Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?

This is the golden era of indie comic, artistically and even financially, at least in term of the number of publishers, CAFs and cartoonists who wake up every day excited to be cartooning. It’s a movement that is aesthetically and formally as exciting as anything else going on out there.

All of which makes the Jason Karns Kerfuffle all the more unusual. Indie comics circles don’t have kerfuffles—defined as in depth analysis of the social, racial or gender-based meaning of a certain comic or statement. Those are for nasty old mainstream comics. In case you missed it (and you probably did) it started when Frank Santoro, the cartoonist, comics educator and archivist, posted a thing called New Small Press Comics over at The Comics Journal. As he often does, Santoro just took pictures of comics he liked. Santoro is a comics liker, and if you’ve ever been with him while he goes through an old long box full of old weird comics, you know he is the Nicola Tesla of comics liking, exploring bold new vistas on a daily basis where few can hope to go. This time out Santoro praised the work of Marc Bell—just about everyone likes Marc Bell’s weirdo humor comics, right?– and Jason Karns who, among other books, does a comic called Fukitor which looks like this:

201309050210 Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?
If anything, this reminded me of a somehow more life affirming version of those torture covers everyone was appalled by the other day. If struck me that Fukitor was firmly in the same camp as the Cannibal Corpse stuff everyone told me was fun loving and adorable, and I was maybe going to mention this, but then it really didn’t interest me that much so I didn’t.

The comments on that post at TCJ quickly turned negative however, as people pointed out how racist the book was—Karns’ hero goes around squashing mostly brown people who are portrayed as terrorists. I’d throw in “jingoistic” as a description as well. Oh and misogynist but isn’t everything. The book’s defenders lauded it as edgy and daring, while others suggested that racism and misogyny aren’t all that edgy and daring. Santoro actually backed away from the book pretty quickly—it’s obvious that Karns is one of those energetic and imaginative artists who has so far chosen to work in the gross out genre—and Santoro was responding to the energy not the content. Karns himself eventually showed up in the comments to stand up for his right to be “subversive.”

This was a very, very rare example of the indie comics “community” getting into a Kerfuffle—I mean, of course the Comics Journal/Hooded Utilitarian axis loves arguing, but it’s rarely about anything that bears any connection to the real world, as far as I can make out. Darryl Ayo delivered the best slap down in the comments:

For something to be subversive it needs to both mimic and undermine the societal power structure. The society of the Western world is invariably white dominance and anti-brown. To be truly subversive against that power structure, a work of art would be clinging closely to that as well as poking holes in the structural integrity of the white power structure. Since nothing that we can see here in “Fukitor” does anything to undermine white power while it makes a big show of making sport of nonwhite people, it literally just is what it looks like.


Perhaps I liked this best since it mirror sentiments of my own. But anyway, the kerfuffle played itself out over the next few days. Santoro apologized. Karns climbed up a ladder into his getaway helicopter gloating,

Update – 9/2/13 – Orders have gone waaayyy up since some people starting bitching about this imagery. Thank you. Please, keep bitching.


Tom Spurgeon stepped all into it in a piece that ran several hundred words without actually mentioning the name of the cartoonist he was talking about, but averring:

I don’t know the work of the cartoonist in question, certainly not well enough to lower the boom with a racism charge.


And that got the kerfuffle going all over again! Because when you draw or write things that are racist…well, they are…racist. Darryl Ayo wrote again


There is no need to read a lot of someone’s work to determine if a particular project is racist. As a culture, we are past the era of equating “racism” with a boogeyman, an allegiance to a specific codified group that exists simply to hate people based on race.

….[snip].Jason Karns got exactly what he wanted. He got to be the renegade bad boy for a day, beholden to nobody’s wishes, offending without a care toward the offended. All in all, it was a good day for Mr. Karns. The rest of us were treated to yet another reminder of how Middle Eastern people can be casually dehumanized and how much of society’s dreams and fantasies involve brown people being reduced to mindless beasts, fit for slaughter. Good times.


And David Brothers, also weighed in.

Here’s what happened: someone posts a comic and reviews it. Someone else asks if it’s satirical or what, because it looks pretty racist. The creator of the comic rolls in, asks if people are censors, the pc police, and all this other nonsense. Cartoons aren’t real so who cares, you’re the real racists anyway, and a bunch of other idiot arguments. His cronies roll in, talking about how soft and cowardly the question-askers are.

Other people, myself included, point out that naw, this comic actually is racist, and if you’re riffing on something else that’s racist, you’re still using racist elements! Other people talk about how discussing the racism of something isn’t requesting a ban, and if your transgressive work is just replicating the same lazy ideas that transgressive works were doing 40 years ago, maybe your work is part of the status quo, not transgression.


