The (re)Collection Agency #6: A Conversation with Aaron Kashtan

Welcome to the sixth installment of The (re)Collection Agency, a post series 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, through historicizing, interpreting, and archiving. I explained in the introduction of the first installment the origins of the term “(re)collection,” as I coined and theorized it in my dissertation project. 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.

(photo by Aaron Kashtan)

I don’t remember when I first ran across Aaron Kashtan’s name. It may have been on The Hooded Utilitarian. I do know that by the time I met him in person the first time at ICAF 2016, we’d been following each other on Twitter for quite some time, and I was continually impressed with his deep knowledge of comics, especially serialized superhero books. At the most recent ICAF conference, my recurring (not really a) joke was that whenever a question came up about the events in a comic book, I’d say “Ask Aaron. If he doesn’t know, then try Google.” Aaron’s approach to comics strikes me as the perfect balance of fandom and scholarship.

Dr. Aaron Kashtan

Currently, Aaron Kashtan is a Lecturer in the University Writing Program at UNC Charlotte. He received his Ph.D. in English, with concentrations in Comics and Visual Rhetoric and in Media Studies, from the University of Florida and his first book, Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future, is forthcoming from Ohio State University Press.

Osvaldo Oyola: So, let’s start by talking about your comic book reviews on your blog The Ogre’s Feathers, because I love them. I knew about them before I really knew who you were, and can’t remember how I even found them. I love how succinct and varied and informed they are, but also personal. I also love how you mix current comics with back issues, so any given set of them sometimes seems totally random. When did you start them?

Aaron Kashtan: I started writing them in 2013. I realized that since I was no longer posting actively on the Comic Book Resources forums, I didn’t have an excuse to write about comics regularly anymore. Also, I wanted to keep a more regular writing schedule, as I found I was reading a lot of comics and then forgetting about them. So, I decided I wanted to have some permanent record of the comics I read, just for my own sake.

OO: How do you go about deciding what you read/review?

AK: I get a shipment from Discount Comic Book Service every week, and besides that I frequently buy comics at conventions or stores. And I buy comics faster than I read them, so I have something like seven long boxes full of unread comics.

OO: Wow! I think that is more comics than I own period!

AK: So, each week I read the new comics, and then I try to get through some of my backlog.

OO: But do you have a method? Like in recent reviews you cover a recent issue of Wicked + Divine, but also Chamber of Chills #1 from 1972. You don’t seem to be reading through older runs of comics in order, going by your reviews at least

AK: Yeah, I read whatever I feel like. The advantage of having so many unread comic books is that I keep discovering things I forgot I had. Generally, I don’t read older series in order. The problem I have is that I’ve already read a lot of the acknowledged classics (Simonson’s Thor, Wolfman and Perez’s Titans, etc.), and so I have to branch out. I’ve been collecting comics for about 25 years, and I keep thinking that I’m going to run out of comics to collect. But each time that happens, I discover more comics I haven’t read. Lately, I’ve been focusing on trying to diversify my interests and collect more alternative and underground and non-superhero comics.

OO: Yes, there is some part of me that is always whispering to do that more. So much of what I do emerges from where my personal interest takes me. In an early (if not the first) post on your blog you mention how your personal and scholarly interests are becoming indistinguishable…

AK: When it comes to comics at least.

OO: So, how’d you start with comics, and from there how’d you get to studying them?

Comic Book College. Minneapolis, MN

AK: I got started reading comics when I was about seven years old. My dad was a comics fan as a child and then a reader of underground comics. One day he took me to the Comic Book College, a comic shop in uptown Minneapolis—which still exists though it’s moved twice.

OO: Comic shops always seem to move at least twice before disappearing forever.

AK: Yes, that keeps happening to me. I started out reading G.I. Joe and Transformers comics. This was in the early ’90s so it was the middle of the comics glut, and many of my friends in school were also reading comics, but somehow I kept reading comics when they got tired of them.

