AUGUST 28, 2014
EVEN IF you had never seen a book of any kind, and your only available source material was your imagination, it would be clear to you that language and images are universal approaches to communication, and that combining them into a sequential narrative would have an impact. Indeed, if you have seen books, particularly those that describe a history of comics, you know that the celebrated origins of sequential narratives include paintings in the Lascaux Caves in France (15000 BC) and Egyptian hieroglyphics (3200 BC to 400 AD). Despite this lengthy global pedigree, most overviews of comics art skip the next 1,500 years, and fail to mention another African example of the form again. What we end up with is a needlessly narrow history of comics, one that even a person who has never seriously considered the form senses might be missing something.
Any overview of comics will miss something, of course, because that is what overviews do. But the fact is that they all tend to leave out the same things: examples of work from the global South, work by women and people of color, work created primarily for communication purposes (which is usually created by folks in poverty), or work published in non-Western languages. This results in a very selective field indeed, like deciding to recount the history of music without familiarity with any instruments other than the flute, or deciding to teach the history of architecture entirely based on buildings in Manhattan.
This needlessly neglectful historiography began a hundred years ago, and has only become more entrenched. It’s too large a problem to resolve in a single essay, but it is the context through which we must view Paul Gravett’s Comics Art.
“Listen closely. It never stops,” Gravett’s text begins promisingly.
You can almost make out the scratching of pens and pencils onto paper, the tapping of typewriters, the clicking of computers, the buzz of printing presses and binders, all the assorted sound effects of writers, artists, and printers creating more comics every minute all over the world.
Immediately heralded as a masterful work in the field (in The Observer, Aesthetica, New Statesman, PopMatters, and others), Comics Art is a history very well told. Gravett skillfully distills over 115 years into a concise and neat narrative, with light prose and thoughtful reflection.
He begins the book with a discussion of New Zealander Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville, a graphic novel focused on a comics utopia — a library containing the past and present of comics, where everything is housed and accessible, all comics everywhere, even little-known works by famous creators. Gravett latches on to this last idea, forging a narrative around the fact that Pablo Picasso never made comics. Yet he ignores what might be truly radical about a space where all the comics ever created are housed together: there we could see for ourselves that the history we’d been told — the one already replete with famous white men, such as Picasso — was the least interesting story that could have been constructed. That Gravett spends precious lines in the short text imagining what Picasso’s comics might be like and whether or not their creation was ever feasible tells us much: Gravett is less interested in what comics do than in how they are perceived, than in their canonization. The primary misfortune of Comics Art is that it is not a collection of all comics — those available for collecting have been pre-narrowed by the ravages of time; Gravett narrows the whole further with his predilection for a certain interpretation of the canon.
This is unfortunate, for the opening moments of the book indicate a far richer possibility for an expansion of the form, which also happens to be true: artists everywhere already are making comics. We just need to dig a little deeper than the reductive, strife-free canon has led us to believe.
Let’s look, for example, at the pictures: Comics Artincludes several full-color and page-large illustrations. Many big names are represented, in fact most of the big names, and not even just through their best-known works, which is commendable. Yet only 15 percent of the illustrations are by female comics artists, including Japanese manga artist Kaoru Mori, whose name is spelled wrong. (Elsewhere Gravett laments that in France’s recent graphic novel boom only 12 percent of the books were by women, so it’s possible that he views another three percent as a significant advancement.) Of the reproductions from female-identified creators, over half are given full-page treatment, the visual semantics of which come down to: it is important to appear to represent women.
But what is being represented, really? Of the included reproductions, one depicts a bulimic slicing off her own rear with a meat cleaver before vomiting; another has a woman offering her skirt as a table and serving a man, who then crawls under the skirt despite her protests. Both are wordless. A later strip shows the scorned lover of a married man abandoning her children at his home. Women may be silent or vindictive, the visual subtext goes, but they only act in response to masculine desires.
“Size really does matter in comics,” Gravett writes, apparently unaware of how indicative that statement might be. It’s the kind of joke one makes when one assumes an all-male audience, although more and more statistics indicate the world of comics production is about 40 percent female-identified.
Comics Art is a nice story, in other words. But it’s not a terribly accurate history.