I found all of this reaction very interesting. As I noted before, in the torture covers discussion, no one really disagreed about anything. There was much more dissension in the Karns Kerfuffle, probably because Karns himself came by to defend the work and that Organized The Protest. The overall reaction also made me proud to live in a country where depictions of members of a geographical group—one which we were at war with a few years ago and may be at war with in a few days— can still be actively and widely labelled as racist. Maybe we have improved as a society a bit since this happened:

201309050237 Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?
Perhaps the most striking thing to me, however, was how little indie/art/literary whatever you want to call them comics are put in any kind of larger cultural context. It seem that that is left for the superheroes. Len Wein, Gerry Conway and Todd McFarlane were roundly vilified for saying that superhero comics—or the “mainstream” as they quaintly called it—didn’t have to have a subtext. “The comics follow society. They don’t lead society,” Conway was quoted as saying, which was kind of a tossed off statement, but sounded really wrong.

Laura Sneddon [who writes for this site] examined this whole idea in a piece called How Comics Got Political, quite rightly pointing out that

One of the historical roots of modern comics is of course the political cartooning of the early newspapers; the mechanical reproduction of images finally allowing art to be consumed by the masses rather than the privileged few, with cartoonists leaping at the chance to communicate complex political situations via their deceptively simple form. 

The idea of comics as a political tool is not without its controversies, from grumbles amongst novelists to riots over religious icon portrayals. Any fan of superhero comics can tell you that comics don’t have to be overtly political, but the recent insistence by creator Todd McFarlane that historically no comic book that has worked has been “trying to get across a message” was largely met by the rolling of eyes.


In the rest of the piece, Sneddon goes on to discuss the level of engagement with politics in their work with Stephen Collins, Joe Sacco, Paul Cornell and Grant Morrison. Obviously, Sacco’s work is some of the most valuable and powerful journalistic work being done in any medium, but’s notable that writers like Cornell and Morrison, who mostly write genre comics, are constantly being asked about the bigger meaning in their work, or claiming that it has a bigger meaning, a claim which a lot of people in the indie comics community would also scoff at.

And yet, it does seem that indie comics and cartoonists are rarely examined in a larger contextual way. This is possibly because the content involves a lot of what some call introspection, and others emo shoegazing—even the greatest one—and maybe because this kind of analysis if of a secondary interest of most of those creating and consuming indie comics? And to be fair, a lot of indie comics are created by an ethnically homogenous groups of suburban white kids. When they stray too far away from writing what they know, as Craig Thompson did with Habibi, the results aren’t awesome. Even a work as great as Building Stories is a personal story—on a most simplistic level, it’s telling us that it’s better to have a happy marriage than lie in bed every night wondering if you should kill yourself.

BTW, I’m not advocating for change here—like I said in the beginning, indie comics now exist in a wonderland where personal expression is the biggest concern, and that’s a beautiful, priceless thing that will eventually lead to even more powerful works. If I were to peg a second interest in art comics at the moment, it would probably be formalism. Critics like Santoro are most excited by the immediate emotional impact of comics art, up to and including printing techniques, an attitude that stems from the fine arts background of a lot of comics commentators and publishers, as well as being the primary focus of Ware and his admirers. (Mathias Wivel’s essay on Habibi quickly shifts from examining its politics to criticizing its inking technique.) And this isn’t in any sense wrong—there is ALREADY a huge tradition of comics, as Sneddon suggests, that deals with politics, subversion and radical ideas and they are rolling right along in various formats.

Still, I’m wondering if this riot of esthetic choices is ever going to be nailed down a bit more. As the world of comics explodes, I find myself lacking the critical background to even comprehend it sometimes. This was brought home to me the other day at my other job, when I was editing a review of Anya Davidson’s School Spirits. I had assigned a review of the book to one of my Publishers Weekly reviewers (who are anonymous by design) but when I got the review back it was pretty clear that he didn’t get the book at all, even though he liked it. As I read the book and struggled to bring the review more in line with useful analysis, I realized that I wasn’t even sure where to begin.

201309050337 Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?

The book is published by Picturebox, which goes heavy into the fine-art formalism school I’ve been talking about—publisher Dan Nadel also co-edits The Comics Journal website, and published Santoro, so there’s an axis emerging there. Davidson contributed to Kramer’s Ergot so there’s another axis there. The Picturebox website describes School Spirits as “Beavis and Butthead meets James Joyce’s Ulysses,” which sounds promising and yet could be applied to almost anything, since Beavis and Butthead and James Joyce between them encompass most of 20th century art and literature. Davidson isn’t a cartoonist I’m particular familiar with, although I find her work fun to look at. Her narrative is dreamlike in its non sequiturs, but the art is more like, well maybe Johnny Ryan by way of Gary Panter if they met up at a tiki bar. It definitely approaches the “New Narrative” style that people were talking about in regards to things like Kazimir Strzepek and C.F. a few years ago. (That isn’t actually what it was called, but there is no “Guide to the Schools of Indie COmics” entry on Wikipedia.)

