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Henry Jenkins, on “Comics and Stuff”

December 18, 2015

We have had the distinct privilege of having Henry Jenkins visit our research group for the past few months. Give the immense impact of his work on the study of digital culture and digital industries, fan communities and the creative repurposing of media texts, and political participation and new forms of online activism, it was an enormous treat to have him with us. The semester was an opportunity for him to make progress on his latest book project, provisionally titled Comics and Stuff. As we say goodbye to him today and send him back to sunny Los Angeles, we thought we would offer a recap of the colloquium he gave on the topic. This is in the style of liveblogging (though its hardly live, given that we sat on it for two weeks) so any lack of clarity is likely ours rather than Henry’s. Nevertheless, it offers a glimpse of the thinking that is animating this latest project. (Many thanks to Nathan Matias, who took copious notes and drafted this post; I merely proofed and posted.)

 

Comics and Stuff: An Introduction

Henry starts out by explaining that the use of the term “stuff” in his title is not a casual one, that it does actually matter for his early explorations of comics culture. He opens up by showing a comic strip from Mr X that shows an apartment with so much stuff that the background detail overwhelmes the rest of the scene.

== Comics ==

Henry begins by noting that comics have become an increasingly specialized medium, having at times been a mass one. He quotes Art Spiegelman in an interview in Critical Inquiry, referencing Marshall McLuhan, who said “when something matures, it either becomes art or it dies….. I thought of it very literally as a Faustian deal that had to be made with the culture, and it was fraught one and a dangerous one…. I figured it was necessary.” [[ A participant asks: are there any media that failed to become art and died? Jenkins argues that there are no dead media, just dead delivery platforms. Vaudeville and Burlesque might be examples of something that died and is coming back as an art form. ]]

Henry goes on to detail the historical trajectory of U.S. comics, beginning with the immense newspaper comics of in “The Yellow Kid” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” At the time, comic artists owned their page — they could do whatever they wanted. The Yellow Kid was full-page, while Little Nemo used panels. Next, Henry talks about comic strips emerging as comics pages, then printed monthly magazines, often published by people who were publishing pulp magazines.

The first “killer app” of comics is Superman: the thing that makes comics commercial viable. In the 1930s, 97% of girls and 98% of boys in the U.S., were reading comics book. As these young fans grew up, they expected that comics would grow with them and take on their concerns, with things like crime or horror comics. The comics panics of the 1950s came from the mismatch that followed, between the assumption that comics were for kids, and the way they were increasingly addressing and being marketed to adults. The industry responded by self-regulating, but also prices went up (from 12 cents to 2 dollars, due to rising paper, ink, and shipping costs) pricing many kids out. In response, comics increasingly became limited to specialty shops. The result is that now comics are almost exclusively sold in specialty shops, that are cut off from ordinary markets. The market shifted entirely to adults, but it was constrained by the codes that required comics to be for kids.

People also started to buy comics as an investment– because comics had been made to read and discard. Every mom who threw away their kids’ comics made everyone’s comics more valuable. But in response, comics were created to be collected, making the bottom fall out of the market. And that’s the context in which Spiegelman is writing, asking how comics will survive.

In parallel, we saw the rise a network of alternative comics self-published by artists, part of the rock and drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s, largely regulated and taking part in a period of experimentation with what comics could do. Emerging from this context, Art Spiegelman published Raw, a yearly comics anthology that introduced waves of new artists across different cultures. It was in Raw that Spiegelman first published Maus, the piece that many people think of as the pinnacle Spiegelman’s vision, and the explosion of graphic novels into mainstream public awareness. Before that came Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God,” which while it wasn’t the first graphic novel, is seen as the first of that time.

Spiegelman and Eisner offered one vision of how comics could go forward into the future. Will Eisner argued a different direction, arguing that comics should be totally reconfigured by being published online, without requiring paper or ink. Online, there has been a remarkable flowering of online comics, but most of them still look to print as a way to reach commercial markets. Yet another future is represented by Marvel: the idea that comics are run as research and development wings of the entertainment industry, or as places to test ideas that then get translated to other screens– the comics run at a loss, but the films make up the profit.

