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Review of Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies

By Eric Berlatsky
Singer, Marc. Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies. U of Texas P, 2018.

In the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that Marc Singer and I attended graduate school together some 20 years ago at the University of Maryland and have occasionally communicated collegially since.

Marc Singer’s new book, Breaking the Frames, has already started making waves in the Comics Studies universe. Interviews with the author appear on what is left of the comics blogosphere, and reading groups are under way in the twitterverse. Singer’s direct, acerbic style is described as “owning” and/or “dunking on” comics creators and critics alike, as well as for wounding, if not slaying, many of the field’s sacred cows. Singer finds comics criticism to be insufficiently critical, too fannish, and lacking in rigor and calls for a reversal of those trends. Singer painstakingly dissects the published scholarship on a variety of canonical authors, texts, and movements, revealing it to consist largely of summary, fabrication, reference-hunting, and excuse-making instead of analysis, interrogation, critique, and meaning-making. After reading Breaking the Frames, it is hard to disagree with his conclusions, though there are times when he goes too far or is insufficiently generous to the texts and critics he analyzes.

While Singer allows for the existence of good comics scholarship, he traces two trends that have led the field astray. First, he locates much comics criticism within the orbit of pop culture studies, particularly the shift from a Marxist-influenced “cultural studies” toward a “cultural populism” that has the unfortunate tendency to assert that anything that is popular must also be good by virtue of often unsubstantiated claims that popular texts are subversive of the status quo (9, 37). The second trend derives from a more “elitist” attitude and the collective effort to force particular types of comics (memoir, autobiography, history) into the world of the “literary” projecting onto these comics the concerns, politics, and insights of literary studies even when the comics in question cannot hold that weight. This binary model allows Singer to divide the book into three chapters on superheroes and three chapters on “realistic” and/or “historical” comics of various stripes.

While Singer’s dual heuristic provides a way to divide the problems associated with fannishness and “populism” from those associated with elitism, he only occasionally acknowledges that these two approaches “are not so different as they first seem” (29). If the Comics Studies world is insufficiently willing to recognize and critique the reactionary, ahistorical, sexist, and racist elements of the comics of Alan Moore, Mark Waid, and Warren Ellis, it is at least partially because of a fannish dedication both to those creators and to the history of superhero comics to which they continually refer, parody, pastiche, and recycle. If critics of Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, and Kyle Baker (frequently imported from the world of literary studies) are insufficiently critical of their comics, it is arguably because said critics are “fans” of literary fiction and memoir, of the workshop aesthetic, of historiographic metafiction, and of literary depictions of traumatic events. Certainly, literary criticism frequently finds “value,” insight, subversiveness, and theoretical savvy in texts that do not always justify such findings. It is not uncommon for literary criticism to attribute political, social, and theoretical positions that the critic actually has to the text(s) under examination instead of questioning said texts for the ways in which they fail to do so. The reasons why this occurs are also similar. A Shakespeare or Faulkner critic often begins their career as a “fan” of that author. While it is possible that the literary critics who bring their skills to bear on the likes of Ware, Satrapi, and Baker may not be lifelong “fans” of those authors in particular, they bring the approach of too often fannish discipline to texts they recognize (or co-opt) as part of their field of study. Literary elitists might be understood simply as “fans of the canonical” (or of particular aesthetic choices) just as comics populists are “fans of superheroes.” This is not to say that Singer is wrong, but to suggest that his occasional calls for comics critics to follow the example of work in other fields is hardly the solution he suggests. Singer gestures to this in his discussion of the replacement of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” in literary studies with less critical alternatives (236-37). Nevertheless, he seems to find Comics Studies to be particularly “fannish” despite the cited evidence of similar infractions elsewhere.