The failing I’m flailing around with above is all mine and not Davidson’s—I’m sure it doesn’t matter if she considers herself in the “new narrative” school or the “Kramer’s Ergot School” or the Chicago School, or whatever. She’s uniquely her own thing, and if that’s a detriment for someone writing a short review for a trade publication, it’s a virtue in every other arena. The most energizing thing about comics these days is you don’t have to be in any school. Each and every gem of a comic seems to exist in its own, infinite, contextless universe. This is also a product of the extreme hybridization of all forms as well. The “international style” of comics that is gaining ground in the actual mainstream (libraries and books) is one that draws equally from America, European and Manga influences, and the internet insists we mash everything up all at once all the time. Context seems to have less and less inherent value against this backdrop where immediate emotional resonance is the currency. Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes comics one of the most vibrant and relatable mediums of the day.

2013090503371 Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?

Comments

  1. If we do not give them a wider cultural context, how else will we know about psychedelic time traveling wizard stories that educate while they entertain?

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1173421883/kali-yuga-volume-i-queen-neriti

  2. Thomas Wayne says:

    From the article – Other people, myself included, point out that now, this comic actually is racist…
    Also From the article-
    …made me proud to live in a country where depictions of members of a geographical group—one which we were at war with a few years ago and may be at war with in a few days— can still be actively and widely labeled as racist. Maybe we have improved as a society a bit since this happened….
    Insert cover of Cap clocking a cartoonish and foul caricature of a Japanese Military leader….

    You can look back on anything from the passed and say we’ve progressed as a society…but this image doesn’t exist without the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor…so to label it as racist in-retrospect is completely wrong without a complete and proper context. Hirohito and his military advisers decided they wanted to go hand in hand with Hitler and Mussolini. Do we have covers with Cap busting old Adolf upside the gums? You bet we do….so…as offensive as you or others may find this cover…it is more than fair to call it historically accurate…Cap (Us….the United States) wanted to bust that buffoonish Japanese Military leader (Imperial Japan) for their aggressions on Pearl Harbor.

    It’s not racial or racist when put into context….its historically accurate (especially when you consider white boy Hitler got the same treatment on the same comics cover). Hitler was portrayed a over the top buffoonish. Same as this cover and any other covers like it.

    All of this reminds me of a stink created online a few months back involving UBER. You had a few people complaining that UBER was nothing more than new Nazi propaganda….that it made “being a Nazi” cool or some such bullshit. Some went as far to call the creative team racist. Then those same folks found out Caanan White (the artist on UBER) was a black man……what followed was a massive group of people inserting foots in mouths and removing heads from asses.

    Like I said…its all about context….

    It sure is easy to label something 70 years after it happened because that’s what so many people do now….look to label anything they can as racist or politically wrong…but this was not created as a racist piece (and neither were the others with Hitler involved). It was created as a representation of what the U.S. felt at the time…okay you sorry bastards….you hit us….we hit right back. No more, no less.

  3. Thomas Wayne says:

    As far as the “wider cultural context” goes for indie comics….as a whole…I’ve always likened indie comics to independent film. Some are fantastic…some are really good….the vast majority are average or less to borderline crap.
    Some people like average or less to borderline crap…but it doesn’t mean that just because those people exist we should all expect a wider cultural acceptance or distribution.
    The fact is mainstream simply means the largest group of people within a certain demographic like, do, or follow thus and so.
    So to answer the question…no…we don’t need a wider cultural context because the culture creates itself.
    Look at comics as a whole…it has its ups and downs…we are in an UP stage right now…and with the internet and Kickstarter you can reach even more people than ever giving the most fringe of cultural comic commentary a wider audience.
    Culture tends to police itself…just look at Boy Bands….most of them have a decade shelf life and then the girls who followed them grow up….then they are done. We thank God for that…but I digress…the point is indie comics on the outside looking in will have a following to some level and the really good ones might have a really good following…just like a movie, or a band, or whatever. But for the most part the live and die by a small group because that’s what society and cultural has done for many things.
    Remember…pet rocks and Beanie Babies were all once considered “mainstream”….

  4. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Thomas Wayne, sorry to use my own observations, I was living in New YOrk City on 9/11 and saw everything happen from the worm’s eye view. On the day I wrote of my encounter with the Middle Eastern guy who runs my deli, and how we looked at each other silently, knowing everything was about to change forever.

    There were idiots around the nation who started attacking Sikhs and being ignorant. There were a few such incidents in New York City. But vew few. Shockingly few, I would have to say. So no, suddenly becoming a racist is not the inevitable reaction to a sudden attack.

