The Cambridge Companion to the Graphic Novel threatens to douse the genre’s spirit

Comics were, until recently, deemed a marginal medium, at least in the sense that they were critically neglected. That’s what made them so free.

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A few years ago, the International Olympic Committee announced a shortlist of six new categories it wanted to introduce in the 2020 games: baseball, climbing, karate, softball, surfing and skateboarding. The inclusion of the last caused bongs to splutter around the world, and thousands of skaters signed petitions saying: “NO!” “Skateboarding is an art and escape… and should not be forced into submission by a committee,” wrote Ian O of Oklahoma on the Care2 website. It was, they argued, a way of life, a lifeline – not a “proper sport” in which athletes competed for medals.

The skaters I knew as a teenager were anti-institutional. They liked to whack things with their board; they smoked a lot of weed; they magic-markered slogans on bus shelters. The Olympicisation of their lifestyle was bound to piss them off.

They also read comics. “Safe spaces” today can often mean zones of policed speech, in which opinions that jar with the sensibilities of the majority are excluded. The fringes of the mainstream, however, have long been another kind of safe space, where people are given licence to say what is elsewhere considered unsayable, or unworthy of saying at all.

Comics were until recently deemed a marginal medium, at least in the sense that they were critically neglected. That’s what made them so free. The Canadian artist Chester Brown, for example, could explore his introversion and his mother’s mental illness in a serialised memoir called Fuck (1991-93) without the scalpels of know-nothing book reviewers like me – and, worse, Lacan-lovin’ PhD candidates – hovering above him.

The publication of The Cambridge Companion to the Graphic Novel threatens to be comics’ equivalent of skateboarding’s Olympics moment. Its editor, Stephen E Tabachnick, is a professor of English literature at the University of Memphis and the author of three previous books on the form. Here he invites “scholars looking for new material” into this “relatively unexplored field”, much in the manner of a Cuadrilla executive giving a pep talk to fracking engineers in Lancashire.

The interrogation of any art form is a good thing, but only if it opens up the subject. By designating “graphic novels” – instead of comics as a whole – as legitimate for academic study, Tabachnick does his well-intentioned project a disservice. He celebrates a young medium by trash-talking the wider parent form (“Graphic novels’ production values are much better” than those of trade serials, he writes, though he surely knows this is neither always true nor particularly relevant); and he makes false distinctions, seemingly in an effort to explain why, as a grown man, he still reads books with pictures in them.

Yet this needs no such explanation. The validity of comics has never been in doubt among those who love them – an ever-expanding constituency, as sales figures show. Since 2015, the sector has grown by 15 per cent in the US; last year, the civil rights comic March, by the US congressman John Lewis, Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin, became the first comics title to win a National Book Award. The perception that comics are for teenage boys only is long gone. They are everywhere – and are read by both men and women (who make up one in three buyers), by both old and young. They range from topical accounts of racial discrimination (Toufic El Rassi’s Arab in America) to gloriously melodramatic love stories aimed at young girls (Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas). Long and short, smart and stupid.

Tabachnick rejects this breadth. Graphic novels, he claims, are comics matured – they are specifically those “written by adults for adults”. They have “little in common with traditional comic books, which in the 1950s in America… largely consisted of the adventures of Superman and Batman”. The problem with puffing up a subject so desperately into something it isn’t is that a lot of hot air leaks out. He almost immediately contradicts himself, admitting in the same paragraph that the techniques of the more recent wave of long-form works are “clearly based” on those of the older comics. Moreover, books such as The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson – acknowledged as a seminal “graphic novel” by those who use that term – mine the same seam of superhero narratives as the earlier serialised comics. (Indeed, both Batman and Superman appear in Miller and Janson’s masterpiece.)

It’s a relief that many of this Cambridge Companion’s contributors offer more nuanced responses to the subject. Where Tabachnick states categorically that graphic novels are free “of all restrictions” imposed by commercial considerations, M Keith Booker points to Disney’s recent acquisition of Marvel and explores the ways in which comics have come to “serve as a sort of experimental cultural laboratory for the film industry, allowing for the exploration of new ideas and styles in the relatively inexpensive… format”.

Meanwhile, where Tabachnick frames the recent popularisation of “graphic novels” as the emergence of a new form that is self-consciously “in the service of the intellect”, the University of Calgary’s Bart Beaty offers an analysis of how the academics’ canon of graphic novels came into being in the first place, through the “positioning [of] the literary as a marker of quality”. The specific qualities that the new students of the form are looking for are, predictably, those that “fit with the arbitrary criteria” of pre-existing academia – hence the frequently tiresome efforts to uncover “hidden meanings” in everything and the lionisation of work that makes this easy. In this light, the primacy in comics studies of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980) – an account of a Jewish father’s survival of the Holocaust and the difficulty his son faces in trying to relate that story responsibly – probably owes as much to its obvious intellectualism as to its undeniable excellence.

Comics are still in their adolescence. Something similar has existed since the cave paintings of our distant ancestors; the Japanese have been producing manga of one kind or another for hundreds of years. Yet when we discuss comics today, we think of those that conform to the grammar that established itself during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath: the use of panels, the motifs, the speech and thought bubbles, the motion lines. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) – itself a comic – is far better than the Cambridge Companion in demonstrating what the form can do, while more amply illustrated surveys such as Paul Gravett’s Mangasia (2017) provide an easier point of access to specific regional styles.

One impression I get from these less densely footnoted works, mostly written by fans and practitioners, is that this way of telling stories remains a frontier populated by artists who have yet to decide what is respectable and what is not (look to smaller comics publishers such as London’s Breakdown Press if you’re interested in what the form may yet offer). It’s probably naive of me to say so, but I hope that if the most elitist academics ever manage to institutionalise the comics form, it manages to escape, like the Joker – preferably in a cloud of green smoke. 

Yo Zushi’s latest album is “It Never Entered My Mind” (Eidola Records)

The Cambridge Companion to the Graphic Novel
Edited by Stephen E Tabachnick
Cambridge University Press, 244pp, £21.99

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article appears in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran