Rich Kreiner: Meet the Comics Press: MELUS Vol. 32 #3

Posted by on February 26th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

The Society for ?the Study of the ?Multi-Ethnic Literature? of the United States; 328 pp.; $25

At their best, academic journals are driven by useful ideas devised with rigor and discrimination. Their treatments explore intriguing themes and rewarding connections unlikely to be supported in other venues. Abstract concepts are habitually framed with an exacting, developed language in order to capture with precision the full subtlety of their thought. Seen in this light, scholarly periodicals are like orchard trees, laden with unusual fruit, raised up from cultured beds and nurtured through intellectual toil.

But at their worst, such journals offer a blighted harvest, over-ripe and bloated with pedantic jargon that seems to function as little more than insider verbigeration (says the guy using the word “verbigeration”). Language and syntax are not so much discerning but have gone rank, promising little nourishment to non-acolytes. Insulated, relieved of a need to relate in the common tongue — and possibly even rewarded accordingly — thinkers are free to conceive ideas destined only for the high, dusty shelves of ivory closets.

Luckily it’s more of the best and whiffs of the worst in this special edition of MELUS, journal of The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. Issue #3 of volume 32 is devoted in its entirety to “Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative.” Its 328 pages break into two general sections: 10 long-form pieces that address selected topics in detail followed by shorter book reviews on point. With those long papers the journal benefits from the choice of comics worth examining and, surprisingly, comics that become worthy through closer examination.

An example of the latter is Lysa Rivera’s “Appropriate(d) Cyborgs: Diasporic Identities in Dwayne McDuffie’s Deathlok Comic Book Series.” Let’s look at the analysis in some detail, as it includes several of the specific tendencies in academic writing that gratify and disappoint.

The piece is a “hero history” unlike any to be found in Wizard, Amazing Heroes or anywhere else in the fan press. It begins with a seminal study of children’s literature including comics from French colonial Antilles during the early 1950s. Black Skin, White Masks posits that native, black identity there suffered because “the Negro has to wear the livery that the white man has sewed for him … the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible.”

Rivera describes how the black creative team of writer McDuffie and artist Denys Cowans recast the Marvel superhero Deathlok during their1990 miniseries. McDuffie altered the prior identity of the “default-white cyborg” by reimagining the character as a black man. There, revised “in an African American context,” the fresh approach “dramatizes how white hegemonic systems of power inscribe themselves on the black body,” echoing the process whereby the colonized Antilles was once inscribed (and self-recognized) by the conceptions of colonizers. Rivera draws out the conceit to effect. She also expands upon McDuffie’s voiced indebtedness to W.E.B. DuBois.

This article is treated to the most elaborate of the journal’s visual support, seven lovely pages of full-color reproductions. Like many other articles in this issue, it comes with an eye-opening bibliography (see Thomas Foster’s “‘The Souls of Cyber-Folk’: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories” from Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory, for instance. I dare you.).

Of course, scholarly articles, as others, can contain their errors. Some deal with straightforward fact, a stumble that crops up as scholars move into areas of less familiar fields. With this issue of MELUS, errors of funnybook fact do not prove damaging to the thrust of principle ideas. For example, a footnote has Marvel purchasing the title of Deathlok’s origin, Astonishing Tales, in 1976 whereas both comic and character always belonged to the company.

More vexing though is when an assured writer offers less objective statements without sufficient or creditable evidence. This puts their audience, presumably even less familiar with the subject than they, at a distinct disadvantage when evaluating an author’s assertions. Writes Rivera: “This essay examines a pivotal moment in the comic-book medium when African American artists and writers began to reclaim the colonized black body, not simply to replace it with an ‘authentic’ or essential black self, nor to counter its negative stereotypes with positive images of blackness, but much more incisively to complicate and nuance the very notion of ‘blackness.’” Is that what happened? Is that when it happened? (Has it happened yet?)  I’d feel better about such broad pronouncements if Rivera had demonstrated more in the way of breadth regarding comics (see below); mostly I long for the days when this sort of statement would ignite a throw-down in the Journal’s letter column among people better versed in the subject than I.

Published academic treatments have their in-house resources, their proofreaders, fact-checkers and editors, but let’s face it: Those safety nets can’t match the aggressive attentiveness of an audience weaned on tracing, with extreme prejudice, the evolution of the boxing-glove arrow. Accordingly, I get nervous when reading claims like Rivera’s immediately above, especially when more vanilla comic-book intelligence seems to go wanting. For instance, the white cyborg of greatest significance to her analysis is that of the Schwarzenegger movie character, the Terminator, and not the prior, Caucasian Deathlok of Astonishing Tales. All things considered, that’s thematically defensible. But the real pity is that Rivera did not cast a glance the way of Cyborg, the DC character who not only predated the Deathlok reincarnation but was black from the get-go. In as much as that character offers a wealth of supporting evidence for Rivera’s thesis, the neglect represents a missed opportunity for a more substantive analysis. Nor does it assuage students of boxing-glove arrows.

Still, a reading like this, one that conveys greater depth and excites greater interest — about Deathlok! — definitely represents intellectual value added. Other comics analyzed in this volume are potentially even richer material than corporate properties done work-for-hire.

Front and center would be “Art and Identity in Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride,” taking that underappreciated book as an exploration of female Asian American identity through the refracted imagery of art and pornography. Likewise Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York is examined as an “historical romance,” one that — in the words of this issue’s guest editor, Derek Parker Royal — reflects upon “Jewish ethnic ‘authenticity.’”