    That’s why I used the word jingoism in the above piece. The Cap cover is jingoism, using racist tropes to unite against an enemy. This is one of human society’s most basic tools — demonizing the other. It’s a propaganda staple, but it isn’t necessary.

  5. Johnny Memeonic says:

    So a comic that got a few paragraphs in a TCJ article has spawned dozens of comments, several novel sized blog post responses, and a mea culpa from the article author practically begging not to be excommunicated from the comics scene.

    You guys still sure that book isn’t subversive?

  6. Erik Scott says:

    Heidi, this was a great and thoughtful piece. Thank you for taking the time to write it and put it up.

  7. Thomas Wayne says:

    Heidi,
    I don’t disagree with your assessment of a 9-11 reaction to what happened….specific people were treated wrongly out of fear and panic based strictly on their ethnicity and religious backgrounds..I have a friend of Indian background who experienced a little of that here in the Midwest….its sad and sick and very ignorant.
    However, as I pointed out, had Hitler not been portrayed on the cover of Cap as a goofy enemy I would agree with you on your view of that particular cover….but the point is Hitler was used….and so was the caricature of a Japanese General. However, you would not imply the Hitler one as racist or racial…based on his appearance, but you stand firm on the idea the Japanese General is clearly racist…..all I am saying is you can’t have it both ways. Especially from a work created 70 plus years ago. The Japanese caricature was not draw with malicious intent because he was Asian…he was drawn like that (as was Hitler) because he was the enemy. It would be like drawing Hitler as the only enemy and pretending Japan didn’t attack us.
    I respect and agree with your position of the modern day example – people of Middle Eastern dissent and non violent or non radical Muslims should not have been targets of anyone let alone their fellow countrymen. Anyone who did attack or belittle those people should be ashamed of themselves.
    But the intent of the writers and artists in the early 1940’s were not racial or racist….it was USA vs Japan and Germany….period. The skin color and ethnicity of the Japanese people was irrelevant. They could have been the whitest dudes on the planet (just like old Adolf) and they still would have been drawn as buffoonish and cartoony (exactly as Hitler was drawn on many a cover)….that was the whole point…

  8. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Thomas Wayne, oh really? Funny how we put all those German-Americans in internment camps, isn’t it?

  9. Thomas Wayne says:

    I wish I could have bet on how long it would take for you to bring that up…I almost mentioned it in my last post…

    My answer to that is….Timely Comics is not the US government…

    Were Japanese Americans treated terribly in light of the attacks…absolutely….but Timely Comics (now Marvel) was not in charge of that…..unless you have some info I do not.

    I’m not saying bad things and poor decisions weren’t made during WW2 involving the Japanese citizens of this country….I’m saying that had Hitler not been drawn in such a way (as a goofy power hungry bad guy worthy of Captain America’s best right hook) I would agree with you…but HITLER WAS DRAWN THAT WAY…

    The government has always made rash decisions on things racial…no one can deny that….

    But the fellas who drew and wrote that comic were simply taking the bad guys (yellow or white skin) and setting them up as….drum roll….bad guys…

    I am going to assume you have seen A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN…Penny Marshall’s film about the All American Girls Baseball League…there’s a scene where a bunch of the girls throw balls at wooden cut-outs of caricature drawings of a Japanese General, Mussolini and Hitler….all are drawn as bloated, buffoonish bad guys with evil intent dripping off of them. Again, race was not the point…the girls were throwing balls to “Knock Out the Bad Guys”…..

    But my main point is don’t confuse one decision (the internment camps) as the equivalent of another (having Cap knock out a bad guy…regardless of race).

  10. adriano says:

    “Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?”

    I don’t really believe anything CAN exist without being a part of a wider cultural context and the concepts exposed by the author as an expression, conscious or not, of his opinions about it.
    To me it is like Kafka, you can say his surreal stories are its unique thing, the metamorphosis is about a guy turning to an insect but they DO reflect the environment he was living in. You don’t embrace a genre to work on without demonstrating personal preferences, when it comes to portray “the villain/ antagonist” in your story that IS a type of figure/ behavior you are criticizing based on personal bias the same with protagonists, etc.
    The final product is a sum of its parts, sometimes they can openly demonstrate more uncomfortable parts of the author’s personality that damage the final product other times won’t but the author still is responsible for it and able to reasonably answer for.
    If someone placed the questions regarding Lovecraft being a racist on his work he would still have to answer for it.

    Nothing comes out of a void.

  11. Heidi,
    Great article.
    “what some call introspection, and others emo shoegazing”, just struck me as perfect. I’m guilty of both.
    I struggle trying to explain some works also. I really frustrates me when I really like something and I can’t explain why specifically. So I can relate.
    And Context is important, I get that. But I think there really was a subtext of racism toward the Japanese in the WWII era. For example, there we no internment camps for Americans of German or Italian descent. I understand it wasn’t all driven by racism, but there was a difference in how the different ethnic groups were treated in context.

