For my first real post on “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” I’m going to share the abstract I submitted for the forthcoming ASAP/7 conference at Clemson University in Greenville, SC.
Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction,” or, How U.S. Comics Emerged from the Underground
In the 1970s, underground comix began transforming into what many critics have described as the graphic novel. Though cartoonists often deride the term “graphic novel,” this talk treats the graphic novel as a distinct and coherent comics practice that emerged in the 1970s. I argue that the term should describe, on the one hand, the increased prestige comics began to garner and, on the other hand, a self-conscious repression by cartoonists of the formal experimentation associated with the underground. The history of the graphic novel, I suggest, must be told in both social and formal terms.
In order to make my case, I analyze Justin Green’s fictionalized comics memoir Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Originally published by Last Gasp in 1972, Binky Brown was an early example of graphic memoir, telling the story of Green’s tortured relationship to Catholicism. Aline Kominsky-Crumb has called Green “the great grandfather” of autobiographical comics, and Art Spiegelman has written that “without [Green’s] work there would have been no MAUS.” In 2009, McSweeney’s Books reissued Binky Brown, recognizing the memoir’s canonical status among American comics.
Binky Brown is worth analyzing carefully not only because it helped pioneer a significant new comics genre but also because it illustrates how cartoonists reengineered comics form. In the late 1960s, cartoonists began figuring themselves as unified artists (on the model of the literary author) and began constructing novel accounts of the revolutionary power that supposedly inhered in comics. These rhetorical shifts are legible (and visible) throughout Binky Brown. Green’s memoir figures comics as both a pictorial cure for Catholic taboos as well as a substitute formal stricture, a self-imposed, endless artistic penance. These figurations helped establish the fraught terms by which comics would win the war for public respect over the next forty years.
A few years ago, when I was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at Princeton, I taught an undergraduate lecture course called “Rise of the Graphic Novel.” The title was meant, in part, to be a joking allusion to Ian Watt’s classic book, The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding, but it was also meant to recognize the phenomenal efflorescence of amazing comics in recent decades.
There have been (I hope it is obvious) great comics, both in the U.S. and around the world, for as long as comics have existed, but there seemed to me to be a notable uptick in the number of comics masterpieces being published — you could say an increase the rate of masterpiece production — starting in the 1980s. Lots of cartoonists abhor the term “graphic novel,” and I’m not a big fan of it myself, but I have increasingly come to think the term usefully designates an important shift in the history of U.S. comics. So the joking title has, quite unexpectedly, come to seem less joking to me, and I find myself in the early stages of researching what I am now convinced will become my second academic book project, tentatively called (you guessed it!) “Rise of the Graphic Novel.”
I’ll post more about the ambitions of this project later, but for now it will suffice to say that my motivating research question is simple. I take it for granted that comics have won their public fight for respectability in the U.S. We no longer need to expend significant effort justifying comics. Our critical horizons should broaden. But a lingering mystery remains about the mainstreaming of comics. What I want to figure out is how comics won the fight (socially, historically, and formally) — and at what price.
When I started writing my dissertation back in 2005, I found it helpful to blog about my early research, to riff on my evolving obsessions, to share abstracts, to publish unfinished pieces of writing, and to try to articulate various half-formed ideas. I’m going to do the same thing for the new book project on this blog. I want to make as many of my mistakes as possible in public, with the hope of ensuring that the book that eventually emerges from this line of research is as good as I can make it.
So I’d like to invite critical responses to everything I post here. Feel free to email me or contact me via Twitter.