An interview with the editors of Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives
The scholarly study of comics and graphic novels has not only arrived, dear friends, it has arrived on a global scale. And what better proof is there of that grand, global arrival than a robust edited collection like Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives?
I had the rare pleasure of interviewing the editors of this amazing volume of essays. Shane Denson, Christina Meyer, and Daniel Stein are brilliant interlocutors, the kind of people you’d not only want to call colleague but friend. Herewith, the generous yield of their intellect on a range of topics pertinent to comics and graphic novels.
How did you personally get into comics?
CM: My first encounter with comics was in my childhood. I enjoyed reading my brother’s Donald Duck books – well, ahem, I have to admit that I did not borrow but stole most of them. The first time I actually looked at comics seriously was in high-school, when in our class on French literature, history, and culture our teacher set out to explain to us inter-cultural encounters and representations of habits, customs, and clichés in the medium of comics through reading Astérix stories. To be honest, I did not really enjoy these texts but I can’t quite remember why. It may have had to do with the fact that it was school, and we had to read the texts. Then there is a looooong gap of non-comics-reading-years until I finished my studies at the University of Hannover and taught my first class in American Studies. One of my key texts in this class was Art Spiegelman’s Maus – an amazing text to read and to teach – and since then comics and other forms of graphic narrative have accompanied me, in my academic career and in my private life as well.
DS: I bought German translations of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse at our local mom & pop store when I was a kid and got into Tintin, Asterix, and superhero comics through friends and their older siblings. As teenagers, my brother and I discovered German comics like the hilariously satirical Kleines Arschloch (Little Asshole) albums by Walter Moers. I got more heavily invested in the medium when I was in my mid-twenties working at the University of Michigan. I liked newspaper comics a lot, and still do, especially the more political stuff, like Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks. When I discovered George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, I knew I just had to read as much as I could and eventually write about that. I also realized that superhero comics would be a great subject for a research grant on popular seriality that we successfully applied for at the University of Göttingen, which is where much of the funding for my current book project, Authorizing Superhero Comics, came from. So I’ve been reading large quantities of superhero comics for the past few years, and I hope that my new institutional home, the John-F.-Kennedy-Institute for North American Studies at the Free University Berlin, will soon establish a substantial comics library.
SD: As far back as I can remember, comics were a part of the rapidly changing media landscape of my childhood home. My brothers’ comics (there were superheroes and war comics, but I particularly recall humorous titles like Sad Sack) accompanied the shifts from records to eight-tracks to cassettes, from a black-and-white rabbit-eared TV set showing Benny Hill on PBS to the big color set downstairs that opened up new worlds when we got pay cable in the late 1970s, and from an early pong machine to Atari consoles and other gaming devices. In a way, comics were a constant in this changing environment of my early formation, and I think they helped me in many ways to gauge those changes. My interests shifted from Sad Sack to X-Men and other superheroes, but my interest in the medium remained unchanged as I abandoned one console for another and then for a computer, and as cassettes gave way to CDs etc. Looking back, I think comics played a big role – a key media-didactic role, so to speak – in laying the seeds for my current research interests in media transformation. Beyond their constancy in my life, I think the reason comics played this role is because of their own specific mediality, which depends on the interplay between an absorbed engagement with single images and a surveying and serializing view of multiple images beyond the borders of the gutter. Constancy and change are bound up with one another in comics, and in a sense, comics came to play the role of the gutter, the space between, with respect to those other shifting media. They allowed me the space to reflect on the changes going on around me.
What is your favorite comic or graphic novel and why?