With all of the above said, it is hard to argue with Singer’s dismissive condemnation of Henry Jenkins’ celebration of Comics Studies’ devolution to a “prelapsarian treehouse” (6). Readers may also agree with his critique of Lillian Robinson’s reluctance to read the comics she purports to be analyzing (18-19) and of latecomer comics’ scholars anxious desire to avoid the word “comics” (19). Likewise, chapter one’s essay on Eco and superheroes is careful and revealing, while his dismissal of critics like Ndalianis, Collins, and Kukkonen who have misread Eco for their own problematic purposes is well-taken. Citing Jim McGuigan, Singer charges these critics with reflexively defending superhero comics on the grounds that “popular receptions are... aligned with the scholar’s progressive values” (53). In so doing, they make claims that contemporary superhero comics do not fit comfortably within the theoretical construct Eco provides, while Singer shows that Eco’s work remains more relevant than these critics’.

Chapter two builds on the above in order to deconstruct the supposed difference between “revisionist” and “reconstructive” superhero comics. In this section, Singer suggests that both species betray a nostalgic addiction to their own past, though revisionist comics like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are more likely to also furnish a critique of the genre and the society that produces them. Singer notes how reconstructive comics’ uncritical pastiches tend to not only consist of pointless revisitations of past characters and themes, but also (sometimes accidentally) express nostalgia for the most problematic portions of America’s past. To be nostalgic for the Silver Age of superheroes, as in the case of Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come is also to be nostalgic for an even more sexist culture, for Jim Crow, and for endemic homophobia. Singer notes how Warren Ellis’ and John Cassaday’s Planetary flatters readers’ fan knowledge by including obvious intertextual references, but has no purpose beyond celebrating past pop culture and exhibiting a blind allegiance to authority. In the cases of Kingdom Come and Alan Moore and Rob Liefeld’s Judgment Day, Singer argues that revisionist comics’ “darkness” and “gritty realism” are symbolically allied with racial diversity (specifically blackness), and thus the reconstructive condemnation of such comics condemns blackness, while falling into the use of blackface and sambo stereotypes. Similarly, Moore and J. H. Williams’ Promethea, in Singer’s reading, presents itself as feminist while it symbolically “endorses the logic of patriarchy” and implies that rape has positive consequences (85).

This chapter includes a valid critique of a critic like Sean Carney who is quick to attribute his own views to Moore and to ignore the problematic politics of his comics, as well as a less fair critique of Geoff Klock’s How To Read Superhero Comics and Why. Singer acknowledges that Klock does consider the politics of revisionist comics (81), while also drawing from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence to explore their engagement with their predecessors. Singer argues that Klock is overreliant on Bloom to the exclusion of other theorists and insufficiently attentive to the material conditions of the comics’ production. Nevertheless, Klock’s book is a useful one for understanding revisionist comics like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. While Klock does not cover all of the angles, it is surely not each critics’ individual job to do so, but the responsibility of the field as a whole. Singer correctly notes that there is more work to be done, but it is a bit unfair to suggest that Klock must be the one to do it.

Chapter three’s reading of Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen follows a similar path. Again, Singer notes that critics tends to find League to be critical of the sexist, racist, and colonialist tendencies of the Victorian era it depicts, while in truth League more frequently reproduces those attitudes. Singer convincingly argues that while the first League volumes present a more critical, complex and nuanced view of empire, race, and sexuality (117-18), the later volumes (Black Dossier, Century, and Nemo) devolve into celebrations of the British Adventure Hero, prurient depictions of sexual violence, and stereotypical representations of black and brown people. As Singer shows, comics critics (perhaps blinkered by Moore’s more progressive earlier work) have largely ignored or excused these elements in the name of a misunderstood “postmodernism” (114). In addition, Singer critiques the hypocrisy of Moore’s objections to the appropriation of his own work by others while simultaneously using others’ characters to animate the League franchise. Singer also accurately exposes Moore’s tendency to deflect criticism by asserting that his work is “merely fiction” as inconsistent with his attempts to self-consciously deconstruct the boundary between reality and imagination (104). Likewise, Singer insightfully skewers Moore’s disingenuous arguments using early 20th-century “high art” as a comparative cudgel to bash recent pop culture. Singer’s legitimate ire is directed more at Moore and League than it is at particular critics, though the critical tendency to treat reactionary texts as subversive and/or progressive is also effectively exposed. In truth, though Moore’s work is still occasionally fascinating reading, it more frequently has the pitfalls that Singer identifies, and Singer does the cottage industry of Moore criticism a service by pointing them out.

