Dapper Disputes: What the %$#! Happened to Comics?

Dapper Disputes is a feature where editors at The Airspace debate the merits and purpose of relevant issues in culture, technology, and scholarship.

From May 18-20, 2012, all eyes were on Chicago, and not just watching NATO protestors. The conference Comics: Philosophy & Practice brought together seventeen of the world’s most famous cartoonists for three days of lectures and panel discussions on the future of the genre. The event, which took place at the University of Chicago’s new Logan Center for the Arts, was called “historic” by the Chicago Tribune and drew an international audience [1]. By hosting cross-disciplinary dialogue between figures like the “grandfather of comics,” Art Spiegelman, and up-and-coming underground comic artists, this conference was to comics what Woodstock ’69 was to rock. Editors Blake J. Graham and Jon Catlin watched the conference via webcast and share their thoughts on the conference below.

Did Something %$#!ing Happen to Comics?

The conference began with a keynote discussion between Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and W.J.T. Mitchell, professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago and editor of 30-plus years of the prestigious humanities journal Critical Inquiry. I’ve never before seen a conference begin with a keynote discussion, rather than a lecture, and this is fitting for the scale and goal of the conference. Titled Comics: Philosophy and Practice, this conference was designed to bring together the greatest graphic novelists in America today, and to foster a much-needed discussion on the present and future of the genre with input from comics scholars. Sparks were sure to fly, and some did, particularly between artist Robert Crumb and Francoise Mouly, art editor at The New Yorker who has turned away some of Crumb’s work [2].

If Spiegelman is the “grandfather of comics,” Mitchell is the grandfather of comics scholarship. He essentially began the field of word-image study that is now so crucial to academic work on comics. This duo embodies the dialogue this conference was designed to bring about, and, for the first time ever, the most influential graphic novelists and the scholars who study their work are converging.

The event’s novelty lies in the form of the comic itself. Though this body of cartoonists is strongly influenced by those that came before them and their peer artists, they rarely speak to one another, and most have never met in person. Though intimately studying a comic or being otherwise influenced by it is a literary “discussion” of sorts, and comics tend to have a print-response culture, in-person discussion is the only way to get at Art Spiegelman’s keynote question: What the %$#! Happened to Comics?

The sidebar images relate to the first topic I’d like to discuss: Mad Magazine and the bygone days of “dangerous” comics. Art Spiegelman grew up reading Mad in the 50s-60s, which then was “the Grand Theft Auto” of its day and even censored at comic burnings held by reactionary parents. He discussed the danger of reading, the illicitness of the comic, and the resulting thrill this brought to the genre. He described this as a tug-of-war between the newspapers, the readers, and the comic artists, one between “vulgar and genteel” content. The newspapers wanted readers to be excited, but couldn’t overstep their bounds and alienate traditional readers. Comic readers, especially younger ones, demanded the raciest stuff they could get their hands on, and the comic artists tried to appease both, often by slipping innuendo in between the lines or hidden in images. Spiegelman referred to a broader trend in American media content: “American culture has the problem of wanting to be more cultured than it is.” This was before the days of American cultural self-consciousness.

The title of the discussion responds to comics becoming socially acceptable media and even legitimate academic subjects today (for example, Art Spiegelman’s own Maus winning the Pulitzer Prize and Watchmen appearing on Time’s list of 100 best novels of all time). Spiegelman worried that comics may be losing their special illicitness, noting that his Maus, a graphic novel in which he depicted his own Jewish father’s experience in Auschwitz, frequently appears on college syllabi and in Holocaust museums. I recently took a class on ethics after the Holocaust in which we read Maus alongside traditional philosophical and religious texts. The question is whether or not this a legitimate problem. Did something go %$#!ing wrong? Does the shift of graphic novels into museums and classrooms—as Spiegelman put it—“hang them out to dry” or give them a new audience that can further cultivate the field’s creative energies? The conference organizer, Hillary Chute, a young, tattooed English professor at Chicago and an accomplished scholar of comics, would certainly go with the latter.

Jon Catlin

Keynote discussion between Art Spiegelman and W.J.T. Mitchell

Comic burning in Binghampton, NY, 1948

Comics’ Dangerous Meaning

There is no doubt that today, comics are being proliferated and analyzed by a cerebral majority. This entire conference is occurring at one of the most renowned universities in the world, and it was organized by the oh-so-foxy Hilary Chute, a scholar who studies the discourse around comics. The University of Chicago is certainly unique in the type of programming it invests in, but the presence of a conference on comics at such a high level of academia means that there is sure to be a ripple effect in other institutions soon. We can assume that this conference is mostly unprecedented in its presentation of comics to an academic audience. This alone tells us that comics are now being “put on the walls.” Spiegelman mentioned that “when something is no longer a mass medium, it either becomes an art or it dies.” Comics had their mass appeal at a time, waned in popularity, and now have resurfaced as a highly accessible art form. It took academic proliferation to bring comics back—they needed to appear in museums, in libraries, on course syllabi, and on top 100 lists. Without this wide-spectrum revival, there wouldn’t be an “apparatus to keep comics in the same spotlight” as they were in the mid-twentieth century.

