Interview: Ian Gordon

Conducted by Pedro Moura

While not the first book from Palgrave MacMillan delving into comics, Kid Comic Strips. A Genre Across Four Countries is one of the first volumes from the publisher’s newly-minted series, “Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels,” whose editor is Roger Sabin. Immediately joining the ranks of Mississippi, Routledge, Rutgers and Leuven (to mention but a few of the English-language houses putting out coordinated series of comics-related academic sanctioned studies), this series promises to deliver groundbreaking work from both veteran and new comics scholars as well as seasoned practitioners, building upon, but also extending beyond, the impressive edifice this discipline has built for itself in the past decade or so. Ian Gordon is, of course, one of those veterans, whose 1998 Comic Strips and Consumer Culture was so decisive and influential in the emergence of the very field of “Comic Studies.”

Kid Comic Strips. A Genre Across Four Countries came out in 2016, and as I type these introductory words, I have in front of my eyes Gordon’s other project, Superman: The Persistence of an American Icon. Nonetheless, both this short review and the interview are solely based on reading the Palgrave volume.

If we quickly peruse the titles of most monographs and essay collections on comics studies, we immediately perceive that some comics seem more apt to receive academic attention than others. Whatever you may consider pertinent to that field, “graphic novels” seem to top the list, followed immediately by the North American superhero genre, more often than not from a point of view related to “representation” of some sort. There seems to be a dominant key (English studies, Cultural studies, etc.) when reading comics (to which I myself belong, to be honest), and while there are representatives of sociological, historical, phenomenological and reception studies approaches, they are few and far between.

At the end of the day, Kid Comic Strips is a book that zeroes in on notions of cultural transmission. Translation is the operative keyword here, not only in its linguistic sense, but also in the connotation that a given strip, when re-published in a different national context, and therefore cultural and social context, will alter the way its elements are read and interpreted. This particular genre does not seem to be at the forefront of comics studies, perhaps because it seems to yield little theoretical and intellectual traction. That is why Gordon’s gesture is so crucial. Indeed, one of the book’s most important stances is that kids comics – which for Gordon are comics starring child characters, more than aimed at child readers exclusively — are not all “the same.” One must pay attention to a network of factors, from form to style, from publishing platforms to circulation and reception, in order to understand how they mirror the world from which they stem and to which they themselves contribute.

Consequently, this book is not addressing the genre as a whole, but picks up very pertinent and productive examples in order to create a ground further research can build upon. With less than 100 pages, this is a quick read, as Gordon is both productive and to the point. The book is divided into five chapters, the first and the last quite brief and acting as, respectively, a framework for the methodology and an opening salvo for future developments in comparative comics studies.

The other three main chapters focus on the case studies. The first one brings Australia and the United States together by comparing two strips, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and James Banck’s Ginger Meggs, both of which were launched in their respective countries in the early 1920s. The similar premise and focus on daredevil tykes allows Gordon to do a straightforward comparative study of tropes such as certain types of sports and leisure activities, bad behavior such as breaking windows, or the protagonists’ relationship with the police, but also to open up issues related to racial representation. By paying attention towards the specific diegetic contextualization of these episodes and the value they have in their respective stories, a social mirroring of the societies is possible, speaking volumes about how comics strips reflect and speak to those same issues: Sometimes progressively, sometimes not. Gordon is not interested in judging the strips, but rather to emphasize how they are a vibrating domain ready to be read under this light.

 The next chapter uses Martin Brenner’s Winnie Winkle strip, or rather its French translated version, Bicot, in order to interrogate what is both lost and gained with such translation. Here, issues related to genre, class and gender come immediately to the fore, due to the very substantial differences between the societal texture of 1920s France and the U.S., as well as the then limited context of transcultural dialog (to a certain extent, this is the beginning of the importation of popular culture from the U.S. to the European world). However, Gordon does not neglect issues that stem from actual  language, such as the difficulty in translating slang and local jargon, which helps him to underline one of the book’s central lessons: “comic strips, and that art form, in general, rely on a dynamic relationship between image and text to create meaning. A different language, and a shift from idiomatic forms to basic direct forms, suggests that meanings will not only be different, but will be created differently” (51).

