Is there a comics canon? Do we want a comics canon? Do we need a comics canon?
Yesterday, Sean T. Collins wrote a piece for Thrillest called Best Graphic Novels of All Time which listed 33 titles. I’m sure the title was a bit tongue in cheek, as any one person list is bound to be filled with quirks. Collins is a reliable critic, though, and such a list is meant mostly to start arguments whose very act can only be elucidating. So while there were things I cheered – Daddy’s Girl by Debbie Drechsler! Ice Haven instead of Ghost World! – there were also head scratchers… but really everything on the list is excellent, and Collins did a better job than I would of finding hidden gems – You may never even have heard of Carol Swain’s Gast, but I assure you it is worth seeking out.
But whenever these things come up, the question of canon is raised. Collins avoided the Moore/Miller/Gaiman trap, but he did include Crumb, Kirby and Maus. And I thought he was going to buck the trend, gbut he had to include TWO books by Chris Ware. As well as two by Phoebe Gloeckner, whose Diary of a Teenage Girl was #1. And rightfully so! Just like Wanted and The Infinity Gauntlet it’s been turned int a major motion picture!
PS: not that Ware isn’t the lord of us all, but it’s hardly daring.
Anyway, just by chance, the other day media theorist Henry Jenkins interviewed Dr. Bart Beaty about…comics canon! Beaty’s own new book is called The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books so he’s grappling with all this too.
Q: Some have worried that a core canon (Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Satrapi, Gaiman, Crumb, Moore, Sacco) has emerged in comics studies prematurely — that too much of the early writing defining the field circles around a small number of writers and works and as a consequence, we are constraining our methodologies and theories to reflect that limited sample. Would you agree?
A: This is the subject of so much of what Benjamin Woo and I wrote about in our book The Greatest Comic Book of All Time!, and I absolutely do agree. In our first chapter we attempted to put some data behind what seems to be a pretty common understanding about comics studies: that it has been thoroughly concerned with a small handful of creators and works published over the past thirty years. In the book we surveyed the field of scholarly publishing on comics in order to demonstrate just how narrow the work being done can be. What we found is that comics studies is disproportionately concerned with a very small handful of creators and texts in comparison to cognate fields. So, yes, I absolutely agree with that.
I also think that you touch on something more important here, though, which is the theoretical and methodological restriction that are currently being applied to comics. I think I would first say that to my mind there is a much greater theoretical diversity within the field at present than a methodological diversity. Consider empirical approaches to comics. While there is an increasing amount of work being done using empirical methods it is notable that most of the key players in that area can be brought together at a single conference next year in Bremen. To take another example, if we consider how much work is being done on comics that would require an ethics application because it relies on human subjects, I think the number of projects would be extremely small.
Still, people do get mired in the “pap pap” or even “meemaw” expectations, as Beaty says:
The other option is the much more difficult one – possibly an impossible one. When we argue that our understanding of notions of inherent quality are simply ideological constructs that have obscured our understanding of how culture operates is more vexed, and to suggest that we fundamentally reshape our curricula, indeed the very basis of our disciplines, is just a non-starter for most people. It is an almost impossible task. In my own department the suggestion that there are not certain writers who “have to be” taught makes people think that you’re completely naive.
The interview is on’t part one so more discussion to come. To me, the idea of broadening the “comics canon” beyond the well trodden road is an exciting one, even if any canon is limiting. But some people need a roadmap. The good thing about a GOOD list is to get people talking and thinking. If any of this inspires folks to seek out a book they hadn’t thought of reading before, mission accomplished.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.