Well, what the %$#! did happen to comics? And now that we are here, what are we to do about them? I think we need to divide into two disciplines: the study of comics and the creation of comics. To study comics from a distance in space or time is incredibly difficult. A comic or illustration is rooted in its cultural context. Having massive narratives in mind is essential when approaching these pieces. Every issue of The New Yorker contains a cover illustration that applies to cultural events and phenomena, yet contains no words or headlines to literally spell out what the image describes. The further scholars are chronologically removed from Mad Magazine covers from the 1960s, the harder the texts are to study. To create a comic now—on current issues—and include all those layers of subtext, would be a much less daunting task because all current cultural narratives are internalized. What went wrong is that comics fell out of popular favor, and in rediscovering them, we had to work through the illustrative cyphers encoded into each image. This highly cerebral task is befitting to academia, and requires scholarship. In rediscovery, we discovered how valuable and unique the co-mixing of words and images is.

For the same reasons we now find comics to be academic now, they were considered dangerous or perverse in the 50s and 60s. Their cryptic nature means they cannot well be trusted, for layers of understanding can reveal different truths. As you mentioned, this tug of war between art and commerce became more and more pronounced. What sold newspapers wasn’t high art. Comics became subversive in that they were forced to hide questionable components, and because they were notorious for hiding, they could never command the same authority as a photograph could. (Or so technological assumptions suggested—i.e., a camera couldn’t well lie since it captured the world as accurately as the human eye.) This, of course, is wrong. Some truths are better revealed when presented through humor or wit. Spiegelman uses the example of Mickey Rodent’s ability to show there was “something unclean in the monolithic Disney culture.” Yes, comics can be dangerous—they are capable of being dangerously honest to important truths. Spiegelman’s own Maus reveals a chillingly true narrative of the Holocaust, and those who survived it. They may be characterized as just lines on paper, but comics’ ability to extract dangerous meaning is certain. Does this ability give them higher authority? Or does it only have purpose in directing people to other sources to find authority?

Blake J. Graham

Cultural Context and Meaning

First of all, I think you make an excellent point about context. What seems like cultural common sense the week of an issue of The New Yorker is largely lost when we try to analyze its cover from such a chronological distance and out of context. It is for this reason that comics have to be studied so thoroughly today. Spiegelman pointed to a cover of Mad Magazine with an incredible amount of detail when viewed closely, and came to call himself a perverted Jew for reading comics for depth and multiple layers of meaning the way Jewish boys were supposed to read the Talmud. The scholarly task is daunting, as these publications are so ephemeral and weren’t documented or regularly critiqued the way they are now. Going back fifty years and recovering the cultural, social, and political references is certainly necessary for interpretation.

In response to your post, Blake, I’m more suspicious about the aims of this conference, and about comics generally, precisely because of the claim to “dangerous truth” that you are supporting. Maus and Watchmen are two of my all-time favorite reads, but I can’t put my finger on what’s unique about them. Perhaps this is my fault for “hanging them out to dry” and reading them both in academic contexts (is annotating a comic sin?), but I’m not convinced that the image adds truth value to the text, whatever that would mean. Could you talk about your own experience with comics, with possible clips of favorite series or frames? I need to see where this sense of danger and depth comes from in an authentic, non-academic context.

Jon Catlin

America’s Uncultured Culture

First off, thanks for pulling in those images. I was looking for that specific Mad Magazine cover to justify the statement on comics’ deep layers of cryptic text. Looking specifically the close of up the cover, you can see small icons referring to the categories of Art, Literature, and Caricature. I can’t call the proper architectural term to mind, but this is reminiscent of sculpture embedded into the facades of buildings (look at nearly any building at a university). The illustrative truth lies in the way the words belie the images. Art is represented by an image appended to a wall-hanging calendar, literature to a Scrabble board. This trails all the way back to something you mentioned earlier: “American culture has the problem of wanting to be more cultured than it is.”

You’re right in saying that we both came to comics on different vectors. To frame this correctly, we need to understand comics as a distinct medium and leave any preconceptions of how a medium is to be used aside. It is the co-mixing of words and images and they are not bound to any type of expression. Perhaps this is trivial to mention—I fear some will be clouded anyways—but how do people arrive at comics outside of academia?