CM: Right now – and for the past 2 years – Vertigo’s The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Apart from the fact that I like the layout and style of this serialized yet unfinished graphic novel – actually, it’s a series of magazine issues that are then re-published as trade paperback volumes. So apart from the fact that I like Carey’s and Gross’s visual representations and their collaborations with other artists, I very much enjoy the narrative strands and the way the protagonist seems to serve as an interface between different time periods (years, even decades and centuries) and between different locations. One more thing about The Unwritten: what I also like is the network of references that Carey and Gross inscribe into their text, from intertextual allusions or explicit references to global literary history, popular culture artifacts and the history of the comics medium itself, and also extra-textual references to current events and cultural phenomena. ‘Ach,’ I just love The Unwritten for so many reasons…
DS: I basically devour everything that Keith Knight is doing, like The K Chronicles, The Knight Life, and (Th)ink. I was also stunned when I first read Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Hernandez brothers’ Love & Rockets, works that are fascinating to me on so many different levels. Jeremy Love’s Bayou is one of my most recent favorites; hearing Jeremy talk about his art at last year’s Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth was absolutely awesome. Considering my current research, I enjoy reading and studying superhero comics a lot, but I find the concept of the superhero and its serial malleability perhaps more fascinating than individual stories, even though I certainly appreciate the usual suspects of the genre, like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, and Watchmen. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan come to mind, as well.
SD: I always have a hard time specifying a favorite, as I like so many different things. I really like Chris Ware’s stuff, with its often dry (even tragic) self-reflexiveness. And like Daniel, I’m still very much into superhero comics – something I come back to again and again – though my interests in them change all the time. I like those classic books that Daniel mentions, but I’m equally prone to get lost in a series that is less distinguished. I miss the old pulpy books, and I love revisiting series like What If? – which fascinated me as a kid and taught me about retcon and the proliferation of multiverses.
If you had to specify to non-academics what it is that comics can do that no other medium can, what you say to them?
DS: That’s a good question, and one that’s not easy to answer. Perhaps it’s the static and silent nature of the image, where movement and sound have to be suggested by graphic means. In a good comic, as I see it, every image is a perfect representation of what Lessing called “the pregnant moment”: it encapsulates fluid action in a single perfect moment that always suggests so much more than is actually depicted. To me, this is usually much more powerful than filmic or computer depictions of superheroes and other comics characters. I’d also say that comics involve the reader as an accomplice in narrative sense-making more, or at least in different ways, than other media. It’s nice that I can control my own reading pace and decide how long I want to linger over an image or sequence, and also that I can flip back the pages if I want to cross-reference something. Finally, I’m always intrigued by the fact that I can get completely drawn into a story and what’s happening to certain characters even though I’m essentially looking at more or less cartoonish images that do not look like anything in the real world (think of Maus or Peanuts).
CM: The short answer would be the gutter, the space in-between the frames, I guess – and the different modes of reception and reading habits offered by the comics medium compared to other media such as film, for example. I would probably add a brief personal opinion on why I think that comics and other forms of graphic narrative are so especially fascinating – the reason why I enjoy dealing with, writing about, and teaching comics is that they can overlap and inter-connect, super-impose, or shall I say, deconstruct conventional spatio-temporal relations and that they, despite or rather because of, their form, their static frames and motion scenes captured on paper (or in other – digitized – carrier media) allow for different practices of reception than a novel or a film, for example. Does any of this make sense?
SD: I think it makes a lot of sense. Precisely that warping of time and space that becomes possible through the interplay of co-present panels that can be surveyed at once, that can be taken singly, and that arrange themselves in linear and non-linear patterns in the process of reading is what excites me materially about the medium. Like Daniel said, the “pregnant moments” of comics unsettled the barriers that Lessing set up between visual and textual/musical or between spatial and temporal media. It is especially gratifying when authors and illustrators understand this and exploit the material possibilities of the medium. This doesn’t make comics superior to other media, but it does mark a fascinating difference.
What is the story behind the genesis of your collection? How did you get together to work on it and why the topic of transnationalism?
SD: Transnationalism has been a major issue in American Studies (our shared disciplinary background) since the late 1990s and early 2000s. We were surprised that American Studies scholars kept publishing book after book and article after article regarding the transnational turn in American Studies but practically nobody thought to look at comics through that particular lens.
CM: Right, so we organized a workshop on transnational comics for the 2011 conference of the German Association for American Studies, and we were encouraged by the great papers and positive feedback from the audience to expand the workshop into an essay collection.
DS: One of the ideas behind the volume was to move comics into the focus of transnational Americanist research; the second idea was to find a way to overcome what we consider to be a strongly national (and occasionally nationalist) preoccupation in comics studies. In other words: national and international views on comics seemed valid and necessary but also insufficient, and we thought that a transnational framework could lead to fresh insights.
