Comics versus Art: Interview with Bart Beaty

Ernesto Priego talks to Bart Beaty about his latest book, Comics versus Art (2012).

Bart Beaty author photo
Bart Beaty

Bart Beaty is Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Calgary. His books include Fredric Wertham and Critique of Mass Culture (2005), Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (2007) and Comics Versus Art (2012), which is the focus of this interview.

He has translated books by Groensteen (2007), Gabilliet (2010), and Smolderen (forthcoming, 2013). He is the editor of the eight volumes of The Salem Encyclopedia of Graphic Novels (2012-2013) and is currently working on a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, examining intermediality in the practice of comics artists.

Comics versus Art, by Bart Beaty (University of Toronto Press, 2012) Cover.

Comics versus Art  can be bought online directly from the University of Toronto Press, here.

Ernesto Priego: In Comics versus Art, you have written that the book’s goal is to “explicate the ways in which the initial interactions” of the comics world and the art world “were filled with various kinds of antagonism”. How would you describe the methodologies that allowed you to explicate these interactions?

Bart Beaty: I’ve always tried to avoid methodological orthodoxy in my work. My Wertham book was an extensive archival project, while Unpopular Culture relied on a large number of interviews. This book focuses to a greater extent on the discursive frameworks that have existed around comics for more than a century, and I approached it in a much more archaeological fashion – attempting to excavate broad discussions from old EC fanzines and Sotheby’s catalogues.

Theoretically, the work is still very much influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Howard Becker, and Arthur Danto, whose sociology of culture provides a lens for examining comics and art as distinct but overlapping fields, but I haven’t given it to the kind of empirical rigor that can be found in Bourdieu’s work.

EP: Now that it’s published as a book, has your perception of what you set out to do changed?

BB: I’m not sure that I’ve changed my mind on many of these issues, but presenting the work certainly allowed it to evolve and be refined. The only part of the book that was previously published was the chapter on Roy Lichtenstein. It’s expanded in this version, tightened somewhat because some of the original material on Jack Kirby moved to another chapter, and, importantly, I brought in the discussion of Nietzsche. That was something that someone actually suggested I look at after I published that essay, and I think it helps to clarify the ideas. I was lucky on this book to have presented almost every chapter to an audience at least once, and I received some tremendous feedback.

The original argument in the Crumb chapter, for instance, was cruder than it is here, and I really benefitted from presenting that work to museum curators. The chapter on Gary Panter originally had a lot more material on art magazines other than Juxtapoz, and that was cleared out after talking to a number of art historians. I think this kind of crowd-sourcing is really vital for this kind of work, and it really helped me to understand some of assumptions that people from other disciplines would bring to this work.

Can the antagonism expressed by your book’s title be deconstructed? In other words, can “the supremacy of the hegemonic endgame of cultural value” (p. 209) ever be critically or practically dismantled beyond the mere subsumation of the subaltern (comics) into the mainstream (the art world)?

This is really a core question, and in a lot of ways it is highly speculative. I’d like to believe that the answer is that yes, this relationship can be dismantled, but it is striking that it really never has been. In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of Marxist and post-Marxian challenges to capitalism – it is much easier to envision a new social alignment after capitalism than it is to attain that model, particularly on a large scale.

In the same way, it is easy to envision a world in which comics are not considered a genuine art form – since that was the situation for hundreds of years. It is also easy to imagine a world in which some cartoonists are welcomed into the art world. This is the game that shows like Masters of American Comics played, and it has worked well for people like Crumb, Spiegelman and Ware. I think that this is the situation in which we now find ourselves.

What is more difficult to imagine is a context in which comics are regarded culturally as the equivalents of painting or poetry without being subsumed by them. Certainly the process would require decades of effort. You would need to create comics institutions – museums, for example – that were as well endowed financially as MoMA or LACMA or the Tate and Pompidou.

I think that effort is underway at present, but it is really in its nascent stage. Furthermore, the obvious pitfall is that in an effort to avoid being absorbed into a larger art world, the comics world runs the risk of simply replicating the biases of what they’re trying to avoid (I would argue that the Masters show fell into this trap).

The most difficult option is to try to completely reverse and upend those biases. That’s a more challenging task, because the biases are so commonplace in our culture. Comics scholars receive very little condemnation when we teach Crumb, Spiegelman and Ware (and Satrapi and Bechdel and…). When we do receive raised eyebrows is when we teach Archie and other works that are “not serious” or “not sophisticated”. The route that the comics world might have taken would have been to fundamentally challenge that ideology. To reject those sorts of claims altogether. If you look at the type of work that we’ve published as scholars and taught as teachers though, we’ve largely failed to do that. And I include myself in that group even as I recognize that this might have been the more productive direction to go.

Indeed. This takes me to the relationship between social class, technological conditions of production and distribution and taste. What is the role that physical format plays in the social appreciation of comics as a form?