OO: Marvel’s G.I. Joe #1 was one of my first “serious collector” purchases. Were those properties still Marvel licenses at that time? Were they current comics or back issues?

AK: Yes, mostly new Marvel comics. I had no particular tastes at first, but eventually I started reading Wizard magazine, which actually had some good recommendations for back issues, though all the bad things people say about Wizard are also true. And I kind of spontaneously discovered Legion of Super-Heroes, which is still my favorite comic. It also helped that the Nostalgia Zone—a different comic book store which was in the same building as Comic Book College—had a 25-cent box which contained lots of quality back issues.

I was never much of a collector, though at one point I did have a complete set of Marvel 2099 first issues. I thought they would go up in value.

OO: Ha! Well, I put the scare quotes around “collector” for a reason. I was as “serious” as a 10-year old imagines himself when he has to scrounge $1.50 for one comic book.

AK:  That’s always the first thing people ask when they find out how many comic books I have: “Are they worth anything?” And I have to explain that even though some of them are quite old, they’re all in crummy condition.

OO: It’s interesting how you characterize a “collector,” because it seems borne from the attitude of those people you describe as wanting to know what they are worth. Do you think speculation and collecting go hand-in-hand?

AK: I’ve always thought of a collector as someone who buys comics to resell them—though I suppose I’m also a collector in the sense that I have sort of a completist mentality.

OO: Do people who collect other things have that same assumed relationship to speculation? Like, if I collect commemorative plates? Just wondering if there is something about comics or their history/culture that makes speculation an assumed part of it.

AK: I think it’s different for comics since they have an intrinsic use-value. And because reading them and maintaining their value are opposed. Like, if you collect commemorative plates or coins, you don’t damage their value by looking at them.

OO: Right. I have a bunch of collector’s cups from the early 70s through the 80s and my mom is aghast that I use them to drink out of. I let guests choose which they prefer when I offer them a drink, even if that means they use my rare McDonald’s 1977 Darth Vader glass.

AK: Heh.

OO: Okay, I’ll stop interrupting your “origin” story. You were saying…?

AK:   So, I gradually started to develop better taste. And in junior high or early in high school, I attended my first comic convention, which was the Midwest Comic Book Association FALLCON at the old Thunderbird Hotel in Minneapolis. However, I didn’t really know anyone who I could talk with about comics, until sometime around 1998 when I discovered the Comic Book Resources forums, which were full of people who knew a lot about comics and were often much older than me.

I would end up actively involved in the CBR community for many years, and I went to the Chicago Comic-Con (with my dad) and then later Comic-Con in San Diego (alone) to meet friends from CBR. I posted on the CBR forums for at least a decade and was a moderator of the Classic Comics subforum. I was one of the longest tenured moderators at CBR.

OO: What was the community like?

AK: The Classic Comics forum was different from the rest of the forums because of its much older audience. It was fascinating—the members had a ton of combined knowledge and were very witty. The other forums were much busier and sometimes much more acrimonious. It wasn’t as diverse as I’d have liked, but it got less masculinist over time. I gave up moderating when I was in grad school, and soon after that the quality of the forums started to go down, and I stopped posting to the forums. I’m still in touch with a lot of the people I knew from there. I wrote a blog post about my experience with CBR a few years ago.

OO: I have never spent much time on comics forums. By the time I discovered them, they seemed like cesspools to me.

AK: They can be.

OO: Maybe “cesspool” is a strong wordjust not what I wanted out of comic discussion. But anyway, did the experience of writing about comics as part of a community discussion lead to academia?

AK: So, at the same time I was posting on CBR, I had a vague idea that I might be interested in going to grad school for English—it was either that or law school. When I was doing my BA thesis, a classmate suggested I should do it on comics, and I didn’t have any better ideas. So, I wrote my BA thesis on Salman Rushdie, García Márquez and Gilbert Hernandez. Then I did my MA in comparative literature and wrote a thesis on Posy Simmonds and Miguelanxo Prado and their literary inspirations.