  12. ” this image doesn’t exist without the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor…so to label it as racist in-retrospect is completely wrong without a complete and proper context.”

    “The Japanese caricature was not draw with malicious intent because he was Asian…he was drawn like that (as was Hitler) because he was the enemy”

    With respect, you’re wrong. Completely wrong. To argue that Japanese and Asians were not dehumanized – in artwork and elsewhere – prior to Pearl Harbor is ignoring reality. May I suggest the book War Without Mercy by John Dower. It is a thoughtful, in depth and bone-chilling look at the racism of both Americans and Japanese towards one another prior to and during WW II and I would argue essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the war in the Pacific and one of the more chilling, and ultimately depressing books of history I’ve read. Dower argues that racism didn’t cause the war, but that it gave the war in the Pacific and Asia a different character that the European and North African war did not have. (This difference can be seen in how Germans and Italians were portrayed vs how Japanese were portrayed in comics like the cover Heidi posted.)

  13. Look at Johnny over there, exaggerating. As if I had the power to excommunicate Frank Santoro from comics. Let alone that I wouldn’t even want to. David, myself and others took great care to ensure a dialogue that was both clear-minded and firm in its resolve, but here goes Johnny Meme, reaching for the hyperbolic panic button.

    What. Ever.

    As for your question, Heidi: I don’t think that most alternative comics people *want* to discuss comics in a broader cultural context but I don’t think it matters what they want. Nobody lives outside of society and if comic folk want to be taken seriously as artists–or as PEOPLE–they will learn that people can and will talk back to them.

    Personally, I think that apoliticalism and attempts to evade critical analysis is itself a political position.

  14. Dave Hartley says:

    Great article.

    Thomas Wayne:

    this image doesn’t exist without the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor…so to label it as racist in-retrospect is completely wrong without a complete and proper context

    a. The fact there are reasons for racist depictions doesn’t in itself justify them let alone magically make them non-racist and
    b. the argument that racist depictions of Japanese were a result of Pearl Harbor is total nonsense. There was a long tradition of anti-oriental racism in American popular culture which the war simply amplified. (We Brits may have invented the ‘Yellow Peril’ but you Americans turned it up to 11 – and this was years before WW2).

    For the record, as a designated ‘sick fuck’ (as per the ‘torture variant’ thread) while I think people have every right to make offensive comics, by the same token other people have a right to be offended by them and say so. I love Boris Karloff but that doesn’t make his portrayal of Fu Manchu non-racist and I’d be some kind of weasel to argue otherwise.

    Assuming, for the sake of argument, that they’re guilty as charged I still don’t think that Jason Karn’s terrorists or Avatar’s covers are somehow ‘worse’ than the drip feed of discreet racism and of normalized everyday misogyny in mainstream comics. The fact that it’s easier to pretend the latter doesn’t exist arguably makes it more pernicious. But even if that’s so it doesn’t exempt them from deserved criticism.

    There’s an interesting interview with Jason Karns from earlier this year also over at TCJ :
    http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-jason-karns/

  15. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Thomas Wayne, you’re kind of evading common sense here. Time for a timeout.

  16. Johnny Memeonic says:

    Look at Johnny over there, exaggerating. As if I had the power to excommunicate Frank Santoro from comics.

    Never said you did. You also don’t have the power to redefine words to fit your personal worldview.

  17. adriano says:

    I can see Batman had a questionable father figure to look at. Maybe that explain a few things…

  18. Hey Heidi. I just wanted to point out that HU actually talks about indie comics in cultural context all the time. I don’t think we’re alone in that either. So…it seems like maybe the focus on personal expression and the disinterest in cultural context may have to do with your own interests and readings rather than with broader trends. FWIW.

  19. Owen A. says:

    Heidi you should come play with the team over at HU sometime. We may not have much to say that has any bearing on the real world, but we sure do talk about racism and sexism a lot.

    Interesting article, by the way.

  20. Owen A. says:

    Ahahaha Noah and I had the same idea

  21. Heidi MacDonald says:

    I would hardly call the HU echo chamber a “broader trend.”

  22. Johnny Pneumonic backpedaling. Keep digging.

  23. Charles says:

    ““Should we even try to give indie comics a wider cultural context?” – To me this question just seems like should we let indie comics get away with the same shit we’d vilify bigger publishers for.

    If Fuckitor was written and published by DC, there wouldn’t even be a debate.

  24. This is one of the most useful essays on comix I’ve read in a while … the essential thing here is that in a culture where anything can be “art”, nothing really means anything. Art as confidence trick, really.

    These post-post-modern youngsters make old-fashioned nilhilism seem genteel by comparison.

