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.
Brannon Costello is Associate Professor of English at Louisiana State University, where he teaches and writes about comics and the U.S. South. He is most recently the author of Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin (LSU Press, 2017), and his other books include Plantation Airs: Racial Paternalism and the Transformations of Class in Southern Fiction, 1945-1971 (LSU Press, 2007) and the edited volumes Howard Chaykin: Conversations (UP of Mississippi, 2011), Conversations with Michael Chabon (UP of Mississippi, 2015), and, with co-editor Qiana Whitted, Comics and the U.S South (UP of Mississippi, 2012). He is currently a member-at-large on the executive committee of the International Comic Arts Forum, after serving two cycles as that organization’s Program Director.
I first became of aware of Brannon through The Hooded Utilitarian, though if it was in the comments over there or because of one of his posts, I am not sure. Soon after I was exposed to his work through his co-editing of and contribution to Comics and the U.S. South, and, when I first attended the International Comics Art Forum conference in 2016, he was one of the people went out his way to make me feel welcome and part of the comics studies community, which I was just starting to become familiar with personally (as opposed to just through reading). I knew that as soon as his book Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin came out that I’d want to sit down to talk to him about his book, independent comics, and his road to working with comics from a scholarly approach.
Brannon Costello (BC): Thanks for asks for asking me to do this!
Osvaldo Oyola (OO): My pleasure. I was almost late for our chat because I was trying to cram in more of your book before starting and nearly lost track of time!
BC: Surely the first time someone has lost track of time reading any of my writing.
OO: I doubt that it’s the first or the last. Are you on break right now?
BC: Classes have resumed at LSU, but I’m actually on sabbatical this semester.
OO: Awesome! For research? Writing? Some other project?
BC: Yes, our sabbaticals are research-and-writing based. I’m working on a few things, including the collection on the lesser-studied comics of the 1980s that Brian Cremins and I are editing, as well as a larger project on comics and the South.
OO: I’m looking forward to those and am still deciding if I have the time to submit to that 1980s collection, because I’d really like to.
BC: You know you have a Power Pack essay just waiting to be written.
OO: I was thinking about proposing something else, but now that you mention Power Pack I’m tempted (and I have written about Power Pack for The Middle Spaces). We’ll see… But let’s get started…In your Twitter bio you describe yourself as a serial monomaniac. Tell me about that. Something about that appealed to my interest in research and collecting.
BC: I tend to get obsessive about one thing until I’ve completely, or almost completely, exhausted my interest in it, and then on to the next thing. People who knew me at a certain time in my life will tell you that I was an insufferable Bruce Springsteen fan, but I haven’t listened to Springsteen in years now, including older songs, with the exception of “Atlantic City,” which is perfect. That’s an extreme example though—it’s not that I always completely move on.
OO: Well, if you’re going to pick one Bruce album to stick with, it’s Nebraska
BC: I was for years obsessed with getting people to read Jujitsu for Christ. I wrote an essay on it, did an interview with [Jack] Butler, helped get the book reprinted and then wrote a critical afterword for it. I still like Butler’s work and want people to read the book, but it’s not an everyday obsession thing anymore.
OO: Is Howard Chaykin’s work one of those singular obsessions?
BC: I expect it’ll be that way with Chaykin. I’ve published two books on him now, plus several smaller pieces. I will keep reading his work and being interested in it, but I’ve had my say. I tend to be motivated by “why aren’t you reading/listening to/watching this”—work that has gone out of print or slipped through the cracks is what really animates me.
OO: Yes, I get that. I am always trying to get people to read Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gomez.
BC: I am googling that name now!
OO: That motivation is evident in your book, Neon Visions, considering the lack of critical attention that Chaykin gets in the comics studies world. What do you think your book offers for someone into comics, but not familiar with Chaykin (aside from getting them interested in reading his work)?
BC: Beyond understanding Chaykin’s work in particular, I’m also interested in Chaykin’s work as a kind of case study for the sort of work that comics studies has not quite known what to do with. It’s deeply personal and aesthetically sophisticated, with a very particular point of view, but it doesn’t easily translate to the model of the literary “graphic novel,” nor has it been of much interest to scholars who write about serialized corporate comics.
