Comics / Spotlight

The Philosophy of Comics


By Hervé St-Louis
December 18, 2012 - 18:54

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Yesterday, I spent the early evening with my cohort and one of PhD professor relaxing at a pub during a well-merited break. My cohort and I have been working very hard on our first PhD session. For me, it meant much less articles being written by myself at ComicBookBin. As we left the pub, we walked past the Beguiling, a Toronto comic book institution. One of my cohorts, knowing about my interest in comics and ComicBookBin asked me if I had been to the Beguiling, describing it as the place to go in Toronto. Although I can rely on the trusty ComicBookBin apps to tell me about comic book stores in any place, I never really bothered to check in Toronto as I’ve been way too busy to find a new regular comic book store.

But my response to my fellow PhD student was classic. I said, of course I know the Beguiling. I was involved with them in the Doug Wright Awards controversy in 2008 where I denounced the labeling they had chosen for the award as being pan-Canadian. They have since revised their stance on that and it's all old history for me, although bridges have still not been mended. When I moved to Toronto, getting involved in the local comic book scene was one of the objectives I had set to do. I still haven’t found time. But that’s another story. Because the topic came up, I explained to them who Doug Wright was. I told them about his work, which the folks from Drawn and Quarterly had compared to Charles Schulz in vain, and how it really was nothing like the work of the creator of Peanuts. I gave them some pointers about what made Schulz so remarkable and distinct from most other cartoonists.

I then described what was particular about Wright. For me, Wright, as I wrote years ago, was a magnificent draftsman. He was probably a better illustrator than Schulz. But his stories had none of the depth of Peanuts or even – shudder – the philosophy.  For me, what made Wright stand out from other artists was how he had this technique where he never fully closed drawn lines. He often would leave a gap open. It added to the charm of his work. I complained that all the other media like the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star that had reviewed The Collected Doug Wright archives had just bought into the hype from Drawn and Quarterly where they labelled Wright the Canadian equivalent of Schulz.

The reaction of my cohort was quick. They asked why I wasn’t focusing on comics for my dissertation and why I was bothering with all the mobile stuff. They said that in class when the topics of sequential art theory came up, that I was the most confident and that given my experience with comics, I should focus on them more than I do. Comics should be at the center of my doctoral research and not just a hobby. And then one of them said it: she said that it would be cool if I were to write a discourse analysis on comic books.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the point of this article. Comic books are ripped to be out through discourse analysis and other ontological and epistemological research methods. There is a lot that should be asked about the nature of comic books beyond the current historiography. The current literature on comics is mostly written by historians, literary critics and art historians. The methods used are mostly positivists and very simple. Works like Thierry Groensteen’s Système de la bande dessinée are few. He looked at comic books through a semiotic lens. There is of course, the often mentioned Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics which is probably the most scholarly work done on comics by a non scholar and in a popular format. Such works are few though.

My first reaction as the suggestion that French theorist Michel Foucault’s discourse analysis be used to study comics was that authors and many in the comics world would just hate the idea. I’ve written in the past about the need to study comics without always putting the comic creator at the center of the art form being studied. I probably angered more “progressive” minds on comics than I convinced. Foucault argued that to study text or fiction that the author had to be removed from the discourse. In a medium obsessed by the star system and the creator, such a suggestion, even if it comes by the chief post modernist French theorist par excellence, Foucault would be heresy in the comic book universe!  Would the progressive people who want comic books to be studied scholarly and taken seriously even understand that doing so would be de-legitimizing the work of the comic book creators they seek to promote when they alleged that comics are not for children anymore?

Would a discourse analysis of Arzach, The Watchmen or Maus be as appreciated if it completely ignored Mœbius, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Art Spiegelman? Would the fact that the whole point of deconstructing knowledge, as Foucault suggested mean that in order to understand comics that we need to separate them from their creators. I don’t have much faith in people who claim to be enlightened about comics, no matter how open they say they are. Based on my personal experience running ComicBookBin and interacting with many comic book pundits, the very thought of looking at comics without elevating the creator is a non-starter and a sin in their eyes. But philosophically, how can we study comics seriously, if there are taboos that the people who scream the most that comics are due for serious scholarship will be the first to dismiss the kind of scholarship that does not support some pre-existing notion about comics, one of which, as I’ve written several times in the past, is the primacy of the comic book creator over every other actor involved with comic books.

Philosophy is about questioning existing presumptions and asking questions that go beyond conventional wisdom. In the case of comic books, before we even look at what they are, if the agency of the comic book creator is not paid lip service, the comic book universe will not accept any study. But a fundamental aspect of research which I learned in the midst of a presentation this term when one of my professor told me when speaking about my research in another field of study “you are not writing for them. You are writing for us. You do not need to convince them. You need to convince us.” When a writer comes from a journalistic background the impulse to vulgarize and explain to the average reader is hard to let go. I learned the hard way in my first semester of class when I started my master’s degree in 2008. A professor back then told me that I wrote like a journalist, not an academic. I’ve since learn to modify my writing since. Yet, I was again reminded just recently, that I was again writing for scholars and not regular readers. That implies that the comic book pundits do not have to agree with my research or my approach to the philosophy of comics. Most people who would read my work if I were to do discourse analysis on comics would understand that it’s not about the creators. If they forget, it would be part of my work to explain to them how Foucault suggested that authors are overrated! And if I really felt that Foucault was wrong about ignoring the creators, in the case of the comic book, I would have to explain to them why he was wrong and I am right!

I don’t intend to write about comics for my dissertation. I do intend however, to write scholarly about  comics for years to come. I’m privilege in that I participate in a space where this kind of discourse about comic books is allowed. Ninth Art used to study comics seriously, but none of their work went beyond trade publication level Ditto for The Comics Journal. My peers at Sequart make a similar claim but I don’t buy it. I’m not saying that the writing is of the same caliber, but The NewYorker and The Economist are neither scholarly publications. They are trades, just like Sequart. Real academic writing on comic books is found on the fringes. Even I don’t get to notice it very often. But it is around. At ComicBookBin, at most I can write short essays on comics but they can be of scholarly grade. They can at least be of a PhD student level.

My editors may not like it though. I personally killed the Comics 101 section of the site last year. People come to read popular press article about comics. They’ll tolerate one or two trade article at ComicBookBin once in a while. But to force readers to read scholarly article is another heresy. Thank god this heresy is happening at ComicBookBin. Where else would such a crazy experiment take place?


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