How would you compare American graphic novels to the comics traditions going on in other European countries right now?
DS: That’s difficult to say for me, and perhaps that’s one of the problems of comics scholarship at the moment. Sure, there have been books and essays about comics from different European countries, and there’s John Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art, which also covers European comics, but a lot of research seems less connected across national borders and linguistic barriers. Of course, the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée is probably still the most influential and internationally recognized tradition, but a lot of scholarship has been written in French and has never been translated into English (the same is true, to a lesser degree, for Germany). That’s why I believe that international networks of comics researchers are so important.
CM: I think this question allows for multiple answers, depending first of all on the objective you’re pursuing, and the paths you wish to take. You might want to compare scholarly traditions, for example, as John A. Lent has done in a wonderful article in Studies in Comics, titled “The winding, pot-holed road of comic art scholarship” (2010). Or you might be interested in comparing the development of diverse comics styles genres produced in countries like Germany and those produced and written in English-speaking countries. For me, personally, there is the language problem; while I am able to read and teach graphic novels and comics written in either German, English, or French, I cannot, unfortunately read or teach comics and other forms of graphic narrative originally published in Swedish, for example – but I know that there is an amazing comics scholarship going on there (just look at Fredrik Strömberg’s website). So, the source material I can work with is rather limited. The good thing is, however, that more and more translations – of primary as well as secondary texts – are available now, and I hope that this trend will continue. Hm, I don’t know whether this really answers your question, but that’s all that I could think of right now.
DS: Within Europe, we can probably speak best about German comics, which have taken quite some time to recover from the atrocious cartoon heritage of Nazi propaganda, but also to compete against the masses of American translation in the postwar decades and the strong popular interest in Franco-Belgian albums. But it’s fair to say that there’s been both an increasing awareness of German artists and writers in both academia and the feuilleton and a growing infrastructure of publishers, conventions, and exhibitions, in addition to an organization like the Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (German Society for Comics Studies). It’s also nice to see that Fantagraphics just published an English translation of Ulli Lust’s Heute ist der letzte Tag vom Rest deines Lebens (Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life), which tells me that North American publishers are continuing to make European comics available to English-speaking audiences. Generally, it seems that comics in Europe situate themselves both vis-à-vis the American comics market and styles, but also vis-à-vis what one could call the global manga influence as well as vis-à-vis different (but increasingly intersecting) national European traditions. But more research is definitely needed to get a more specific picture. Luckily, some people are doing this kind of research at the moment – I very much appreciate the transnational awareness that motivates a Canadian scholar like Paul Malone to write about German manga and their multicultural implications.
SD: I’m not sure I have the broad comparative perspective to answer the question fully either, but one of the things that has fascinated me since moving to Europe (now fifteen years ago) is the subtle and not-so-subtle transformation that American comics undergo when they are translated and marketed abroad. In Germany, titles from Marvel, DC, Vertigo, and many others, including a variety of manga titles, are all published by a single company: Panini Comics, which is actually an Italian company operating across Europe and in some South American countries as well. This means that Batman and Spider-Man mingle in close material contact with one another, even if their universes don’t quite merge as a result. And the comics are transformed in other ways as well. Often, several issues of a U.S. title will be collected into a single comic book, not as a trade paperback but in a thicker comic-book format that collects a story arc or just reproduces two or three successive issues of a title.
In some cases, these practices can lead to a significant revision of the original material. I discovered my favorite case of such transnational revision while doing research for an article on Marvel’s Frankenstein comics of the 1970s that appeared in a special issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies in 2011. In the States, Marvel had two concurrently published but narratively unrelated Frankenstein series: The Monster of Frankenstein (later called The Frankenstein Monster) and a black-and-white, modern-day series called “Frankenstein ‘73” in their magazine Monsters Unleashed. In Germany, the Williams Verlag began publishing The Monster of Frankenstein, under the title Das Monster von Frankenstein, in January 1974. Beginning with issue #12, the German publisher began splitting the tales of the American comics into two issues, stretching the 18 issues of the American original into 25 German issues. Apparently, the German edition was more successful than the American had turned out to be, because when the American series was cancelled and the final issue #18 ended with an unrequited cliffhanger, the Williams Verlag commissioned its own original ending to the story, with no American model to go by. Effectively, the tale told in Das Monster von Frankenstein #26, “Baronesse von Frankenstein,” provided a means of transitioning from the ongoing saga of The Monster of Frankenstein to the more or less unrelated “Frankenstein ‘73” series, which Williams now printed—in color rather than the original black-and-white—in Das Monster von Frankenstein #27 – #33, thus spanning all but the very last story in that series before the German magazine was cancelled. William’s publication practice thus re-frames the two concurrent American series as one continuous series, demonstrating the radical variability of comics’ serial narrative framings when transplanted from one comics culture to another.