  25. Thoughtful article, Heidi.

    I think this sudden fascination with Fukitor may reflect a paradigm shift between the older generation of both fandom and creators which was a narrowly-defined group for a myriad of reasons like distribution, access, content, and acceptance, and this new generation that is so diverse in terms of influences, ideas, ambition, background, ability, maturity, etc.

    Comics are so different now than anything anyone dreamed they could be twenty years ago (or maybe even a decade ago). To me, that incredible evolution is the most exciting aspect of the form today. But it is a lot to take in and to process. I think we’re all experiencing comics in a unique manner now because of the unique access options now available. As a result, I’m not sure that the industry (fandom, academia, creators) has developed a consistent critical language to discuss the wider cultural context of the contemporary comics scene.

  26. Johnny Memeonic says:

    Johnny Pneumonic backpedaling. Keep digging.

    Backpedaling about what? Is there some imaginary comment in this thread that only you can see?

  27. Heidi, you’re the one talking about trends. I’m saying there’s things out there that you’re not engaging with. There’s no reason you should engage with them. But you’re saying, there isn’t much of this thing out there, while linking to a site that does this sort of thing with some frequency.

    And then, when I politely suggest that you might possibly have overlooked something, you get pissy and start babbling about echo chambers. Can you see how ridiculous that is?

    If you want examples of other sites that talk about indie comics and cultural context, you could look at Pencil Panel Page, or the Comics Grid. They’re both academic sites, and I know you don’t like academic writing much. And you don’t need to like it, or think about it. But just because you don’t like it or think about it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    On the other hand, I know it’s part of your remit as a journalist to write trend pieces without actually having any idea what the hell you’re talking about. So, well done, I guess.

  28. Hey Heidi, thanks for writing this. It sums up the kerfuffle (great word) well and I agree with most of your points here.

    Re: “BTW, I’m not advocating for change here—like I said in the beginning, indie comics now exist in a wonderland where personal expression is the biggest concern, and that’s a beautiful, priceless thing that will eventually lead to even more powerful works.”

    I agree that the value placed on personal expression is important, but I feel strongly that it’s no wonderland, and that change is needed. Because Thompson made a racist work in Habibi doesn’t mean that art comics creators should veer away from depicting people of color (and thus contributing to erasure, as nearly every art comics creator — myself included here — is guilty of). It means that Thompson should work on his privilege and unchecked racism, just as every person in this culture needs to work on understanding whatever privileges they have, and how their actions and their work may be contributing to kyriarchal structures.

    And if we don’t give art comics a wider cultural context, it’s doomed to stay the sometimes very hostile and alienating space that it is.

    Totally with Ayo when he says in the above comment:
    “As for your question, Heidi: I don’t think that most alternative comics people *want* to discuss comics in a broader cultural context but I don’t think it matters what they want. Nobody lives outside of society and if comic folk want to be taken seriously as artists–or as PEOPLE–they will learn that people can and will talk back to them.

    Personally, I think that apoliticalism and attempts to evade critical analysis is itself a political position.”

  29. Ken Parille says:

    We should try, and many people are.

    I just edited a book, The Daniel Clowes Reader, that in its essays and introductions, puts Clowes’s comics in all sorts of historical contexts, with writing on

    Ghost World and the zine/DIY movement
    Ghost World and late-20th century capitalism
    Clowes and musicians, writers, artists of his generation
    Generation X
    American cartoon and comic book history
    Advertising
    And many other cultural, literary, biographical historical traditions.

    The book is extensively annotated, and one reason is that explaining Clowes’s references can help readers see how he’s commenting on the culture he alludes to. Clowes’s comic themselves are deeply engaged with contemporary culture, especially the dozen-plus that are reprinted in the book.

    Here’s a review in the Chicago Tribune: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-26/features/ct-prj-0728-daniel-clowes-reader-20130726_1_printers-row-journal-ghost-world-comic-book

  30. Michael P says:

    We don’t give art a wider cultural context. It’s already built in.

  31. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Noah: >>>I know you don’t like academic writing much.

    And how do you know that?

    I’d urge you to post some links to the pieces you feel engage with the topics we’re talking about and win me and others over instead of just making assumptions.

    Ken: with great respect that’s an awesome book, but Dan Clowes has been the subject of a ton of scholarly and critical analysis; he’s in the club. In fact I’d exempt all of the G-17 artists from this discussion—Clowes, Ware, Spiegelman, et al have all been studied quite a bit and while I wouldn’t say there isn’t more work to do there, I’d like to see comics academia begin to engage more with the NEXT generation.

    Annie: see above comment. If we’re to move to the next generation of lasting artists eventually a more rigorous standard will need to be applied. I don’t think Habibi totally sucked but it had some rough spots. Luckily there are cartoonists like Marguerite Dabaie and Natalie Nourigat (not to mention Marjane Satrapi) who provide their own authentic voices.