OO: I used a paper I wrote about Garcia Marquez in undergrad as my writing sample of my MA program, but that was way before I knew that I’d be writing about comics.

AK: I majored in comparative lit at Brown, and had a fairly traditionalist literary focus — I even took a class with George Landow but didn’t know anything about his hypertext scholarship, so my initial approach to comics was very literature-oriented.

My MA advisor encouraged me to apply to the University of Florida because of its comics studies program, and I ended up going there. In my first semester I took a seminar with Terry Harpold, my eventual co-PhD advisor, who introduced me to the notion of media studies.

OO: It means so much to meet the right people along the way to guide us.

AK: I hadn’t realized before that you could study things like computer interfaces and video games from a literary perspective.

OO: Yes, that is a big breakthrough moment I think, when you start being able to “read” almost anything.

AK:  Definitely. But I think I was open to this approach because as a lifelong comics reader, I was very sensitive to issues of format and materiality. I had been in all sorts of debates about trades versus single issues and things like that.

I also learned, though, that it was hard to get a job as a pure comics scholar, which is still true.

OO: Don’t I know it. I am forever thinking that if I had been gutsier I would have written my dissertation on comics exclusively, but it might be for the best that I didn’t.

AK: So, I ended up writing a thesis that combined comics with media studies, animation and video games — it was about “fantasies of handwriting.” I was told that I should publish that thesis, but I’ve never had the time or energy to turn it into a book, and I’ve had other ideas since then.

OO: Is your essay on materiality in Fun Home based on that?

AK: No, that was an essay I just decided to write when I was doing my postdoc. Almost everything I’ve done since grad school has been comics-related.

OO: Me too. Reading through that Fun Home essay, I was reminded of something my MA Thesis advisor advised me to do—which seems so obvious in retrospect—but to pay extra attention whenever books appear within books, and to think about how they are situated and experienced in those texts.

AK: My Fun Home paper was an outgrowth of the same issues I discussed in my dissertation. I was fascinated by issues of materiality, and Katherine Hayles is still my biggest scholarly influence besides my advisors. The paper ultimately led to my upcoming book, Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future, although the book also incorporates some other unrelated conference papers I wrote at the same time.

OO: Do you know yet when it comes out?

AK: Spring 2018.

From Fun Home (words and pictures by Alison Bechdel)

OO: What is your next scholarly project about?

AK: More recently, when I moved to Georgia Tech for the postdoc I mentioned before, I got interested in science fiction, since that’s a major emphasis of that department. I read a lot of science fiction in high school but didn’t get back into it again in a big way until after grad school.

So, I witnessed the whole Sad Puppies scandal and also Gamergate, and that made me wonder if the same thing was going to happen in comics, and if not, why not. That’s what I think my next book will eventually be about.

OO: That was what your Hooded Utilitarian post, “The End of Comics Geeks?” was about, right?

AK: Yes, the HU post was about that—it started out as a paper for the UF comics conference. More generally, the book will be about the transformation of the comics market over the last few years. My paper for ICAF last week, referencing Raina Telgemeier, is a part of the same project.

OO: I think comics are the perfect subject to consider this simultaneous cross-influence of materiality and meaning.

AK: Yes, definitely. I remember that Laurie Taylor, a UF colleague, once said to me that when people talk about media, they should really be talking about comics. In the intro to the Christensen and Magnussen anthology, Comics and Culture, it says something like “comics offer an almost complete catalog of semiotic problems.”

OO: So that post is a couple years old already—how would you characterize what’s been going on since then?

AK: I think there has been an anti-diversity backlash, though it’s not an organized movement. Mostly it’s taken the form of retailers blaming Marvel’s poor sales on “diversity.” The direct market is often a pretty insular, sexist space, and not everyone wants it to change or knows how to make it better, even if they do. Meanwhile, publishers like Scholastic have had amazing success at getting comics into readers’ hands through channels other than the comic book store…

OO: But comics like those Scholastic is putting out hardly “count” in the eyes of the diehard folks among both Big Two aficionados and indie fans.