When you first pitched your book, you probably had to make claims about how it will fit in with other existing books like it. How it will be different from them, etc. Most people think about that before a book is out, but now I’m wondering how you would answer that question now that your book has been out. Where does it stand in relation to the field and other books like it, even some that have come out since or are coming out soon?
DS: One thing we stress in our introduction to the book is that we don’t see our transnational focus as something that is necessarily better or more topical than the work that many scholars are doing when they write about comics from around the world. Rather, we think that transnational analysis is well advised to build on this work and use existing expertise to think about comics and the ways in which their creation, production, and reception crosses national and cultural boundaries in a globalizing world.
CM: We’ve already mentioned the International Journal of Comic Art as a prominent place for discussions about comics from different countries, and then there are books like Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, and Gideon Haberkorn’s Comics as a Nexus of Cultures that move into a similar direction. But what we find irritating when it comes to many (but by no means all) American studies of comics is the relatively easy association of the comics medium with a discourse of national excellence and even exceptionalism.
SD: So, in that sense, Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives retains its focus on American comics (which make up the bulk of material analyzed in the book) but views them through a transnational lens in order to see how they intersect and feed off a diverse array of styles and storytelling traditions.
DS: It’s too early to tell how the book will be received – at least I haven’t seen any reviews yet. Too bad none of us will be able to attend the “Transnational Comics” panel that Anke K. Finger and Nhora Lucia Serrano are chairing at the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago in January. I’d love to hear what they and their panelists have to say about the issues that we also raise in our book.
What surprised you most about your book (about the process or maybe an essay in the book or anything else… )?
DS: We were surprised by the positive feedback we received from colleagues and fellow comics scholars when we circulated our initial proposal for the book. That pretty much confirmed for us that we were looking at a niche in the field that people would be interested in. We were also surprised by how well the different contributions came together and spoke to each other without much prodding from us. I like the way the essays by Georgiana Banita and Aryn Bartley both engage with concepts of cosmopolitanism in order to talk about Joe Sacco’s work. I also benefited in my own essay from what some of the other contributors wrote about the transnational transformations of the comic book superhero. And I have to say that your piece, Michael, about Kyle Baker and Tom Feelings was definitely an eye-opener when it comes to thinking about African American graphic narrative in a transnational context. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about the book, at least for me, was the fact that the different contributions really inspired me to sit down and read a bunch of comics I hadn’t yet read and reconsider many others that I had already been familiar with.
CM: The brief answer would be the fascinating diversity of source material analyzed in the respective chapters, all of which I find absolutely amazing – I was able to learn quite a few (actually quite a lot of) new things. So, I have to agree with Daniel, the contributions of our international cast of scholars inspired me, too, to look into texts that I had previously no idea about. What I also liked during our editorial work was that I encountered quite different approaches to the medium of comics – all of our contributors offer different perspectives to questions of transnational comics studies, and I think this is what makes our book worthwhile and interesting for students, teachers, and scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and non-academics alike. So I really enjoyed working together and editing the book with Daniel and Shane!
SD: I also enjoyed working with you guys, and with all of our contributors, who I think did some really fine work. I agree also that editing the book involved a great joy of discovery – discovering new comics, new artists, and new perspectives on things that were already familiar. The biggest surprise for me was the serendipity that produced such an overall coherence among the diverse contributions. As I tried to outline in the afterword to the book, my impression was that a real confluence of perspectives emerges across the individual chapters, a sort of emergent dialogue on the inter-linkage of formal, social, and other aspects of graphic narratives in transnational perspective. It was both a challenge and a joy to discern the threads of this dialogue and to understand how they were woven together on a sort of meta-level, above though not apart from the concrete case studies discussed by our contributors.