  32. I’m with Adriano’s opinion that nothing truly exists that’s not within a wider context, not a void, but there’s also a lot of willed insularity within both indie and mainstream comic scenes, each in their respective ways. There also seems to be this tug of war between “comics are SERIOUS ART!” and “oh someone’s criticizing this? Fuck you PC police it’s JUST A CARTOON!” I think there needs to be an ability to have a dialog about this kind of imagery, how it’s been employed in the past, and how it’s being employed now, and with an understanding that critique is not an advocacy of censoring.

    I guess I’m just not an “art for art’s sake” kind of a gal.

  33. Ken Parille says:

    Hi Heidi,

    Thanks for the nice words about the book.

    “I’d like to see comics academia begin to engage more with the NEXT generation.”

    That would be great, too. I think any smart writing on people in the ‘club’ or out of it is a good thing – there’s just not that much (especially when compared to writing on other art forms), in or out of the academy.

  34. Heidi, I know that because whenever you happen to comment on HU, it’s always to say we’re too academic for you.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with not wanting to read academic writing. To each their own and all that.

    You posted a link to HU in this area yourself, so it’s odd that you feel I need to prove anything or win you over. But, sure, here’s Jacob Canfield discussing racism and misogyny in the work of Johnny Ryan and Benajamin Marra:

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2012/10/subversion-satire-and-shut-the-fuck-up-deflection-and-lazy-thinking-in-comics-criticism-2/

    Here’s a long piece about Ariel Schrag’s Likewise and queerness and masculinity:
    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2010/02/dick-talk-likewise-roundtable-2/

    Here’s Kailyn Kent talking about comics, certainly including indie comics, in the context of the visual art tradition of deskilling:
    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/06/comics-versus-the-deskillers/

    We’ve had roundtables on Schrag, on Jaime, on Crumb, on Clowes, on Eddie Campbell, on Asterios Polyp, all of which talk at length about the sort of contextual issues you say are being ignored. I’ve written a bunch about Johnny Ryan. There’s this piece on Edie Fake

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2008/01/identity-art/

    Ng Suat Tong on Gene Yang

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2009/11/gene-yangs-american-born-chinese-a-few-observations/

    Here’s a piece on Carla Speed McNeil intentionality and queerness

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/07/crotch-dance/

    Caroline Small on Aline Kominsky-Crumb and issues of authenticity and feminism
    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2010/11/blog-versus-professor-aline-kominsky-crumb-is-authentic-too/

    I should just reiterate, I’m not trying to convince anyone that they should read HU or anything. My point was simply that there’s a good deal of this writing there which you’re saying doesn’t exist. And, in fact, most of the discussions on HU (which you say don’t connect to the real world) are actually about issues like racism, and sexism, and war, and basically the contextual stuff which, again, you are saying no one talks about. And it’s a little frustrating to have specifically created a forum where those issues are discussed, and then to be singled out for not discussing them.

    That essay by Matthias, incidentally, is specifically trying to connect inking techniques and style to issues of content. He doesn’t move from politics to inking technique; he argues that the inking technique and the iconography are connected to the book’s political weaknesses. It’s a somewhat subtle argument, but to say that it isn’t, from start to finish, about political context is inaccurate.

  35. Heidi MacDonald says:

    >>>Heidi, I know that because whenever you happen to comment on HU, it’s always to say we’re too academic for you.

    Uh…..I never said any such thing. I said a lot of the writing on HU is self-indulgent or trolling for hits and outrage, and the comments devolve into a tedious echo chamber of the Usual Suspects chewing over this or that. I’ve been pretty consistent in that viewpoint, although I admit, it is a shame because HU has become the repository for most of the more rigorous writers about comics. I appreciate your linkage here; perhaps the peanut gallery will weigh in.

    Several of the writers here at The Beat are academics, and I run their work because I’m a fan and learn from their work. What I don’t like is BAD academic writing…but of course opinions will differ on what that is.

  36. Well, fair enough. You’ve said both (i.e., too trolly, too academic) but perhaps the second was just a flash of irritation (which can happen to anyone.)

    I would say, though, that, from my perspective at least, the sorts of things that spark strong reactions and anger are often the sorts of things you’re talking about here — that is, linking discussions to issues of race or sexism or other contextual issues. Both because those issues tend to be more contentious, and because coming at things from that perspective sometimes leads you to conclusions different or at odds with consensus fan opinions. (R. Crumb is one creator where that can be the case, for example.)

    The site is basically self-indulgent by design. No one at HU is paid for anything; we don’t have ads, so I feel the least I can do is let people write about whatever interests them. I guess Chris Gavaler’s piece from today about his mother’s illness and Electro Woman could be seen as self-indulgent from some perspectives. I thought it was lovely though.