AK: Yes. The interesting thing, now that I think of it, is that hardcore comics fans don’t seem to have much animosity toward manga fans or young adult graphic novel readers. They just don’t define those things as comics.

Looking back, my HU post may have been a little optimistic.

OO: I honestly frequently ask if (and sometimes even assert that) there really isn’t such a thing as geek culture.

AK: There are a lot of different geek cultures that intersect in various ways. My primary fandoms, for example, are comics, SF literature, and My Little Pony.

OO: Yes. Perhaps in a more piecemeal way I can see that. But I am not sure that what is called “geek culture” actually shares enough in terms of attitudes and behavior that characterize a particular social group to really be called “a culture.” I think where comics and other forms of so-called “geek culture” run into the problems of (lack of) diversity and sexism and harassment, it is just an extension of the culture at large. It is just a loud voice in a small space, the voice is just as loud outside of it, if you get what I mean.

AK: Yes, definitely. Geeks used to be able to present themselves as more inclusive and less sexist than jocks, since geeks were themselves an oppressed minority. But it turns out that even (or especially) men who are lower on the social ladder are still capable of being oppressive and sexist.

OO: Revenge of the Nerds unintentionally proved that back in 1984 or whenever it came out. [Editor’s note: I somehow got it exactly right, 1984].

1984’s Revenge of the Nerds was an early sign of the toxic masculinity common to contemporary “nerd culture.”

AK: I don’t think I ever saw that.

OO: It’s shockingly bad—but also of course the kind of stuff teen boys at the time ate up (including myself, I must admit). It includes high tech nerd “panty raids” with remote cameras and a climax that includes sex under false pretenses that is essentially rape, but the popular girl is won over when she finds out she really slept with one of the head nerds. And we’re supposed to—and many of us did—identify with them.

AK: Ew.

OO: Yeah.

AK: There are some areas of the comics community that are extremely inclusive and anti-oppressive. I think Boom! is a model example of an inclusive comics publisher. But there’s also been a lot of sexual harassment in the comics industry and it’s often been swept under the rug.

OO: But yes, geek identity and its various sub-facets, needs to be much more flexible if it is going to be inclusive.

AK: Definitely.

OO: So, what’s got you excited about comics right now? What’s the positive view?

AK: The extremely deep talent pool. Thanks to webcomics and Kickstarter, it’s easier than ever for anyone to publish comics, without having to pass through the gatekeeping of Diamond [Comic Book Distributers] or the daily newspaper. I sort of make this argument in Between Pen and Pixel. Perhaps as a result of this, there have probably never been more talented people working in comics than there are now.

OO: I agree. Such a range of comics and creators, I stopped feeling bad about not reading it all. It has become impossible for any one person to do so. It’s a great time to be a fan and a scholar.

AK: Yes, I wanted to say, I think my scholarly approach to comics is heavily influenced by having been a fan first. To some extent, my scholarship comes out of wanting to promote the kinds of comics I like. One thing I try to do in my blog is to encourage comics that represent the direction in which I think the industry should go. Like Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, or most of Jeremy Whitley’s work, like Princeless and Unstoppable Wasp.

Princeless.

OO: Tell me more about this. In the last installment of this series, Andrea  Gilroy claimed, “What is academia really, but a really intense fandom?”

AK: Yeah, Lisa Yaszek of Georgia Tech said something similar to me—that an academic conference is just an elevated fan convention.

OO: But I can also see those exact words being used as a put down.

AK: As an aca-fan, I think it’s not an insult to compare something to fandom.

OO: No, of course not. But have you ever had push back about that attitude or approach to the work?

AK: Well, in the past I did feel pressured to study comics from a very literary orientation. That’s why I wrote about Posy Simmonds in my thesis—even though I don’t love her work—because it’s explicitly about literature.

OO: What else influences your scholarship?

