The (re)Collection Agency #3: A Conversation with Leah Misemer

Welcome to the third installment of The (re)Collection Agency, a 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.

Dr. Leah Misemer

Recently, I got a chance to chat with Leah Misemer, who I first met at ICAF 2016, and was immediately impressed by her approach to comics as cultural artifacts and sharp insights on reader engagements with them. Since then she has earned her PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison where, as an organizer of the A.W. Mellon Comics Workshop, she has been a leader in building the comics studies community. Her dissertation, The Great Crossover: Readers and Authors in American Serial Comics explored how serial comics form counterpublics of marginalized readers.  She has presented on comics at numerous conferences and published about comics in Composition Studies and Forum for World Literature Studies.  Most recently, her work on transnational networks of women cartoonists in France and America during the 70s was solicited for a special issue of Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature.

Osvaldo Oyola (OO): So, I know from your work that you are very interested in what you call the “correspondence zone” – the place where creators and readers not only engage, but their relationship becomes more complex and less clear, creators act as readers, readers as writers, etc.…is that a decent distillation?

Leah Misemer (LM): Mostly. I’d also point out—and this is a more recent evolution of my work—that readers in the correspondence zone build solidarity with one another and engage in worldmaking for their communities. That is an aspect of my research that has become more interesting to me, of late.

OO: What are some current titles (either print or online) where you see interesting things happening in this sphere?

LM: Me and currency have an…interesting relationship. I’m usually about six months behind. But I’m seeing interesting things in Paper Girls (where readers write in as if to the fictional American Newspaper Delivery Guild) and both The Vision series and the Mockingbird series made good use of the letter columns. To go back a bit further (and I have to admit I’m no longer reading this series, but might end up going back), Sex Criminals used the letter column space to great advantage. Basically, most of Image and then it looks like Marvel sometimes follows suit.

OO: Eh, six months is current enough – anything in the last few years. I read the Vision, but can’t remember anything special about its letters column; what appealed to you about it?

LM: Tom King started off the first letter column in the series with the claim that comics have always been for those who don’t fit in, along with the acknowledgment that all those people who didn’t fit in found each other through the letter columns. As a result, letters would often discuss the series as a good exploration of identity and what it means to fit in. It became a place, at least to some extent, where people could connect. I scanned all the letter columns to share with students when I teach the series, because I like how it highlights the outsider nature of comic book culture and explores the possibility of using correspondence within the comic to find belonging. Furthermore, King’s intro to the letter columns is likely to feature in my writing in the future.

OO: Wow. I’ll have to return to those letters when I re-read the series, which I have been meaning to do now that it is over.

LM: Such a GOOD series. There is so much to discuss in a classroom setting about the Vision, not just in terms of the letter columns, but also in terms of the way the comic is put together. A very thoughtful use of the form.

OO: What do you make of that outsider claim? Does the authenticity (with all the relevant caution necessary when using that term) of the status matter, or do you think the letters only matter as an expression of affect?”

LM: That’s a good question that feels a lot like the question of if these spaces, given their commercial nature, are actually as valuable as they claim to be. And I’d say, yes. My research has suggested they are. Admittedly, only for some readers, but my research has shown me time and again that there are people who get something from these spaces.

For example, I think about all the people in the comments section of the depression comics from the webcomic Hyperbole and a Half.

Many of the people in those comments discuss how seeing the comments from others who struggle with depression was helpful to them because it made them feel less alone. And I think that’s important because depression can be such an isolating disease.

OO: I think the commercial nature could have an influence, but I was thinking more of the attachment to a certain “outsider” status that for some readers provides comics with their cachet.

LM: Ah…that is a different idea, to some extent. Is the question whether I think comics are an outsider medium, then?

OO: Ha yeah, I think we were thinking past each other for a moment. I guess part of what I am trying to figure out is the relationship between those readers who find affirmation and community through the specifics of comics content (as in, “talking about comics with other people makes me feel like less of a weirdo”) and a more generalized idea of the comic’s audience who just like comics and want to talk about them.