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/09/confessions-of-electro-woman/

  37. RegularSyzed Wayne says:

    The problem with HU is that they often go into over-analysis because they run out of ways to sound academic about comics. Much more thought is put into scrutinizing each pen stroke of each hip comic than went into actually making the comic. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but often times “trying to get juice from a turnip” comes to mind when I’d read HU articles.

    A decent amount of the articles I’ve read there (maybe 1/3) were actually very thought-provoking in that they made me think about why I disagreed with this comment or that. They aren’t the comics academia we want but they are the comics academia we deserve!

    Also Noah doesn’t think ninjas were real. I just can’t live in that kind of world :P

  38. And I should stop now. Thanks for the kind words about the site, Heidi.

  39. RegularSyzed Wayne says:

    But with the actual article; spot on! I’d love to see more “non-academics” talk about deep indie comics like this. Let them get some light!

  40. Ah, now I understand what was happening on twitter the other night! I was slightly confused, and still quite sick so couldn’t really work it all out.

    Cheers for linking to my New Statesman piece, I had a lot of fun writing that. And I am of course also a comics academic (thanks to the miracle of Scottish funding) – as well as regular(ish!) Beat writer – who has written plenty in the past on the sociopolitical issues presented in comics within our Western cultural context ;)

    It can be hard to separate academic writing from “entertainment” writing I often find, as the former has so many rules and regulations that make perfect sense within an academic setting, but unfortunately can render the writing quite impenetrable to those outwith those often privileged walls. A lot of writing that attempts to straddle the difference comes across as pretentious hogwash – and while I think there is a real danger in isolating such discussions within academic environments, I do wish others would simply write for their audience and not talk down to them from their invisible perches.

    Also, the point about indie comics being the preserve of suburban white kids is spot on, and something I’ve struggled to articulate in the past. Yes, there are others making comics, but yes, the largest sway seems to be with those with some privilege behind them. If you are anything other than white, male, straight, middle-upper class, you soon see your hurdles (and arguments) adding up.

    Kerfuffles in the indie comics scene are not rare by any means, but they are all kept VERY quiet. I can think of several in the UK alone in the last, hmm, 2 months even? But writing about them? Fuck no. I don’t need that kind of trouble on my doorstep (particularly given my academic career etc), and that’s the same opinion those who have come to me to share their woes have expressed too.

  41. Heidi, when you speak of a “wider cultural context,” do you define that primarily in terms of NB’s “racism and sexism,” or are there other concerns as well?

    Given what I remember of your position on the Eddie Campbell dust-up, I would think aesthetics would play some role in your wider context, but I’m by no means sure.

  42. Glad I didn’t hold my breath.

  43. Rich Harvey says:

    “The Cap cover is jingoism, using racist tropes to unite against an enemy. This is one of human society’s most basic tools — demonizing the other. It’s a propaganda staple, but it isn’t necessary.”

    How were Americans (and white Americans) portrayed in entertainment in Japan? I’d like to see some research into that.

  44. Cowboy Wally says:

    Rich Harvey asks:

    How were Americans (and white Americans) portrayed in entertainment in Japan? I’d like to see some research into that.

    Americans (and other European powers) were portrayed as thuggish, barbaric demons. I found this essay with some picture references. By no means a complete look at the issue, but a decent starter.
    https://www.msu.edu/~navarro6/srop.html

Trackbacks

  1. […] probably more, but these are broad strokes, folks. I guess this is some of what I was feeling with my call for contextualization. Social media’s constant thrum of “if you like this, you’ll like that” makes […]

  2. […] criticism of newer cartoonists and the lack of outlets for the same. This is related to my own call for critical and cultural context for the emerging indie comics scene that I mentioned a few months ago. So I’ll have quite a […]

  3. […] A few months ago there was a Kerfuffle over a comics which some indie comics enthusiasts thought was artistically exciting, while others couldn’t see that for all the racism in these comics. I wrote about it at the time, and wondered if indie comics—so lively and lovely—were actually being given a larger social context. […]

  4. […] the creators you publish is a good thing—this harkens back to a matter I’ve touched on here several times: the lack of cartoonists of acknowledged or potential canonical stature since, hm, let’s say […]

  5. […] You may recall the latter got some major press a while ago for reveling in what some called racist, sexist imagery. Karns stepped in to defend himself in confident he-man terms, while some took the whole kerfuffle as the chance to question the social relevance of many indie comics. […]

  6. […] You may recall the latter got some major press a while ago for reveling in what some called racist, sexist imagery. Karns stepped in to defend himself in confident he-man terms, while some took the whole kerfuffle as the chance to question the social relevance of many indie comics. […]

  7. […] Heidi MacDonald opens her article on the recent Jason Karns comments-war at The Comics Journal with the word. She […]

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