Finally, the third case is quite funny, actually. It’s about Dennis, the Menace. Both of them, of course. While most American readers will immediately think of Hank Ketcham’s one-panel cartoons (but also Sunday strips), what pops into the minds of British readers is rather David Law’s The Beano‘s famous character. Both started in 1951 in both sides of the pond, both starred an insufferable child, but the fashion after which they navigate through their respective societies is, unsurprisingly, quite different, as the post-war affluence and growth of a new middle class in the United States quite contrasted with the poorer context of the working classes in Britain. Once again, Gordon shuffles through a myriad of comparable tropes and sees how they work differently depending on context and narrative purposes, and underlines the way race and class act within the strips.

Professor Gordon was kind enough to take some of his time to respond to this brief email interview, conducted in mid-July, 2017.

 

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Interview with Ian Gordon

Pedro Moura: You are a leading and pioneering scholar of comics studies, having contributed decisively to its sophistication and more widespread emergence. However, especially where the anglophone output is concerned, it seems that most scholarship has been concentrating on a more or less narrow bandwidth of subjects and disciplinary outlooks. What is your take on the current state of the field (and it is a field now, I hope you agree)?

Ian Gordon: First, thank you for the compliment. I think comics studies is a field although still a young one.  But it does have a history and Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith have an edited book on that subject. Like all edited books some chapters are stronger than others. Methodologically, the field sometimes seems rather narrow with a plethora of scholars concentrating on comics as literature or fitting comics into some framework of communications scholarship. And the object of study too often seems limited to two subfields: 1. graphic novels, especially those in the autobiographical/memoir genre, and here too even more specialized sub-subfield on trauma, and 2. superhero comics. I think it is important to say that the better work coming out in these areas is wonderful and absolutely necessary. Some comics scholars are spoiled for choice so those interested in the way comics work have Neil Cohn, Simon Grennan, Thierry Groensteen, Hannah Miodrag, Barbara Postema, and Nick Sousanis, just to mention a few whose books are on my shelves. For autobiographical comics the work of Elisabeth El Refaie and Michael Chaney come at the topic from different approaches and open up the field of study. Andrew Kunka’s book is out next week so that’s one more in this area. Work by folks such as Bart Beaty, Scott Bukatman, Hilary Chute and Charles Hatfield offer a range of topics and approaches. And yet, with the exception of Bukatman’s work on Little Nemo, none of the above have written extensively on comic strips.  Bukatman’s book on Little Nemo is an important piece of work but Little Nemo and, say, Krazy Kat are the high points artistically of the form. What’s missing is work about the broad scope of comic strips and the whole range of things. Again, Bukatman’s book is great and something that is a necessary and useful addition to comics scholarship, so the point I am making is the absence of other work. Bart Beaty tells the story about anti-pitching Corey Creekmur an Archie book for his Rutgers series as the most unlikely thing comic scholars would work on and he is now hard at work on a project with Ben Woo [of which Palgrave’s own The Greatest Comic Book of All Time is a part] focusing on what the “typical” comic book looked like. Early results unsurprisingly show they were not superhero comic books. Beyond Archie, there are a whole slew of understudied comic book formats and genres. And again as someone who has just written a book on Superman (Superman: The Persistence of an American Icon, Rutgers University Press, 2017), I am not slagging off existing scholarship.