LM: Historically, they have been an outsider’s medium, certainly. Particularly after the establishment of the Comics Code, which basically quashed comics as a mass medium, they became the domain of geeks and other outsiders. Now, the media convergence of the Marvel Universe has made comics less nerdy (or perhaps nerds more mainstream), but I still feel like the comics maintain at least a connection to their outsider heritage (As opposed to the movies, television shows, etc.)

And I think we see this in the way that comics will address topics like racism, sexism, mental health issues in more direct ways than other media. Or in the ways they are able to do so because they don’t have to answer to television or movie obscenity ratings people.

Like, I think about the fact that Sex Criminals was able to frankly discuss both “porn in the woods” and female masturbation. Television would not touch that with a ten-foot pole unless it was HBO.

OO: That is going to depend on editorial oversight, and on the mainstream-ness of the publisher—so yes, in Image or maybe Dark Horse, but probably no masturbation talk in Wonder Woman letters (though that would be awesome).

LM: Yes, true, and that comment makes me think about why this is a phenomenon we’ve mostly seen at Image. Creator freedom. My friend Jennifer Smith, who edits Monstress, told me that Image comics editors and creators have control over whether their titles will have letter columns and freedom to shape them as they wish.

OO: It is like the promise of the 90s Image revolution that led to more creator freedom has finally reached the fans

LM: I need to review the Black Panther and World of Wakanda letter columns…I’ve been buying both series, but have only flipped through stories. I wonder if they’re using letter columns in interesting ways.

OO: There is definitely something there. I haven’t read them all or closely, but I do recall more than one letter in Black Panther explicitly expressing joy at complex representations of black characters, and people drawn to comics for the first time because of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

What do you see as the main difference between the kind of community available for an online comic and a print comic if any? (I am guessing editorial curation is one to consider for print).

LM: Editorial oversight is one thing. The other is access. If I recommend a webcomic to you, you can read it immediately (barring paywalls) and comment on it just as quickly. With a print comic, I need to either lend you a physical copy or you need to go out and buy it (or borrow from the library).

There’s also a citationality to webcomics, where one single panel or one single post will be spread around. The way Hyperbole and Half spread is a good example of this citationality.  People posted individual panels or posted the comic in various areas of the web devoted to, say, helping people deal with depression or providing therapists with useful resources.  But at the same time, those who struggled with depression would post the comic on social media to help educate their loved ones.

An image from Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half is a combination of webcomic and blog (2013).

OO: Does that change the kinds of communities that are possible around the comics forms?

LM: This is possible in print comics (there’s actually an example in one of the Sandman letter columns I discuss in my current research), but not as common. Spread is faster and wider via the web, so the reading community can be larger.

OO: Less gatekeeping?

LM: Also that, though it’s been interesting to go back in the history of webcomics and see how much less gatekeeping there used to be. A lot of artists have closed down comments on their webcomics because of trolls or opened separate forums or choose to engage their readers on Twitter. Doing a historical project on webcomics from the early 2000s was pretty eye opening in that respect.

OO: Yes, I recently saw someone discussing the need to archive a lot of that stuff before it goes away. I don’t recall where…

LM: You sure it wasn’t me?

OO: Hahahaha! Was it?

LM: Might have been…I’ve been in conversation with the digital archivists in the UW Madison library about the need to preserve some of the longer running webcomics in their original formats. I’m pretty sure I made that argument in the ICAF presentation you saw in 2016. I relied on the Wayback Machine for a lot of that research, but that record is quite spotty. Anyway, I’d love to know who was talking about the subject.

OO: It was on social media somewhere. I promise I will try to track it back and try to figure out who it was (Editor’s note: I still haven’t found it)

Have you been reading Patsy Walker aka Hellcat? It’s letter column made me think of how it is trying to emulate an online forum because of its inclusion of photos and fan art focused on readers’ cats. Feels very “internet-y” for a print medium.

