Monday, March 03, 2008

Canon Wars

The Scapegoats of Tomorrow

Pity we poor comics canon-builders. Given the raw materials of some Donald Duck comics, political cartoons, and the violent fantasies of misogynist morons, how are we to construct a critical edifice to withstand the schlongs and marrows of outrageous fan opinion and professorial snobbiness?

Over at the newsarama blog, Chris Mautner returns to the subject of canon formation and the American comics canon (or canons: Mautner sees three separate canons championed by fans of comic strips, superhero comics, and so-called literary comics). The whole thing seems to have started as a response to an article by Jennifer de Guzman about the lack of a comics canon or even critical writing on comics.

The discussion leads a few others to offer their own lists, none of which come close to the grandaddy of all such lists, the Comics Journal's top 100 English-Language Comics of the 20th Century list from 1999. Still a far cry from the 3000 canonical works that make up the Western literary canon that Harold Bloom talks about in his 1994 book, but a good start in terms of a list for talking about what is "good" in the books and strips of the last 108 years, and broader than something like the Masters of American Comics exhibit. The Journal list certainly began a discussion, as Douglas Wolk notes in his new book. In a related turn, John Holbo writes on Wolk's Reading Comics, arguing that, despite Wolk's assertions to the contrary, the book actually functions as part of a larger canon-forming movement among U.S. comics critics, or at least is responding to an already existing canon (but not really "smashing" a canon, as the book's dust-jacket and Wolk both insist).

Outside of the usual academic concerns with canon-building (and Mautner's latest post includes a few paragraphs from David Ball, professor at Dickinson College), and as much as I love lists, I wonder how useful these lists are, especially as currently formulated. Will any of these comics still be considered great 10, 20, 50 or 100 years from now? Does it do any good to look at these things out of context? Shouldn't we consider, at least, cartoon books of the 19th Century? In practical terms, wouldn't a decade-by-decade survey of great U.S. comics, or a list that confined itself to U.S. graphic novels be more edifying? Lumping together open-ended serials, gag-a-day strips, and consolidated narratives really muddies the waters and limits any kind of focus to the most basic formal similarities.

The nature of comics criticism and the general appreciation of comics worldwide has opened up considerably over the last decade, with groundbreaking anthologies like Dan Nadel's Art Out of Time, Todd Hignite's Comic Art, Bart Beatty's Unpopular Culture, and the explosion of translated manga really transforming the way many of us think about comics and comics greatness, but the real "job" of canon formation is really going on in the Academy, in dozens of undergrad introductory courses in "The Graphic Novel" and post-grad seminars in "Sequential Narrative."

While the Academy has canonised many members whose names half a century later are forgotten, or are remembered only to be called up with a smile or a shrug, it has persistently ignored those who have employed the pencil instead of the brush, or have used ink instead of misusing paint. But it is unnecessary to pursue the subject farther; that the names of Keene, Leech, and Tenniel are not on the roll of the Academy is surely far more to the discredit of the institution than of the artists themselves, who presumably, from the Academic point of view, are "no artists." As Mr. du Maurier has pointed out, Punch's artists will have their revenge: "If the illustrator confine himself to his own particular branch, he must not hope for any very high place in the hierarchy of art. The great prizes are not for him! No doubt it will be all the same a hundred years hence—but for this: if he has done his work well, he has faithfully represented the life of his time, he has perpetuated what he has seen with his own bodily eyes; and for that reason alone his unpretending little sketches may, perhaps, have more interest for those who come across them in another hundred years than many an ambitious historical or classical canvas that has cost its painter infinite labour, imagination, and research, and won for him in his own time the highest rewards in money, fame, and Academical distinction. For genius alone can keep such fancy-work as this alive, and the so-called genius of to-day may be the scapegoat of to-morrow." ---The History of Punch by MH Spielmann, 1895

No comments: