Welcome to The (re)Collection Agency, a brand new feature on The Middle Spaces, where we bring you informal talks with comics scholars about their comics reading and collecting practices and how that intersects with their work. The idea is to open up the discourse a bit to integrate the personal experience of comics reading and material culture with the scholarly side of comics, historicizing, interpreting, and archiving.
The name of the feature riffs off my dissertation project, “(Re)Collecting Identity: Popular Culture and Narratives of Self in Transnational America” (If I were titling it today it’d be “Narratives of Self-Making”), in which I theorize “(re)collection,” “the means by which pop culture engagement is joined with elements of memory, history, tradition and language through multiple broadly-considered collecting practices (of which reading is one) by which not only authors construct identity for their characters, but that denotes the very process of becoming that cultural practitioners (readers, collectors, makers) are continually re-scripting.” So, “(re)collection” functions as a kind of wordplay meant to suggest the simultaneous spontaneity and serialized nature of this work. It is both a collecting again from a broad field of possibilities, a “recollection”—that is a constructed memory—and an example of “a collection,” an organized set of thematically accumulated objects (or in this case idea-objects or episodes) that form a set as determined by the collector and the social milieu of collection.
While the coming installments of The (re)Collection Agency do not specifically focus on (re)collection, the idea behind it energizes my inquiries, and seeks to narratively suture the idiosyncratic experience of reading with a scholarly context that asks that reading serve a further critical purpose.
For the first installment, I spoke with Dr. Christopher Pizzino.
Christopher Pizzino is Associate Professor of Contemporary U.S. Literature in the Department of English at the University of Georgia, where he teaches 21st century literature, comics, theory of the novel, science fiction, and additional things. His articles have been published in PMLA, Postmodern Literature, and ImageTexT, and his new book Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature is now available from University of Texas Press.
I met Christopher at ICAF 2016, where we had several in-depth conversations about comics, censorship, Frederick Wertham, and the American South. He also presented a fantastic paper on his findings in the collected papers of Frederick Wertham and the strange case of young Robert Peebles, who directly suffered as a result of Wertham’s willfully false testimony in pursuit of evidence for his comics-means-delinquency hypothesis. I quickly devoured Christopher’s book upon receipt, which was also during the time I started making a list of scholars to invite to participate in the (re)Collection Agency, and I decided the occasion of his book’s release made him an excellent subject to start with.
Osvaldo Oyola (OO): Let’s start with your book—Arresting Development—since in it you take up the issue of “status” and the comics medium (both the notion of overcoming its low status, and how creators’ attitude towards status is present in their work), I was wondering if you have a particular experience of running into resistance to accepting comics as a legitimate art/literary form either as a reader, a scholar, or both.
Christopher Pizzino (CP): Good question. I suppose most comics scholars and readers meet resistance—or contempt, or maybe just bewilderment!—at one time or another. In that regard, I’m sure I’ve been more fortunate than some of my colleagues. When I began teaching comics at my university, I actually found the doors wide open. Not all the English majors in my department were interested in studying comics—some were certainly at least a bit contemptuous—but that changed within a very few years. And in the meantime, my colleagues were quite open-minded and supportive. A number of us teach at least a few comics in various classes. So really, my interest in the status problems of comics has been less inspired by personal struggle than by scholarly curiosity. I’ve long been confused by the fact that so many mainstream voices—and some in comics scholarship as well—seem ready to declare that comics have arrived and no further progress needs to be made. I would love for that to be the case, but it’s not what the evidence shows me.
CP: Once when interacting with a senior colleague (now retired), I did try to explain—to absolutely no avail—that not all comics made by someone other than Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman were “Batman stuff,” as he put it.
OO: I take a perverse pleasure in responding to faculty at university-wide events who ask me about my work and then try to be down with comics by name dropping Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel, replying with some variation of “Sure, that’s stuff’s good, but I like X-Men.” But mostly I get ambivalence.
CP: That’s awesome! And very much in the spirit of Ware and Bechdel both, because like most great U.S. creators of their time, they are deeply suspicious of the status games that have to be played for at least a few comics to be at least a little bit legit. And that, I think, is where I see the medium’s deepest sophistication: in a perverse resistance to ideas of development, high culture, literary status, etc. This is one of my central obsessions in Arresting Development.
But for me, there has been only the occasional moment of real hostility—as when, a few years ago, an academic watchdog site put me and a few other comics scholars on a list of “100 Arguments Against Tenure” for no other reason that I am a comics scholar. I blogged about this at the University of Texas Press website on the release of my book. But those kinds of incidents, while certainly memorable, have been rare. Basically, rather than particular instances of resistance, there’s the day to day problem of staying on message, as the politicians say, concerning the importance of comics as a viable, normal part of adult literacy.
OO: Any particular place where you see the low status of comics continuing to be a problem?
CP: One of the places I see ongoing problems is in educational research. From a distance it looks as if comics have won the day; they are much more present in libraries and in school curricula than they used to be. But examine what’s happening up close, we see that most—about 80%, by my rough estimation—of educators’ engagement with comics is limited. The most common idea is still that comics are a kind of stepping-stone to “real” reading. Now, presumably at least some students (often classified as “reluctant” readers) may go on to read comics their whole lives whether their teachers encourage them to or not, so there’s an upside there, but among teachers and educational researchers, the leading narrative doesn’t really make room for lifelong comics reading. Hopefully the more progressive 20% of the conversation—which really does make room for comics as a vital literacy—will increase with time.
OO: I guess the other possible problem is that even in departments where comics are accepted and being taught they are all teaching the same 10 texts.
CP: Yes, it’s certainly a problem—one I’m getting more determined to fix in my own comics classes. The canon is still pretty narrow at this point. In a way, it’s necessary. The fact that there are a few widespread talking points that almost any interested party will be aware of—Maus being perhaps the most obvious—does create some valuable common ground. (And it’s typical of many fields of knowledge; not all Victorian novels are equally widely read, but pretty much everyone can get in on a conversation about the central canon). But such a narrow canon can create a sort of box-checking mentality. I’ve met people who’ve read Maus and Fun Home and Persepolis and seem to assume that there aren’t really any other comics that would be worth their time.
OO: Right, not to mention the problem when a certain “vanguard” gets locked in and diverse authors and stories become excluded.
CP: Absolutely. In my own comics classes, I began by defaulting to the comics that I, as a middle-class white guy who’d been out of the comics loop for years in the late 80s and early to mid-90s, was most familiar with. That, in turn, led to my being most familiar with those texts when I began to write Arresting Development—especially a problem because I’m a slow reader and thinker who sometimes needs to examine an image hundreds of times before really seeing it deeply. There’s some diversity among the book’s four case studies, especially in regards to genre and production method. In other ways, they are all pretty likely suspects, as it were. Three are white, three are male, three are straight, and three grew up pretty much middle class (not all the same three). Getting out ahead of my next book, I’m pushing my own reading habits, and my own comics syllabi, across more lines of difference in terms of class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, as well as trying to expand the range of genres and production methods even more. There are all kinds of reasons to do this, of course, but one of mine is that I really want to make broad arguments about how readers interact with comics. And those arguments work best when there’s a truly wide cross-section of reader experiences under discussion.
OO: Did you see Orion Martin’s review of Special Comix? It is Chinese indie comics, so not American Lit stuff like you and I focus on, but the form (posters) was a weird direction to take comics, and it came to mind when you mentioned diversity of production and genre.
CP: I didn’t see that and will have to check it out! Sounds cool.
OO: So, in the introduction to Arresting Development you very clearly reject the “coming of age” narrative of the comics medium—no “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” nonsense for you—but do you think there is (or should be) an arc of sophistication in terms of what kinds of comics most adult readers are reading?
CP: I suppose I can’t resist the idea that comics readers’ sensibilities can and should evolve. Certainly, most adult comics readers have known what it is to look at an artist we once thought was a genius and see that they weren’t really as great as our younger eyes believed. But what I notice, and love, about the sensibilities of comics readers is how they come back to an appreciation of the basics of great cartooning, powerful design, haptic/bodily interaction, and a fairly direct embrace of reading pleasure.
OO: Speaking of going back, when did you start reading comics and what were they?
CP: I started with newspaper strips, around age six. My family moved into a new house at that time, and the previous owners had left enormous stacks of newspapers in the basement, conveniently still in chronological order. So, I began to make Peanuts anthologies with paper, tape and scissors. I suppose that was the first time I really started to absorb the idea that some lines, however simple, really stay with you in ways that others don’t. I couldn’t get enough of Schulz’s cartooning then and still can’t.
CP: Later, I started reading some Marvel comics. My budget was extremely limited, and the fact that my first comic books had been manufactured from free raw materials probably made me extra frugal. But I followed 80s Spider-Man religiously for a while. I was definitely a Marvel kid and not a DC one, but my reading of the Marvelverse of the time was scattered.
OO: Did you think of yourself as a “collector?”
CP: I sometimes bagged a few comics or got an extra copy with the idea of selling it later (never happened), but I wasn’t a serious collector; not enough funds. Eventually, I did what so many people do: quit comics when I got to high school.
OO: Funny, I’d never think to include them, but of course, comic strips! When I think of “starting,” I think of Archie digests and Richie Rich, but yeah, I was never not reading comics if I include strips—from before I could read the words
OO: That was another thing about your book, it made me re-consider the influence of MAD on my own reading. My uncle who is only like 15 years older than I am, passed on a stack of 1960s and early 70s MADs when he moved out of my grandma’s. I still have some.
CP: Wow, that’s pure gold right there.
OO: I never thought of them as “comics…” I mean now I do, of course. I didn’t think of them as “comics” back then.
CP: I think that’s really common. I was conversing with someone in an online forum once and he kept insisting that MAD was simply a magazine like any other, with no more pictures and no less text. It’s interesting to try to figure out how and why MAD has created that impression.
OO: I remember getting some in the 80s and thinking how bad they were, how tame, because I had been reading parodies of Porgy & Bess using Eldridge Cleaver and MLK from a time when the latter was still alive!
CP: Yeah, that would do it! It’s funny to consider how the very success of MAD-style humor—which was so ubiquitous by the 80s that it showed up pretty much everywhere—eventually made it seem tame.
OO: Off the top of my head I’d say MAD’s topics became more about pop culture of the moment and less political. This thesis is brought to you without evidence.
CP: Ha! But true; the movie parodies are what I remember most from 80s MAD.
OO: I remember a great pictorial they did with the words to “America the Beautiful” with these pictures of the worst shit in or of America—poverty, garbage dumps, napalm, you name it. I’ll always remember “And crown thy good with brotherhood” was accompanied by a photo of defaced Jewish tombstones with spray-painted swastikas. I wonder if MAD could ever be relevant again.
CP: Wow. That’s the kind of thing that helps to explain why I had to read MAD on the sly. Some adults around me—teachers at school more than my own parents, as I recall—definitely associated it with in-your-face discourse they didn’t think young kids were “ready for” (no objections were raised, however, to the racial stereotypes in the Tom and Jerry cartoons every kid I knew was watching).
OO: So, what’s your relation to comics now? Are there comics you follow currently? What drives your reading?
CP: There are a few ongoing serials I follow pretty fervently. Saga of course, and The Walking Dead, which I still find pretty strong though I know there’s disagreement on that point. I dip in and out of a few corners of the Marvel universe; Ms. Marvel is certainly a priority. Much of my time, however, is still spent on painstaking, slow re-reading of key figures—Lynda Barry, for instance, who will be part of the book I’m starting now. Anything by the Hernandez brothers.
OO: I got the new Love and Rockets but haven’t cracked it yet
CP: Me neither; looking forward to it! As for what drives my reading most these days, it’s a concern that’s also the provisional title of the next book: the body of the comics reader. I’m really interested in all the ways one has a sort of second body when one holds and reads a comic. And the relationship of that second body to one’s other body or bodies is very interesting to me.
OO: Whoa. Can you give me a way to conceptualize this two bodies idea?
CP: At present, I can mostly express it in relation to specific examples. For instance, the way that Ms. Marvel (the comic) presents itself as a story about a person who acquires a new body, one that prompts her to re-examine herself, process all she shows, believes, and has been taught, and then live with the powerful, pleasurable, but also difficult and dangerous, relationship among her bodies/selves. All of which—this is the part I’m still learning how to observe—is also made apprehensible to the reader’s eyes and hands, as a person who is not Kamala but touches/moves/interacts with her story. Many readers who know nothing about what it means to be a Pakistani-American young Muslim woman in Jersey City nevertheless “relate” to her story. But the visual/haptic/kinetic nature of that “relation”—that’s an example of what I’m chasing.
OO: Wow. Sounds amazing. Do you see this as something that emerges from a property of the medium? Or is it a reading practice? Or both.
CP: My working hypothesis (which is a fancy way of saying “ongoing guess”) is that it is medium-specific. But there’s a lot left to figure out. And thanks!!! I’ll see if it pans out as I keep pushing.
OO: I look forward to learning more as you work on it. I am really interested in reader experience, and not only the reading part, but the organizing, understanding, collecting, distributing, aspect, but this take on comics reading is fascinating.
Tell me, how’d you get from dropping comics in high school to teaching them as a professor of literature?
CP: I am often surprised at the way things have gone—surprised both that I ever left comics, which now seems inevitable as a scholarly concern and a major chunk of my reading life—and that I was lucky enough to get back into the game after missing crucial years of the medium’s story. In a way, I feel I’ll never catch up. All those wasted hours reading literature with no pictures!
OO: Ha! I’ve written some about what I call (for lack of a sexier name) “macro-closure”—meaning making through reader-provided closure across gaps in serials. So just think of all that “lost time” as an opportunity to shape your relationship to the narratives.
CP: Interesting. I got hints of that in one of your posts concerning the way you were reading around one of Marvel’s crossover events in order to focus on the storylines and characters you were actually interested in. Am I understanding correctly, more or less?
OO: Yes, basically. I think it is a way a lot of long-time serialized comic readers engage with their favorite titles/characters, especially when they don’t or can’t read all of it, or in order. I think Love and Rockets quite explicitly plays with that idea of gaps. Something I hope to write about soon, with the new series out.
CP: I’d never thought of that before but yeah, it’s all over the later Palomar stuff, isn’t it?
OO: Yes and in Locas too. Jaime Hernandez purposefully withholds info about characters we think we’d know if we’d been “following” during the gaps, but in Love and Rocket’s case there are actual gaps.
CP: Cool; I like that. But anyway, back to your question. My path back into comics was paved mostly by a self-directed and somewhat haphazard course of reading. Especially important was stuff written by Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, as well as collections of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan, and a smattering of other mainstream and alternative comics of the 90s and early 2000s (Jeff Smith’s Bone was in the mix, as I recall). Before I knew it, comics entered my syllabi from time to time, and other opportunities to work with them—being a reader for a master’s thesis on contemporary comics, for instance—were coming my way. When I arrived at the University of Georgia almost a decade ago, the opportunity to teach an entire course on comics soon dropped into my lap—it was something the chair of undergraduate studies in my department (English) had wanted taught for some time. Before I knew it, teaching comics in a more concentrated way was driving a new scholarly agenda. It felt as if these various dominoes fell without much conscious planning on my part. But at a certain point, I realized I was once again concentrating on what I should never have stopped reading.
OO: So, you proactively answered my question about what you are working on next when you brought up your thinking about “the body of the comics reader” as driving your current reading, but is there anything else you want readers to know? Conferences? Articles? Other info about your book?
CP: The thing I’m most excited about at the moment is an article that will be appearing soon (I think) in ImageTexT. The article is entitled “Comics and Trauma: A Postmortem and a New Inquiry.” I expand some of the ideas in Arresting Development and discuss the deliberately “improper” way that Spiegelman approaches the act of witnessing in Maus. ImageTexT is open access, so it’ll be available for free.
OO: Cool. When it comes out I will be sure to make that title a link!
So, one last question: What’s your guilty pleasure comic? What is the thing you know is bad but you can’t help but love? Or alternately, the thing you would defend against critical consensus?
CP: That’s a great question. I guess I’ll confess one from the past and one from the present. When I was a kid, I read G.I. Joe comics religiously. They’re pretty painful to look at now, but try telling that to ten-year-old me. As for now, I think probably the thing I’m overly attached to is John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew. It won some industry awards when it came out but I think the bloom is off now for a lot of readers, and it’s gotten progressively more stereotyped and silly. Some part of me doesn’t care; I’ve stuck with it the whole way.
OO: Put me in the crowd of those who say the bloom is off for Chew. I liked the first trade, but not enough to keep going
CP: Chew goes on doubling down on its own absurd, hyperbolic shenanigans. But I keep laughing.
OO: But, I will own up to my own G.I. Joe love; at least back then.
CP: What a relief!
OO: I recently picked up an issue for a quarter just for a scene between two native characters momentarily questioning their role in an American paramilitary organization. I think Larry Hama did his best to sneak in some subversive stuff. He’s a complicated guy. He STILL writes it!
CP: I didn’t know that! And for sure, by the standards of the Reagan era, it’s a surprisingly pluralistic comic. I think it’s where I first encountered the term “imperialism.”
OO: I still am trying to get a copy of the famous silent issue of G.I. Joe. Beautiful visual storytelling!
CP: I remember reading that with a friend—issue 21 as I recall—and decoding it, panel by panel. The matching tattoos! It was powerful stuff to me then.
OO: Ha! Yeah! It still is, in its own way.
As our conversation ended, we turned to discussing the presidential election which had occurred just a week prior, its effect on the atmosphere on our respective campuses, and our students’ reactions. Teaching is a crucial part of the work we do, as is promoting equity and justice, things the incoming administration seems poised to undermine even further than is unfortunately already frequently the case. It felt inhuman to not bring it up, since it was (and remains) on so many of our minds.
OO: How have things been on your campus since the election? What’s the atmosphere like among students? We’ve had cases of vandalism and harassment at NYU and things feel tense.
CP: I can’t help but be aware that most of my students did not vote for the winning candidate. After the election, they have expressed concern about the policies he’s floated and the values that he’s either expressed himself or that have gotten attached to his campaign. Their concerns are not surprising to me. I certainly take notice—I am keeping my tone calm here—of a presidential candidate who does not succeed in convincing white supremacists that he disavows their agenda. As someone whose job requires him to live out the principles of the Civil Rights Act on a daily basis, I am not permitted that particular kind of failure. (This is to say nothing of the president-elect’s privately expressed views regarding his access to women’s bodies, and other related matters.)
Having said all that—and I speak with regard to all my students, irrespective of whom they voted for—I have been particularly angered in recent days by what some post-election commentators keep saying about the nation’s college students. As editorialists and pundits take their shot at explaining this election, college students, who are understood to have voted against Trump in many cases, are often pretty harshly stereotyped as spoiled children who are out of touch with the concerns of working people. This is news to me, because—and this is especially true since the mortgage crisis, which had devastating effects on many, many people in Georgia—most of my students are working people. They juggle two and three jobs, they care for sick parents, or for children, they volunteer their free time in service to their community, they go hungry, or in some cases homeless, they worry about making ends meet, and somehow they manage to pursue higher education and shape new careers in a struggle to better themselves. Political commentators of any stripe—some self-professed liberals are certainly among the offenders here—who fail to recognize today’s college students as exemplars of the American dream . . . in brief, such persons make me mad. I wish I could end this interview on a more positive note, but there it is. Hard times.
OO: Word. Hard times, indeed.
CP: Thank you, Osvaldo, for a great conversation.
Thanks again to Dr. Christopher Pizzino for being our guinea pig and honoring The Middle Spaces by talking about his love of comics, his history with them, and his own scholarly work. And stay tuned for more installments of The (re)Collection Agency with more conversations with comics scholars, from the well-established, to the junior faculty, to the recent PhDs and even graduate students. Until then!
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).