I would like to see more work on all sorts of comics. Chris Murray’s British Superheroes is sitting on my desk to read. I learned a lot from Ian Horton’s paper on Donald Duck comics in Dutch at a conference in Paris in 2015 and I’m waiting for him to publish it. Casey Brienza’s work on manga and their domestication in America also has a lot to offer scholars thinking of comics and their reception across the globe. Brazilian scholars are doing great work on all sorts of aspects of comics including the distribution and reception of American comics in Brazil as well of course on more local traditions, but it’s mostly in Portuguese so there are barriers there. I live in Singapore and people probably think of Sonny Liew and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye if they think at all about Southeast Asia and comics. But there are rich traditions and a healthy scene here that stretches across the entire region from Indonesia to Vietnam in the north and the Philippines in the west. The range of work being produced, from artists working for Marvel and DC to Otto Fong’s educational science comics for kids, is rich. Fusami Ogi has done a lot of work on the impact of Japanese comics across the region and Khursten Santos’s work on manga in the Philippines and the appeal of yaoi is enlightening.

Really what I am saying is there is so much great work out there now compared to twenty years ago that I feel the absence of work in certain areas. So for instance I would rather read a book that is a comparative study of the impact of The Phantom in Australia, India and Sweden (coming soon by Kevin Patrick) than yet another piece on Joe Sacco’s comics journalism, as important as those pieces and Sacco’s work are.

PM: A riff on the previous question, but do you think that an overwhelming attention towards the so-called graphic novel phenomenon (book-sized comics works, with more or less mature content, identifiable topicalities, etc.) prevents us from looking at other sorts of productions, precisely such as children’s comics?

IG: Yes, there hasn’t been enough attention to the best-selling author of comics Raina Telgemeier because she writes for kids. The cousin team of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki create beautiful comics for young adults and they have received notice for doing so, but not much critical attention from scholars as yet. It would be nice to see some work on adaptation of characters for animation, and vice versa, especially that aimed at younger audiences. I should point out that my own work does not so much look at comics for kids but comics about kids. Of the six main comics I discuss in Kid Comic Strips: A Genre Across Four Countries only one, the UK Dennis the Menace is a comic strip mostly for kids.

I’m not sure what prevents scholars from going in to different areas but I suspect it is something to do with staying with what they are most comfortable with or the material is at hand. Researching comic strips can be rather laborious. Between September 1990 and March 1992 I spent most week days from 8.30am to 4pm in the Library of Congress researching, and a good part of this was looking at comic strips on microfilm. These days I can access many things I need online, although non-American newspaper comics are harder to get. And then of course there are the wonderful IDW Library of American Comics reprints.

I guess people don’t know what questions to ask of this material. Brian Walker, Robert Harvey and Richard Marschall, to name just a few, have written standard descriptive histories, but there are few scholarly monographs on American newspaper comic strips. I am sure there are others, but off the top of my head other than my own Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, and now Kids Comic Strips, I can only think of Arthur Asa Berger’s book on Li’l Abner, which is from another era of comics scholarship. Susan Kirtley, of course, has a book on Lynda Barry, but medium-wise I think Barry’s work sits in the alt-weekly strip category and that is a different animal than the daily-plus-Sunday comic strip. Maybe Jeet Heer will do a Gasoline Alley book one day.

PM: One of the strong points of the book is to point out that kids’ comics are not “the same” (cf. the conclusion in pg. 85). Perhaps the purported diversity that “graphic novels” brought along (as if it wasn’t part and parcel of comics’ traditions already) creates retrospectively the idea that everything that falls without its purview is “simpler” or “homogenous.” But whatever material we are dealing with carries social marks that are distinctive and we should pay close attention to it. How important is it to both contribute towards a canonicity of comics and to its criticism?

IG: I am a historian who trained in intellectual, social and cultural history and my concerns have never been so much about a canon, literary criticism and critical theory (not that there is anything wrong with those), but rather trying to use comics as a means for understanding social change. In Kid Comic Strips, I have probably wandered away from that purpose and I am more on the turf of other scholars. But still more than canons or criticism, I was trying to point to ways of studying comics that haven’t been much explored.

I have a good general understanding of comics in Australia and America in particular and to a lesser extent the UK and Singapore. I have lived in all four countries and I have had the good fortune of knowing Lim Cheng Tju for the last 18 years, who is in Singaporean parlance the comics (scholarship) king around these parts. My earliest experience of comics was as an Australian consuming American comics and later UK comics like The Beano. By luck then I have not seen comics in nation-specific terms so much. Kid Comic Strips then is baby steps in doing comparative studies.