LM: I have been collecting Hellcat, but I’m missing some issues so I haven’t read it yet. Damned completist tendencies!

OO: Oh, so going back to the presentation I saw at ICAF, something you said there stuck with me. You had a slide that said, “Most scholarship situates authors and readers as antagonists.” I wrote it down because I, personally, had never considered that.

LM: Haha…it’s true. Studies of authors and studies of readers tend to happen separately. Plus, Barthes has a line that’s something like, “the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the death of the Author” or something like that.

OO: Yeah, that does sound antagonistic, now that you mention it. I always aligned as a reader, so I didn’t question it too much.

LM: That has changed somewhat in discussions of digital authors and readers.

OO: I, of course, thought about your claim in terms of comics and social media (though I guess other writerly media probably also applies), where the antagonism is a daily thing.

Wimmin’s Comix is an influential all-female underground comics anthology published from 1972 to 1992.

LM: Oh, that’s definitely there. The response to the “feminist agenda” Mockingbird cover and Chelsea Cain leaving Twitter due to harassment is a prime example of that.

When I interviewed some of the women cartoonists from Wimmen’s Comix, many of them saw readers as antagonistic.  At the time, I was still pursuing the idea that comics connect readers and authors, but when I asked them about that, they talked mostly about reader critique.  Comments like “Why didn’t you do it this way?” or “Isn’t this detail incorrect?” were what characterized their thoughts about reader interaction.  It was partially my conversations with these women that encouraged my research to shift from being about connections between readers and authors to being about visible reader communities.

OO: Funny the different examples we think of, because that was readers (unfairly) targeting and challenging Cain, but my mind went to the (mostly) white and male writers and editors who resist any reader challenge of their work, especially in terms of representations of diversity.

LM: Cain’s letter columns in Mockingbird are sassy, by the way.

OO: Sassy how?

LM: She does this thing where she’ll print a letter that’s likely trolling­—”When will we see Bobbi without a shirt?” or something like that—and then she uses the space to respond, explaining that Bobbi having been basically used as a prop in all other narratives where she appears is the “narrative equivalent of taking her shirt off.” She goes on to write, “Is my feminist agenda showing yet?”

OO: Ooh, I may need to track those down

Sandman #41 (September 1992). The issue that prints the letter from the Concerned Mothers of America objecting to comic series’ content.

LM: It’s a very similar approach to what Neil Gaiman did with the Concerned Mothers of America letter in Sandman #41, though in that case he let his readers respond for him.

OO: I’ve never read a Sandman letter column, but that sounds great.

LM: This is why I collect single issues; that’s where the letter columns are. I think I’ve developed a bit of an obsession. It all started with Sandman…I bought an almost complete run of single issues on eBay and I was forever doomed.

OO: That might be a good segue to talk about your personal reading/collecting practices. Can you tell us how you got into comics both personally and in terms of scholarly work, and to what degree they intersect?

LM: I came to comics through film studies and Watchmen was my first “graphic novel.” I was so excited by how it was like a movie, but still, so I could analyze it like literature. I read that and then all the Sandman trades.

OO: And you’d no experience with comics before that?

LM:  I read Archie when I was younger, but that was super casual. But from a scholarly standpoint, I was drawn to visual literature (think, like, House of Leaves, The Humument, illuminated manuscripts, etc.) so comics seemed like a natural progression from that.

OO: I asked for you to think back because I only recently realized that I was measuring my comics reading origins from an arbitrary spot (when I started regularly seeking them out and following specific titles), and ignored the more casual reading from when I was younger—stuff like MAD, Archie and Casper the Friendly Ghost—but nowadays I am fascinating by different kinds of reader engagement with comics, and wish I could retrieve that reading experience, and my attitude towards comics, which I loved, but didn’t have an obsession with, like later.

