The Social Life of Comics

  • Benjamin Woo (Editor) and Jeremy Stoll (Editor)
    The Comics World: Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Their Publics. University Press of Mississippi (purchase at
Reviewed by Austin Kemp

Editors Benjamin Woo and Jeremy Stoll’s The Comics World: Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Their Publics acts as a probe into the unknown and expansive futures of comics studies by haphazardly launching fourteen diverse yet thematically linked articles into the uncharted cosmos of possibility. Rather than purporting academic authority by delineating boundaries and “grand narratives” within the comics studies field, The Comics World benefits from an unmitigated curiosity and willingness to value questions over answers. The shift in perspective brought on by framing comics as research within social science disciplines marks an uncommon, though not unheard of (by any means), departure from the tried-and-true humanities approaches and bears this distinction with authenticity rather than ego. The text holds no illusions of being either comprehensive or definitive, choosing instead to problematize comics in terms of a given comics world’s relationship with its public. Drawing on comics scholar Bart Beaty and other critics, the editors define the comics world as “a social system with distinctive ways of knowing, speaking, and doing comics” and the comics public as all of the human agents within a given comics world (xiii).


The Comics World is divided into three sections: “Production,” “Circulation,” and “Reception.” These sections loosely present a theoretical entryway into the social life of comics and establish thematic direction for their respective chapters. By leaning into the field’s interdisciplinary advantages while avoiding self-conscious definition or justification, this book manages to expand the field purely in its intrepid attitude and commitment to advancing multi-faceted avenues of questioning.


Part 1, “Production,” of The Comics World is composed of five distinct articles that collectively aim at a more malleable and inclusive definition of comics production. Benjamin Woo’s initially daunting yet conclusively comforting “The Comics Workforce” posits an ecological lens to English-language comics production that challenges the traditional conflation of production and publication while also conceptually expanding what it means to be a producer of comics. Amy Louise Maynard’s “The Melbourne Scene,” arguably the strongest entry in this section, expands on the notion of ecology by charting and analyzing the evolution of Melbourne’s comics industry into a communally motivated creative economy. Further explorations of production include John A. Lent’s “Women and Asian Comics Art,” which admirably and importantly (and albeit a bit distantly) spotlights overlooked Asian women producers in the comics industry in order to challenge misconceptions about who produces comics. The Comics World, having established a comfortably loose and intentionally scattershot exemplification of multiple comics worlds within the realm of production, then moves into untangling the intricate meaning-making relationships that develop once comics are released into circulation.


“Circulation,” or part 2, focuses on the perpetual mobility afforded to comics as social objects in an effort to examine how they are shaped by the publics they encounter. The high points of this section are undoubtedly Shari Sabeti’s “All That Shakespeare Stuff” and Valerie Wieskamp’s “Learning to ‘Speak without Shame.’” Sabeti examines pedagogical questions that underpin various comics and manga adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and calls into question the impact that preconceived cultural values may have when imposed during the adaptation process. The thematic imposition of cultural values extends into Wieskamp’s “Learning to ‘Speak without Shame,’” wherein the author responds to the 2012 New Delhi gang rape of a woman by articulating key aspects of Ram Devineni and Dan Goldman’s graphic novel Priya’s Shakti. In lambasting the world media’s imposition of Western-centric solutions to gender inequality and sexual violence, Wieskamp demonstrates Priya’s Shakti’s ability to utilize Hindu iconography and Indian culture to circumvent the misconceived infallibility of Western morality and equality. Though Sabeti’s and Wieskamp’s entries are the strongest, they work in tandem with the rest of part 2 to convey radically shifted lines of questioning about comics and the publics in which they circulate.


The final section, “Reception,” exemplifies the idea of looking for questions where they’re least expected by extrapolating from comics’ reception and instigating conversation about how readers and comics communicate with one another. Christopher J. Galdieri’s “Follow the Readers” examines a time in DC Comics’ history when readers could vote for the leader of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Since this voting not infrequently inaugurated female and (potentially) queer leadership of the Legion, Galdieri’s analysis of these DC Comics elections and their historical contexts points towards a plethora of poignant and promising problematics. “Pirates and Publishers,” by Kalervo A. Sinervo, jumps a few decades ahead to examine the relationships between comics and digital comics piracy. Setting aside the capitalist economic ideas of ownership and piracy, Sinervo exposes an early period of grassroots digital archiving, focusing on various “comics scanning groups (or crews)” (209) and their equally various methods and ideologies. Sinervo’s identification of these publics, along with his extrapolation from their under-observed effects on the comics publishing industry, develops a more nuanced view of the constantly evolving relationships between comics and those who consume them.


The Comics World opens with a contextualization of its own cover art; repeated in triplicate underneath the title, an ominously oblong humanoid figure awash in psychedelia strikes a meditative pose while reading a comic. Originally from a one-page strip by Ontario-based cartoonist Jesse Jacobs called “Comics and Commerce in Canada,” this figure looms over a diegetic comics utopia in Canada. As Woo and Stoll paraphrase it, the delightfully ludicrous narration in Jacobs’ comic informs us of a Canadian “approach to paper production that involves growing maple trees under water and then slicing the logs like bologna” (ix). It also includes terminology—like “tax breaks” and “government incentives”—that is largely foreign to most comics worlds (viii). Though this satire relies on our acknowledgement of the less-than-ideal circumstances of contemporary comics production, it also indicates the multiplicity of comics as social objects. Like The Comics World, this multiplicity reframes comics studies within a broader, more open perspective. Neither a guidebook nor a core text, The Comics World presents a new reality for comics studies, one where discovery, expansion, and inquiry are the only ways forward for something as decidedly interdisciplinary as comics.

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