On the issue of a canon I’m not sure that any of the strips I write about in this book are canonical in a broad sense. Ginger Meggs is widely recognized in Australia and has some international exposure, but if the strip is canonical in Australia it is as much to do with the way scholars and others have used it as a touchstone of Australian identity, something that other Australian strips like The Potts and Bluey and Curley could have been used for but neither of those strips have survived and Ginger Meggs is still around, having started in 1921. Its longevity partially explains its canonical status in Australia. The UK Dennis the Menace might be canonical in the UK but I haven’t seen any scholarship specifically on that strip. The other strips I discuss all had their moments in their countries but I think none are particularly canonical.

PM: Can you walk us a little through your case studies’ choices and the limitations that await comics scholars? Or, how could we think of ways of overcoming certain blind spots in comics scholarship? Is this an area that invites for more cooperation between researchers from different fields, countries and languages?

IG: The project started as a conference paper at the Joint International Graphic Novel And International Bande Dessinée Society Conference in Glasgow in 2013. I had been looking for some Perry Winkle images, why I don’t remember, and came across Bicot. That reminded me of that version, and I searched and found an extensive run of Le Dimanche Illustré online at la Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image (http://collections.citebd.org/ark:/12345/AA6108). So I had a start looking at how an American character Perry Winkle became a French character, Bicot.

I tried to put these two versions in a context of national histories of comics and a set of other kid comics. The conference paper was one of those where someone lays out an idea they have had and how they might go about doing the research to examine the idea. I received some helpful comments and some disappointed glances for not having a fully formed piece of research. I put the work aside because I was working on my Superman book, but in 2014 I was asked if I could pitch an idea for the Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels series, and I dusted off the material. Given the nature of the series, works of about 40,000 words and tight deadlines that if not met contracts are cancelled, I needed to think about what I could feasibly deliver. I had the Bicot strips and I knew I could find the Perry Winkle strips through Proquest. The IDW three volumes of Skippy had been published and I had read the entire run of Ginger Meggs in 1987 so was familiar with the strip and thought I would be able to get a good run of it by visiting a research library in Sydney and using my phone to photograph the newspaper. The British Library holds a good run of The Beano so I knew I could get the UK Dennis the Menace and the US version I looked for in library collections, but also eventually tracked down a full set of the Fantagraphic reprints.

So even in the conception of the project I was thinking about availability of material. I was fortunate that the British Library and the State Library of NSW let me photograph material with my phone. That really has helped my research. When I first read the whole run of Ginger Meggs, for instance, it took me about 3 or 4 months to get through 1921-1987 because I was taking notes as I went and creating a date index for some reprints that I had. In the latest research I could get through 12 years in 5 days (albeit long days) because I just photographed material to do a thematic index later. At the Library of Congress in the early 1990s, I had to wait for the microfilm to come out 6 reels at a time, note what I wanted to copy, then wait for a vacant copy machine and move to that to copy, and then back again to a non-copying machine to find material. It forced me to focus my attention. There is so much material readily available these days that scholars now have a problem in shaping their topics because they are spoilt for choice.

Cheng Tju encouraged me to include the Chinese kid comic Sanmao in the book, but although it is a pantomime strip there are still too many cultural references that I don’t get; the point here is that acquiring a good run of that strip and the knowledge to comment on it in a meaningful fashion was beyond the scope of the project. Language skills are not my strong point; I feel a bit shy about working with a French comic since my reading skills are okay, but not fantastic. I had to ask around about the meaning of “rantanplan,” for instance, and my friend Nick Nguyen helped me out. I also had a set of ten strips translated for me as a sample to see if my own translations were adequate. But I do think it would be good for those with the requisite skill set to do comparative studies. Those without, like me, should look for collaborators and translators, and I am trying to do some work at the moment along these lines.