LM: I definitely read tons of Archie. We would buy them at the grocery checkout counter and I would gobble them up. I actually don’t have any idea what might have happened to them. They were so disposable to me.

OO: I love that disposability. I think comics needs that again – those more casual readers that help support the industry for obsessives like us.

LM: I think mine is a pretty common girl comics reader story, at least in this generation. So many women started with Sandman. Or started their “serious reading” with Sandman.

OO: Yes. Anecdotally, at least, I know more women that got into comics from Sandman than anything else from the 90s onward.

LM: My women’s comics group recently had a show and tell about “the comic that got you into comics” and many people began that session with “so I started with Sandman, but…” or “I started with the usual, Sandman.”

OO: Tell me about this Women’s Comics Group

LM: It’s a group that meets at our local library once a month. A number of women and nonbinary people get together and talk about the comics they’re reading and share with each other. Then, we usually have a theme and share comics related to that theme. After Trump’s inauguration, our theme was “happy comics”, and I brought in this mini-comic about a dinosaur who has no friends because he ate them and someone else brought in her lustrous edition of The Last Unicorn comic. It is possible that this group is how I found the field of graphic medicine.

Anyway, they were responsible for showing me comics could be fun again.

OO: Had comics stopped being fun?

LM: Sort of. In researching them so intensely comics had lost some of their charm. You also have to understand that, as my previous description indicates, I always came at them from an academic angle, constantly analyzing and assessing. While this can be fun, deep in the second chapter of my dissertation, comics began to feel lifeless and chore-like. Part of the problem is that I was only reading comics I was researching. This group was non-academic and enthusiastic about comics. I borrowed some and rediscovered what I loved about the medium. I wish I could remember what I borrowed after the first meeting. It might have been Saga, but I’m not sure.

OO: Yes, I find I need a healthy slippage between the personal and scholarly in my engaging with comics.

LM: One of the pleasures and challenges of researching popular culture is that slippage between fun and research

OO: So now when you buy comics, is the possibility of scholarly engagement always there? Does it drive your pull-list? Or do you purposefully try to have it not?

LM: I actually laughed out loud at this question.

OO: I hope that is a good thing

LM: Perhaps the laughter stems from the fact that I would like to pull more comics for fun but they always end up with at least the possibility of teaching or research. I can say that I am reading The Wicked and the Divine for fun.

OO: I am right there with you. I have just given up even trying to fool myself. I get Sam Wilson: Captain America, because every issue is a direct engagement between the dominant culture’s ideals (whiteness) and its ideas of blackness—in both terrible and transcendent ways—not because I necessarily enjoy the comic book (though sometimes I do).

LM: The Wicked and the Divine letter columns are uninteresting.

OO:  So are there comics you don’t like that you keep up with for the letters?

LM: Hmmm…I don’t think there are any series I keep up with for just the letters. Sex Criminals might have fit the bill at one point, but I am no longer following it. That’s all I can think of…

OO: What are you pulling right now? What are you teaching?

LM: I started reading The Fade Out for fun, but then became entranced by the style of Sean Phillips’s line, which varies depending on character…the noir detective is drawn with a scratchy pen, while the damsel has a more sinuous line. So now I imagine it as one day being a useful example for teaching style.

Monstress, Women of Wakanda, Paper Girls are my other current comic store pick-ups. I also buy digital issues of The Wicked and the Divine when they go on sale at Comixology.

OO: I love Paper Girls.

LM: At the same time, I was reading most graphic medicine for personal reasons and then had read so many I started planning a class.

OO: That sounds like serendipity to me.

LM: And now I’m going to the conference the Graphic Medicine Conference in Seattle this June, where I’ll be presenting work regarding the comments sections in Hyperbole and Half I mentioned earlier.

OO: Since I imagine most readers won’t know, can you tell us what Graphic Medicine is?