BB: The physicality of comics has been tremendously important when it comes to processes of legitimizing the form. This is something that I talked about at length with regard to the European context in my previous book, Unpopular Culture, but it is just as important in the United States.

If we assume, for argument’s sake, that the public perception of comics has been on an upswing since the publication of Maus, then it is imperative Spiegelman’s work was serialized from 1980 to 1991, with the first six chapters collected in 1986 and the last five collected in 1991. The serialization in RAW brought incredible attention to Spiegelman – check old issues of The Comics Journal for reviews as it was coming out – but if the book had never been collected as “a graphic novel” its cultural impact might have been close to negligible.

In my chapter dealing with Maus I also talk about Krigstein and Feldstein’s “Master Race”, which is well known among comic book aficionados and virtually unheard of by the public at large, because it appeared in a semi-obscure comic book in 1955 and has been only sporadically reprinted. If Maus had had a similar run, I think it would have had a similar lifespan. The same could be said of Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Acme Novelty Library – it’s only when these works are turned into books that they find the audience that they need to make a significant cultural impact.

The shift in American comics towards book-length works, and book publication has been sudden, dramatic, and definitive. In 1998 I published an essay in The Comics Journal arguing that serialization of serious comics was effectively dead (“Pickle, Poot, and the Cerebus Effect”) which drew a sharp response from Gary Groth arguing the necessity of regular titles. Fifteen years later, Fantagraphics doesn’t publish any titles in that fashion. Essentially, floppy comics are not serious. As I show in my chapter on collecting, they are framed not as an art form but as a piece of nostalgia. They are quaint. The gentrification of comics over the past two decades since the publication of the second Maus book has really gone hand in hand with the shift in format towards books and away from periodicals and magazines.

Do you think this “gentrification” of comics could also see, as an expression of the same phenomenon, a return to the appreciation of floppies as valuable cultural artefacts?

BB: I’d imagine that’s very likely! And I think that a lot of similarly styled arguments will unfold about the value of the floppy format and also of the serialization model. It’s clear to me that reading comics on paper is different than reading them on an iPad, and it’s clear that reading Sandman in a couple of sittings over a couple of evenings is different than reading it as a monthly comic over the course of six years. In my opinion, it’s not a “better” or “worse”, but it is “different” and I think as scholars we need to account for those differences.

As for floppies, it seems to me that a lot of value has been lost from the back issue market as more titles become widely available in a range of formats. You can buy a complete run of Sandman floppies pretty inexpensively, for example. Ultimately, some of the romance of the floppies will come back for some readers – but I think that their era of dominance of the market is now over.

EP: As a final question, I noticed the absence of two items in Comics versus Art’s Index. One is “digital”, and the other is “Eco, Umberto”. Could digital media be unsettling what Eco saw as the opposition between the “Apocalyptic” and the “Integrated”?

BB: I consciously left the consideration of digital comics out of the book because I still feel that the area remains unsettled. It’s clear to me that webcomics are now well established and are due for serious academic consideration. Digital comics – or digital versions of print comics – still strike me as very much in flux. Key publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly have barely dipped their toes in these waters, and Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse still seem to be in a feeling around stage. There seems to be very little data released about how well these digital comics are selling, and also about how much they are being pirated. Frankly, the pirating phenomenon strikes me as much more significant and interesting, but it is still somewhat formative as well.

My next book – which at this point I am calling Comics Off the Page – will examine comics artists who are bringing comics into conversation with other art forms like dance, musical performance, painting, sculpture, and architecture. I am reasonably certain that that book will conclude with a consideration of digital comics, and I hope that the situation is somewhat clearer to me at that time.

As for Eco, he fell out of one of the earlier drafts. I was particularly struck by some of his comments on seriality and characterization as it pertains to Peanuts, and I discussed some of this on the section on Charles Schulz. Unfortunately, the early drafts of the book were almost twice as long as the finished product, so a lot had to go.

I definitely do think that Eco is an important figure here, particularly because his interests were so wide-ranging and he modelled a form of scholarship that tried hard not to draw hard and fast distinctions between these various forms of cultural endeavor. I think that, as with the digital world, the kind of reconciliation that Eco is sometimes able to generate is the subject of the next book – this one strikes me as having to do a lot more with tracing the history of the antagonism than with efforts to try to solve it.

Comics versus Art by Bart Beaty can be bought online directly from the University of Toronto Press, here.

About the author

Ernesto Priego has contributed 47 articles.

Ernesto Priego lives in London and is the editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship. He lectures on library science and related fields including scholarly publishing, digital humanities and comics scholarship.

Author: Ernesto Priego

Ernesto Priego lives in London and is the editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship. He lectures on library science and related fields including scholarly publishing, digital humanities and comics scholarship.