The chapter on Chris Ware also levels fair criticism at the artist, his contemporaries, and their critics. He notes the ways in which “alternative” and particularly autobiographical comics “perform marginality” by portraying the increasingly legitimated medium of comics as still marginal, while at the same time attempting to confer legitimacy by partaking of the legitimated slice-of-life fiction and memoir genres. These comics distance themselves from the generic history of comics (particularly superheroes) while associating themselves with those comics’ marginal status. Singer argues that Ware’s (and others’) extended focus on white male angst in a suburban setting, particularly as it relates to the purported difficulty of cartooning itself, completes a performance of marginality that is unearned. Despite Ware’s unchallenged reputation as a formal innovator, Singer makes the case that he is “workshop-conventional” in terms of his subject matter and his grasping for legitimacy, making him hardly the trailblazer, at least in certain areas, that critics make him out to be.

Chapter five’s reading of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis debunks several myths. First, Singer is unconvinced by the critical tendency to compare Satrapi’s art to Persian miniatures, identifying this reading as a byproduct of the critical effort to attribute the “exotic” to writers from marginalized ethnic groups. This tendency is compounded by the critical trend that isolates Satrapi from her mentor David B. and the other French bandes desinées creators in L’Association, while also (falsely) claiming that she had read virtually no comics as a child. Singer’s careful untangling of Satrapi’s influences (and lack thereof), along with both self- and critical mythologization is enlightening, as it reveals how critics have made Satrapi what they wish her to be. His critique of Persepolis itself is less convincing, however. His claims that Satrapi consistently “endorses” the viewpoint of young Marji, the comics’ narrator, to the point of confirming her belief that she talks to God (and is thus chosen by Him) seems insufficiently open to the element of irony. As Singer points out, Persepolis is somewhat atypical in its unwillingness to overtly draw attention to the flaws in its own narration. However, at least in my estimation, Singer’s claim that “readers are invited only to accept Satrapi’s interpretations, never to challenge them” (169) is overstated. For instance, one might take God’s periodic appearances in the text not as evidence of Marji’s “chosenness” but rather of her unreliability. Likewise, Marji’s selfishness and her tendency to privilege her personal problems over traumatic national events, can be read not only as narcissism on Satrapi’s part, but also as a critique of her younger self. Singer’s claim that there is insufficient “signaling” to the reader in the text that one is supposed to question Marji’s point-of-view is, at the very least, open to debate.

Singer’s argument that critics are quick to find Satrapi to be a feminist and an anti-colonialist more in accordance with their own views than with hers (which he finds to be “humanist” and “neoliberal”) is more convincing, given the tendency by literary scholars to (uncritically?) graft their own views onto the texts they examine. Ultimately, the claim that critics exoticize Persepolis, while claiming that the text itself is critical of an exoticizing Orientalism, points to the worst elements of multicultural literary criticism. Here, as elsewhere, frequently white critics attribute the projected (antiessentialist, subversive) views of an entire “other” ethnic group onto a text produced by an individual from that group, whether the text fits the bill or not. Singer’s critique of that tendency applies to Persepolis, to Comics Studies, and to a segment of literary criticism well.