LM: Graphic medicine uses comics in the service of public health. Comics that fall under the aegis of Graphic Medicine can bring attention to what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s or to care for aging parents; others might be part of therapy for those with autism or used as a tool to help new doctors explore their relationships with patients. Basically, comics in the field explore experiences of health, illness, and medicine.

OO: So, like Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year?

LM: Exactly. Our Cancer Year is often recognized as a very early work of graphic medicine.

But when it comes to buying comic books, I started collecting for scholarly reasons because the spaces I’m interested in don’t make it into trades. As you said earlier, you’ve never read a letter column from Sandman. Most people—even those who have read the whole series—haven’t. As a result, I’ve amassed this strange personal archive. There are comics in there I love as objects (Supreme Blue Rose single issues *swoon*) and comics in there I need for research (my complete collection of Ah! Nana, an obscure French women’s anthology comic from the 1970s), but I buy them to gain access to them. One of the things that draws me to comics studies is these personal archives: they’re idiosyncratic, sure, but I get to make connections with people when they talk about them or, even better, show them to me.

And I love that aspect of this field, that ability to make connections with people through the shared love of this medium that I research.

OO: We can also communicate across time.

LM: In the sense that the readers on the pages speak to us?

OO: I am thinking of Ramzi Fawaz’s work with letters in Fantastic Four. There is something (for me) about accessing reader reaction from the time. Plus, comics also have such a rich tradition of fan scholarship.

LM: Fan scholarship is fascinating. When I first read some of the analyses of readers in the letter columns of JLA from the 60s, I was like, “Why isn’t this considered scholarship?”

OO: Have you ever had a letter printed in a comic?

LM: No…I’ve never written one. But I found one that Charles Hatfield had published in Sandman #43.

OO: Wow! Cool! (I think Charles has come up in every single one of these comic scholars talks so far).

LM: I mentioned it to him at ICAF and he laughed.

OO: But yeah, I have a strong fascination with letters as a window to reader engagement with the text, especially their reading practices, When I was doing my “If it WAUGHs Like a Duck” series, I spent a lot of time with the letters trying to recapture that sense of immediacy in my reading.

LM: My dissertation project all started because I was fascinated by readers. I’ve always loved marginalia, for instance. But readers leave so few traces in texts, unless they are taking notes.

OO: This is why I am so fascinated by collecting practice as reading practice. How we organize comics and comics knowledge says something about how we read them. In a sense, we arrange them as a way to be “read.”

LM: For sure. I think about the difference between my friend who has several comics piled on a shelf and my friend who has an entire basement room full of comics, their relationships to comics are very different.

OO: So, other stuff you are working on? Places you will be published or will be presenting? Other projects?

LM: I’m working on two forthcoming articles, one for Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature on transnational networks on American and French women cartoonists in the 1970s, and one for an edited collection edited by David Seelow on my experience building the comics community at UW-Madison. I also just interviewed Lynda Barry for an upcoming project.

OO: I look forward to reading them

LM: I am also hoping to be on two possible MLA panels. One of which I believe you are also on.

OO: Comics and the Culture Wars?

LM: Yup. I’ll be presenting about the Sandman research if that panel gets accepted.

OO: Love and Rockets for me. Putting it in conversation with Pat Buchanan’s 1992 RNC speech that popularized the term “culture war.”

LM: Haha…Mine is Sandman in conversation with Mapplethorpe and the NEA controversy. Will likely mention the Buchanan speech, too. I’ve also co-organized a proposed panel called “Graphic Resistance: Comics and Social Protest” with Margaret Galvan.

OO: Nice. Well, Leah, thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me and take part in The (re)Collection Agency.

LM: This was a fun conversation. Thanks for thinking of me.

OO: Are you kidding? It is my honor. I just want more people exposed to the great work you’re doing.

Thanks again to Dr. Leah Misemer! And I hope she’ll keep us updated on all her upcoming projects.

Stay tuned for more installments of The (re)Collection Agency featuring more conversations with comics scholars. Until then!

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

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