I’m pulling from the preface to McSweeney’s No. 13, The Comics Edition. Ira Glass said of Charles Schulz:
If he’d been a painter, no one I grew up with would’ve heard of him. If he’d written 400-page novels, I’d never sat down to read them. And sad, barely read losers like me—we need art to.

In 1985, Charles Schulz said of Peanuts:
All the loves in the strip are unrequited, all the baseball games are lost, all the test scores are D-minuses, the Great Pumpkin never comes, and the football is always pulled away.
For people inhabiting a world similar to Charlie Brown’s there was no readily accessible example of a world saturated in such sadness. For those who read, they could relate to Charlie’s woes, or feel reassured in their own fortune, through his misfortune. Consider it a visual guide to empathy.

I wanted to bring in my own comics experience, much of which was founded in the likes of Sunday morning cartoons and superhero tales. The power of the medium goes further, so I’m only going to reference works I’ve come to more recently and which seem the least like stereotypical comics. They fit between low-rhetoric superhero tales and high-rhetoric texts like Watchmen and Maus.

Each one tells a commonly identifiable tale. The first shows modern process: toast, butter, eat, and wipe away those pesky crumbs. How ordered the process is. How elegant. How simple life is. If all we do is just process upon process and each can be as exact at making toast, our lives should be perfect. All we have to do is wipe away the crumbs.

The second shows the process of feeling loss, perhaps anger, and non-directional emotion. “I want to say this, but instead I say that.” That’s universally identifiable. It’s a hardline to sympathy, if not empathy.

The third is autobiographical. “I’m worried you’re going to write comics where I’m the bad guy,” says the defective love interest.

The fourth, self-loathing to an extreme.

These aren’t your typical heroes. But our heroes were never great because they were strong. They were great because we could find one bit of ourselves in them, and watch where they took it. They might not be entirely true, but they dangerously point to regions of self-realization. Comics can leave you exposed, like a nerve.

I fear I’m taking us too far from the Spiegelman talk so I want to bring it back to the idea of what makes these illustrations more than images. Mitchell brought up the distinctions between stereotype and caricature. Spiegelman responded that they caricature infuses personality into stereotype. Not only are the images isotypical and normative in concept, but they draw readers in emotionally. In my reading, and the examples I provided, personality is essential to imbuing the comics with meaning. From an academic perspective, how do these ideas of stereotype, caricature, and personality fit in?

Blake J. Graham

The New Yorker’s Stab at Neo-sincerity

Thanks for sharing your personal ties to comics—I think I really got something out of them. The idea of accessibility and universality are much more important than I initially assumed. The toast strip embodies this best. The last frame really disturbed me: Why are we always shaping things into boxes? Why not brush the crumbs onto the floor? Why not smash the %$#!ing plate? It embodies a powerful frustration that couldn’t be manifest by words alone. Words, in this sense, carry a kind of pretentious baggage based on their cultural use. The same symbols that compose Biblical exegeses and legal contracts can’t effectively portray mundane frustrations for most Americans because they’ve become stale and culturally exhausted. And if you think they’re low-brow, perhaps you’re overvaluing text’s hegemony on expression. Spiegelman put it:

In the past comics relied solely on irony—now they’ve moved to neo-sincerity. Graphic novelists have learned to use the tools of irony to show things that just need saying.

I think part of this un-pretentious sincerity or cultural rawness depends totally on the concepts of stereotype and caricature that you bring up. The academic term I’d impart here is essentialism, the philosophical notion that a certain genre, people, thing, category, etc. has a particular quality that can’t be shaken from it, a sort of “whatness.” Caricatures distill figures to these qualities, much like poetry, but far more straightforwardly. Stereotype does so in a way that limits and objectifies the character, whereas caricature can do so in a way that intimates the character to the reader and displays them in a new light.

I was really struck by the talk by Françoise Mouly, Art Spiegelman’s wife and art (and cover) editor of The New Yorker for 19 years. She approached comics from the opposite end of the cultural spectrum—that of one of the most highbrow and opaque magazines in circulation today. She went through New Yorker covers since the magazine’s founding in the ‘20s and showed the monumental shift they have undergone. Since the ‘70s, the covers have moved to mock the older, more aristocratic and heteronormative covers from the “high days of magazines” in the ‘30s when all magazines had covers of solid art with no headlines.

Perhaps one of the most famous and well-adapted caricatures is The New Yorker’s dandy, the figure of Eustace Tilley peering at a butterfly through a monocle. I’ve attached several images that Mouly went through in her presentation, which speak for themselves. She made clear that this magazine has a strong cultural consciousness and is well aware of its highbrow content and readership. The dandy has been transformed into political figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a teenager, a woman, a muscly scan (a play on airport body scanners), a dog, and also taken on a digital form.

