GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Fantastic Reading: Comic Books and Popular Culture



Mary L. Churchill
Northeastern University, Boston

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Popular Culture and the Comic Book
Chapter 3 Cutting up Comics: Re-drawing and Re-reading
Chapter 4 Reading Performances as Social Participation
Chapter 5 Expert Comic Book Readers: More than a Subculture
Chapter 6 Conclusion


Chapter 1: Introduction.

Comic book reading is an act of social participation. I will refer to what I call the “expert reader” as an exemplary and representative figure. I assume in this regard that reading comics seriously is not qualitatively different from casual reading. Through their omnipresence and availability alone, comic books possess the ability to remind us of the fundamentally social nature of culture. But there is something about their structure as objects, the relationship between image, text, and layout, that defies the ordinary notion of reading as an isolated act in which the reader gives herself exclusively to an autonomous content through the text. Reading a comic book extends the act and the reader into popular culture in a way that I conceive of as collective and performative, and it is this that Fantastic Reading is intended to make explicit. The book strategically places the comic book at the center of contemporary debates about culture. It begins with the assumption that comic books are instances or tokens of popular culture and, as such, they are both unbounded and multi-dimensional. In order to clarify this, I discuss five basic ideas that reflect recent changes in the theory and method of cultural studies: (1) culture is generative rather than a sedimentation of the past; (2) participation in popular culture involves an active engagement with its objects (which are in principle open and shareable); (3) active engagement with cultural objects of this sort is continuous with being cultural as well as social; (4) the comic book form has properties that are intrinsically motivating; (5) expert readers are representative of how comic books are typically read but they are also exemplary of the norm implicit in the reading of comic books.

Most would now agree that the cultural significance of comic books has been underestimated and misunderstood by traditional criticism that assumes an independent and rational standard of evaluation demonstrated largely through institutional and financial support and by the consensus among traditional critics. Fantastic Reading considers the comic book as an example of the generative and creative properties of culture which are features that are only intelligible if reading is performative and if the object is capable of being an object of performativity. Reframing the idea of culture in this way and in this regard allows us to examine the structural features of intrinsically performative objects such as comic books. This begins with an identification of the qualities of comic books that give them their special social and cultural significance, through a detailed description and analysis of examples. Writings of and inter-views with comic book artists and accounts of instances of reading by expert readers are supplemented by several thought experiments having to do with modifying structure and exploring the implications of various modifications for reading.

Analysis of the comic book as a destabilizing object that embodies and elicits the social allows me to show how reading can be an act of participation in the culturally generative process of confirming the social aspect of life. Fantastic Reading focuses on the transformations that have taken place in our concepts of culture and the popular and on how the cultural object must be thought of according to the idea that culture is both generative and popularly engaging in a social way. Reading comic books is, in a sense, object-driven and essentially dialogical. Readers regularly reference other texts, figures, events, and the like from past, present, and future, and they apparently do this while reading and not only when reporting on reading. That is one way in which the reading of comic books can be understood as socially participatory. Another, and perhaps more important, way involves analyzing the structure of the comic book in order to show what about it inevitably constitutes a participatory aspect of the activity of reading. I illustrate this through close readings of comic books, experiments involving redrawing and rereading portions of them, and interviews with readers in the midst of reading. The idea that reading comic books is essentially dialogical challenges the claim that one can distinguish between high and low culture on the grounds that each requires a different degree of seriousness or that the value of one is superior to the value of the other. Popular culture, which is now thought of in cultural studies as neither high nor low, is socially reflexive and, as I hope to show, is “one of the sites where this struggle for and against the struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged…. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured” (Stuart Hall). I qualify this by arguing that the most significant mean-ing of “a culture of the powerful” is a strictly individualistic culture in which performativity has no place.

Chapter 2: Popular Culture and the Comic Book.

