Welcome to the 11th 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—though in this post we focused mostly on the subject’s new book.
Today’s talk is with Marc Singer an Associate Professor of English at Howard University and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland, College Park. Before Howard, he taught at the University of Maryland, Mary Washington College, and Tennessee State University. He is the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics (Mississippi UP, 2012) and the editor, with Nels Pearson, of Detective Fiction in a Postcolonial and Transnational World (Ashgate, 2009). He previously served as the chair of the International Comic Arts Forum, and his own research on comics has twice won the M. Thomas Inge Award. Most recently his book Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies (Texas UP, 2018) has arrived to a lot of acclaim and perhaps consternation, and we spent most of our talk discussing the book, rather than the usual focus on collecting I try to foster in these talks but through discussing his development of the book we also ended up talking about his reading practices.
I have been familiar with Marc’s work since I was a master’s student, have cited it quite a bit, and I finally met him in person at Mind the Gaps, the Comics Studies Society’s first annual conference last year. I have greatly enjoyed grappling with Marc’s rigorous and unrelenting work, and it was a pleasure to get to talk with him about his new book, which I both thoroughly enjoyed reading and enjoyed discussing with others
Osvaldo Oyola (OO): So, can we start by talking a little bit about why you felt the need for a monograph on the state of comics studies?
Marc Singer (MS): Sure. I’ve found that I tend to start working on my books before I know that I’m even writing a book—sometimes a couple years before. In the case of Breaking the Frames, I spent a couple of years towards the start of this decade feeling very downcast about the state of comics scholarship as it existed at the time. It seemed like every new journal issue or anthology I came across had at least one howler of an essay that demonstrated the worst practices in the field and often, more than one. Monographs and books weren’t exempt from this trend. I found myself wondering why each new book or journal issue in comics studies felt like a new low. That wasn’t a complete picture, of course, and lots of exciting new work was also appearing at that time and since. But at the time, it felt like the field was in a rut. I found myself taking copious notes on chapters and essays that I thought would be of no professional value to me, and eventually I realized that I was laying the groundwork for my next book without knowing it.
OO: Interesting… I think a lot of scholars would probably just ignore stuff that they determined had no professional value to them rather than take detailed notes. I feel so overwhelmed with how much there is to read already, that that approach would probably kill me. I might take some cursory notes if I am not reading something for a specific project, knowing that I may have to come back to make more detailed annotations if it ends up being something I need to return to, but I am always trying to manage my time.
MS: I take copious notes on a lot of the things I read professionally, perhaps to a fault. I realize that sounds like one of those bullshit answers people give for the “describe your own weaknesses” question on a job interview—”I’m too much of a perfectionist, honest!”—but bear with me, please. I take all these notes and then I get caught up in trying to work them all into the draft instead of leaving some for the cutting room floor. I’m trying to work on that and getting back to a somewhat looser mode of writing, but it’s not easy. This project pretty much mandated that I line up all my arguments and evidence to make the best cases possible, so the notes were essential.
OO: Is the “Myth of Eco” chapter (the first full chapter of the book) an example of something that emerged from that kind of note-taking?
MS: Yeah, the Eco essay (which was originally written for Studies in Comics) was part of that. I think I was in the middle of drafting that when I realized that the problem was much larger than any misreadings (willful or otherwise) of any single article and that there might be a book in exploring the state of the field. I think on some level I was already forming an argument in my mind and looking for ways to give it shape on the page. And trying to work out to my own satisfaction why I found so much comics scholarship to be dissatisfying and how we might approach the field from other directions.
OO: Did you feel any trepidation about calling out specific scholars and their work especially given how small a field we really are?
MS: I can’t say I felt a lot of trepidation about calling out scholars, and the size of the field didn’t really factor into my writing. I think I had to offer specific criticisms of specific articles and books—and in all but a very few cases, I would say that I was criticizing the scholarship, not the person who wrote it—but those criticisms would be toothless if they weren’t grounded in specific cases. It’s too easy to dismiss critiques that never leave the realm of airy generalizations. In fact, I take issue with Henry Jenkins for doing just that in his introduction to Critical Approaches to Comics, where I argue that he’s shadowboxing with a series of imaginary rivals. I think the criticisms need to be specific to carry any force.
