I was recently profiled in the magazine of Carleton University's Faculty of Public Affairs. Thanks to Karen Kelly and Leo Solano in the Office of the Dean of FPA for making me look so good.
Or, at least, a scholarly monograph that happens to be called, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comics. Co-authored with my colleague Bart Beaty (University of Calgary), our book uses an approach inspired by Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of cultural production to interrogate processes of canonization and consecration in the comics world. Why are some comics and graphic novels celebrated by critics and scholars while others, perhaps equally good, are quickly forgotten? We try to explain these dynamics in a series of short, provocative essays on cultural value and prestige in the field of comics.
The Greatest Comic Book of All Time will be published by Palgrave Macmillan's Palgrave Pivot imprint as part of a new series on comics and graphic novels. In the meantime, visit our website for the book, http://greatestcomicbook.com, for updates, including a blog where Bart and I will be trying to extend the arguments from the book to additional examples and case studies.
Purchasing the latest issue of the DeConnick and Rios weird western Pretty Deadly at my local comic shop yesterday, I was handed a copy of DC Comics' new DC Essential Graphic Novels catalogue for 2016. Both a marketing exercise and an effort at self-consecration, it is a document worth exploring in a little detail.
On the first page no less an authority than Batman explains (when Nightwing understandably says he doesn't understand what this thing is), "It's a catalog to help guide new readers to DC's reading collection, starting with the essential 25 most culturally relevant graphic novels."
Sure enough, the catalogue's first section comprises twenty-five works dubbed "essential" by DC marketing, each one accompanied by a brief synopsis, ordering information (including both an ISBN number and a Diamond Comics Distributors product code), and blurbs from diverse sources, mostly outside the comics world. Are they "graphic novels"? Only two (Batman: The Killing Joke and Batman: Earth One) were initially released as stand-alone "original graphic novels," while eight are collections of limited series (including obvious choices like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns as well as more recent works such as Superman: Red Son, All-Star Superman, and Daytripper). Fourteen out of twenty-five collect runs of on-going series, such as Sandman, Batman/Superman, Preacher, and Batman: Hush). Are they the "most culturally relevant"? I note that DC's critically acclaimed Vertigo imprint and its more ambivalently received New 52 books are equally represented with six titles apiece.
Following the "essential twenty-five" are seventeen, presumably optional, "Modern Classics." Twelve of them are superhero comics, with the oldest (albeit in a recent edition) being Morrison and McKean's Arkham Asylum and the most recent (I think) collecting the first issues of the "Batgirl of Burnside" arc, which began in October 2014.
Of the forty-two "essential" and "classic" titles featured so far in the catalogue (really surprised they didn't go for another ten books to reach the magic number), the most produced by one creator (the writers repeat much more than the artists, reflecting not only the differing career structures of writers and artists but also the increased association of comics "authorship" with writers that is implicit in the "graphic novel" discourse) is the six books written by DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Grant Morrison follows with four titles, and Alan Moore and Jeph Loeb are tied at three each.
After the Modern Classics follows a section labelled "DC Comics Essentials," which features a character biography and some suggested titles for major DCU properties, including Batman and the Batman family (41), Superman (23), Wonder Woman (9!), the Justice League (21) and League members not prominent enough to warrant a page of their own (4), the Flash (13), Green Arrow (9), Green Lantern (14, 8 of which are written by Johns), and the Teen Titans (6). That several works from the first two sections are included again here perhaps suggests that the catalogue writers were aware of their two different audiences for this document, one oriented to cultural prestige and another oriented to character-based fandom. Notably, this section also includes some action figures, but presumably only the most essential ones.
