact want to market myself as an eighties scholar...there are few jobs for someone with that label. But comics...well, have you heard the quote "just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in?"

So how does this tie into today's weird mood? Well, that requires a history lesson.

When I was taking that comics class, I wrote a paper about the aforementioned Watchmen and Dark Knight. A few months later, a fellow grad student saw me in the library. When he told me that him and the professor of that comics class were putting together an anthology, he suggested that I contribute something on comics in the eighties. I protested, saying that I didn't really have the time...moreover, I didn't really know anything about comics in the eighties. He gave me a list.

This of course meant many hours plowing through back issue after back issue of many different titles. Eventually, I found a neat bit I could write about Captain America, plowed through the article, stitched it with that comics class paper, submitted it for the anthology, and made it the basis to one of my dissertation chapters.

Then the anthology died. Undeterred (I had, after all, spent a lot of time on this article and wanted to milk it for all it was worth), I submitted it to The Journal of Popular Culture, and they accepted it...my first academic journal publication!

Unfortunately, the journal had (at that time) a pretty intense backlog of accepted work. It took over four years for my article to actually see print. I got to present it at the American Studies Association's conference (which allowed me to meet both Lawrence Levine and Janice Radway), but then, I put it out of my mind.

In the meantime, I concentrated on finding a job, and only really thought about comics as my own fun bit of culture. While they were amongst the things to go when money got tightest during the adjunct period, one of my first acts upon getting my current job was to hit a comic store. I wasn't, however, thinking of them as a subject of scholarship.

Then the Journal of Popular Culture article on Captain America came out--a nice line on the vitae! Within a month, though, I was contacted by a guy who was putting together an anthology on the good Cap, and was I interested? Again, when I tried to beg off (I had no time to write, hadn't read it in years, still didn't know much, and had no ideas), he gave me a list of ideas...and there I was, writing about Captain America again.

It took me a while to write, but the article came out really well. I ended up focusing on Cap's popular fiction appearances (another medium I can teach) and the version of masculinity they portray (another theoretical angle I can teach), so it was all a good thing, and I can use it to make several career-based arguments. The anthology, Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero, recently came out, so that's another neat vitae line.

I currently have no superhero stuff in the cue, but the medium is still forcing its way into my head. I recently had an article on House, M. D. accepted by Television & New Media which looked at the show's protagonist as a (wait for it...) superhero...and, of course, involved superhero fiction analysis as my critical theory (which allowed me to cite myself, something I wholeheartedly recommend). I get to revise the dissertation/book chapter on Cap this summer...that is, if my brain does not implode before I get to that stage of the process. And who knows where else comics will rear their ugly head?

And this is where I'm torn. I dearly love graphic fiction. I regularly read a number of titles. My favorite current writer (Warren Ellis) works in the world of comics. If pressed, I would say my favorite work of fiction period is Sandman. I don't see comics ever going away for me. And I would love to present more comics stuff, research more comics stuff, write more comics stuff.

Do I dare do this, though? How much attention should I pay to the stereotypes? Do I suppress my academic urges and write about more marketable stuff? Or do I follow my muse, even if it leads to academic ghettoization? It's not selling out, because I do also love the stuff currently in my head and on-deck circle...but what happens when my biggest ideas are ones that might work against me? Will I be labeled as a "comics scholar?" And will that ever be anything other than limiting to my career?

The world of comics is one of panels, borders, word balloons, and gutters. Even in the wildest, most cutting edge comics, there is still, in the end, a sense of order in the medium in spite of experimental artwork and narrative. There are definitive lines even when there are competing visions.

I know that. I get that. Sometimes, though, I wish my intellectual relationship to comics was as clearly defined.


Anonymous said...

thanks amigo! great post!

Anonymous said...

I have wanted to post something like this on my website and this gave me an idea. Cheers..