PM: One of the dimensions that you underline quite attentively in this book (and your work in general) is the editorial framework in which a given work appears. So a rich tradition of comics that star in general press titles is not the same thing as appearing in specialized journals and magazines, and even the place of sale may be of some importance (kiosks, drugstores, specialized stores, and so on). Considering that Kid Comic Strips is showing us the way into comparative studies, do you think that these national-level, let’s say, circumstantial differences are as, less or more important than exclusively creative/authorial differences?

IG: Well, I see the book as a very small contribution that is asking comic scholars the question: Does this way of studying comics let us see things we might otherwise miss about the form? I tried to get the phrase “a provocation” in the book’s title but was talked down from the ledge on that one. On the basis of this book, I can’t answer your question about national circumstantial differences versus creative/authorial differences. When I talk about the different ways that soap box/billy cart gags play out in Skippy and Ginger Meggs, respectively, I point to the difference in form between a three panel daily and a twelve panel weekly as being probably more important than any national factor. But with the two Dennis the Menaces, the form–one a multipanel feature in a weekly kids’ comic magazine and the other a daily single panel in newspapers–seems as much determined by national circumstances and traditions of comic art, as by for instance an artist’s aspirations to work in a particular style, or to tell a certain kind of gag.

PM: As a follow-up question, do you think that these differences are what curtail  an even wider circulation of comics works in other countries (the British Dennis never made it past the Chanel, for example)?

IG: The UK Dennis may not have made it to Europe, but he made it to Australia and indeed to Singapore. Cheng Tju has a 1950s Dandy Annual that belonged to an Anglophone Singaporean Chinese boy. He also found a set of 1965 Dandy and Beanos that someone had “soft bound” with a string and preserved until they ended up in the market where Cheng Tju purchased them. There was a wide international market for American material before and after WWII.  But the nuances of the UK Dennis the Menace, and it amuses me to describe it in that fashion, might have prevented it traveling, say, to the USA.  I think the issue or question may be how much can a comic from elsewhere be, in Casey Brienza’s term, domesticated. Brienza talks mostly about how publishers go about this task but for instance Kevin Patrick’s work on The Phantom shows the way audiences read comics can also involve processes of domestication without necessarily any alteration having occurred to the body of work.

PM: Early comics’ translations or re-publication in a different country implied tinkering with its diegetic elements. So sometimes characters’ names or the stories’ locations were altered to become closer to the “local flavor.” You give many engrossing examples of things that could make a difference, even between countries with the same language (the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States), from baby-sitters to baseball but also issues of race, class and gender. Do you find this “adaptability” of comics as being more problematic than in other media, especially taking in account that it could contribute to pervasive, even almost-invisible, unbalanced representations aimed at children?

IG: There are debates here about the influence of media, particularly on children, that are not things I spend time working on, so it is best not to comment on them. I think that anything we read, watch, listen to or encounter has some sort of an impact on use, but just how that happens and the outcome of that are not things I research. As I said, most of these strips were not aimed at children, or exclusively at children, in any case. So for me, at a surface glance, and not having read the UK Dennis the Menace in years, I thought he was working class. But after reading it he seems more middle class. The anarchic features of the strip then are not some class commentary by its creator, but I suspect more to do with British humour traditions. I wonder if young readers of The Beano appreciated British humour like The Goon Show and Monty Python and a certain kind of absurdist humour as they got older. But again, I’m guessing; all I know for sure is that I did. And in a sense, to quote a Bee Gees song, “this is just where I came in.” In The Seduction of the Innocent Wertham let comic strips off the hook because they appeared in newspapers subject to editorial standards, were seen and read by adults as well as children, and as a consequence not as worrying as the unregulated comic book market. That statement is why I decided to study comic strips. The strips I studied had polysemic audiences and one only has to recall Eric Clapton pictured on the front of a Blues Breakers’ album to remember that even The Beano had adult readers.

 

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Check out works mentioned in this interview:

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