The next section highlights media tie-ins, with repeated works again suggesting another possible audience for the catalogue. The properties highlighted include both the expected DCU superhero blockbusters – titles related to the upcoming Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad films and TV series like Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, and Supergirl – and Vertigo titles with television adaptations, such as iZombie, Lucifer, and Preacher. The Vertigo imprint is highlighted in the next four sections. The first two divide the Vertigo line between "Essential Series" (well, the first volumes of their trade paperback collections) and "Essential Graphic Novels," which collect limited series; Neil Gaiman and Bill Willingham's Fables have a one-page section each. Mad Magazine and all-ages titles come next, followed by four pages of "essential" collectibles (action figures and statues). The catalogue closes with detailed lists (in suggested reading order) for major and major minor characters and properties.
In chapter 5 of our book we discuss the way that writers of the "British invasion," typified by Alan Moore, led the way for the "quality popular comic book" at DC and, later, the Vertigo imprint under editor Karen Berger (see Julia Round's work on Vertigo and Berger). This is not to say that they are the "best" but that they constitute a particular generic category analogous to "quality TV" and "quality fiction." It is, we argue, a basically middle-brow position in any cultural field: simultaneously the most prestigious of the commercial works and the most commercial of the prestigious works. And that is, honestly, a pretty good place to be.
This logic is still evident in the Essential Graphic Novels 2016 catalogue, particularly in the overeager use of the "graphic novel" discourse and in the pride of place still given to Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen, Miller's Dark Knight, and Gaiman's Sandman. However, its strategic function of activating DC's backlist (a competitive advantage against Marvel at a time of declining market share) introduces several other logics that disrupt and contest the otherwise straightforwardly consecratory project: promoting upcoming and ongoing titles, moving collections of New 52 books, realizing sales from synergies with adaptations, and selling action figures and collectibles, to name a few. Whereas the middlebrow "quality" comic book effectively reconciles the autonomous (prestige-oriented) and heteronomous (market-oriented) principles of cultural production, these two forces play against one another in the catalogue, ultimately undercutting the claim to cultural authority taken on by the persistent use of that word, "essential."
Rob Liefeld is the subject of a recent profile in The New York Times. I repeat, Rob Liefeld is in The New York Times. To many – who gleefully post and share “worst Liefeld art” listicles on the web and can't help but say his name with a self-satisfied smirk – it must seem like the comics-world equivalent of pigs flying or Hell freezing over to see Rob "Big-Guns-Tiny-Feet" Liefeld profiled in the paper of record. (Actually, a search for his name on the Times website results in 11 hits since the early 1990s – none too shabby!)
Chapter seven of our book, which we believe may be the first scholarly contribution devoted to his work, addresses Liefeld as an example of an author oriented to what Pierre Bourdieu calls the heteronomous principle of cultural production. That is, oriented to external measures of success, like sales. Thus, we placed him in the right hand quadrant of our "diamond" diagram of the field of American comics – representing a skewed composition of his symbolic capital towards economic, rather than cultural, sources. It's the corner of fields of cultural production oriented to what Bourdieu calls “industrial art,” or what the rest of us might call “pop culture.” As part of the marketing blitz for the upcoming Deadpool movie, the Times profile by Thomas Golianopoulos reinforces this view, rehearsing (though also providing a rebuttal to) persistent criticisms of his visual style, drawing attention to the “industrial” mode of production used in mainstream superhero comics, and stressing that his notoriety is inextricable from his commercial success:
In short, Mr. Liefeld has been among the most controversial figures in the comics industry. He is also one of the most recognized and best-selling artists.
Mr. Liefeld’s ascent continued when his next endeavor, X-Force No. 1 — a retooled New Mutants — sold a staggering five million copies. Starring in a Spike Lee-directed commercial for Levi’s cemented his status as a young face of the comic book industry, which, naturally, upset his peers.
We are told that the criticism does not bother Liefeld "one iota." And it shouldn't because it embodies an orientation to making comics that is entirely different from Liefeld's own. As we discuss in the book, Liefeld doesn't want to make "graphic narrative"; he wants to make dynamic, entertaining, popular comic books.