OO: So, the “middle status” you write about.
BC: Yes. And for Chaykin, it’s not just that we haven’t properly seen his work as “literary,” it’s that his work is interesting partly because it deliberately eschews the “literary.”
OO: At one of the presentations I gave at the MLA conference a couple of weeks ago I talked briefly about what I call the stultifying effects of the literary pretensions in the academic response to comics.
BC: It’s my hope that examining how and why he has sort of fallen through the cracks of comics studies will help us broaden our ways of thinking about what comics are worthy of our attention. This is also part of the logic behind my and Brian’s planned collection: there’s all this interesting work from the 1980s in particular, before the graphic novel format had really taken off, that doesn’t easily translate into that format and thus has tended to be left out of our discussions of comics history, of the development of comics as a medium.
OO: I found your discussion in Neon Visions of the role of serialization in making a comic seem less “legitimate” or literary compelling.
BC: Thanks! I was really interested to see that idea present not only in the scholarship on serialization, but also playing out in letters from fans as Chaykin’s American Flagg! was being published: this idea that open-ended works were necessarily soap operas and thus necessarily lesser-than. Although I’m glad that Flagg! has been partially reprinted, I don’t think it really reads that well as a collected work. There’s something about it that works better reading it as a stack of issues rather than as a graphic novel.
OO: Right, and the “tune in next month” aspect highlights its status as a commodity—issues serve as advertisements for future issues
BC: Exactly, the notion that a work that is so anxious to get you to buy it must not be capital-A Art.
OO: I have to try to keep that attitude in mind for my own work because from my point of view, serialization leads to all sorts of narrative weirdness and flexibility that I find fascinating and makes the work more valuable. It is good to keep in mind other modes of evaluation.
BC: I suppose other serialized comics that have been graphic-novelized might work better as a stack of single issues as well. As I say in the book, I like watching how frustrated students get with the repetitive story elements of, say, an X-Men collection from the 1980s.
OO: I haven’t taught that kind of thing yet, but I can imagine students objecting to the repetition. I, on the other hand, have been well-trained by Marvel—so much of my early reading was shaped by the demands of the long-serial form.
BC: Yes, same for me on early serials. I don’t even notice when a character re-explains her origin every few pages anymore. That’s just how stories work!
And it’s interesting to see how it’s played out even in alt-comix. Love and Rockets is a great example—it’s derives a lot of its power from its open-endedness, but there’s also a tendency from fans and publishers to want to declare this or that storyline is its “end-point” so that we can read it as a now-complete graphic novel. I think Ng Suat Tong had a good piece on all the false endings in Love and Rockets in the Hooded Utilitarian a while back.
OO: Oh. I need to check that out! But back to Chaykin. Why him? Does this interest predate your academic interest in comics or did it arrive more recently? I mean, I know he provides a site for thinking about his “middle status,” but is that what got you there? Or vice versa?
BC: It predates it. I stumbled across American Flagg! and Blackhawk in about 1991 or ’92—my early high school era—raiding the quarter bins at a comics store in Jackson, Mississippi. I was drawn to them partly because they frustrated me. I was mostly reading Marvel and DC comics at that time, and so I was used to reading the sorts of comics where, if you got confused, it was because the writer or artist or editor had made a mistake. Those comics were not meant to challenge you. But Chaykin’s clearly were. And I wasn’t used to anything in comics being over my head, so I took the challenge to heart.
OO: It sounds like it was the kind of challenge that keeps paying dividends
BC: Academic-wise, several years ago Keith Booker was soliciting contributors to an encyclopedia of comic books and graphic novels. I didn’t respond immediately, but I noticed that near the end of the process, there were several unclaimed entries that I was interested in, including “Howard Chaykin” and “American Flagg!” I thought it would be fun to knock out a 1000-word or so entry on each, so I volunteered—and immediately fell down a rabbit hole with his work.
OO: I love that.