The reader senses that Gravett wants to break from traditional comics histories, as he notes several red flags that have been raised about exclusionary institutionalization. Unfortunately, he rarely musters more than a nod toward some of the more established histories — Asia’s, for example, to whom a good quarter of such a book should probably be devoted. So the text feels challenging, but some of that is just the stick-it-to-the-man ethos of comics marketing in the United States. In truth, the form plays out internationally as standard cultural imperialism. The US established itself as the birthplace of comics through full-color newspaper strips, largely funded by actual imperialists, like William Randolph Hearst, as in the case of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. This was reinforced by the aggressive exporting of Disney titles, made possible by trade policies and intellectual property rights agreements, which together ensured both marketplace dominance and few local competitors. Nothing about comics sticks it to any man: in fact, The Man usually emerges on top.
Still, Gravett’s desire to present a top-down history makes a certain amount of historical sense. When not associated with the under-10 set, the form has often been used as political propaganda, on the one hand, and on the other has been a frequent target of domestic censorship campaigns. This last leads him (and others) to assume that the “outsider” status is real — why Gravett may feel an artist like Picasso could elevate the form, ensuring it a space in American and Western culture as art.
But comics’ “outsider” status provided it with a really successful marketing campaign, and the form may not deserve the description anymore. Comic books generated domestic sales of $870 million last year, with related media and merchandise generating exponentially more. Disney films Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World together generated $4.7 billion, and there are 97 million international subscribers to the Disney Junior channel, contributing to the $6.14 billion net profit the company made in 2013.
The idea that comics suffer from a lack of popular acceptance also doesn’t pan out when we look around the world. Comics scenes in Austria, Finland, Southeast Asia, and Serbia are all very exciting, if not yet thriving. Turkey, Germany, Spain, Korea, Sweden, Russia, and Mexico also have several well-established creators. Yet they go largely unmentioned in the book. (Gravett is London-based, but clearly loves the American independents of the last 20 years with a passion that may have blinded him to the global acceptance of the form.)
Taking a global perspective doesn’t only limit the space for Western canon creators, however: it also paints a not-sparkling picture of US comics. Several different nations have in the past, for example, taken it upon themselves to restrict the importation of comics from the United States. Disney titles were the primary target, with their often unacknowledged patriarchal and white supremacist story lines, which embedded (as noted above) real forms of imperialism within, primarily in terms of intellectual property rights laws. The more Mickey Mouse spread, as folks in Australia, Italy, and Chile knew, the more local cultural production changed. Usually in negative ways. Russia was particularly hostile to the form and its self-proclaimed birthplace, and many of the Cold War criticisms of superhero titles predict discussions around failings of the Big Two today. (There is also the possibility that the global perspective may be a chink in the armor of our most vaunted US heroes: Spanish creator Francisco Ibáñez’s 1960s-era 13, Rue del Percebe used innovative architecture-inspired panel layouts well before Chris Ware’s Building Stories.)
All of this should have been addressed in Chapter 5, subtitled “Who Is Afraid of Comics?,” but little more needs to be said about this section than that R. Crumb, easily the most famous living American cartoonist in the world, provides the first illustration in the chapter titled “Unheard Voices.” A handful of creators of color are mentioned thereafter — Egyptian graphic novelist Magdy El Shafee gets a mention, for example, although his countrywoman Deena, the popular creator of online Muslim female superhero Qahera, does not — and the subject is introduced by the reprinting of extremely offensive caricatures of black folks with little of the deep analysis such images require. (Ignoring Egyptian Ahmad Hijazi, whose excessively silly and totally joyful caricatures of political change in the Middle East still go largely untranslated, is also an oversight.) Although a fair discussion of a handful of international black creators then ensues, the story then moves back, the moment it can, to more comfortable ethnic territory, tracing the loooong history of Jewish comics creators.
You may have already guessed that women, nonbinary folk, and trans people do not figure prominently in this text. Men are given at every turn status as innovators of form, but the definition of form here is overly tight and pre-gendered. Explorations in obstruction-based narratives and wordless comics are hailed, their virtues and male creators discussed at length. Jim Woodring therefore gets a mention, but long-running comics publication series World War 3, which welcomes smart, feminine, politically outspoken voices on nonfiction subjects, does not (even though its co-creator, Peter Kuper, does). Edie Fake, whose wordless comics explore terrestrial issues of gender, sexuality, and politics, is also overlooked. Part of the oversight is because the innovative modes of publishing folks who aren’t cismen have explored — the internet, self-publishing, and collective work — are not valued by Gravett, nor the canon he relies on. Neither are some of the predominant story lines found in such work: gender relations, sexual exploration, gender identity, racial bias, economic strife. Instead, these are cast as issues of autobiography — a maligned comics genre if ever there was one.
