Interview: Christopher Pizzino

Conducted by Pedro Moura

Christopher Pizzino - Arresting Development

Christopher Pizzino, Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature. University of Texas Press.

Christopher Pizzino, Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature. University of Texas Press: Austin, TX: 2016.

I have no doubt that Christopher Pizzino’s book, Arresting Development, will become a reference we will return to time and again in the years to come within Comics Studies. Not only does Pizzino demand us to rethink the way we conceive of and talk about comics, and to be very attentive to the dangerous traps in which we fall, even when we try to “defend” comics within a larger cultural dialogue, but he also eases our way into doing that through his incredibly new, eye-opening, even jarring interpretations of comics we thought we knew.

Despite the fact that 1986 in US comics was a long time ago, and many things have changed since then in terms of book circulation, critical reception, comics integration in curricula, scholarship, agency and even venues of creativity, more often than not, comics are only accepted with the proviso that the celebrated examples are seen as “exceptional” to the perceived, sub-par norm. One blatant aspect of this is the consideration of “graphic novels” as beasts wholly different from comics in general. By repeating sentences such as “this is what comics should be,” “comics have grown up,” “this is an example of really mature material” and so on, in relation to a certain number of very specific texts (more often than not, “graphic novels”), one is emphasizing the fact that it is not comics itself as a medium that has been accepted culturally, as cinema or other new media have been historically. As the author concludes, “the rhetoric of developmental legitimacy (‘not just for kids anymore’) is less a sign of a ‘landmark shift’ in cultural priorities than a hegemonic enforcement of values that have regulated the status of comics for more than half a century” (194). And that status, despite the “exceptions,” is not changing soon, as one can see by many challenges found on multiple occasions, whether in terms of censorship, academic strife, commercial exposure, etc.

There is a pervasive and hegemonic cultural power structure that we are sometimes blind to, and that is what the author wants us to be attentive to, instead of playing into it by reaffirming such narratives of the evolution and “natural development” (pg. 3) of comics. Christopher Pizzino calls this the Bildungsroman discourse, employing the well-known literary structure to explore the ways this perception has been adamantly present when discussing comics, as when someone writes the linear story that “comics used to be childish and not that good, but now (some) graphic novels have brought a new impetus and quality to its output…”

Are all comics good? Probably not, but then again, nothing of anything is all good, right? One must judge each textual object by itself, and we wouldn’t evaluate literature per se by its lesser examples or cinema by critical bombs. But it is as dangerous to consider comics by its weaker texts as to herald special examples that create enormous distance to a perpetuated “everything else.” That is the reason why Pizzino chooses four very judicious examples in order to study the way comics have been interpreted but, more importantly, how these comics have thematized in their own structures and storylines these same attitudes, prejudices, and cultural tensions.

Arresting Development is at one time a historical overview (from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s) and simultaneously a broad sample of the scene in terms of the economic (from commercially sustained trademarks such as Batman to creator-owned self-published material to mainstream book industry), aesthetic (“mainstream superhero comics” to “alternative comics”), and even format-wise (comic book series to hardback graphic novels) dimensions of comics.

The book presents two introductory chapters, “Coming of Age” and “Autoclastic Icons,” divided in order to zero in on its theoretical grounding and tools in a differentiated manner. The first of these explores the Bildungsroman discourse and how it has influenced talks about and judgment of the comics medium, while the second proposes a fascinating operational notion. Pizzino calls a given text “autoclastic” “when [it] effects a kind of self-breaking, as if it designed to work against itself… a dynamic of autonomously enacted dissolution, as if self-destruction is its ultimate function as a signifier” (48-49). The very conditions of existence and conditions of possibility of comics are represented and enmeshed in a new text in a subtle yet visible way through a number of specific textual strategies that the author lists as, for instance, “carefully orchestrated interruption, cancellation, self-censorship or discursive implosion” (49). These are complex but, when detected and analyzed, compelling metatextual commentaries about comics themselves, but also about the social power structures that either abet or prevent cultural legitimacy. By drawing from Lyotard‘s notion of the differend, Pizzino helps us understand how autoclastic comics are not only bringing to the fore the tensions of this difficult legitimacy but also the very discursive conditions that allow (or disallow) a discussion about legitimizing comics.