BC: I spent so much time reading his work that I felt like I needed to make the time I spent pay off with more than a couple of encyclopedia entries. I loved reading interviews with him. He’s a great interview subject, one where you never have to worry your questions are going to stall out. So, I pitched Howard Chaykin: Conversations to Walter Biggins at University Press of Mississippi—the Conversations with Comics Artists series at that point had no “mainstream” creators other than Stan Lee—and he took it.
I thought Conversations would really be the end of my little Chaykin side-trip, but as I was editing my interview with him, I realized that I had the outline for a possible monograph. And here we are!
OO: Was this before or after you were already doing other comics scholarship?
BC: This was pretty early in my turning my attention to comics scholarship. In fact, Chaykin: Conversations was maybe my first published work of comics scholarship. But I had already begun doing work that looked at the intersection of comics and southern literary studies, including an article on Jujitsu for Christ and an interview with its author, Jack Butler. It is an early and neglected novel in the mold that Chabon/Lethem/Diaz would later achieve great success with: literary fiction that draws on the idioms and tropes of superhero comics and other speculative genres in order to capture the intensity of a particular individual’s experience or of an historical era.
OO: Right! I need to read that. You recommended it to me recently.
BC: I got into comics as an academic interest in about 2007. The special collections library here at LSU had received a huge collection of comics, and they decided to mount an exhibition based on them. My wife, Gina, is a librarian here—now an associate dean of the libraries—and she recommended that I get involved. So, I helped curate that exhibit, which necessitated approaching comics history as a scholar, not just as a fan.
OO: That was right around the time I started grad school—not knowing I’d be doing anything with comics.
BC: I did give one presentation on comics in grad school, on Captain America comics from the 1980s. Mostly the J.M. DeMatteis/Mike Zeck and Marc Gruenwald/Kieron Dwyer runs. . . which then led to my essay on the southern Captain America in the Comics and The U.S. South book that Qiana Whitted and I co-edited.
OO: Yes. I was going to ask about your contribution to that collection—“Southern Super Patriots and United States Nationalism.” I just cited that heavily in my chapter on Nick Spencer’s two Captain Americas in the forthcoming Unstable Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero anthology.
BC: At the 2008 meeting of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, I was giving a paper on Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and its uses of tropes and metaphors from superhero comics and science fiction and at the same conference, Qiana had organized a panel on comics and the South. We had met before, but it was then that we realized we had similar interests, and that led to the anthology. Qiana is a wonderful collaborator, which will surprise no one who has ever worked with her.
OO: Yes! We’re working together on a roundtable on Bitch Planet for The Middle Spaces. Qiana is the best.
BC: But yeah! I’m excited to read that whole anthology, but your essay in particular. I was interested to see Spencer bring back so many characters and ideas from Gruenwald’s run.
OO: I use your chapter to talk about the South as a receptacle for the qualities of America the rest of the country wants to compartmentalize to discuss how a cabal of white power brokers use southerner John Walker to “take back the shield” from Sam Wilson.
BC: Yes, that’s been a big move in southern literary studies and southern studies more broadly over the past several years—getting away from essentialist conceptions of the South and moving toward understanding how it functions to enable certain constructions of U.S. nationalism.
OO: So, let’s jump back to you at those quarter bins looking for American Flagg! This was after the independent boom, right?
BC: Right. The 1980s independent boom had faded, and the Image boom was on the horizon. At this point Chaykin was not really an active presence in comics. He’s off doing television. I had no real conception of the larger forces in the comics industry or in comics fandom at that point. I lived in a small town outside Jackson, Mississippi, and so I only knew what I could glean on occasional trips to the comics store.
OO: So, were you hunting other independents, too? Or was it all the same to you?
BC: Not particularly, that I can remember. I definitely read some other First Comics titles like Jon Sable, Freelance and maybe a few other things. I was drawn to American Flagg! because I was really into Captain America, weirdly enough, and thought this might be something similar.
OO: Knowing nothing else, I think that is a common association.
BC: And in some ways, it is, though, as I discuss in the book, Chaykin and DeMatteis have very different narrative styles and perspectives. But they’re both interested in promoting ideals of American-ness that were counter to the Reaganized, jingoistic version of America that was ascendant at the time. As a kid in late-80s, early 90s Mississippi, these comics were the only place that I was really encountering that type of vision. Looking at those works now, one of the things that distinguishes them is that Chaykin’s work is more clearly self-critical about the romantic idea of America that its protagonist is seeking out than DeMatteis’ Cap is.