Henry argues that there are now parallel comics markets. Today, the top selling comics are almost all from DC or Marvel. The top selling graphic novels, on the ither hand, include a wider range of second-tier publishers. Compared to the New York Times list of bestsellers are a completely different picture: featuring Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus, and some media tie-ins (like Mad Max). Seven of the top 10 titles in the New York Times list are by women. Beyond the comics shop and bookstore, there’s a different kind of thing, something more diverse represented by the graphic novel market, Henry tells us. Almost all of this wider work has been conceived of as graphic novels developed from end-to-end rather than a serial.

What happened? Graphic novelists courted librarians, who are now key advocates of graphic novels and building new readers of contents. Much of the young adult content is by women, which is diversifying comics.

Henry notes that there are two other cultural configurations of comics beyond this U.S. story: Japanese and Euro comics (French/Belgian). Many of these models don’t apply to Japan or Europe. In Europe, for example, its cultural status has never been in crisis in France or Belgium, where they have been seen as art all along. However, it’s possible to talk about American, Canadian, British, New Zealand, and Australian comics.

Henry argues that we can see a shift from comics to graphic novels; from floppy to bound; from a disposable medium to one intended to be collected and preserve; from specialty shops to bookstores and libraries; from the idea of specialty fans to a wider public audience; from “trash” to art; from a focus on superheros to a new attention to everyday life; and from mostly masculine perspectives to a greater diversity.

As that happens, contemporary comics are not just looking forward, but also looking backwards. Jenkins cites Bill Watterson, who argued that “much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history…. it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward…..Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today, but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today” (1989). Comic artists like Watterson are advocating for an earlier tradition in order to position themselves as part of an important tradition. In some cases, notable comics artists curate and support reprints and curatorial interventions to share and bring forward work from the past, positioning comics artists as people who do that kind of work.

Comic artists can feel ambivalent about this. What made Maus striking was not only that it was telling a story of serious import, but that it was using the form of funny animal comics– bidding for the status of pop culture, while also bidding for respectability. As they reach for a tradition, they find themselves drawing from and distancing them from this.

== Stuff ==

Henry notes that comics are stuff, in that they are objects we consume, keep, or diascard, and they represrent stuff, in that they include in their images the material element sof the life of their characters. Because of this dual relationship to stuff, comics can tell us a great deal about the lived materiality of contemporary sociality. The term “stuff,” says Jenkins, is part of a larger trend to consider the things in life, including Appadurai’s work on “the social life of things” and “the world of goods” discussed by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, as well as Daniel Miller’s “Stuff” and “The Comfort of Things.” Anthropology and art criticism have also considered objects, in work by Orhan Pamuk (The Innocence of Objects) and Peter Schwenger, Bill Brown’s “A Sense of Things,” and Freedgood’s “The Ideas in Things,” as literary and art critics are responding to anthropologies of stuff.

Bill Brown frames his work by asking “why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies.” Most of that work focuses on 19th century literature. In our current time, stuff isn’t something that will be passed along, itis designed to be discarded. Yet at the same time, we use our material things to make meaning around and of ourselves: adults are holding on to toys that were disposable, posing with images of their collections, sahring them online. This fits into a larger pattern of sentimentalizing stuff, to use it to remind ourselves of places we’ve lived and people we’ve known.

This valuing of stuff becomes a driver of sites like Ebay. Henry shows the following ad from Ebay: what nothing was ever forgotten or ever lost?

We can think of this stuff as something we’re trying to make sense of as a culture. We have things like Antique Roadshow, shows like Hoarders, or even books about “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” The result is that we end up with homes that are full of clutter, conflicting symbols of identity and history, bids for meaning jumbled together. We get the cultural call to keep and to discard. But tis doesn’t look like post-modernity, it’s not surface. People are deeply invested in stuff, and thinking about it as clutter or simply surface doesn’t get at it.