Another interesting cover is “The view of the world from 9th Avenue,” which mocks New York City journalism, of which The New Yorker is a major voice, for claiming cultural hegemony over the rest of the world. The New Yorker has 1.2 million subscribers, and as Mouly noted, most are not New York elites, but rather “schoolteachers from Iowa.” Those readers need to know that they have a place in this magazine, and the breakdown of the cover to common levels is one way of achieving this, since the magazine doesn’t have the cover headlines that attract readers to most magazines.

Mouly got to the core of the caricature’s vital place in comics: the need for all relevant cultural commentary to draw upon readily understood images. The next image is a rendition of two male sailors kissing, a play on the famous 1945 photo of U.S. troops returning home to their wives and parading through New York City. They fit the cultural form just the same, but to the average, heternormative reader, something is just “different” about it. The rendering’s powerful effect lies in its power of simultaneous familiarity and affirmation (i.e. Yeah, that’s what America’s all about!) and strangeness and rejection (… but they’re both men!). This is the power of caricature to disturb and complicate easy categorizations.

One of the most cited works of representation in the Holocaust discourse is Spiegelman’s Maus, which recycles the first image of the Holocaust that made it to the American audience, a photo of the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp by Margaret-Bourke White that appeared in a 1945 issue of Life Magazine. In Maus, Spiegelman draws upon that same cultural heritage but (see the small arrow and label over one of the figures) actually labels one of the figures “Poppa” to show that his understanding of his own father’s experience is radically shaped by the stock images of the Holocaust he has grown up with.

I think this is an important question for representation generally, especially as it relates to caricature. In the Holocaust discourse, images and film are considered objectifying by many scholars in that they reduce the human lives at stake to material objects, continuing the Nazi project of objectification even after the victims are dead. To use the words of scholar Marianne Hirsch, my questions for you and readers are:

Does the repetition of stock cultural images dull or desensitize us to the feelings of the human figures on the other side of the camera, or does it give us raw cultural material to work with in shared understanding? Does it reduce its subjects in degrading ways or engender empathy? Even if it does the latter, is it just as inauthentic idolatry? [3]

When we see these caricatures, powerful as they may be, do we dismiss them as mere stereotypes? They surely have powerful messages for us, but I suspect that too often these go unrealized. How do we re-train ourselves to put the %$#! back in our experience of comics and other media?

Jon Catlin

The Medium for a Mass Age

It’s a thorny question you present: whether or not the conversion to a symbol, such as a comic, can strip away parts of meaning while amplifying others. I can’t speak for a culture ten years for now and I’m not entirely sure I can speak for my peers, but I think it’d be foolish to run away from comics on the assumption that someone the message is being bent by its presentation. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan was famous for saying “the medium is the message,” which might endow communicating through comics with unique light. There is levity in the way the images sit on the page, there is curiosity in the way a caricature contains reality and fiction so close to one another without them sitting in conflict, there’s desolation in the speed with which we can empathize the characters in comics, there’s also incredible hope in the universality of the way comics can transcend language.

Irony has always required that its audience be an inner circle, and the end to all ironic humor is to entertain that group and bond their assumptions of exclusivity. What has happened over time is that the inner circle who one could identify all the cultural context and immediately find themselves in a community with a comic, have moved on. In their wake, a swath of experts with a magnifying glass and a bag full of Ph.Ds have stumbled upon this gold mine. They see a great intellectual challenge in decoding the comics—an arduous process that came to the original inner circle so easily. And the whole thing is so captivating because so many god-%$#! layers are present in the medium. Whatever the message was, it certainly has been transfigured, maybe to a better state maybe to a worse, but the message of a comic is different from that of a historical text on the same subject.

If recent trends in Hollywood are to be taken as an example (on the assumption that Hollywood caters to what the American people like and does not, instead, prescribe what we like) we’re heading back into an appreciation of juvenile symbols of hope, bravery, exceptionalism, and old-fashioned compassion for other human beings. A movie like the Avengers which takes the values created by comic heroes of decades past and transplanted them into our supposedly gloomy post-modern society did exceptionally well at the box office. On the other side, and sticking to the medium itself independent comic writers have been doing better and achieving levels of popularity unreachable ten years ago, but fathomable thirty years ago.

If for nothing else, comics filter the life and times through a lens laced with humor. They can hit the darkest and most serious points by addressing them in an oblique but authentic way. And as a population is tending back toward infancy and looking for an escape from a dark time, comics will continue to educate us on who we are, and who we are not.

Blake J. Graham


[1] “Unlikely gathering of Comix legends comes together at U. of C.,” The Chicago Tribune
[2] “Comics City,” The University of Chicago Magazine
[3] Hirsch, Marianne. 2001. Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory. The Yale Journal of Criticism 14 (1) (Spring): 5-37.

Images via
Gray Center Comics Con