AK: How can I put this gently? I think that the current academic canon of comics is often very limited. There is often a misperception that all the interesting comics are works of autobiography or journalism—especially among teachers and scholars who aren’t comics experts.

OO: The first couple of comics-focused panels I ever attended were about stuff like Joe Sacco and Persepolis, and I was like…I like that stuff, but isn’t there more?

AK: Some of the comics that interest me the most are the ones that do unusual things with format: Lynda Berry’s Syllabus, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, Chris Ware’s Building Stories, to name a few that I discuss in my current book. And I’d like these works to get more attention.

OO: Syllabus is great, but Chris Ware already gets more than enough attention. My Favorite Thing is Monsters blew me away.

AK: Oh yeah, that too.

OO: Best book I have read in years.

AK: Also, I have this pet theory that in the ’80s and ’90s, comics scholars and critics encountered so much ridicule that they reacted by overemphasizing the seriousness of comics.

OO: Interesting. there might be a compelling oral history project about that, talking with scholars about the early days. I remember Will Brooker had to deal with the Dr. Batman label.

AK: Gary Groth has spent his career trying to prove that comics are art, but by using the same sort of aesthetic standards that were used to disqualify comics from being art in the first place. Groth himself is much more bound to traditional notions of authorship and literary value than almost any academic literary scholar.

OO: Now that sounds like a scholarly article waiting to be written, if not a whole book project on Fantagraphics.

AK: Maybe. I’m not sure I’m the one to do it.

OO: It is easy to come up with ideas. I have a notebook full of them.

AK: The perception seems to be that in order to be worthy of serious study, comics can’t be fun. Whereas I love Lumberjanes or Telgemeier‘s work, for example, because it’s fun. Come to think of it, I made this point in my Boom! Box review.

OO: So, let’s go back to your comics collection: you said you have 20,000 individual floppies?

AK: Yes, but I don’t like the word “floppies,” because it sounds dismissive.

OO: I am not fond of it either, but I got sucked into using it by just hearing it so much. It got normalized for me.

AK: The comics I’ve read are contained in about 55 drawer boxes.

OO: Does that include your childhood comics?

AK: Yes, it includes almost everything except my G.I. Joe and Transformers, because when I bought my first long boxes, I was ashamed that I had those. So, they’re still at my parents’ house, but I don’t feel that shame anymore.

OO: I wish I still had my old G.I. Joe comics.

AK: Other than that, the collection includes everything, including the worst comic in my collection, Brigade. I only get rid of comics if they’re duplicates, or reprints of material that I own in its original form.

OO: What makes Brigade the “worst comic” in your collection?

AK: It’s an early ’90s Image comic from Rob Liefeld’s studio, and it’s below even Liefeld’s studio’s standard of quality.

OO: Wow, that’s saying something. Do you use a spreadsheet or database to keep track of them all?

AK: Keeping that many comics in order is a hassle. I was mostly separating them into Marvel, DC and other comics and then alphabetizing them by title. I recently made some makeshift dividers out of old backing boards, and that allowed me to organize comics by things other than their titles, like publishers or creators. For a while I used an Excel spreadsheet to keep track, then comicbookdb.com.

I got sick of comicbookdb because of its slow update schedule, so I switched to Comic Collector, a proprietary program. It cost money but it’s worth it, especially since I can look it up on my phone.

OO: How do you know what to buy when you hunt back issues?

AK: I used to have a paper want list that I carried around, but I abandoned it because I already had most of the comics I wanted.

I am something of a completist—for example, I have the Classic X-Men reprints of the entire Claremont-Byrne X-Men run, but I still want to get all the original Claremont-Byrne issues. Which is going to be tough because I’m still missing #129.

OO: I just got a reading copy of #129 as an Xmas gift from a friend.

AK: Lucky.

OO: I am still missing Uncanny X-Men #221 to complete the run I want (not a complete one­—I am a selective completist).

