The Colossus Crawls West

The acquisition of knowledge is not progression from point A to point B. There in fact, is no point B. The Colossus crawls ever westward, overlapping its own footprints, making new impressions in the Earth.

Literary Gerrymandering: Expanding Canons by Recognizing the Autonomy of the Graphic Narrative

I thought I might put the essay portion of my multi-genre project up in case anyone had an abundance of time and hated themselves enough to want to read it.

The western literary canon comes from a proud tradition of selective elevation and careful curation of texts. When discussing the difference between early collections of writing in Teaching Literature: Canon, Controversy, and the Literary Anthology, Barbara Mujica distinguishes between anthologies, collections of timeless, canonized writings, and miscellanies, which are compilations of “contemporary, highly fashionable material.” (203) Mujica explores this distinction by examining the roots of the words themselves. She states, “Benedict points out that the term ‘miscellany’ comes from the Latin miscellane, meaning, ‘a dish of mixed corn’…Anthology, in contrast is from the Greek word for ‘collection of flowers, a term implying selection’” (203), which seems to give the clearest insight into the state of the modern literary canon; accepted texts are beautiful bouquets while others are mixed peasant food. The argument has long been made that anthologizing and canonizing texts creates an air of oppression and homogeneity, as those texts chosen for this literary lifeboat and selected to survive the deluge of time are largely penned by similar authors and share similar attributes. Thus, the call for expansion is heard over the hills and through the hallowed halls of academia.  Through the literary fray a rather unlikely genre has risen to some degree of recognition: comics. Scholars now discuss comics, not often, but more often, as legitimate from a literary perspective. Everything from the stigma associated with comics, to their evolution into the more mature form of the graphic novel is discussed by a growing number of academics. The only issue that remains is a relatively small one: “comic” is not a genre it is a medium, and should be treated as such. Any argument or discussion about the pitfalls or merits of comics, and by extension graphic novels, seems to obscure the fact that the term “comic” is nearly as broad and diverse as the term “literature.”

The notion that comics as a lumped whole have been, and in some instances still are, considered lowbrow is not an incorrect one; comics have long been considered to be immature and childish. In High and Low Thinking About High and Low Art, Ted Cohen speaks about the distinction between popular culture and high art by stating:

On the one hand, very popular works are typically thought to be slight, to be “easy,” to be superficial, as if these characteristics explained why so many people are able to appreciate them. On the other hand, it is a very old, well-established, favorite idea about the greatest art that precisely because of its enormous, penetrating depth, it must be able to reach all who are genuinely human. Thus the great appeal of Hamlet (one of Shakespeare’s two most often performed plays) is attributed to its greatness; and the virtually complete international appeal of American popular culture is attributed to its allegedly glib superficiality. (156)

There is then a scramble among supporters of comics to distance the medium from the “glib superficiality” of American pop culture. Proponents of graphic narrative often point to the greater works in this medium in order to dispel the notion that comics exist purely as an opiate for society’s lowest common denominator. There is a particular air of “well, we’re not like those people” in this argument that seems to have helped graphic narrative climb the rungs in the academic setting. The desired goal of this movement is to shed the stigma associated with comics, which goes back to the infancy of the medium. Paul Lopes is quick to point out in Culture and Stigma: Popular Culture and the Case of Comic Books that although stigma is related to the application of the “low art” moniker, that they are not one in the same as “A popular cultural form could have low status but not be stigmatized (e.g., country music) or have low status and be stigmatized (e.g., rap music).” (388) The common attribute here however, is still the application of a low status. Hence, in response to say, an argument that comics are low art because Garfield is low art, champions of comics present Watchmen by Alan Moore; comics cannot be low art, because Watchmen is fantastic.

The problem as I see it is that comics can be both high and low art; the merits of Watchmen do not erase the existence of Garfield. In attempting to carve out a space in literary canon for comic books, the less desirable elements have been jettisoned into the cultural void. In order to express the seriousness of comics as a subject for study, the more impressive sounding term “graphic novel” has arisen. While the term “comic” incorporates everything from Asterios Polyp to Zippy the Pinhead, “graphic novel” focuses on longer, more complete works, and so when we say “graphic novel” we mean it with the same connotation as when we distinguish literature (any written work) from Literature (written works accepted as significant or relevant, everything else is dead to us). This is much neater than the truth, which is that “graphic novel” still encompasses a massive amount of varying kinds of narrative. Persepolis, an illustrated autobiography of a woman growing up in Iran in the midst of a revolution is the kind of work generally considered to be in the realm of the academic graphic novel. In reality, graphic novels are also made by compiling chapters published individually into one complete work, as was done with many of Charles Dickens’ stories. The end result is that graphic novels don’t just include poignant stories of adolescence and regime change, but also things like Kyūkyoku!! Hentai Kamen, a Japanese series about a superhero who wears panties on his face.

