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REVIEW: Critical Inquiry Special Issue, Spring 2014

This special "Comics and Media" issue of the journal Critical Inquiry is as accessible as many monographs or essay collections because it uses a single conference as its inspiration and for much of its content.

Comics & Media: A Special Issue of "Critical Inquiry"
Chute, Hilary, and Jagoda, Patrick, editors.
University of Chicago Press, 2014
publisher site | WorldCat

First, a note about the cover art: This image, as discussed within the issue, is a rejected cover for the New Yorker painted by R. Crumb in 2009. It's not clear whether the image is meant to make fun of the couple or the man in the booth, and while I imagine that's supposed to be some kind of nuanced irony, to me it smacks of "hey man, this is just what I see out there in this crazy world" -- in other words, a lazy gut reaction by someone who doesn't have the commitment to their own observations to take them seriously or care who gets hurt. In the reality of this situation, I care much less about the man in the booth and much more about the couple who are simply trying to get married and may be made to feel, probably not for the first time, like they are freaks. In other words, I think rejecting it for the New Yorker was the right call.

Unfortunately, it wasn't rejected for this cover, and because the host publication discusses comics, a medium of synthesis, we get the added layer of the depicted relationship as metaphor. The odd couple analogy could work very well to illustrate questions of how the two "halves" of comics work together, etc., but the only reason this couple is "odd" is their apparent gender and sexual identities, and that kind of joke wasn't even funny in middle school. Contributors make it worse, I'm afraid: in her talk about New Yorker covers, Fran├žoise Mouly describes the couple simply as "gays", and Critical Inquiry editor W.J.T. Mitchell asks of the pairing of comics and media, among other things, "Should we think of comics as personified by the muscular drag queen or the slender youth?" I think overall the publication does redeem itself -- if nothing else, the New Yorker wouldn't have included a discussion of the art if it had accepted it -- but this editorial / art direction choice is a misstep. I don't think it's any great loss for readers to avoid buying the journal if they are sufficiently put off by the cover, but there's enough value that it's worth continuing with my review.  (Another option: just tear the cover off!)

The conference at the spiritual center of this issue was "Comics: Philosophy and Practice", held at the University of Chicago in 2012 and organized by issue co-editor Hillary Chute, and transcripts of panels and talks from the conference make up half of this issue's contents. The list of conference participants is impressive -- Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Fran├žoise Mouly, Carol Tyler, Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, Seth, Chris Ware, R. Crumb, Lynda Barry, Ivan Brunetti, and Gary Panter -- but "impressive" is just the beginning of what these guests offer. The conversations demonstrate that these cartoonists represent several dominant threads of the non-superhero landscape -- memoir, journalism, various "indie" scenes, pedagogy, etc. -- and that they do so across several decades of American comics history. There are many fascinating insights to gain from these conversations (and many entertaining moments, like R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb taking turns as personal peanut gallery when the other is on stage), but the practitioner-academic shared spotlight isn't always a perfect fit, and some of the guests outright object to the "academizing" of comics. Some, like Chute, Sacco, and Gloeckner, seem to be right at home, but the conference transcripts don't always transition smoothly into the other half of the collection.

That other half, presumably brought to the table by issue co-editor Patrick Jagoda, is a selection of essays around the idea of "transmedia relations" as expressed in comics and other narrative media. These essays are interesting for having wide breadth despite remaining relevant to many of the concerns of comics studies: How is narrative constructed? How do modern forms relate to classical and folk traditions? How do artists and audiences collaborate (or not) to create the experience of a work of art? While I admit to quitting a couple after a page or two, I do think even those essays that covered the farthest-afield subjects enriched my thoughts about the comics medium.  The fact that the conversations and essays don't all fit perfectly together is both a weakness and a strength of this collection: it can be disorienting as a reader, but it also reveals important information about the state of comics scholarship not being as natural an extension of the practice of cartooning as we non-cartoonists might like to think. In other words: there's lots of work to be done!

Academic librarians will get the most out of this collection because their patrons will benefit from understanding the changing landscape of comics in academia (and I do think it has advanced even in the few years since it was published). Other librarians will be better served reading Chute's Outside the Box and Why Comics?, perhaps combined with Heer and Worcester's A Comics Studies Reader, for better-organized ideas and better-curated conversations and scholarly essays. Which is not to say this isn't a valuable body of work, just that (as is natural for a conference) its disjointedness won't serve every audience equally well.