OO: Reagan Era Rambo-style patriotism was popular all over the country then, but I can only imagine it resounded more in some places than others.
BC: Not that Marvel Comics couldn’t be challenging, in that Peter Gillis/Sal Buscema What If? #44 (April 1984), “What If Captain America Were Revived Today?” Cap faces off against the racist, authoritarian, 1950s Captain America replacement—that really blew my mind at the time.
OO: I’ve never read that. I need to check it out
BC: I love it. It’s the one that ends with the original Cap and Spider-Man leading a cadre of black radicals. Including Sam Wilson, who is still in his “Snap” persona.
BC: Naturally they’re the ones in front, and the black radicals are mostly interchangeable. But increments, increments…
OO: This is news to me, I am getting that right away! So, was finding comics back then just about happenstance? Any word of mouth? Friends who also bought comics?
BC: Happenstance and word-of-mouth. The earliest comics I can remember reading were Spider-Man and Captain America comics from the early 1980s that my parents got me a subscription to as part of a school fund-raiser. From there I went on to be an obsessive haunter of the spinner racks at local convenience stores. I was into West Coast Avengers, X-Factor. I remember having an incomplete Secret Wars run that I got that way.
Then the first comics store opened up about 30 minutes away in 1987, and I got into DC around the Millennium event, which meant the DeMatteis/Giffen/Maguire Justice League, Ostrander/McDonnell Suicide Squad, the Baron/Guice Flash—those were my obsession for a long while.
OO: Sounds like maybe you were jumping on to comics as I was jumping off.
BC: I actually still have a “Class of 1987 “Justice League poster by Maguire. The only reason that I have it is because I loved the Justice League so much that my sweet mother had my grandfather build a wooden frame for it, and she had it framed under glass. It’s a ridiculous thing to have preserved so nicely, but it’s a nice reminder of how my parents indulged my nerdy obsessions.
OO: Yes, having a parent or other elder who indulge you helps. For me it was my older sister
BC: I didn’t really have peers who were into comics. Again, it was a small town. So, there was a guy about seven or eight years older than me who was the comics geek for the previous generation of kids. And one a few years younger. “Into each generation…”
OO: Ha! Thankfully one of you doesn’t have to die for the next to be called upon…
BC: I actually ran into my older counterpart at the Wizard World convention in New Orleans last week.
OO: Cool! Did you get to troll any long boxes there? Is that the kind of thing you do when you go to a con?
BC: Yeah, that was mostly what I did, although now that means getting five-dollar trades more than one-dollar floppies.
OO: I need those floppies though…for the letters!
BC: Oh yeah, the letters are key! But, I’ve reached a kind of saturation point, both in my actual physical storage space and in my brain, with single-issue Marvel and DC comics from the 70s-90s.
OO: Collecting has its ups and downs, but these days I am more into both doing it and theorizing it than I ever was before. In Neon Visions your challenge of the binary frame of alternative comics (comics thought of as the descendants of the undergrounds) versus independent comics (small publishers thought to be emulating the Big Two in their own small way) made me think of how that imaginary binary might influence collecting
BC: Oh yeah? Do tell!
OO: I’m not sure exactly. It was just a thought that came to me in considering how someone hunting for worthwhile comics of the past evaluates what’s worth getting. How do they determine what has value (and by that I don’t really mean speculating on future monetary value, though maybe that too).
BC: So little of that 1980s indie work has been collected in trade paperback that there can still be a kind of thrill-of-the-chase aspect. I love Dan Spiegle’s artwork, for instance, and it’s not like there’s going to be a Crossfire and Rainbow collection anytime soon.
