Comic Timing

  • Bart Beaty
    Comics Versus Art. University of Toronto Press
  • Glenn Willmott
    Modern Animalism: Habitats of Scarcity and Wealth in Comics and Literature. University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by Beverley Haun

Each of these books draws attention to graphic texts, a type of literature that was seen during the modern period as being distinct from high art, but that is now being framed by postmodernism as worthy of serious study. Beaty interrogates the specific historical and social processes that have devalued and that are now re-evaluating comics as a cultural form. Willmott posits new ways of reading past and present works in both canonized and marginalized genres with an eye to what they communicate about adapting to changing landscapes.

Glenn Willmott’s Modern Animalism offers an elegant new reading of the modern era through an ecological lens. It provides a framework for tracing modernist and postmodern literary challenges to the consumer ideology of abundance and scarcity and the concept that we need economic growth to prosper. He does this through a spectrum broad enough to include Batman and Winnie-the-Pooh.

In examining modernist arts, Willmott reminds us of their position in history. High art, as a subject to study in the academy, and the notion of the canon in high art, were both formed during the “long” modern period, and are thus both tangled within the ideology of modernism. As modernism recedes into the past and becomes an historical period, we are more readily able to see its diversity of voices as well as its “silences.” One significant silence Willmott identifies is a lack of concern with perceptions of scarcity. He demonstrates how modernism imagines an open, abundant world and sees scarcity as a construct of human economic choices that can be made or unmade. In contrast, postmodernism imagines a finite planet and a haunting end to growth. Willmott’s interest in how the modern period represents abundance and scarcity, and responds to both, expands beyond the canonical high art of the period to include popular cultural expressions. Here he contrasts the inaccessibility of high art and the skilled labour required to access its semiotic productivity with the greater accessibility of popular cultural production and postmodern cultural production including replication across new media.

Four kinds of economic wealth production and their concomitant forms of scarcity are considered in Willmott’s analyses: habitat, consumer, welfare, and natural production. He focuses on the refusal to equate consumerist abundance with fulfillment. He finds two expressions of new types of wealth. The first is often achieved through modern asceticism, “imaginative renunciation” of, and exile from, the normalized economic structures shaping perceived needs and desires, and a quest for alternative ways of life within newly imagined landscapes of scarcity. The second is “imaginative adaptation” triggered by a sense of historical rupture, such as a nuclear apocalypse, and the need to learn to live with less and find satisfaction in interactions in habitat and not in the possession of objects.

Willmott begins by exploring the need for, and invention of, strange new styles, often found in image-based narratives, to envision a fulfilling life amidst scarcity. In the second chapter, the search for alternative forms of wealth and satisfaction find a common iconology that the reader is invited to identify with. This includes problem creatures who synthesize the human and the animal, or the human and the technological, or sometimes all three, and who are usually placed in experimental habitats. Identified by their activity rather than their property, these figures model how to be satisfied with doing rather than having.

The third chapter considers how the quest for a new order of things plays into contemporary imaginations of time and history, and also examines scarcity as an historical concept. The new order, especially in comics, often asserts the power of an individual or collective withdrawal where fulfillment is found through work. Willmott points out that all animalized superheroes fall into this category. Batman, Spiderman, and Wolverine thrive in a niche habitat, apart from, yet in the interstices of, the worlds they must renounce. Within the continuum of this new order, scarcity has been represented as a condition for adaptation. “We are forced by the image of a small planet with finite resources to feel our economic life increasingly as a pact with nature rather than a conquering of it.”

The final chapter moves to children’s literature where Willmott notes that interactions between various species and their natural environment have always been a central theme. However, literary studies has until recently failed to recognize the substance in both children’s books and comics. “Children recognize continuity and connection with other species and differences from them and thus understand themselves as imbedded in an ecology of subjects among species.” He argues “that this curiously overlooked dimension of modernist primitivism is the proper end of modernism itself, in which a once elitist appreciation of the difficult merges with a postmodern commitment to the accessible.”

As he highlights the ecology of the subject in children’s literature, Willmott turns to the work of Emmanuel Levinas who, during the modern period, and after the historic rupture of World War II, based a philosophy of ethics on the need to see one’s self—to see humanity—in the face of the other. Willmott powerfully notes that the increasing circulation of graphic narratives collapses the distance between the written gesture and the more readily accessible image. Furthermore, he stresses that it is not just in the face of the human other where we must seek recognition, but in all faces, animals too. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stands as an example of this vision where an ecology of subjects among diverse species is forged in order to ensure survival.