OO: Right. I get that. It is one of the things I really appreciated about your book. It gave me places to look. It calls on scholars to evaluate the specific instances it brings up and provides a kind of blueprint for finding others.
MS: Yes, that’s exactly what I was aiming for. Breaking the Frames isn’t just about the individual scholars or the comics they write about but using them to take a series of soundings on the field in general.
OO: Some folks seem to be really appreciating your combative approach. Are you aware of Kim O’Connor’s live-tweet series of Breaking the Frames? She is doing a chapter at a time every Monday night. At first she was using the hashtag #burnbook, but that turned out to conflict with fans of The Bachelor so she changed it to #msinger with the second week.
MS: It is slightly weird to find oneself turned into a hashtag. Yeah, a friend pointed her book club out to me. I’ve been reading the threads after the fact and enjoying them greatly. Any writer would be lucky to find their work the subject of such careful reading.
OO: I have been enjoying it, too—and yes ultimately, it must be very flattering. But several others have been chiming in to root for your “takedowns.”
MS: I am both immensely gratified and slightly disturbed by that reaction. I mean, I’m thrilled that the book has gotten such a positive response, more so than I would have expected. When I was writing the book, I wasn’t entirely sure if the reaction wouldn’t be all pitchforks and torches. So, it’s exciting to see it has found an audience, and so far, that audience has been a larger and more passionate one than I could have imagined. But all hashtags aside, I hope people don’t just regard Breaking the Frames as a “burn book.” I know the comments about “takedowns” are at least partly tongue in cheek, but I didn’t write the book looking to take down anybody. I didn’t shy away from criticisms when I found them, but the goal was never to sabotage anybody’s reputation. This is a book about the field of comics studies, not any individual personalities.
OO: Though academia and the human ego being what it is, it seems almost certain that some folks would react that way—as if you were sabotaging—but yes that take would be short-changing your book. To be fair to Kim O’Connor as well, her engagement with Breaking the Frames has been detailed and rigorous and despite the #burnbook hashtag, she was certainly not reducing your book to just that.
MS: I get the sense that a lot of people were waiting for somebody to make these arguments in this kind of forum. I had no idea that audience was out there, but I am delighted to find them.
OO: So, speaking of “naming names” I’m glad you basically start with the Jill Lepore vs. G. Willow Wilson thing because I remember that happening and being unsatisfied with both responses. It also struck me as significant, however, because it represents these moments when comics (particularly superhero comics by Marvel or DC) are drawing the attention of both insiders and outsiders with different motivations in how they read and evaluate them.
MS: The Lepore/Wilson spat was one of those things that found me as I was starting to draft the introduction (which, in my Bizarro World working methods, is always one of the last things I write). It’s a pretty forgettable story in the grand scheme of things, but it just seemed to line up perfectly with the overall division I was writing about between the cultural populist and literary studies sides of the field.
OO: Thinking about that insider/outsider thing reminded me of my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther at the Los Angeles Review of Books, where I posited that there were two ways to evaluate it, as part of the whole Marvel mishegas or as something of interest to people who just follow TNC’s work. Or at least, those were the two ways it was most likely to be evaluated. I basically just use that idea to frame my own review of the first trade.
MS: You’ll have to send me the link for that.
OO: But anyway, your use of the Wilson/Lepore kerfuffle makes me wonder did you have a particular methodology for choosing your example texts/scholars?