The four case studies chapters focus on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Charles Burn’s Black Hole and Gilbert Hernandez’ family sagas (“Poison River”, Palomar, etc.). The different aspects of these works in terms of genres, styles, time, and conditions of production and circulation, and even reception, allow for the emergence of a diverse and broad social field of comics-making in the United States. But despite those differences, all of them show “a medium-specific awareness of cultural division [that] can influence many aspects of a creator’s work, including features of style that might otherwise seem incidental” (pg. 170).

Even though at least two of these texts have been extensively discussed both in academic and fan circles (TDKR and Fun Home), Pizzino does indeed bring a number of fresh new takes. For instance, the reading of Fun Home is filled with subtle and humorous perspectives on the ongoing tensions between “high,” literary tropes and the “low,” comics-related sabotage of those same tropes. This is quite innovative and brings Bechdel’s book to a completely different reception mode than usual. While still celebrating it, Pizzino’s reading does so integrating it fully into comics, and not as something making distance from “them.” The most central aspect has to do with Fun Home’s performance of an idea of high culture, more than an actual accomplishment of such a role or position. This reading against the most common grain not only reveals so-far-hidden facets of the book, it underlines the pervasiveness of discourses about comics in general.

And while one may unpack a multitude of interpretations from TDKR–including seemingly opposite political positions vis à vis social mores, the role of vigilantism in contemporary society, the level of government intervention, and so on–there is a different route in Arresting Development. Pizzino is less interested in emphasizing an indisputable meaning of the work but rather in pinpoining how “the contradictions inherent in the Batman mythology” are brought to the fore by Miller in an unprecedented manner, not only in TDKRs many formally inventive strategies, but also in a way that stresses “the central burden of DKR [, which] is simply that Batman is not legitimate” (see pg. 85). The very desire of comics, as a medium, to enter a political dialog is tensional in itself, and that is what is analyzed throughout the specific chapter dedicated to that book, emphasizing how Miller’s choice of both content and form brings to the fore, makes visible, or embodies, the topicality of the very status of comics vis a vis culture at large. Pizzino’s close readings of TDKR are quite impressive in this respect.

In relation to Charles Burns’s and Gilbert Hernandez’s oeuvres, perhaps the most pointed aspect is the way they both reintegrate the materiality and sociability of older comics forms in order to comment upon and act out contemporary social mores. As Pizzino writes about Burns–though it is a thought that perhaps could be extended to the other authors and beyond–is that the way he “uses precode comics is neither nostalgic nor curatorial; he asserts the direct utility of horror comics, their power to speak meaningfully to the present moment” (pg. 137).

Arresting Development should be considered immediately as compulsory reading in Comics Studies even at an introductory level, given the fact it will help dissipate a number of basic problems, such as creating aprioristic distinctions between comics texts from external, social dimensions. By removing the plank from our eyes, and shifting our attention to how comics self-thematize their own social strife, we may be able to avoid mimicking other media’s “adulthood” and allow for a specific developmental path. Which is probably there already. We just have to read it.


Interview with Christopher Pizzino:

Pedro Moura: The major theme at the heart of your book, the great contradiction that you study, is when we have texts that “blur the line between what comics themselves naturally might be and what, historically, has been declared about them” (pg. 95). Incurring perhaps in a dangerous essentialism, couldn’t we say that comics are the way they are precisely because of that contradiction, such a perpetuated agonism between disposable trash and respectability?

Christopher Pizzino: A great question, and I believe the answer is yes. The passage from Arresting Development you cite is discussing a few highly ambiguous lines of dialogue in TDKR and the way they resonate with remarks Frank Miller has made in interviews. In those lines and remarks, Miller is suggesting that our ideas about comics have been so strongly shaped by the medium’s low status that it’s often impossible to tell the difference between a prescriptive discussion (saying what comics ought to be) and a descriptive one (saying what they are). In many critical accounts of comics, there seems to be a belief that we can get rid of such confusion if only we find the right terms. But as I note in the book’s first chapter, the media theorist is always something of a legislator and/or reformer—enforcing cultural boundaries, or redrawing them, or advocating for their abolishment, etc.—so there’s no merely “accurate,” much less “neutral,” way to describe any medium; prescription and description are always bound together. Further, following the lead of creators like Miller (and drawing on Lyotard), we can see this is specifically true of media that have been denied legitimacy. In such cases, problems of terminology are more clearly connected to problems of power. And again, as you suggest, this state of affairs shapes comics themselves quite strongly. For instance, it’s exactly why, in TDKR, Miller is so attracted to the ambiguities and outright contradictions that surround, and form, Batman on the comics page.