BC: For the floppies, I am mostly looking for 1980s independent comics, anything I don’t already have or, in some cases, haven’t even heard of. Although the truth is that, no matter how much my short-box shelves are sagging, I will probably buy any random issue of Marvel Two-in-One just on the off chance that I don’t have it already. With trades, I’m mostly looking to catch up on comics that I’ve been reading about but am behind on or didn’t get in on the ground floor of. So, last weekend I bought the first three volumes of Paper Girls, the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine, the second volume of GI Joe vs. Transformers, and the first two volumes of Sheriff of Babylon.
OO: I love Paper Girls. This sounds weird, but one of my favorite things about Paper Girls is the weight of the paper. I like the feel of it in my hands when I’m reading.
BC: It probably goes without saying that Wizard World is not the place to look for alt-comix, zines, et cetera. Although the great Ben Passmore (Your Black Friend, Daygloayhole) was there, and I talked to him for a few minutes. He was a bit out of place amid the artists sketching The Walking Dead characters in the style of Adventure Time or whatever. I generally have to rely on mail-order if I want to get an issue of Frontier or Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or something like that.
OO: So, in looking online at some of your work, I forgot that we were both writing for The Hooded Utilitarian around the same time
BC: That’s right! I did two pieces over there.
OO: Rediscovering that made me realize that it was because of you that I read Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run… Or most of it, at least.
BC: I really love the Priest/Velluto/Almond Black Panther. What’d you think?
OO: That shit is crazy. . .
BC: Ha! Yes. In the best way.
OO: I feel all sorts of ways about it.
BC: Let me hear it!
OO: Well, it is definitely fun and establishes Black Panther as a force to be reckoned with in the Marvel Universe. And, I love reading it as Priest’s poke in the eye to what he imagines white male readers wanting. But, at the same time, my guess is that the irony is lost on that audience, and some of the choices (like the Dora Milaje as teen bodyguard concubines) are sketchy.
BC: Yes, true. I think the series moves away from—no, maybe just broadens—that focus on undermining the supposed typical comics reader’s expectations as it goes on, and becomes a kind of meditation on representations of blackness in comics more generally. At least that’s how I read the late-series storyline that features what appears to be a time-lost version of the Black Panther from Jack Kirby’s 1970s run on the title, in which T’Challa was a thrill-seeking treasure-hunter. But absolutely, the series is susceptible to the pitfall of presenting something as satire that can be read as a straightforward iteration of the thing it’s supposedly satirizing—something Chaykin is susceptible to as well.
OO: But my question was going to be if your view of the character and its limits (which you mention in that post on Priest’s Panther) has been revised at all by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on the book?
BC: Well — I only read the first few issues of Coates’s run, so I can’t say. I found it kind of stagy and dull, although I liked the ideas he was playing with.
OO: The second arc is a little more fun, which the series desperately needed.
BC: Hm, sounds like I jumped off at just the wrong time. I’ll delve back in at some point down the road.
OO: I am anxious about the movie,
BC: I don’t know if it can bear the weight of the expectations that people have for it. I mean, I don’t know if any movie can, regardless of how good this one is. There’s a good chance that it will be a perfectly solid B- Marvel Studios movie.
OO: Right. I’m not a huge fan of the films, so that also tempers my expectations
BC: I am hopeful that this will be the one to have more of a personal stamp.
OO: Speaking of putting a personal stamp on the world of comics, while I haven’t gotten a chance to check it out, I was struck that you also have a collection of interviews with Michael Chabon that you edited. that right?
OO: Any overlap between your subjects? I haven’t given much thought to Chabon’s treatment of nostalgia—which is where my mind went in putting him in conversation with Chaykin.
BC: Well, Chabon is a big Chaykin fan. He even wrote the introduction to the collected American Flagg! Although they’re a generation or so apart, they are both immersed in a lot of the same source material—science fiction, crime fiction, comics, pulp. I’d say that Chabon tends to have a more positive or generative view of nostalgia than Chaykin, who is deeply suspicious of it. But obviously there’s the shared interest in speculative genres as a way of thinking about Jewish identity as well.
OO: That makes sense Chabon seems like a natural choice of a writer for me to spend more time with, but Telegraph Avenue really turned me off. I don’t think I’ve read anything else of his since then. Probably doesn’t help that I couldn’t help but compare it to Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Speaking of obsessions, it is one of mine. Is that the case for you and Chabon?
