The year 1986 was a turning point in the history of comics. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons began publishing their acclaimed limited series, Watchmen. Frank Miller released his four-issue miniseries reimagining the Batman story, The Dark Knight Returns. And the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s comics memoir, Maus, was published by Pantheon Books. A year earlier, while it was still being serialized in RAW magazine, the critic Ken Tucker suggested that Maus’s existence might help "expand the very notion of what a comic strip can do, to make intelligent readers reconsider — and reject — the widespread notion of … ‘comics-as-kid-culture.’ "
After decades of being dismissed, derided, or ignored, comics were attracting widespread attention. Spiegelman’s memoir became a best seller, won a special Pulitzer award, and became the subject of hundreds of scholarly essays. In the 30 years since then, cartoonists have secured an increasingly comfortable place within mainstream culture. They have been honored by prize committees and museums. They have earned lucrative publishing contracts and have been widely reviewed. The lowly comic book has finally had its rich history of achievement recognized.
The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books By Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo
But this success has given rise to a new set of problems. If an earlier generation of scholars passionately argued that academics should study comics, scholars now arriving on the scene are asking how best to do so. That is the question Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo attempt to answer in their slim but illuminating volume, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time. Beaty, a professor of English at the University of Calgary, and Woo, an assistant professor of communication studies at Canada’s Carleton University, run through a series of contenders for the "greatest comic book" title, including Spiegelman’s Maus, the short works of Robert Crumb, the superhero oeuvre of Jack Kirby, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and so on.
The authors worry that the institutionalization of "comics studies" has blinded scholars to the richness of the field, canonizing a small number of works as great while ignoring many others that are worthy of study. They show how each contender for the title of "greatest" comic presupposes a different set of aesthetic values. Academics have been attracted to genres such as life writing and have written about auteur figures such as Spiegelman, Crumb, and Satrapi. Fans have been more attracted to specific genres, such as superheroes, and celebrate figures who worked as part of teams, such as Kirby and Carl Barks, and often resent the way scholars study their favorite art form. Some of the best chapters in the book ask what it might mean to take seriously best-selling cartoonists — such as Rob Liefeld and Raina Telgemeier — or low-prestige comics such as Archie, which neither scholars nor fans take seriously.
At the same time, Beaty and Woo argue that we can’t escape the canonization process; we can’t simply jettison the canon. "There is no Archimedean point from which to observe the field" and thereby render objective judgments of excellence. Comics studies cannot avoid confronting the question of how the field enthrones its own biases and assumptions. Given this problem, the authors argue, we might as well be aware of how the process of valuation works. They therefore end their book by playfully suggesting that Dylan Horrocks’s 1998 graphic novel, Hicksville, might be the greatest comic book of all time because it is a self-referential work explicitly about the perils of the canon-making process.
One problem with this conclusion is that by linking value to knowingness, they make reflexivity and self-reference the highest aesthetic achievement for the art form. To be great, a comic book would need to dramatize an awareness of itself as a comic book. This doesn’t take us very far beyond works like Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns, all of which were celebrated precisely for drawing attention to their own status as comics.
By endorsing reflexivity, it is the comics scholar who becomes the true hero of comics history. Our superpower would be showing how the art form of comics tends toward an awareness of itself as a medium. But to avoid entrenching the academic bias for self-aware art, a bias that Beaty and Woo’s celebration of Hicksville reinforces, we should study in greater depth other institutions — the publishing houses and movie studios, the comic-book shops and online retailers — that have made comics what they are today.
The second problem with Beaty and Woo’s conclusion is that their effort to distinguish comics studies as a discipline risks isolating comics from other art forms and historical tendencies. Comics might more or less constitute a distinctive sociological "field," but the best recent scholarship on comics has shown how they have intensely interacted with other art forms, social and political histories, and cultural tendencies. This scholarship includes Beaty’s own monograph, Comics Versus Art (University of Toronto Press, 2012), as well as Scott Bukatman’s The Poetics of Slumberland (University of California Press, 2012) and Hillary Chute’s Disaster Drawn (Harvard University Press, 2016).
More intriguingly, Nick Sousanis’s comic-book monograph Unflattening, published in 2015 by Harvard University Press, suggests another possibility. The art form of comics might not be just an object of academic analysis, but might itself become a powerful part of our intellectual tool kit, a way of organizing research and producing scholarship. Cartooning might be a "way of thinking," as Chris Ware has put it. The art form has a powerful capacity to explain ideas, make arguments, and visualize research. If this path fulfills its promise, comics scholars might someday not only write about comics history — they might also make it.
Lee Konstantinou is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Harvard University Press, 2016).