MS: Nothing so careful as a methodology. Again, it was mostly the examples that found me. Some of them were drawn from my previous writing on Umberto Eco and Chris Ware and others were arguments that had been brewing for a while. The Persepolis chapter started because it bothered me that critics kept comparing Marjane Satrapi’s art to Persian miniatures and I wanted to figure out why. Forty pages later…
OO: Ha. The easiest way for me to write thousands of words is to think it would not be so hard to concisely explain/examine something…
MS: Once I knew I was drafting a book on comics studies, I decided that I wanted the book to be half about comics in the popular genres and half about alternative or “literary” comics, reflecting what I saw as two sides of a growing divide in comics scholarship. Those aren’t the only approaches in the field, of course, but I saw them as the two dominant ones and the two I felt most qualified to engage with. I knew I wanted to cover particular topics, like the role of history in comics criticism or the way Satrapi tends to get separated from the comics traditions she writes in. At that point it was just a matter of looking at the criticism and seeing what was out there—although in most cases I was already familiar with at least some of the criticism, which was how I got worked up about these topics in the first place.
OO: Returning briefly to O’Connor’s tweets and with methodology in mind, how would you respond to the notion that this approach led to an under-representation of women in Breaking the Frames? I know that in your introduction you explain that, since the book is meant to cover the current state of comics studies it is bound to reflect certain “blind spots,” but I wonder if that’s enough. Was there an opportunity here to advocate for diverse voices covering diverse work in ways that embody the standards you’d like to see in the field?
MS: Well, I would distinguish between the diversity of the scholarly voices that I respond to and the diversity of the comics that we discuss. The book is less interested in making arguments for expanding the comics canon (which other scholars are already doing and doing well) and more interested in challenging the ways we currently study comics, which necessitates a focus on the field as it stands now. That means my book replicates some of the limitations of the field in terms of the artists I discuss, and it’s absolutely fair to point that out—in fact, I basically agree with that criticism. But it was never going to be possible to write this book about new entries to the canon, because there’s been little to no scholarship on those comics, and the scholarship is my primary focus.
That’s also why I have to disagree with any claims that the book underrepresents women in comics studies or soft-pedals its criticisms of their work. Every chapter engages with female scholars, whether they write about superheroes, memoirs, realistic fiction, historical narrative, comics theory, or critical theory in general. Again, the scholarship is the primary focus of my project, and that’s where the real diversity of the book can be found.
OO: You spend a lot of time in Breaking the Frames discussing an obsession with marginality common to comics creators, scholars, and fans (though given your focus, you only give examples of the first two). Is there a through line there?
MS: I think so, though I probably discuss it more on the alternative comics/literary studies side because that posture of marginality has (paradoxically enough) been so central to their claims to cultural status. I suppose that similar claims run through the populist side, but they don’t command cultural capital in the same way. Some fans might still claim superheroes are culturally marginalized, but that’s a hard sell when superhero films and TV shows dominate popular culture. But the idea that a comics artist might still be delegitimated for working in comics even as their art is being exhibited at the Whitney…? We still fall for that one far more often than we should, and that was one of the claims I wanted to unpack in the book.
OO: So, when you say “has been so central to their claims to cultural status” do you mean that the outsider/unsuccessful status is considered a prerequisite for authenticity in comics?
MS: Yeah, I think so. That’s more the argument that Daniel Worden and David Ball and others make in their work on Chris Ware, but it’s one I’m happy to sign on to.
OO: Do you think people confuse comics market share with marginality?
MS: I think they do, sometimes deliberately. But it’s pretty clear at this point that comics are so much more than just the direct market. And equally important, it’s not exactly a new observation that cultural capital and economic capital don’t always go hand in hand.
OO: Of course, but sometimes people love to deny the obvious —like that superhero comics still operate in what is essentially Eco’s “oneiric climate.”
MS: I think there’s a pressure to show that any texts we work on must be subversive or radical or experimental in some way that validates their study in the academy. I think that’s probably true across a lot of fields, but the pressure seems particularly intense in comics studies. One of the things that made writing this book such a relief—I can only say that now that it’s done and in print, by the way—but it was such a relief to write without that pressure. The book starts from the assumption that comics studies has reached a stage of institutional maturity—not a final one, to be sure, but enough that we don’t have to build our work around proving that comics meet some kind of academic standard. We can write about comics that don’t fit those standards, that might even be anathema to them. We can write about bad comics, problematic comics, terrible comics, and we don’t have to perform this magic trick where we show that they actually reflected our values back at us all along. We don’t have to reproduce ourselves in the comics we write about.