PM: You have four very specific case studies. Was the rationale in this choice guided by a desire to present a balanced, transversal view of contemporary North American comics?

CP: Very much so. In another, better, version of the book, there would be at least twice as many case studies, and they would be more diverse as regards the gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and class of the creators. The narrow scope of my own comics reading in earlier years, and slowness in absorbing texts at a deep level, formed the book’s shortcomings (my next book will be different in this respect). Where I hope the book succeeds, however, is in its most immediate critical goal: to show that comics creators’ engagement with problems of status is not specific to any one production model or group of artists. I made sure the four creators on which I focused were working in quite different realms of comics and had little impact on one another’s work. In this way, readers can hopefully see a convergence of interests and textual dynamics apart from the usual questions of artistic “school” or “influence.”

PM: You have developed some of your ideas in previous articles, and you’ve been traveling and reading other comics. Do you know how different this situation is in other countries than the U.S., and are you interested in a comparative study?

CP: Even now, I don’t read as broadly as I would like in various comics scenes around the globe. But in what I’ve observed, and from many beneficial insights provided by others, it seems likely that the concerns with status, and patterns of what I call “autoclasm” on the comics page in the US, do not appear as much, or at all, in places where comics have more legitimacy. If, as I’m arguing, status dynamics really do shape comics making, this is to be expected. For that very reason, of course, I hesitate to argue this point too strongly right now; there’s a danger of confirmation bias. Until there is further comparative research (needing contributions from many scholars), I offer this as a critical impression, not an established fact. As a side note, I’ve benefited from discovering, thanks to the work of other scholars, that a US creator, when making comics aimed at, for instance, a European audience, can operate quite differently than when making work tuned to US cultural conditions and sensibilities.  The example I’m thinking of is Charles Burns, and here I pause to acknowledge a debt to Benoît Crucifix. If I hadn’t been conversing with him about his current research, I would not know how different the European Burns can be from the US Burns. (This is assuming I’m reading the latter fruitfully in the first place, which other readers will have to judge!)

PM: The gist of your work is quite straightforward, after the fact. Although we do have a number of comics works that are celebrated as masterpieces, sweeping awards and critical attention (both academic, fan, and journalistic), they do remain the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. You re-read these works to show how they explore textually that topicality. But what do you think should be done to curb this notion that comics are (still) beneath cultural legitimacy? Who are the agents with the most responsibility? Academic circles, popularizing critics, readers, producers, etc.?

CP: At this point, the low status of comics is thoroughly dissolved into many aspects of social life and culture in the US—from the layout of bookstores to the assumptions of school teachers—so that it’s difficult to pinpoint a key place to begin further change, or a key group to begin it. I suspect that very broad—which is to say, multifaceted, dispersed, uneven, sometimes haphazard—effort is the only way forward. I mostly talk to academic audiences (which can make my writing irritatingly jargon-laden) and to think about how academics can contribute to further positive changes for comics. When speaking to such audiences, one of my goals is to persuade anyone who will listen that the “coming of age” idea has probably done all the good it can do. At this point, it’s more of a barrier than an aid to further, better reading of comics, or better status. And of course, the “coming of age” or “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” story simply isn’t accurate. Telling the true story—which is a story of cultural power, not of organic development—is a win-win; it will make reading comics even more interesting and will advance our understanding of the medium’s destiny. Having said all that, however, I recognize that sometimes, the only story some audiences can hear is the false one of “coming of age.” In fact, it’s what people sometimes hear even if one isn’t actually saying it. Once I was trying tell a friend the true story of comics’ status troubles and explain why the usual mainstream narrative is false. He nodded eagerly and said yes, comics can be really good for reluctant young readers who can’t handle real books!

