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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Phoebe Gloeckner's Cartoonish Cancellation, Cont.
The miniature construction that the graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner assembled and photographed to illustrate her recent Review essay depicts the author in her home office, surrounded by comic books and teaching a Zoom class. Distressingly, Gloeckner has obscured her own face — the features are smudged into an uncanny blankness, with just the suggestion of a nose and one eye remaining. This spooky erasure reminds me of those Catholic paintings of sacred subjects, damaged by Dutch Protestant iconoclasts, in which eyes have been crossed out and faces scratched away.
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The miniature construction that the graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner assembled and photographed to illustrate her recent Review essay depicts the author in her home office, surrounded by comic books and teaching a Zoom class. Distressingly, Gloeckner has obscured her own face — the features are smudged into an uncanny blankness, with just the suggestion of a nose and one eye remaining. This spooky erasure reminds me of those paintings of sacred subjects damaged by Dutch Protestant iconoclasts, in which eyes have been crossed out and faces scratched away.
That’s appropriate, because Gloeckner knows something about the offensive power of images. As she tells it in “My Cartoonish Cancellation,” she has in the last couple of years become almost unable to teach her course on underground comix — a course she’d offered successfully for almost twenty years — because the sometimes-grotesque imagery of the comix canon, especially its use of both racial and sexual caricature, has become too upsetting for students today.
For Gloeckner, who emerged from the underground-comix scene (the nonstandard spelling refers to a countercultural tradition of small-press, anything-goes comic books) and absorbed its revolt against representational taboos of every kind, the insistence by students that they’d been subject to “curriculum-based trauma” must have been hard to understand. The series of complaints they brought to the Office of Institutional Equity weren’t just against her but against the lineage she worked within and had been hired two decades ago to teach. No wonder she rubbed out her features: This is autobiography as defacement.
There are a couple of different ways of thinking about Gloeckner’s ordeal. It might look like the most recent blow-up in the newly sensitized college classroom, in which highly charged and politically coded culture wars play out around language and imagery felt to violate new standards of justice regarding identity and emotional vulnerability. That’s certainly how it seemed to the students who complained. In this context, Gloeckner’s sins were similar to another member of the Michigan faculty, the composer Bright Sheng. Sheng ran into trouble with his students and the Michigan administration for showing the 1965 film version of Othello, which features Laurence Olivier in blackface. He had wanted to make a point about the use of music in film; offended students felt besieged by the racist imagery.
But from another point of view, what happened to Gloeckner looks like merely the freshest instance of a now seventy-year-long moral panic about comic books in particular. The resurgence of that panic has played out elsewhere, too, including in attempts by various school boards in Southern states to remove Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) from secondary-school curricula, based largely on a disturbing image of Spiegelman’s mother committing suicide in her bath. The panel originally appeared in Spiegelman’s 1973 “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” part of the underground-comix anthology Short Order Comix.
Anxiety about comics exploded in the 1950s, when religious and state authorities worked themselves into a lather over the sinister influences of sensationalistic crime and horror stories on young people. Parents were warned about what the Chicago priest Thomas J. Fitzgerald called the “crime, disrespect for law, rape, infidelity, perversion, etc.” common to the medium. But as disturbing to authorities as the content of these comics was their exaggerated visual idiom. As Zachary Bampton explains in a brief history, the Comics Code Authority — the industry’s regulatory organization, established in response to criticisms like Fitzgerald’s — took particular care to introduce stylistic constraints. As one article of the CCA’s “Code for Editorial Matter” puts it, “All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.” Sex was especially worrisome; the head of the CCA insisted on the need “to de-emphasize or reduce the dimensions of the female bust” in comics, and the Code formalized proscriptions of erotic imagery: “Nudity in any form is prohibited"; “suggestive or salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable"; “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.”
The underground-comix movement emerged in direct response to the strictures of the CCA. With that history in mind, Gloeckner’s critics might seem the arrière-garde of a longstanding and essentially conservative panic over the corrosive effects of comics on the young — but in this case, the young have taken it upon themselves to defend themselves from the corruptions of the image. Gloeckner’s troubles began when she assigned an exercise based on panels from R. Crumb’s “A Gurl"; the girl in question, seen in a tight skirt from behind, has enormously muscled calves and exaggerated buttocks. As Gloeckner’s students put it in their complaint, they “expressed their discomfort towards the depiction of the female body in the illustration, as they felt it was misogynistic and uncomfortable to draw.” The CCA would have shared the students’ disapproval.
As this convergence suggests, left meets right in the new iconoclasm. Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home has repeatedly come under fire from students who, as a Duke undergraduate said, felt “it was insensitive to people with more conservative beliefs.” Its insensitivity, on the student’s own account, consisted not in its themes or its narrative content — his concerns “had nothing to do with the ideas presented” — but with, specifically, visual representation: “In the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic.” When the book was assigned to first-year cadets at West Point, religious students succeeded in getting the school’s inspector general to grant them an exemption. Their copies of Fun Home had pink slips pasted over sexually explicit panels.
The administrative ratification of such iconoclastic panics, whatever their political or ideological motivation, will not stimulate the teaching of art or art history.
Read Phoebe Gloeckner’s “My Cartoonish Cancellation” here and Zachary Bampton’s “Comic Books, Censorship, and Moral Panic” here. For more on Gloeckner, check out Peggy Orenstein’s 2001 New York Times Magazine profile, here. And don’t miss M.H. Miller’s recent consideration of the controversial art of R. Crumb, here.
At Stanford’s Free-Speech Conference, a Lie About The Chronicle
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a conference planned at Stanford on the topic of academic freedom — a conference that was initially closed to both reporters and other academics. Within a few days the organizers agreed to stream the conference, which is to their credit. Less creditable: Using the conference to flatly mischaracterize The Chronicle. In his opening remarks, conference co-organizer John Cochrane proclaimed, with evident pride, that “The Chronicle of Higher Education declared this conference a ‘threat to democracy.’”
The Chronicle of Higher Education did not. In an article about the conference, our Stephanie M. Lee wrote this: “And to a swath of Stanford’s faculty, the event is yet another alarming piece of evidence that their elite institution is propping up figures who are threatening democracy and public health.” She’s plainly paraphrasing the views of “a swath of Stanford faculty.” I don’t know whether Cochrane’s misreading was the result of carelessness or dishonesty, but it’s discouraging to see this sort of distortion around a topic as important as academic freedom, a principle whose premise is the search for truth.
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The Moral Force of the Black UniversityA 1968 student uprising at the Tuskegee Institute married practical demands with political vision.
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10 Ways Colleges Can Diversify After Affirmative ActionThere are many options beyond racial preferences.
- Sendak’s “blending of a child’s perspective with the visual vocabulary of ‘grown-up’ fine art not only reveals his faith in a child’s ability to deal with complex material, but may also have some bearing on the longevity of his books’ appeal.” In Artforum, Nicole Rudick on the first retrospective of Maurice Sendak’s art since his death.
- “We have to remember that it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision.” From the archives of the Yale Review, an elegant work of narrative theory by Virginia Woolf: “How Should One Read a Book?” (First published in 1926.)
- “Cole essays transformation and reconstruction formally, puzzling the shards of his blown-open heart into lyrical testaments.” In The Nation, Walter Muyumba on a new book of essays by Teju Cole.
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