Comic books are popular texts which facilitate participation in the generative aspect of culture and constitute an experience of sociality at the level of the individual. Chapter one provides the reader with an overview of the conceptual frameworks utilized in Fantastic Reading and introduces the following theoretical concepts: popular culture, culture, the popular, and the social. It presents a short history of the debates around the use of these concepts, leading to a discussion of culture as a generative course of activity. Among the theorists addressed are Thompson, Bakhtin, Butler, Burke, Hall, Samuel, and Shiach. Their writings differ from the earlier model of culture as the fixed sedimentation of tradition (Parsons, Bell). Structural-functionalists such as Talcott Parsons present culture as a relatively stable institution based on shared values and meanings. Culture viewed within this framework is a conservative force based on tradition (Parsons, Bell). The framework is, however, overly general and fails to account for the fluidity and the disruptive qualities of culture which allow for a more positive view of popular culture in the constitution of society. Logically, it follows that a theory of culture that does not seriously address the role of the popular in society will not leave room for a serious discussion of popular mobilizations and social movements.

Conversely, if one no longer conceives of culture as a totality of relatively fixed shared values and meanings and as essentially inert, then the types of activities deemed appropriate as objects of cultural studies must be intrinsically more ambiguous than had been thought, and the types of ambiguity they manifest must be the sort which sustains activity, which promotes difference and engages forms of participation and pleasure. Fantastic Reading begins from the premise that the activity of culture is one that places the ideas of participation and identity at the center, viewing the reading of comic books as an instance of participation. This said, if reading comic books is participation in the social, then the comic book itself must have properties that facilitate participation and I explore these properties in a way that allows me to rethink the nature of cultural artifacts. The comic book looks very different when framed according to a generative view of culture. Following the lead of comic book artists, this analysis moves away from the high art/low art debate and instead focuses on the unique features of comic books and the ways in which those features come together to create the comic book (McCloud, Eisner, Carrier).

Earlier conceptions of comic books have focused on the hybrid qualities of the comic book, drawing comparisons to film, literature, and paintings. However, more recent explorations by comic book writers, artists, and critics argue for a medium unto its own, positing that comic books and graphic novels inhabit their own space within the world of literature and visual representations. Fantastic Reading explores in some detail the properties of comic books that suggest that this is true, focusing on both literary and visual properties. Furthermore, these features facilitate a certain type of reading in people who truly engage the object.

Chapter 3: Cutting up Comics: Re-drawing and Re-reading.

As a form of popular culture, the comic book compels expert comic book readers to partake in the social, to constitute sociality. Moving from artifact of the comic book to the process of reading comic books, this chapter analyzes reading through an experimental ‘cut and paste’ method to highlight the unique elements of the comic book and the ways in which these elements impact the process of reading and ultimately, of participation.

Fantastic Reading highlights the fact that reading comic books needs to be understood in terms of the history and qualities of comic books and the nature of reading something with that history and those qualities. As I show in this chapter, the combination of text and image engenders a reading process that has momentum yet is constantly disrupting itself. This disruption is facilitated by technical aspects of the medium which include elements specific to comic books – such as panel-to-panel transitions, placement of text, style of lettering, etc. In addition to these aspects, the distinctive combination of the visual, textual and narrative in comic books allows for a different type of reading, a reading which provides for an increased recognition of process and of the hand of the artist (Eisner, McCloud, Harvey).

In this chapter, I redraw pages from comic books to allow the reader to join me in “stopping time” to look at the process of reading comic books. When people read comics, they engage the space between the materiality of images and the thought-provoking linearity of text and connect with the tension intrinsic to this space. A manipulation of panel-to-panel changes and the accompanying analyses bring about a heightened awareness of the steps involved in reading comic books and consequently, facilitate the exploration of a conception of culture as creative, active, and fluid. As comic book artists have known for years, the reader has little choice but to create and recreate the narrative from panel to panel (McCloud).

The special characteristics of the comic, the contradictory elements that motivate read-ing, allow one to say that it is a process of continual re-ordering. The reader becomes increasingly involved in dealing with the ambiguities and other such tensions which are inherent in the object, drawing upon their own personal histories to make sense of their readings. Specifically, the comic book reader is implicated in a kind of dialectic in which visual associations and linear narration interact, producing thought processes realized only at the point at which what is read joins what is practiced beyond mere reading, in the social reflexivity of popular culture.

Chapter 4: Reading Performances as Social Participation.