OO: This seems connected to the line from your conclusion, “We have fallen into the habit of locating critiques in comics that cannot bear their weight.”
MS: That was part of my attempt to figure out my own response to Rita Felski and the “postcritical turn” in literary studies, which is a turn I both welcome and dread. Obviously, as someone who was writing a book about the need for more critical approaches in comics studies I wasn’t going to be that receptive to calls for scholars to back away from the practices of critique, and a lot of the early reviews I read of The Limits of Critique (2015) took Felski to task for, in the reviewers’ view, disparaging or diluting the oppositional function of criticism.
But that response didn’t really track with my own reading of Felski’s prior work—I’m a great admirer of the essays collected in Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (2000)—and when I finally sat down and read The Limits of Critique (this was at the time I was casting about for a focus for my afterword that would somehow tie six disparate case studies back into one whole argument) I found a much more complex argument than I think those reviewers gave her credit for. I agree with Felski far more often than I disagree with her.
OO: Fascinating. I need to read more of her work.
MS: As I read Felski, and as I reread (or at least rethought) the comics criticism I was writing about, I realized that she and I were largely on the same page. The criticism was deploying all the conventional formulas of critical theory and academic writing, but it was applying them to the purpose of celebrating or excusing its subjects. Most frequently this took the form of arguing that the comics themselves were participating in a kind of cultural critique by taking aim at the grand narratives that scholars are always willing to criticize because they are safely abstracted from any single proponent. This became a kind of passport to academic acceptability, showing that it was okay to let comics in the club (or the classroom) because they were already criticizing the same targets we were. But my own readings of the same comics suggested this was wishful thinking. It was a performance of critical rigor that avoided any real interrogation of the comics it took as its focus. This was critique as affect rather than substance, and I thought no better of it than Felski did.
OO: So, you want a comics studies that is more rigorous and less imprecise. I’d agree, even if we probably can’t always agree on what might be specific examples of insufficient rigor or what counts as imprecision.
MS: When I started this project, I had the idea that all comics studies needed to do was adopt more critical rigor from its various parent disciplines. That we didn’t need to gather under any particular disciplinary standard (I still think that, at least), we just needed to follow the best practices in literature or history or cultural studies or whatever discipline we brought with us. This was an impossibly naive idea, and it didn’t survive the writing process. As I completed the book it became clear to me that all of the challenges I describe in comics studies—the lax scholarship, the neglect of material history, the investment in the hermeneutics of suspicion, the elevation of scholarly affect over substantive criticism—those are challenges in our home disciplines, too. We brought them to comics with us. What’s needed is not a comics studies that looks more like some other academic discipline, but a recommitment to the methods and practices of disciplinarity in all our fields.
OO: Could you elaborate a little bit on what you mean by “scholarly affect? I can’t recall if you use this term in the book and/or give an example.
MS: Just where Felski talks about academic critique as being a matter of affect and tone as much as it is the application of any particular critical paradigm. Critique is also a matter of using familiar narrative structures, rhetorical conventions, scholarly voices, and so on, so that our academic writing looks recognizably like other writing in the field. Rhetorical positioning matters, but it can’t substitute for actual engagement with texts or ideas, and I found that in too much writing about comics the critical engagement was constrained by the need to show that the comics are already in line with prevailing academic values—for example, all the articles that discuss Persepolis as deconstructing liberal humanist claims to universalism when Satrapi presents herself as a humanist and makes certain universalist claims. All of those articles are written in perfectly respectable academic voices, they follow the highest standards of citation, they fully adopt the affect of critique, yet their end result is to rescue Persepolis from making claims that have no currency in academia and substitute some more palatable ones in their place. And again, comics studies is by no means unique in this regard–but that’s just where I happen to be working and where I feel best qualified to make my case for a different kind of approach.