PM: In page 51 you argue that “comics theory in comics form remains rare.” While I do agree with such assessment, I don’t necessarily see it as a problem. One could either argue that painting theory in painting or cinema theory in cinema is also rare or, on a different take, that every single work of art is always a theoretical take put into practice, as a response to previous works. To a certain extent, the works you deal with are precisely doing that: they are presenting thoughts and critical takes on comics-related issues through comics themselves. Or maybe I’m not seeing this issue correctly…

CP: I find the suggestion that “every single work of art is always a theoretical take put into practice” very powerful. And certainly it’s true that, in heavily legitimated media such as painting (at moments of cultural ascendancy) or film (for quite a while now), there are key works that are understood to say something profound about the medium itself. W.J.T. Mitchell would call these metapictures. Thus far, I think the medium of comics is denied such works, with rare exceptions such as McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Sousanis’s Unflattening. How we judge the whole category of the metapicture depends, I suppose, on how we take account of very broad factors in modern culture—including the fact that while images sometimes have more power than words, image-based media are usually denied the central kinds of authority that verbal media possess. So that, despite the efforts of a theorist like Mitchell, images in general are not given much permission to give an account of themselves. But keeping the focus more narrow for the moment, I think that comics are now one of the likeliest targets of what Mitchell would call iconophobia, and that this is what makes metacomics even more rare than metapaintings, or metafilms, if that makes any sense.

PM: From all your readings, which are riveting through and through, I would dare to say that it is Fun Home’s the one which goes most against the grain of its most common reception. Do you think that people, when trying to look for clues of “educated culture” within the medium of comics, are more demanding than in relation with other media? (So that Bechdel is more erudite than, say, Gilbert Hernandez, because she quotes directly Joyce, Woolf, Winnicott, etc.).

CP: I did expect—and from early responses to the book, it’s turned out to be true—that my discussion of Bechdel would surprise readers. Fun Home is the most respectably “literary” English-language comic since Maus, and the book I am most likely to give to a friend who’s skeptical of the whole idea that grown-ups can read comics. Demonstrating that Bechdel is even more interested in Mad than she is in Ulysses was key for me. But yes, I think the common reception of Fun Home, the one I’m trying to counter, is very much enabled by the way Bechdel fills the book with literary references (Hillary Chute rightly noted this in her book Graphic Women well before I was working on Bechdel myself). Certainly the overt nature of the references—as opposed to the more indirect way that Gilbert Hernandez interacts with literary and fine arts culture—is key to this reception. I say this not to praise or critique either creator, only to point out what, as you suggest, many readers tend to expect before they will take a comic seriously.

PM: You quote Linda Hutcheon’s notion of “complicitous critique.” Do you think that some comics are playing out certain “cultural” expectations in order to mimic a “growth” which backfires, by reinforcing a more general take on (the rest of) comics as a disposable, popular medium?

CP: That idea from Hutcheon continues to fascinate me (as it has fascinated countless critics who think about postmodern culture). I suggest in Arresting Development that Hutcheon’s idea doesn’t quite work when applied to comics; typically, comics creators don’t think about the relationship between complicity and legitimacy the way Hutcheon assumes postmodern artists do. But to focus on your question: in the context of the US, I think not many creators—or at least not many I read—fall into the trap of trying to be respectable, to separate themselves from the mass of “low” creators and works, etc. What distinguishes a number of great US creators is how they keep faith with the standing of the medium as a whole, if I can put it that way. Lots of literary/aspirational readings of Fun Home have been offered, but again, I think a more careful reading shows how strongly Bechdel actually resists notions of respectability and cultural upward mobility. However, I should admit that Fun Home isn’t every comic. It’s possible for creators to pursue some preformed notion of literary or fine arts “seriousness” in a way that doesn’t do much good for the medium. It probably doesn’t make their work any better either.

PM: As a variation of the previous questions, but would it be fair to say that comics have a more taxed relationship where voice-claiming is concerned? Your interpretation of the way Charles Burns deals with exclusion in Black Hole makes me think of the myriad examples when comics are criticized for representing, for example, a specific identity role but in which the author or authors do not belong to that same identity group. I am not certain about all the situations in the U.S., but it seems that while similar discussions happen in relation to cinema, perhaps not as much in literature or other creative areas. I am not arguing that this is not warranted or that it is an invalid point. But it is the different way comics are expected to work in elation to other media that is rather surprising. My point is, do you think that this criticism may stem from the perceived illegitimacy of comics?