Expert comic book readers approach comic book reading as an active form of social participation. In Fantastic Reading, expert comic book readers are defined as readers with a sustained history of comic book reading, reading at least a book a week for the past two years. This chapter focuses on the uncontainable and multi-directional process of participation in popular culture, through an analysis of the ‘reading performances’ of several experts. As part of a longer, in-depth inter-view, expert comic book readers were asked to read aloud, to perform a reading of selected texts. Their performances allow us to reexamine the process of reading, and ultimately, the process of participation, through the framework of the comic book.

An exploration of what happens when people read comic books must also ask why we should stop to look at this process. There is something aesthetically pleasing and intensely social involved in reading comic books which occurs in the connection between a subject (the expert comic book reader) and a seemingly fixed object (the comic book). Fantastic Reading posits that three major areas account for the pleasure and semblance of sociality: the everyday social accessibility of comic books; the freedom they have as a conventionally degraded art form; and the creative reading that the medium requires of its readers. The activity that occurs when people engage artifacts of popular culture such as the comic book is not oriented merely by consumption but also by a desire for participation. The reader’s engagement takes the form of an interaction which is responsive not just to a fixed form and content but, takes the form of an attraction to the destabilizing features and intrinsic ambiguities of the object. This tension is explored through an analysis of reading performances by expert comic book readers.

Subsequent to the performances, the readers interviewed were asked to reflect upon their own readings and the different types of readings they produced. This is illustrated through an analysis of the kinds of comments readers made about the process of reading a comic book in the midst of reading it and upon reflection. Expert comic book readers discuss their own readings in ways that highlight their awareness of the social nature of comic book reading, making connections to other texts, new forms of social media, people, peer groups, and social gatherings. In providing details of their own reading histories and reading processes, the expert comic book readers in Fantastic Reading illustrate the multi-directional nature of this social and cultural activity.

Chapter 5: Expert Comic Book Readers: More than a Subculture.

Expert comic book readers are active cultural participants in society, exhibiting complex and varied interests and social connections. This chapter shows that participants in popular culture -such as comic book readers – have been depicted in numerous ways. The polar ends of these depictions come from radically different schools of thought. At one extreme is the image of the comic book reader as a passive recipient of mass culture (Rosenberg and White). The opposite extreme provides a more positive and active depiction of the relationship between popular culture and politics, based on the notions of subculture and resistance (Hebdige, Hall et al (eds.)). In Fantastic Reading, comic book readers are depicted as multi-dimensional, moving beyond the mass society literature while avoiding reducing participation in popular culture to politics and the romanticization inherent in sub cultural depictions.

In general, I found the comic book readers I interviewed to be highly intelligent and articulate and to have diverse interests. They made aesthetic connections between what is typically viewed as high culture (Monet, Handel, and Miles Davis) and what is viewed as low culture (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, and Batman). Above all, it was evident that these were readers in all senses of the word and that much of their time is spent sharing that experience, discussing and making sense of what they have been reading. They read in anticipation of discussion with book clubs, work colleagues, classmates, fellow comic book readers, and other active members of society.

Chapter 6: Conclusion.

Fantastic Reading concludes with findings that are substantially different from what others have said about the contents of comic books and their effects. This book connects the artifact of the comic book to a process-oriented idea of culture, provides an original descriptive analysis of comics that focuses on highlighting those aspects which complicate the process of reading; and provides an analysis which sheds light on reading as a social act, as an act of participation.

From the outset, the comic book was framed as a cultural artifact that facilitates social participation. Comic book reading represents a location where the process of culture is evident, where activity is driven by both its object(s) and its subject(s). Focused attention on interactions with such objects allows one to see culture as a generative activity involving an ongoing reconciliation of a multiplicity of orientations.

The conception of culture identified with cultural studies requires an analysis of cultural objects which reveals their essentially dialogical character and Fantastic Reading shows that reading comic books can be said to be intrinsically social even during its ostensibly solitary moments. Through the analysis of comic books, comic book reading, and comic book readers, I further the conversation on definitions of culture, the popular, and ultimately, the social. The act of reading comic books is effectively an act of participation in a greater cultural process; an act of maintaining the social contract (Saussure).


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