OO: Couldn’t a text being doing the work of challenging or deconstructing despite the creator’s claims otherwise?
MS: Sure. I would never stake an argument on a claim of authorial intent, and there are plenty of places in Breaking the Frames where I subject the creators’ personal statements to just as much scrutiny as their texts. And there are certainly plenty of texts that do challenge, subvert, deconstruct, problematize, or other-polysyllabic-verb exactly the grand narratives and cultural standards that critics say they do. But the pressure to force every text into that mold has produced some brutally constrained scholarship that is overlooking its critical function—which, ironically, means that scholars are actually passing up on opportunities to do the critical and oppositional work that we sometimes like to claim for ourselves.
OO: Yes! That makes a lot of sense. One thing I love about your book is that it made me feel confident in my ability to write a good one.
MS: Because if this jackass can do it, anyone can…
OO: Hahahaha. . .yes. Naw. . . Just joking. Because I feel like I could do those things you were calling for our field to do and because it did have an actual style that I found really readable. “Readable” may sound like faint praise, but I read a lot of scholarly work and rarely is the prose as engaging. I aspire to academic writing that can do that.
MS: Thank you. One of the great pleasures of this project was consciously trying to loosen up my own writing style, to write about these topics directly and without some of the stylistic formulas that often constrain academic writing. Sometimes the right figure of speech can say more than the most carefully structured explanation. There was a sense of freedom in being able to break (however partially) from some of the governing formulas of academic writing. Because really, using the occasional contraction does not make your work any less serious. I can’t tell you how happy I was when my copy editor told me to just embrace them.
OO: Let’s talk about some comics! Because Breaking the Frames makes use of it as an example, I made it a point to re-read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come for the first time since around when the collected trade came out—so over 20 years ago! Oof. . . I wrote about Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels a bit ago and, since I associate both books with a response to the perceived excesses of the 90s and Image comics, I had planned to look again but hadn’t gotten around to it. You reminded me to do that by being merciless in your estimation of it. The experience left me wondering if I would have preferred to see Aquaman again instead (which if you remember, I allowed friends to convince me to go see based on your positive response to it).
OO: LOL. As you should be! But then again, I am glad I can feel confident in my opinion of Kingdom Come now. I gave it one-star on Goodreads. Tell me about how comics came to be a part of your scholarship. Was that always the case or did you come around to them from another sub-field?
MS: I’ve been writing about comics for about as long as I’ve been a scholar, just like I’ve been reading comics for about as long as I could read.
OO: So you never had to be convinced or convince yourself of the value of studying comics?
MS: When I went to college at the University of Maryland in the early 90s, the library had a small collection of comics scholarship. Very small, back then, probably not even a full shelf, but it planted the idea that writing about comics was something you could do in an academic setting.
OO: That was as an undergrad?
MS: Yeah. It was just normal. And then Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics (1994) and he supplied the one thing that I had found missing in that small shelf of comics criticism, and that was a formalist criticism and a vocabulary to go with it. McCloud’s book has all sorts of problems, and comics scholars have not been shy about pointing them out—I was one of them, for a while—but on a personal level I’m grateful to him for opening up a kind of conversation that had been missing in Anglophone comics scholarship.
OO: Totally. His book, for its problems, is still great and even a valuable step towards identifying and discussing those problems in response to such a widely used book on the medium. Can you recall the first comic you wrote about in a scholarly context?
MS: I wrote my first academic paper on comics for a film class I took as a grad student—it was a formal comparison of comics and film and it was truly awful—but that set me down a path of trying to write more and write it better. I would work comics into any class I could—we’re assigned Sean Shesgreen’s Engravings by Hogarth in our 18th century lit class? I’M IN—and eventually just started writing about comics for their own sake.
I was also incredibly lucky that just as I started entering the world of comics scholarship, there was, well, an actual world of comics scholarship. The first issue of International Journal of Comic Art debuted at the first comics conference I ever attended, which was the Popular Culture Association. So, there were always venues for my scholarship and colleagues to sound ideas off of and expose me to new ideas in turn. I never had to be convinced that studying comics had value, because the scholarly community was already there.