Throughout the texts examined in Modern Animalism, Willmott sees problem creatures as reflecting the plasticity of the human in the modern age. But in his focus on this aspect of the modern age and beyond, he is overlooking the strong tradition of human hybrid images that went before, not only in the oral traditions of cultures across the globe, which he does fold into his discussion, but more specifically, in the myriad images of the hybrid greenmen and wildman carved into the stone of tenth- to twelfth-century churches across Europe. These images, still standing today, infused the imaginations of western cultures across time before the advent of mass literacy, industrialization, and the canon that eventually grew out of the texts that followed. In this context, the plasticity of the human in response to scarcity identified by Willmott is more a return to a past strongly connected to nature and annual cycles of abundance and scarcity. Willmott traces the increasing presence and new formulations of problem creatures in newly styled habitats and sees in them a way of recognizing and accepting that the dominantly white Euro-American model of growth economics must be set aside if we hope to ensure survival of our species on the planet. Implicit in this argument is that white European dominance must also be made to wane, to renunciate, and to adapt.

Comics Versus Art, Beaty’s sociology of comics in the twentieth century, examines the auction house and the museum, rather than the comic book store and convention, in order to investigate the shift in attitude about key artists in the world of comics. Beaty’s nine-chapter long detailed study begins with a comic panel appropriated into a work of high art by Lucy McKenzie (2004). In his intriguing analysis of her painting, he draws together many of the arguments about comics that inform the rest of his book. He follows with definitions of comics in the twentieth century and explains why they have been excluded from the canons of high art. Reasons include a perceived lack of artistic seriousness, their mass production, sexually lurid and violent content, and thematic complexity. He then offers a new reading of comics rooted in the sociology of art, arguing, “comics are best understood as a distinct field of cultural production.” Beaty identifies tensions in the boundaries separating high and low art pertaining to comics, teasing out artists’ and critics’ initial attempts to institutionalize comics, not as a legitimate cultural form in their own right, but rather as source material for high art to appropriate.

Beaty’s study turns to the development of comic fandom and the ways it worked to reify select cartoon artists, “pencillers” such as Carl Barks and Jack Kirby after World War II. He then considers key works in the comic form that are being drawn into a more traditional literary canonical fold. Here he visits George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Al Feldstein and Bernard Krigstein’s short story “Master Race,” and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. In particular, Beaty draws attention to the differences between “fannish” epistemologies written about “Master Race” and the scholarly discourses generated in response to Maus to highlight “the persistence of legitimating hierarchies in the critical vocabulary.”

Beaty then expands the definition of comics by examining the relationship of cutting edge comics, contemporary illustration and design, and the world of collectible vinyl designer or artist’s toys. He turns from the new forms of comics developing in the postmodern era to the reception of comics in the art world. He considers especially the role of auction houses during the 1990s in legitimizing comics by lending an economic rationale to the conceptualization of them as art. Beaty points out that by, “positioning comic books, and original comic strip and comic book art, as both collectible and investment worthy, auction houses, and particularly Sotheby’s, helped transform the comics world.” He also examines the low art value attached to comics as cultural objects, particularly in light of theories of fetishization, nostalgia, and kitsch. In his penultimate chapter, he sheds more light on the ways comics have become institutionalized through a detailed examination of several museum exhibitions and their catalogues that position comics within the context of high culture. The underground cartoonist Robert Crumb is given special attention as the subject of the most museum retrospectives of any American cartoonist. Crumb’s portraits of human weakness are identified as being part of his greater art world appeal.

Beaty concludes by looking to the future of comics in relation to high art through the work of Chris Ware, cartoonist and essayist. It is through this dual participation in the comics discourse that Ware is identified as building a bridge between low art into the world of high art and academic acceptance. If there is any weakness to identify in this excellent investigation of the world of comics, it is a technical one. The reader can be frustrated by the limited number of cartoons and the small size of the ones provided to illustrate Ware’s work as well as that of the preceding cartoonists under discussion.

In writing a history of the ways the comic world has been taken up during the modern era and beyond through a sociology of art perspective, Beaty has made a valuable new contribution to the study of the comic form. By creating an ecological literary framework through which to reconsider the modern era as well as contemporary narratives, Willmott has tapped into the discomfiting zeitgeist of our time and shaped a discussion to which literary scholars can add their voices.



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