But wait – towards the conclusion of his piece, Golianopoulos broaches a subject that does seem to raise Liefeld's hackles, and to have generated a certain amount of social media hubbub as well: who is the creator of Deadpool? While Heidi Macdonald reports at The Beat that this may have been something of a misunderstanding, who deserves the real credit for creating a work (or, in this case, a character) is a suspiciously auteurist concern. Golianolpoulos further notes that Liefeld is currently at work on a Deadpool graphic novel . This isn't the first time that the populist Liefeld has made some (relatively) highbrow position-takings within the field of comics. A number of years ago, he was proudly announcing his new inspiration from European comics albums. More recently, he turned several of his properties over to young independent cartoonists. As with Robert Kirkman, who is quoted as a Liefeld supporter in the Times piece and arguably occupies the same position in the field today that Liefeld did in the '90s, these indie cartoonists are contributing to a nostalgia-fuelled recuperation of Liefeld's reputation. Just as symbolic wealth can eventually be turned into the real thing, it is a truism that the economically rich but culturally poor (that is, the nouveau riche ) engage in strategies to convert the capital they have into what they lack.
In the book, we suggest that Liefeld suffered for being merely a generation removed from the present, so his stylistic excesses seemed as egregious as our parents' teenage fashions. But fashion is endlessly cyclical, and the '90s may be coming back – or at least receding enough that we can judge their comics more fairly. In this context, it may be possible to value Rob Liefeld as a true auteur – the author who impresses collaboratively produced entertainment products with his unmistakeable hallmark – on par with the other "greats" of commercial comics.
This post originally appeared at The Greatest Comic Book of All Time blog.
CNBC has a longread up about the rising fortune of three mid-sized independent comics publishers: namely, IDW, Dynamite, and Boom! Acknowledging the comic industry's track record for grinding upstart publishers into dust, author Tom DiChristopher attributes these publishers' ability to survive – and even thrive – to a savvy exploitation of licensed properties. Without diminishing their successes – I've read and enjoyed IDW's Doctor Who and Dungeons & Dragons series, and GI Joe vs. Transformers by Tom Scioli and John Barber is perhaps the ongoing I most look forward to – I did a double take when Alisa Perren shared the article on Twitter: Surely comics is the only cultural industry where you'd call My Little Pony, Power Rangers, and Terminator tie-ins "indie."
In the Introduction to the book, we set out the terms of our Bourdieusian analysis of the comics world. In the title of a well-known essay, Bourdieu refers to fields of cultural production as "the economic world reversed." He noted that prestige and economic success frequently have an inverse relationship in the arts: as one goes up, the other typically goes down. It is the rare author or work that can have their cake (prestigious awards and critical acclaim) and eat it (sell a bazillion copies), too. In several media fields, however, independent or "indie" production occupies a middle-ground. Aesthetically, it often refers to the most intellectual of the bestsellers and/or the best-selling of the artsy works. (Think Oscar-bait Miramax movies, for example.) Economically, they must perforce be produced at arm's length from the assembly line of The Culture Industry.
But the comics world takes this inversion and inverts it again. This is a field where the term "mainstream" refers to works that hardly circulate outside of a small subculture of fans and collectors, while "alternative" comics are New York Times bestsellers and the winners of major awards. This double-reversal is the only context in which it can make sense to call licensed comics "independent" – they're independent from the regimes of value dominant within both superhero comics fandom and the comics-as-literature graphic novels crowd.
I was recently interviewed for this piece on comics academia in The National Post. The stars of the show are my What Were Comics? team mate, Nick Sousanis, and University of Windsor cartoonist-in-residence Scott Chantler, but I'm along for the ride.
As much as Nick and Scott's appointments do seem like significant events in the institutionalization of comics studies in academy, the article only gives the briefest hints of the breadth of activity taking place in universities and colleges from St. John's to New Westminster. I sometimes feel like every time I turn around I hear about someone who has a new SSHRC grant to study comics—and many of them are women.