The formal attributes that are ascribed value, too, are gendered. Artists particularly innovative in panel-free comics, for example, aren’t cismen; Vanessa Davis, Laura Park, and Esther Pearl Watson are only three domestic examples, but Lynda Barry’s recent collage work fits, too. There is an argument to be made that panel borders reflect a masculine epistemology, and that ciswomen, nonbinary people, and transfolk tend to eschew them when committing their vision of the world to paper. But when “panels” themselves are necessary to a definition of comics, masculine work will always predominate. Other work becomes “less than” comics, or does not register at all.
Work by women, transfolk, and nonbinary people is sidelined in other ways, too. Swedish collective Dotterbolaget is a loosely affiliated, but incredibly thoughtful, network of artists that support each other in solo work, and co-create, with a rotating membership on a regular basis. They are forward-thinking both stylistically and economically, but perhaps because they do not and cannot have a distinctive visual style, Dotterbolaget makes few lists of innovative comics creators.
In the chapter on autobiography, toward the end of the book, masculine hegemony and the other limitations of Gravett’s approach become clear. Aline Kominsky is introduced as Crumb’s girlfriend. It’s a perfectly relevant piece of information, to be sure, but less relevant than her impact on the art form as co-founder of Wimmin’s Comix, Weirdo, and the Twisted Sisters anthologies. Joe Sacco is also awkwardly included in this section, which is perhaps less a slight to the comics journalist than a reflection that there just aren’t very many people who do comics journalism in the United States.
The book’s final chapter, on the digital age, could have been where all previous reassertions of the status quo were softened, and maybe melted away. But white cismale Western cartoonists win here again. Where is Kate Beaton? The webcomics superstar creator of Hark! A Vagrant has been edged out in favor of Josh Neufeld, better known for his print collaborations with Harvey Pekar and Brooke Gladstone. (Lewis Trondheim makes an odd appearance here.) Where is the innovative African online comics project 3Bute? The Russian comics database that more or less kick-started the form in the post-Soviet world? The submission blog Escher Girls, which crowd-sources critiques of gender norms in mainstream comics, could have been discussed in terms of innovation as well. It wasn’t.
So much work fails to fit into the presiding definition of comics art — it’s worth collecting it all and starting to ask why.
Not that, let’s be clear, Gravett is the worst of the offenders; in fact, he may be among the least of them. Other histories of comics fall equally short or shorter, and often for the same reasons. A recent academic text from Bloomsbury, for example, called Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives: Comics at the Crossroads, suffers from a similar xenophobia. Most chapters are on US-created comics, US-based creators, or US-owned licensed properties. Many works are considered to be “transnational” only when they have been exported from the US. Hillary Chute’s recent Outside the Box is more a victim of myopia: chummy interviews with a certain canon of established artists in American alternative comics. The sum of these diverse approaches to comics art and history, Gravett’s book included, tells us little that is new, leaving the reader assured that America, in terms of comics, is where it’s at.
I’m not in any way convinced that’s true, and the contrasting versions of comics history one finds elsewhere — many featuring formal innovation, the voices of women and people of color, and works produced in the global South — lead me to think I’m not alone. I taught an experimental class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago based on the ease with which I came across these alternative versions of comics history, in fact, and my team of college sophomores and juniors each researched and shared histories of comics from diverse places around the world. Some brought their own backgrounds and language skills to the classroom — we were lucky to have fluent Spanish, Arabic, German, and Hindi speakers in our midst — while others used the opportunity to explore a scene they were unfamiliar with. We shared our findings; we held each other accountable for methodological flaws; we used absence of certain kinds of creators as a prompt to dig deeper. Together, we created a global history of comics that was expansive, critical, and fun. (In this essay I cite, in fact, our favorites of the artists we found together.)
Other published sources, smaller histories and how-to manuals, hint toward a larger world, too. Grassroots Comics and Comics With An Attitude, for example, both published by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, are co-written by Leif Packalen (the first is with Sharad Sharma and the second with Frank Odoi). They are guides to the use of comics as communication tools for public health and awareness, and describe in simplistic terms how a non-artist might employ the form as a means of development.
This may bore the devoted aesthetician, but these are not only comics so simply told as to be beautiful, if raw and unlearned; they are also an indication that Gravett was right about one thing: comics are being made everywhere, all the time. If you pay attention, you can almost hear the process.
If only he’d followed his own advice and listened.