Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dan Mazur's and Alexander Danner's Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present

Dan Mazur, Alexander Danner, Comics A Global History, 1968 To the Present, Thames & Hudson, 2014

While flipping through the book it was my whole life as a comics reader that I saw passing by.
Domingos Isabelinho

History and comics was never a good match. There are a few reasons why: 1) most so-called comics histories were written by fans which means that they weren't written by professional historians (comics fans are public servants, businessmen, lawyers, etc... etc... few have any kind of aesthetic education, I guess - if they did have such an education the comics canon would be much different from what it is, for sure...); 2) fans are also collectors and collectors are completists obsessed with who did what and raw data, hence, comics histories written by fans are not histories proper, but collections of facts; 3) comics fans writing comics histories don't use any methodology available to art historians; 4) apart from their own perspective as fans they don't approach their object of study from gender, post-colonial or queer studies... etc... I mean, they don't practice the, by now, quite old, New Art History; 5) comics fans have not a shadow of critical sense because they're fanatics and fanatics, as we know, don't think... to them everything is equally good (they are what Tom Spurgeon called, the Team Comics); 6) comics fans are absolutely parochial ignoring everything that falls outside of their interest area. I could go on...

What would be, then, a great comics history? It depends. To avoid social contextualization is almost impossible, I would say; formalism has a bad rep these days. Is it wrong to do close readings of particular comics, then? Of course not, if those close readings are done has a means to an end and not as an end in itselves. On the other hand that's just my take. The truth is that many perspectives are possible. For instance, here's what John Lent said (International Journal of Comic Art Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 2014, 21):
Using elements in the communication paradigm (communicator, message, channel, and audience), comics studies fall short at every stage of the continuum, except for the message (text), which receives considerable attention. 
John goes on saying, for instance, that "the publishers [are] virgin research territory." This means that a history of comics may assume many forms and not all of them involve aesthetic evaluation. Two of the best comics histories (if not the only two worth mentioning), David Kunzle's monumental history of comics from the 16th. to the 19th. century (in two volumes) and Comics Strips and Consumer Culture 1890 - 1945 by Ian Gordon, are two such books. Which is unfortunate for yours truly because I would love to see an old fashioned aesthetically discriminative account of the history of comics, brimming with white dead men and all (with the occasional Geo Herriman thrown into the mix for good measure, of course).  

Is Comics, A Global History, 1968 To the Present by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner such a book? Well, yes, and no... Yes, because everybody is in there; no because you just need to look at the cover to see that, if The Shadow is included, the authors also included a lot of dreck. 

The problem, or the question, that I'm really facing is as follows: comics are both an art form and an industry (even if most people just view them as the latter), can a history of comics ignore half of that equation? I would, for the most part, of course, but I would be completely wrong if doing so. Because, you see?, aesthetically it's impossible to separate the two. Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner are perfectly correct when they stress Charles Schulz's Peanuts influence on North American alternative comics artists. And that's just an example. They're also right when they talk about Jack Kirby's influence on Aristophane's Conte Demoniaque. And yet...  I would never say things like "the high level of artistry and imagination comics creators could bring to the form, in the decades when it was primarily a commercial children's medium." This in a legend to a mediocre Tintin magazine cover by Bob de Moor!, of all people! Since the above quote practically opens the book, that's what I call to start with the wrong foot. Also, the fact that mainstream artists (I'm strongly fighting against the urge to use the word "hacks"!) have influenced other artists doesn't mean that they're on the same aesthetic level: Aristophane was a better artist than Jack Kirby, obviously. Joost Swarte is better than Hergé.

Giving equal space to Moebius and Fabrice Neaud does a disservice to the history of comics. I understand that Mazur and Danner answered my above question by writing a history of the best that the industry has to offer (I don't have any doubts about that either) and the best that the art form has to offer. This, at first glance, seems like the right thing to do, but it throws everybody into the same indiscriminate cauldron (that damn Asterix!, my metaphors are proof enough that I'm being influenced by the book I'm reviewing!, help!).

Now, the good parts are very good. Chapter 16, for instance, is one of the best syntheses that I've read about French / Belgian alternative comics of the 1990s. As I said above, everybody is in there (except the Canicola collective and Pierre Duba, that is) and flipping through the book when I received it I was immediately struck by memories of reading The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James and Raw magazine, Mat Brinkman and  John Porcellino, Baudoin and Vincent Fortemps, Yoshiharu Tsuge and Alberto Breccia along with many others who filled my comics reading hours. Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner wrote reviews of every author's work contextualizing it in comics streams, never leaving the closed comics world to venture into society's larger realms. That's OK to comics readers, I suppose, but it may be too fannish to those who don't read comics regularly (will they buy this kind of book though?).

The best this book has to offer, beyond including the best comics artists of the last, panorama changing, forty five years, is the global approach. To return to historiography, the global (transnational) look at historical events is a contemporary tendency that tries to transcend national(istic) historical narratives. As the first attempt to do so in comics historiography this book is a landmark. Maybe not as important as Kunzle's books, but that's a tall order to match.

Since I should change this blog's title to "Viva Oesterheld," I'll finish with another pet peeve. The book's intro goes back before 1968 to find the roots of adult comics. In doing so it features Ltn. Blueberry by Charlier and Giraud (Moebius) failing to mention Sgt. Kirk by Oesterheld, Pratt et all. That's like citing Van Meegeren instead of citing Vermeer (also, I don't agree that Pilote magazine is that important). Finally, how can anyone cite the mediocre British comic strip "Modesty Blaise" and forget the masterpiece "Matt Marriott"? Kudos to the inclusion of "Carol Day" by David Wright, though.

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