The final chapter, on Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner, is in many ways the most provocative and challenging of them all. Singer traces the ways in which critics praise Turner for its historical accuracy, while research indicates that it is not and, indeed, that Baker self-consciously sacrifices accuracy for Hollywood-style drama. Likewise, critics praise Turner for its anti-racist qualities, while Singer observes that it traffics in stereotypes of black masculinity and “servile minstrel caricatures” (199). Singer’s broad claims about the book hit home, though his delving into the minutia of the source-dating of Baker’s drawings seems largely irrelevant, as does his analysis of moon phases. These seem useful only to “prove” by the small detail the historical inaccuracy of Nat Turner, even when it is clear that these minor details are hardly the point. At the same time, in his zeal to debunk Turner and its critics, Singer ignores some of the most interesting elements of the book. Baker creates an alternative model of causality for the Southampton rebellion than that provided by Thomas Gray’s version in the “original” Confessions by including unverifiable (i.e. fabricated) details about Turner’s mother’s life in Africa, the flight of Turner’s father, and the sale of Turner’s wife and children, While Baker never fully departs from or debunks the Gray/Turner version, he does provide a narrative in which Turner’s rebellion is possibly revenge for, or at least a response to, his own treatment and the broader inhumanity of slavery, alongside the Gray version in which Turner is a perhaps somewhat unhinged prophet/visionary.

That is, through providing a second narrative alongside the Gray/Turner account, it is at least arguable that Baker encourages the reader to be skeptical about both. As Singer points out, there is no self-conscious gesture to the inaccuracy of the Gray/Turner account and/or the extra material provided, but there are two somewhat mutually exclusive narratives within the book that intrinsically challenge one another. Singer is correct that Baker’s book can hardly be called historically accurate and likewise it fits incompletely into critical claims that the book is “historiographic metafiction.” Nevertheless, Singer’s claim that Nat Turner asks us to “uncritically accept [Baker’s] narrative as history” and that the book is best described pejoratively as a “period movie” (220) underplays some of its clever pitting of long stretches of silent non-Gray/Turner panels/pages against or alongside the mostly faithful illustration of Gray/Turner prose (though the Gray version of Turner’s rebellion is equally problematic). When Singer dismisses Baker’s book as mostly “bullshit” (however theoretically the term is used), he does so at the expense of a full analysis of what meanings its inaccuracies generate (221).

Singer closes by condemning Baker’s failure to show the aftermath of the Turner rebellion, particularly the gory and cruel reprisals made by white governments and landowners in the area. Certainly, Singer is correct that a fully rounded picture of the rebellion could and should explore these circumstances rather than painting Turner as a hero whose actions inspired only good. At the same time, Singer’s critique comes close to somehow blaming Turner both for the failure of his rebellion and for the racist response to it. Singer critiques Baker and his critics for removing Turner from culpability for his own actions, including the murder of children, but surely Turner is not “culpable” for the violence committed against blacks as retribution for the rebellion, a point Singer could and should have made more clearly. Likewise, Singer’s claim that Baker and some of his critics remove Turner “from moral judgment” (229) does not jibe with my own experience reading the book, as some of the actions depicted are so extreme (particularly the killing of babies) that moral judgment (along with physical revulsion) seems inevitable. Singer does readers of Nat Turner a signal service by providing much of the historical context that Baker and many of his critics neglect. Likewise, the questions he raises are precisely those questions worth asking in a classroom setting. At the same time, some of his conclusions are unfair to a book that is more provocative and complex than Singer allows.

In this, Singer’s reading of Nat Turner is a microcosm of Breaking the Frames as a whole. Throughout the book, Singer’s fastidious attention to textual, historical, and material detail opens up new avenues of meaning and criticism for the texts, authors, periods, and trends he analyzes. At the same time, some of the book’s more strident conclusions are questionable, or at least arguable, which is why, in the spirit of the book itself, I have above argued against some of them. What is inarguable is that Breaking the Frames is an important contribution to Comics Studies. Singer is unafraid to confront previous practices and scholarship and find them wanting. It is only through such clear-eyed and meticulous criticism that we can all take the necessary steps to do better.

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