OO: If only we all could feel like that! I think comic scholars can forget the breadth of that scholarly community because they feel isolated in their home departments. What were you reading comics-wise at that time?
MS: Let’s see… the first comics I wrote about in that film paper were almost all formally minded revisionist superhero comics. Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Rick Veitch’s Maximortal, and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. (Which one of these doesn’t belong?) At that point I was all in on the revisionist superhero comics and any inheritors I could find in the world of 90s comics. The first conference paper and later article was about Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Morrison was a huge influence on me at that time in my life, because he was just about the only one of those creators who was still writing superheroes and other genre comics for the big publishers.
OO: Grant Morrison is my frequent answer to the question of popular comics creators whose work I tend to not like. But I do need to check out your book on Morrison.
MS: Again, I think a lot of it is just the accident of timing—I happened to hit my teenage years at exactly the moment that Watchmen and DKR dropped, so I had this idea that superhero comics were growing up along with me and would continue to do so. By the nineties I was looking for anybody who seemed like they might sustain that, and Morrison fit the bill in the sense that his books were perfect for bookish guys in their twenties.
MS: The best kind.
OO: …so I need to revisit. I have the Invisibles complete collection hardcover on my shelf. I have not read that series since it was coming out in single issues.
MS: Some parts of that have not aged well, but I wouldn’t feel bad at all about prompting you to reread that.
OO: Third strike and you’re out, Mister
MS: C’mon, Kingdom Come was clearly against my advice.
OO: LOL. Okay, I’ll let that one slide. So, what about now? What is your relationship to comics right now outside of what your scholarly work directly calls on you to seek out?
MS: I’ve been moving away from serialized comics—I’m only following Green Lantern, The Umbrella Academy, and Criminal right now, which is probably a lifetime low—and reading more graphic novels and collected editions. Well, I can’t say I’m wholly moving away from serial comics, just current ones. I’m still happy to dive into the longboxes and revisit series from years or decades ago; right now I’m doing a George Pérez reread for my next project. But the big publishers aren’t putting out series that I want to read, and creator-owned series like Michel Fiffe’s Copra are sporadic at best, and the price point makes discovering new work a risky or at least expensive proposition. So, for new comics I’ve been moving over to collected or book-length works like Hartley Lin’s Young Frances or Sophie Goldstein’s House of Women or anything by Eleanor Davis.
OO: Time has really flown by! I never even got a chance to ask you about your teaching comics or Omega the Unknown. which are connected in my mind, because you are the only person I know to teach either version (both of which I have written a lot about).
MS: Oh, that went so well. We read the Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple version alongside the first issue of the Gerber, Skrenes, and Mooney series—this was for a class on intersections between comics and the literary world—and they gave us so much to talk about in terms of comics as commodities and intellectual properties. I need to come back to them in future classes. The Mink is the sensational character find of 2008!
OO: The first work by you I ever read was in the process of doing research on Lethem for my Master’s thesis in 2008, I think.
MS: I enjoyed writing that article a lot. Can I just say, after spending five years working on a book about comics I mostly dislike, I completely understand the appeal of only writing about things you love. I think I need to try that again.
OO: I try to do both to avoid a rut. . . So that’s just about it!
MS: Thanks so much for this talk, it was great.
OO: Thank you for agreeing to take part, for talking with me about your book, and congratulations again for producing such a great work that is going to have people talking and responding!
I want to encourage anyone who has an interest in thinking through the state of comics studies in a specific and unrelenting way to pick up Marc’s book, Breaking the Frames and to keep an eye out for his other work. He will be at the CSS Politics/Comics Conference in Toronto this July (so will I!), so if you’re attending and you bring your copy, if you’re lucky maybe you can convince him to sign it for you! Lastly, if you want to read an excerpt from the book The Comics Journal has an exclusive preview available here.