Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The wages of academia

Maybe it's worth starting out by saying Paul Lopes' Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book (2009) is more or less a passable history. Reading it would give you a decent idea of the broad outline of exactly what its subtitle promises but probably not much more. At heart the book is a high school term paper which isn't surprising since at heart much, possibly most, academic writing is merely a more complex variant of such papers: dutiful marshalling of sources, obsessive even excessive footnoting, appeal to other authorities, broad claims of value with little noticable result, a deliberately unimaginative style (the result of forcing people who aren't interested in writing to write), and so on.

Academic books often start with references to canonical writers/thinkers almost like classical epics started with an invocation to the muses. In Lopes' case it's Bourdieu and Fiske before he's off developing his own not-particularly-helpful terms (Heroic Age) and then apparently believing he's doing serious work by claiming comics are "recombinant culture", something comics fans have always loved, and loved loudly, about the form. Always amusing is the assumption that until academics handled the subject not much of real importance had been done - in his introduction Lopes notes the "first serious academic works on comic books in the United States" as if this was some kind of landmark and then the next paragraph snidely swipes at authors who "have written general trade books". (I've even had a history professor tell me with no apparent irony that only academics can write history with any real value.)

But so what? Well back to my remark that the book is "more or less a passable history" let's check the index. Well nothing about Barks or Bendis. Look a little more - no Stanley or DeCarlo, no Fine or Meskin, no Grant Morrison (but a mention of Toni Morrison), no Steranko, Chaykin, Jack Cole, neither of the Simonsons, Wolverton, P. Craig Russell, Will Elder, Jaxon, Bill Warren, and so on.

It's not just that a history can't mention even all the major figures (or you end up with something like David Cook's History of Narrative Film that's so burdened with endless lists that it's practically useless). But Lopes seems, and now we're back at high school term paper territory, to have not read much of the material and worked mainly from easily available histories. He is a sociologist so let's be kind and assume he has no interest in art or creativity but a glance through the notes (there is no bibliography) doesn't show many sources beyond the obvious. Comics history is nothing if not heavily documented but the catch is that most of this isn't in easily available sources (Lopes does use Alter Ego though) and probably more importantly for a book like this not easily available in university libraries. (The university library I use has a fairly large selection of academic books on comics -- in fact that's where I checked out this Lopes book -- but very little primary material, excepting an astounding two entire fixtures of Japanese-language manga.) By the way, The Falcon wasn't the first black superhero (as claimed on page 68) - that distinction goes to the Black Panther who Lopes mentions in the exact same sentence.

Unfortunately there isn't a good overall history of comic books. Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels might be the best since it's well-illustrated and covers British as well as American but it has too much an overview approach. Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation is solid up until the Comics Code and then the author seems to have lost interest - two-thirds of comics history is covered in just the last third of the book. Steranko, Feiffer and Goulart's books are outdated or narrow while others such as the Rough Guide or Paul Gravett's Graphic Novels tend to be more consumer oriented than history minded.