Some of the journalistic newsworthiness inherent in the piece on Jackie Ormes and her Torchy Brown strip has been overtaken by the recent book-length treatment by Nancy Goldstein (and really scooped by Trina Robbins as of her article in The Comics Journal #160 back in ’93). “Everybody Is A Star: The Affirmation of Freaks and Schlemiels through Caricature in the Comics of Drew and Josh Friedman” delivers as promised, bolstered by the aesthetic of Sontag, the eye of Warhol and that titular quote of Sly Stone.

In Michael Chaney’s “Drawing on History in Recent African American Graphic Novels,” Ho Che Anderson’s King is Exhibit A, bolstered by Narcissa by Lance Tooks and Birth of a Nation by Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker. The article takes up a daunting philosophical matter, as framed by Hayden White at the outset: “We should recognize that what constitutes the facts themselves is the problem that the historian, like the artist, has tried to solve in the choice of the metaphor by which he orders his world, past, present, and future.” Accordingly, Chaney offers that “Rather than reflect the putative facts of history from some transparent or bounded notion of a ‘black’ perspective, these texts question institutions of recollection, such as documentary photography and Hollywood cinema.”

Two of the more consistently rewarding pieces benefit from their steadfast allegiance to The King’s Pre-postdoc English. Xiaojing Zhou introduces Mine Okubo’s estimable Citizen 13660, “the first published memoir of the Japanese American internment experience during World War II.” It is a graphic narrative of “189 pen-and-ink drawings, one per page, accompanied by brief verbal texts.” Zhou’s particular interest lies in showing an idea of Henri Lefebvre, that “The space of a (social) order is hidden in the order of space,” is reflected in the graphic compositions of Okubo. In one of the rare instances in MELUS articles where a cartoonist is consulted for substantive opinion on work other than their own, Megan Kelso describes the “complex relationships” in Okubo’s recital when “casting the text as the straight man and letting the drawings show emotions and contradictions hidden behind the dry facts.” Kelso additionally draws a comparison to the art of Julie Doucet.

Okubo wrote that her work “began as a special group of drawings made to tell the story of camp life for many friends.” The collection grew and was developed for a larger public because she hoped “that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again.” Given the far-reaching provisions of the Patriot Act, her aspirations for Citizen 13660 seem woefully prescient.

Sandra Oh’s “Sight Unseen: Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve and the Politics of Recognition” expanded my appreciation of that artist and his work. Oh advances the notion of our era as one of  “optic obsession” in which the world is divided into “seeing subjects and seen objects.” As for the matter at hand: “The construction of race … has been a ‘superficial’ one in the sense that racialized subjects have been emptied of all interiority and constructed as nothing but surface. Put another way, the identity of the racial subject cannot be apprehended without recourse to the visual signifiers of skin, hair, eyes, and other bodily, visual markers.” A subsequent close reading of relevant Tomine comics offers astute substantiation. Additionally, it suggests why Tomine’s more explicitly developed depiction of an Asian American character, Ben, as of Optic Nerve #9, is so noteworthy.

That’s thematically followed up, over in the book review section, by a critique of Optic Nerve and 32 Stories. There, Tomine is quoted regarding Ben’s tale: “I wanted to try and write a story that might help me escape the omnipresent comparisons to my cartooning inspirations. In other words, I sat down and tried to think of a story that Dan Clowes or Jamie Hernandez probably would never write. I guess it’s that old thing of trying to find the ideas or experiences that are so personal and specific that they could only come from you.”

As might have been anticipated, the Hernandez brothers are all over this special issue. Gilbert is interviewed by Royal and provides the volume’s cover. There are reviews of Love and Rockets volume 2 as well as the massive Palomar and Locas tomes.

It is in the book-review section that writing gets more relaxed and more unpredictable to our greater ease and greater consternation. Commentary is best when writers critique from the dual vantage point of reader and scholar. The review of Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity by Thomas Andrae addresses, in part, the grim Marxist analysis leveled in How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic by Chileans Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. For the defense: “Latin American publishers took generous liberties with the translations [of Barks comics] which ultimately conveyed very different ideologies” than the original funnies.

The section offers an array of telling observation concisely tendered, insights that may not have occurred to one unaided: the reviewer for DC’s 2006 All New Atom found that “the traditional image of the emasculated Asian man is evident in artist John Byrne’s interpretation of the adult Choi as a short, slim, nearly androgynous figure.” The upstate farm in Bill Willingham’s Fables seethed — in a topically relevant way — with the anger of characters unable to “pass” as normals in their adopted world, a fantasy condition here firmly embedded within real world connotations.

Other critiques suggest the authorship of readers new to the format or academics new to the medium. The reviewer of Simcha Weinstein’s Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero is clearly wowed by the book but his regard comes across as callow and cursory: “like the Jews, the Hulk is often mistreated and misunderstood.” Finally, while I’ve praised the academics’ verbal precision and circumspection only to gripe about their overly rarified language, another reviewer, offering a freighted declaration on the graphic novel, manages to double-cross both: “Although others actually used the term first, Eisner was the one who gave it true literary resonance.”

It’s difficult to appreciate the mix of smart excitements and linguistic frustration in academic papers about comics unless you’ve actually waded into their natural habitat. MELUS would be a good place to dangle your toes especially if you are additionally interested in its chief concern. Your local collegiate library might even subscribe. Mine does.

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One Response to “Rich Kreiner: Meet the Comics Press: MELUS Vol. 32 #3

  1. Royal says:

    To order issues of the special “Coloring America” issue of MELUS, visit the journal’s website at http://webspace.ship.edu/kmlong/melus/journal.htm and search for back titles. To order issues via PayPal, go directly to the back issue catalog at http://webspace.ship.edu/kmlong/melus/backissues_paypal.htm. Be sure to look for issue for Fall 2007, vol. 32 no. 3.