To summarize, “stuff” is a lifestyle choice. There’s been a shift from inherited objects (19th century writers) to personal selection — the stuff we own as a reflection of us rather than our family, tribal, or national history. There’s a shift from “possessions” to “belongings” — it belongs to us and signals what we belong to. There’s a shift from the disposable to the collectable, and then from trivia to expertise. Collectors are not just people who own stuff, they’re people who desire stuff and know stuff, creating forms of knowledge that former generations might have thought as trivial.

== Comics and Stuff ==

Comics artists are part of this. Jenkins notes the Canadian film “Seth’s Dominion,” as well as photographers hurriedly taking photos of art deco buildings that were about to be taken down, telling stories about those buildings, and then creating versions of those buildings in cardboard that then gets into art galleries.

The digital becomes a gathering point of this kind of thing. For example, Hip Hop Family Tree inspires media collectors to find and reassemble the pieces that are mentioned in it. Steampunk is another example of a collector culture that builds futuristic objects in the aesthetic of older objects. Retrofuturism is a similar example of this, people who are obsessed with 1930s images of tomorrow, with films like Terminal City, Tomorrowland, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. These all represent an attempt to reclaim the material objects and material imagination of the 1939 world’s fair.

Henry talks about the emergence of the still life in the early modern world. There’s a shift from paintings that are epic in scope, works funded by church and state, to a focus on everyday stuff. In Dutch capitalism, wealth is growing, yet there’s not a tradition of civic giving or charity; wealthy merchants wanted something to spend their money on, so they paid for beautiful paintings of their objects. It was a way that people displayed their own stuff and showed their appreciation of all kinds of stuff, and images of people collecting and gathering stuff. Art historians of the still life argue that there’s a shift from the crown or church to private collectors, a shift from the epic to everyday life. In the case of early modern painting, the shift to everyday life was seen as a lowering of status, unlike comics, where the shift was from lower to higher status.

Now, so with graphic novels. Jenkins shows us panels from Asterios Polyp that were designed to tell us things about a person’s life from the state of someone’s living quarters: an apartment with modernist furniture piled high with stuff. Across the book, there are six panels that show the history of a relationship. In the beginning, it’s a purely modern place. And then, there’s a moment of crisis: will his girlfriend’s belongings fit? Does she have a place in his life, as we see encated through the placing of her stuff. They integrate her furnishings into the space, then we watch is her aesthetic begins to takes over. After the relationship sours, remanants of her things linger. Readers learn to make sense of the scene by flipping back and forth between these moments. And it’s also part of a narrative.

Jenkins next compares comics about collectors with early modern about paintings that they would like to own and bring together– very similar to the kind of thing that collector comics creators are doing. Remember, says Jenkins, that everything drawn by the artist has a personal cost — they don’t get paid any more or less based on how much detail they include.

In Alice in Sunderland, Talbot introduces “cabinets of curiosity,” bringing back to the early modern practice of collecting oddities in cabinets and displays that are cornucopias of fragmented curiosity, dispersed attention, and personality. Ghost World is very much about why people own things. In two poignant moments, a teenager weeps over stuff that is important to her. There are things about stuff that shows us aspects of character that become turning points.

Compared to comics by men, female comic artists are focusing less on collecting stuff and more on the burdens of stuff and the process of getting rid of it. In Fun Home, Bechdel has problems with her father’s aesthetics that hide who her father is. It then focuses on the mother’s willingness to get rid of all the things after her father’s death. Special Exits is similarly about the death of parents, the emotional demands of getting rid of clutter, what’s left behind, with a blind mother-in-law asking if there are still ink smudges on the door frame left by her husband’s routine. Even though she’s blind, she can still guess that the stain and removal of stain is still there — something that expresses the relations in the family. Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant” includes a section on Grime and what collects on stuff.

To wrap up, as Henry reads these books, he’ll be patying attention to “Mise-en-scene as a site of virtuoso performance,” the social skills of reading stuff as key to understanding characters, collecting stories, and stories about culling through stuff (especially as men and women write about them differently), and stuff as key for thinking about memory, nostalgia, and history that run through these books. Often there’s a kind of “critical nostalgia” running through them, that is revealing of the genre and the cultural moment.

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