University Press of Mississippi
I’m more than a bit jealous of anyone who got to take a college course on graphic novels, because that sounds like one fun elective. The coolest class I ever got to take at the University of Oklahoma was on Alfred Hitchcock. As much as I admire the master of suspense, I would’ve rather studied “Master Race,” the legendary Holocaust shocker from EC Comics’ 1955 debut issue of “Impact.”
That influential piece merits an entire chapter of “A Comics Studies Reader,” a University Press of Mississippi essay collection on “the form, craft, history, and significance of the comics,” edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Since academics has helped legitimize comics as an art form to be taken seriously, it only makes sense that an entire book of scholarly entries put illustrated fiction under the microscope, including Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman. It very well could serve as the required-reading textbook for that course I never had the opportunity to ace.
Kicking off the anthology of 28 essays is France-based comics historian Thierry Groensteen, who asks “ despite plenty of evidence to the contrary “ why so much of the mainstream refuses to see comics other than disposable, lowest-common-denominator kids’ stuff. “In short, comic art, has nothing left to prove,” he argues. “If its validity as an art form appears self-evident, it is curious that the legitimizing authorities (universities, museums, the media) still regularly charge it with being infantile, vulgar, or insignificant. This as if the whole of the genre were to be lowered to the level of its most mediocre products “ and its most remarkable incarnations ignored.”
How did it get this way? Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comics in the 1950s certainly did more damage than anyone else, claiming “ with no facts to back him up “ that reading them encouraged kids to kill and dope up, and that Batman and Robin were gay. Thanks to this “Reader,” fans may peruse “ likely for the first time “ an excerpt from his anti-comics screed, “Seduction of the Innocent.” He comes off like a crackpot, noting that we should be thankful Superman’s chest insignia only sports one “S” instead of two! (More of Wertham’s witch hunt is explored in the next chapter, as Amy Kiste Nyberg discusses “William Gaines and the Battle of EC Comics.”)
The book does more than chronicle comics’ bad reputation, however. For example, M. Thomas Inge presents interesting parallels between “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz and “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Two Boys from the Twin Cities.” Robert S. Petersen wonders why sound effects are so important in Japanese comics in “The Acoustics of Manga” (it has to do with Japan having a wider range of onomatopoeic expressions than most countries). And who knew there was a science to panel numeration? Joseph Witek, apparently, in “The Arrow and the Grid.”