CP:  I do, at least in part. This is discussed in my chapter on Charles Burns. A highly legitimate medium usually has wide permission, and many opportunities, to enter public discussions, adjudicate social conflicts, assign moral blame, confer political recognition, etc. But a medium with lower status is given fewer chances to do these things. This can sometimes result in harsher policing. I don’t mean to countenance comics that might claim cultural authority the creator hasn’t really earned. And the low status of comics shouldn’t be used to gloss over any complaint that a particular work is offensive. Likewise I, as a comics critic, certainly don’t get unearned authority simply for choosing to study an illegitimate, “outlaw” medium, as Frank Miller describes it. (A side note: I also don’t get a free pass to read a comic without sufficient attention to what’s worth discussing. In an interview last year, I was asked to name a current “guilty pleasure” comic. I named Layman and Guillory’s satirical series Chew, whose main goal seems to be broad-spectrum cultural mayhem. Later I came across some valuable critiques of this series; they pointed out disturbing and discussion-worthy stereotypes that can fairly be read as transphobic. The meaning of those images in the context of Chew is, in my current perception, complicated; what’s not up for debate is that I failed to pay real attention to the images in the first place. If you’re a comics critic with a guilty pleasure title, you are obligated to see clearly what might be at stake in the “guilty” part of the equation.) But all that said, yes, I still do think that less legitimate media can be more heavily, and unproductively, policed—in particular when they address important social/moral/political concerns. Early reception of Maus illustrates the latter point quite vividly; to some first-time readers, it was self-evidently wrong to make an animal comic with a cartoonish style about the Holocaust. An article of mine forthcoming in ImageTexT will discuss this, and other matters related to Maus, further.

PM: Comics were blatantly used as forms of propaganda (or popaganda, to quote from Christopher Murray) in the past in the U.S. Today, less so. Do you think that the fact that comics are no longer a media available for such use is due to its “loss” of legitimacy, is it a change of the mediascape or the fact that things are more subtle in terms of ideological discourse?

CP: My research into propaganda comics is pretty elementary; others are better qualified to address this. But I suspect that legitimacy does, as you suggest, work differently around propagandistic art—differently, I mean, than it does in the case of art that is less (obviously) ideological. David Hajdu and others have suggested that comics were less marginalized and policed when they were useful as wartime propaganda—a viable thought for sure—and, more broadly, I’d guess that propagandistic intent can override the usual concerns about the status of media. Immediate impact trumps other factors. (It took me a moment to catch the accidental pun in the foregoing sentence, but the current US president’s twitter-happy communication “style” is surely a relevant example.)  In recent decades, the fact that comics haven’t been much of a force for propaganda is probably related to the fact that fewer people read them, whether they are considered legitimate or not. Then again there are the numerous short-form religious comics of Jack Chick, which suggest that propagandists’ decisions about what medium to use can be hard to predict.

PM: Do you think that the tendency of reading more socially prestigious contemporary forms of comics (i.e., “graphic novels”) acts sometimes against their integration at a larger history of the comics forms? Some people would argue for a different “nature” between comics and graphics novels, which flies in the face of many of their very conditions of production and even conditions of possibility. Would you say that that is a stretched attempt of looking for legitimacy? And how counter-productive that may be?

CP: I do see the graphic novel—its existence, and the centrality of the term—as evidence of the long sad history of comics’ low status. If that history didn’t exist, the graphic novel wouldn’t have arisen as a response to it. And it isn’t always a productive response. As your question suggests and as many—including myself but most notably Charles Hatfield—have argued, critical attachment to the graphic novel can block the very progress the term claims to announce. “Respectable” works can remain separate, as an exception, from comics as a whole. At the same time, however, we can speculate—I do this briefly in Arresting Development—that things might change for the better. Perhaps the term “graphic novel” (however inaccurate and whatever its history) could become the dominant way to talk about all comics, and the term “comic book” could either fade, or not carry any negative associations anymore. I’d say that future is unlikely. But just maybe the graphic novel will one day be seen as the tipping point for a much better cultural destiny for comics as a whole. I wish we could know for certain. Meanwhile, it’s certainly the case that some critics wish to keep graphic novels sharply separate from all other comics. Once, an anonymous reviewer of an article of mine insisted on this point, claiming that my belief in a common category (comics) with common characteristics was unsound, and that this approach was a key reason the article should not be published. Of course, this criticism only fueled by my conviction that status remains a key issue for comics!


Check out works mentioned in this interview:

Posted in Blog, Interviews, Pedro Moura, Scholarship Tagged with: , , , , ,