A decidedly academic solution is to separate works into graphic novel (longer, complete versions of graphic narrative) and Graphic Novel (longer, complete works of graphic narrative we feel meet the strict criteria for study, everything else is dead to us). This course of action leaves us with a beautiful bouquet of rich, complex, and distinctly literary works. We then have the exact same problem we started with, the issue of a literary canon that only accepts works which conform to already existing criteria for legitimacy; we have not expanded the canon, we’ve simply extended it. We find our collection of flowers, but we burn down the field they come from in order to get it. The fact of the matter is, that even the manga about the underwear-clad superhero is a commentary of the kind of “unlikely hero” stories that common in other manga. The main character is able to harness his “full potential” by wearing panties on his face because his mother was a sex worker, and a sort of perverted power is in his genes. The notion of a boy who unlocks some secret power hiding in his genes and becomes a powerful hero is a common trope in shōnen manga (Japanese comics for young and adolescent boys) and is found in popular works such as Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Dragon Ball Z. For all its absurdity, even a work that might likely be written off at first glance holds commentaries about narrative trends in a specific offshoot of graphic storytelling.

Comics are often self-referential, and might include jokes, references, or homages to other works. The entire medium is weakened if we pick and choose what to study based on its relation to pre-existing accepted works because they are left floating in a vacuum. When Jennifer H. Williams speaks of teaching about graphic narrative in The Canon and the Cutting Edge by saying, “It can be tempting to teach comics and graphic narratives as traditional print narratives that happen to have illustrations, but to do so is to ignore that graphic narratives have their own unique reading protocols and formal issues that make them different from print narratives,” (193) she is not incorrect by any means. Rather, she is simply incomplete in her representation of art in graphic works. Williams seems to believe, and rightly so, that one cannot hope to teach Watchmen in the same way that one would teach Huckleberry Finn, because the visual elements of the former distinguish it from the purely textual nature of the latter. If we accept this as a legitimate concern, then we must also accept that one cannot teach Watchmen in the same way that one would teach Asterios Polyp. One cannot appreciate the specific way the panels in Watchmen convey the slow, deliberate, passage of time or the relatively bare and flat artwork in Asterios Polyp, which uses simple color palates to show whether a portion of the story takes place in the past or present, and which perspectives are being shown, without a wide body of material to compare them to. We cannot even begin to acknowledge that there can be a comparison if we simply lump all works together.

When Gretchen Schwarz advocates the use of graphic novels in teaching in Expanding Literacies Through graphic Novels, she makes a fabulous case by asserting, “New media call for a “new rhetoric.’ one that includes visual as well as verbal understanding and ability,” (60) pointing out that a shift towards a multimedia society requires studies which embody the same kinds of hybridization. She makes a case for Alan Moore’s From Hell by citing its use by university professor Martin Wallen, stressing its insight into “our fascination with violence and lurid sensationalism” and remarking that “[it] is a well-told and disturbing, thought- provoking work, what any English teacher would want from any work of literature,” (59) and examines the nature of framing and perspective using the graphic short story Hurdles. (59-60) At no point however, does Schwarz compare these two works to one another or to any other graphic story. Comics are presented either in a vacuum, as a case study in narrating with art, or as relating to themes and plotlines which are presently accepted. Graphic works are not allowed the legitimacy of being compared to one another, they are not allowed to group together or form their own branch of study. They are instead separated and sectioned off from other similar works, ensuring that no measurable legitimacy will allow graphic works for function on their own as a field of study.

Thomas Bredehoft, alternatively, accomplishes something truly remarkable: he examines a theme that is quintessentially “graphic.” In Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Bredehoft examines the multiple dimensions of graphic storytelling using Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. He begins by discussing a cutout included in the book that can be “assembled into a working zoetrope, a cylinder with a series of images on the inside (visible from the outside through vertical slits) that can be seen as a moving picture when the cylinder spins.” (869) The zoetrope is in fact the same one the main character builds in the story. Bredehoft states “At one level, then, the zoetrope represents a literalization of reader-character identification: the reader who cuts out and assembles the zoetrope is literally engaged in the same activity as Jimmy.” (870) He then goes on to explain the concept of two-dimensionality present in Jimmy Corrigan by using examples of other graphic narratives, namely, a short visual joke comic titled The Incredible Mr. Spot, and two pages from the series Y: The Last Man. (873-75) Bredehoft’s analysis represents a self-referential study of graphic narrative which is largely free from the kinds of divisive cherry-picking that comics seem to be often subjected to. His argument is academic, and his examples vary in both style and tone; they are however, still graphic examples. Until we cease attempts to define “comics” as a literary offshoot that must fight to obtain or shed “high” or “low” status, attempting to make it fit neatly into already established canons, and begin to see it simply as a medium which is full and complex in its own right that encompasses an increasingly diverse and fascinating body of works, we will never fully expand beyond the decades and centuries old canonical walls that divide narratives into disproportionately powered districts and hinder the expansion of our field.

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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