CM: We should also mention that we were very satisfied with the overall publishing process. Bloomsbury did a great job from start to finish, providing useful responses to our initial proposal, making sure that every step along the way was handled effectively and professionally, coaxing us through the different stages of manuscript preparation, providing a very swift and competent copyeditor, and also creating a fantastic cover that visualizes the basic premises of the book.
What do you see as the future of comics studies? Where would you like to see the field going?
DS: If I only knew. I guess it’s difficult to make any predictions, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the current boom of comics scholarship will eventually bust or whether we will actually see the institutionalizing of comics studies as a discipline like, say, film studies. It looks like this might actually happen; at least there’s a critical number of online and print journals, and major publishers are willing to feature comics-related research. I have supervised quite a few bachelor’s and master’s theses on comics in recent years, and the three of us have benefited from the financial support of the German Research Foundation. So it looks like comics studies is on the verge of establishing itself as a major field of research, if not necessarily a discipline, at least in Germany. But still, it’s too early to tell where all of this is going.
SD: Definitely too early to tell, but you certainly can’t deny that there’s an unprecedented interest in the medium right now. Personally, I’m not so sure that comics studies will develop into an independent discipline, and in some ways I hope it doesn’t. For me, the energy that I see in recent discussions of comics and other forms of graphic narrative derives in large part from the very heterogeneous disciplinary backgrounds of scholars. In some ways, comics studies will probably have to fight with the academic dominance of film studies (and try to rectify the cultural denigration of comics in the twentieth century vis-à-vis the dominant medium of film, which is in many ways its estranged medial sibling), but I don’t think that confrontation (or secession!) would be either necessary or beneficial. Indeed, lots of interesting comics scholarship has been taking place in the context of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, whose expansive umbrella now includes television studies and game studies, among other things. I think it’s important to continue expanding these contexts for dialogue, and to encourage media scholars, English professors, art historians, and others to learn from one another. I hope that comics studies will remain a diverse field, not a unified one. It seems only fitting that the study of comics should be as fragmented as the medium itself, with its panels, speech bubbles, and diverse other frames.
CM: I think the future has already begun – I couldn’t possibly list all that has been going on in the past 50 years or so, and I cannot (unfortunately) foresee what will happen in the next 50 years. Comics scholarship, today, is a vibrant, internationally well-networked field that has brought about a number of important and fascinating research projects. I think that there is a greater awareness of the medium in academia, which manifests itself in the form of more undergraduate and graduate-level courses offered in academic fields such as the philologies, or disciplines such as history, art history, American Studies, etc., in the form of a growing number of BA/MA and PhD theses with a focus on comics (as Daniel pointed out already), in the form of a greater number of conferences organized by the diverse institutions, and in the form of funded research projects such as my own. This probably has to do not just with the fact that there is a greater diversity, availability, and accessibility of comics – old and new – today. This has also, or in particular, to do with new technologies and new media such as the Internet, I’d say. But this also has to do with the rather recent paradigm shift in and across the academic disciplines commonly labeled as the ‘visual turn’ and the need to expand the range or source material in order to explain cultural, economic, political phenomena. I hope that this trend of the past years will continue, and that there will be more opportunities to organize and participate at international conferences and be part of fruitful discussions between scholars, comics artists, fans, and other non-academics.
What question do you wish I had asked you but didn’t? How would you have answered that question?
CM: Well, you could have asked whether there will eventually be a paperback issue of the book. That’s a question we’ve been asked quite a few times by people who’d like to buy a copy of the book but would rather purchase a cheaper paperback version instead of the expensive hardback.
You can get the Amazon/Kindle and the Google Books/Google Play e-book versions for a pretty good price, and we just heard from Bloomsbury that they want to offer a print-on-demand paperback edition by fall 2014. But the goal for now is to have as many libraries as possible order a copy of the book.
SD: Right, so if you’re in a position to request an acquisition at a university (or other) library, please do! And we look forward to any feedback on the book that anyone cares to share with us, either in the comments, via email, or in a review. Finally, thanks to you, Michael, for taking the time to talk to us about our work!