BC: Sure, this is another instance of my monomania rearing its head. The Chabon book also began as a kind of side project. I was just reading a lot of Chabon and was surprised to realize that there was no volume on him in UPM’s Conversations series. So, I decided to turn my leisure reading into a line on my CV, which is both a good and bad idea.
OO: Yes. Transforming your pleasure into labor is not always a good idea.
BC: Right. Comics used to be my pleasure reading, now they’re work. But actually, I haven’t stopped enjoying them, which is a relief.
OO: Yes, when I take a break from my work I read more comics (which sometimes leads to more work).
BC: That’s part of the fun of academia, though. I think a large part of the motivation for the book Brian [Cremins] and I are putting together was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got a bunch of people together to talk about these comics we’re fascinated by?”
OO: There is almost always more there when you dig and seek connections (or at least I keep telling that to my students)
BC: Yes, I think at a certain point depth of knowledge about one thing translates to breadth of knowledge about a lot of things.
OO: Do you get to teach a lot of comics? Do you mix them into your other literature classes?
BC: I do get to teach comics pretty regularly. I’ve offered a “Comics and the South” graduate seminar twice now; I’ve taught a number of upper-division English electives on topics like “Comics of the 1980s” and “Contemporary American Comics and Graphic Novels” and “Superhero Narratives,” and I’ve also taught an intro-to-comics course on the junior level as well. I feel very fortunate to be at an institution where teaching comics and comics scholarship has been valued—everyone has been supportive of the work that I’ve done in that area. It helps that those classes always fill up!
OO: I’m envious of getting to teach so much comics!
So final question before the wrap-up: What typically maligned comics work would you go to bat for? And/Or what commonly lauded/taught comic do you just not see it for?
BC: Oh, well, let’s see… I’m not sure how lauded it is, though it is popular: especially given that my other main field is southern studies, I feel like people always want me to have an up-to-date opinion on The Walking Dead, which I find to be a crushingly dull and boring series. I wouldn’t mind a generic zombie comic if it weren’t so boring as comics.
OO: I’ve seen it taught a bunch, that’s for sure.
BC: I feel like I should really tip over a sacred cow here though… As much as I am fascinated by George Herriman and as much as I enjoyed Michael Tisserand’s book on his life and art, I have never been able to appreciate Krazy Kat on anything but an abstract level. I’m not trying to dish up a hot take that Krazy Kat is actually bad or anything like that, it’s just not something that resonates with me the way I know it does for a lot of my peers.
OO: Oh snap! Throwing a brick at Krazy Kat!
BC: As far as maligned comics go . . . well, Jeet Heer once tweeted that “in an absolute sense Chaykin is indefensible,” so I suppose I could argue that Neon Visions is a lengthy defense of a maligned work! (To be fair to Jeet, though, he actually made that comment as preface to saying something positive about the humor in Chaykin’s work relative to the dourness of peers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore.)
@inkstuds Well, in an absolute sense Chaykin is indefensible but I think he’s a healthier influence on comics than most of his peers.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) September 8, 2013
OO: I am pretty sure I have convinced Jeet Heer to backtrack on some definitive statement on comics he’s made on Twitter in the past, but Twitter does lend itself to a certain overconfident glibness that I’ve been guilty of myself. Anyway before we wrap up, are there any upcoming projects or conferences where you’ll be at that readers should know about?
BC: In February, I’ll be on a panel called “Ruining the South in Contemporary Comics” with Brian Cremins and Qiana Whitted, chaired by the legendary M. Thomas Inge at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature conference in Austin, TX. And then Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin will be in comics shops on January 24, though it’s out through regular and online bookstores already.
OO: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. These talks are so great, because I learn about so many things to look up and read. But also, terrible, because I learn about so many things to look up and read! Where will I put it all?
BC: Yeah, thanks for having me aboard! This was fun.
Thanks again to Brannon Costello! This was a great talk and I look forward to reading the collection he and Brian Cremins are co-editing, and wish him luck on his upcoming projects.
We’ll be back in a couple of months with another installment of the (re)Collection Agency and another talk with a comics scholar.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).