AK: Now when I go to conventions, I mostly just browse and look for bargains and things I hadn’t known I needed. It’s become harder to find stuff I don’t have. However, at Heroes Con I switched my strategy a bit and tried to buy more underground and alternative comics, and I did very well.

Uncanny X-Men #129. (first appearance of Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost)

OO: Cool. There wasn’t much of that at NYCC. It was my first time and likely my last. Comics has been so much a solitary endeavor for me, that I’ve only ever learned to appreciate the community aspect as something of an outsider—like I literally have an academic interest in it, but not so much a participatory one. Cons freak me out a bit. Too crowded, as well.

AK: The other thing I love about attending conventions is the ability to interact with writers and artists in person. At this year’s Heroes Con, I felt like I’d “arrived” because I moderated two panels, with people like Thom Zahler and Ed Piskor… A cool thing about comics studies is that pros actually come to scholarly conferences.

OO: Yes. Though…

AK: You should submit to Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) next year. It will have an academic track, and it’s more like an arts festival than a fan convention. CSSC/SCCBD in Toronto is similar.

OO: …I feel weird interacting with the creators too much, since I critique their work.

AK: I know how that feels. You just have to remember that they’re people too.

OO: That’s the problem! I remember that humanity the next time I engage with their work, not that I am ever mean-spirited. I guess the more involved in comics I get the more I am just gonna have to get used to it. I just hung out with Kelly Sue DeConnick last week at ICAF, for example, but then again I love her work and have been critical of it, and she re-tweeted a link to it long ago. So, the creator’s own attitude to scholarly criticism (something she is a fan of) matters…

So, penultimate question: What is the most commercial or poorly-considered comic you’d go to bat for? And/or what comic that is “canonized” that you think is overrated?

AK: Hmm. I love My Little Pony comics, even though Pony fandom has a poor reputation. Andy Price is my favorite pony artist, but the overall quality of the line is very high. So, I guess I’d go to bat for that.

OO: Have you written about MLP (aside from your brief reviews?)

AK: Yes, I wrote a chapter on MLP comics in an anthology—Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays—edited by Gwen Tarbox and Michelle Abate. And a longer review of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #10 at the Comics Alternative.

On the other hand, I am not a huge fan of Persepolis. I’ve only read the first volume, and I thought it was heavily derivative of David B. I also think it’s frustrating that Persepolis is usually studied as if it were a totally unique, sui generis artifact, when it in fact comes out of a particular tradition of French comics. I need to revisit it sometime, though.

OO: I don’t know David B.

AK: He did Epileptic which is maybe the most important French comic of the ’90s.

OO: I am ashamed to admit I know nothing about French comics.

AK: You have a lot to learn then! Tintin is a good place to start, but there are a ton of other excellent French comics in English.

OO: Oh, I’ve read a little Tintin, but have never made a study of it.

So, lastly what are you working on or is forthcoming that readers should know about?

AK: My book, Between Pen and Pixel with Ohio State University Press should be coming out this spring. The ICAF paper I just presented will eventually appear on my blog, and then I’ve organized a panel for MLA: “Comics and the Culture War.” [Editor’s Note: The panel is on Sunday, January 7, at 8:30 am, at the Sheraton New York Times Square in the “Central Park West” conference room].

OO: I’m going to be on that panel! And so is Leah Misemer! (As you know).

AK: I have a few other things coming out, including an essay on comics lettering, but I’m not sure when they’re scheduled for. I will also be posting reviews regularly on my blog.

OO: I look forward to all of it, and I hope some of my readers will now know to do so as well.

AK: This was fun. and it’s given me some good ideas. Thanks so much for inviting me to do this!

OO: No, thank you! It was my pleasure. I’ll see you at MLA in January. It’s gonna be a busy late fall and winter!

I want to once again thank Aaron Kashtan for agreeing to step into the (re)Collection Agency, and I eagerly look forward to his book release in April.

Stay tuned for more installments of the (re)Collection Agency featuring more conversations with comics scholars. The next one should appear some time in January 2018. Until then!

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

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