Conducted by Pedro Moura
Earlier this year, I interviewed Julia Round via email a propos her Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels: A Critical Approach (McFarland). This is a concise 200-plus page tome that focuses on the intersection of this specific genre — or better stated, literary mode and cultural tradition — and the medium of comics. This relationship has been quite complex, involving historical developments, format, and formal transformations that have followed closely political and economical factors, as well as an increasingly participatory culture. All of these facets are thoroughly analysed by Round in a very clear and organized manner. Whereas the author is not shy in dealing with complex subject matter, from cultural studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and cognitive narratology, not to mention outstanding well-integrated comics studies topics (after all, Round is one of the editors of Studies in Comics), the prose is never bogged down with terminology, and everything is locked into place in order to better present the chosen case studies. There is a particular, if unsurprising, focus on Vertigo’s titles, but the examples don’t stop there. From close readings to considerations about the historical and cultural developments of certain tropes and figures (such as the vampire and the zombie) across history and comics production, I am quite certain that Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels is a book that will become part of many future curricula, as well as a reference for further development.
Pedro Moura: You have published a handful of articles crossing comics studies and gothic themes before. How long was this book in the making?
Julia Round: In the introduction to Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels I make a joke about my misspent youth, and it’s definitely fair to say that I have always been interested in all things gothic. But the origins of this book probably only really go as far back as my PhD, in which I applied a range of critical literary models to the DC Vertigo output (including gothic, the fantastic, and myth) to create an argument for literary status that also drew on marketing and material issues (such as the transition to “graphic novel”). I began it in 2001, and even then I had a sneaking suspicion that the “literary worth” argument was well past its sell-by date, so I’ve developed my ideas a lot more since then. There actually ended up being very little material in this book that was in my PhD thesis. Gothic is such a sprawling monster that I certainly wasn’t able to do it justice in a single chapter back then, so my PhD was just a starting point really (as I guess they all are). The articles I have published since all seem (to me) to consider isolated texts or aspects of gothic. I’ve looked at landscapes in The Walking Dead, for example; fragmented identity in the context of the superhero; flattened time in From Hell, and so on. So this book was my attempt to set out a bigger, more complete picture of gothic critical theory and how it can help us understand the reading of comics.
PM: I have noticed, however, that some of the themes that you have dealt in those articles are not centrally present in the book, such as the city-as-other, for instance. Was this due to a constraint of time and/or space of the book, a concentration on other tropes and figures, a decision towards new material, or a combination of those reasons?
JR: It was absolutely a decision towards new material. I always knew I wanted this book to try and bring together different approaches to comics and to build on the work I’d already published. I think comics hold so much potential in the possibilities for free play between their different elements and the vastly fluctuating nature of their materiality, readership, and cultural status that any approach which is strictly historical, formal, cultural or otherwise is already extremely limited. Comics to me seem in a sense to be made up of contradictions — they are permanent yet disposable; lowbrow yet artistic; limitless yet the single genre of the superhero dominates — and I wanted to try and show how Gothic (which to me seems an equally contradictory idea, e.g., in its focus on past/future; subversion/canon, and so forth) could help explore this. My previous work has mostly used gothic theory or conventions to explore one aspect of comics or a singular motif. In this book I wanted to be more reciprocal and see if comics could also illustrate or help us understand gothic theory. I also wanted to write something aimed at a slightly different audience, i.e., undergraduate scholars who were perhaps just starting to think critically about these fields or had a strong interest in one but not the other.
PM: Were there any lines of inquiry that you would have liked to pursue but had to abandon for brevity of the project? Did you end up with material that you will be using in the future?
JR: So many things got cut out or abandoned and I regret almost all of them. I would have loved to have said more about the grotesque and how this is reflected in comics’ stylized art. I’d also like to have put more focus on gothic precursors to comics – notwithstanding the excellent work already done in this area, such as Matt Green’s book on William Blake or David Jones’ analysis of pre-1900 gothic sequential art (published in Studies in Comics 5.1). I’d definitely have liked to explore temporality more and also the crossover points with science fiction. I’d also liked to have looked more at comics’ expansion into other media (via transmedia franchises and so forth) and the ways in which this sprawling reach can be read as a gothic takeover.
Finally, there were a large number of archetypal figures (see below) that I really wanted to discuss but simply wasn’t able to even consider putting in. To be honest I don’t have much unused material — not least because one other thing I learned from this project was the importance of time management! — but it has definitely left me with a lot of ideas that I’m going to look at in the future after my next few projects.
PM: I am interested particularly in the archetypical figures you study, the vampire and the zombie. Can you explain a little why you have chosen these but not the werewolf, the serial killer, or “the mad woman in the attic,” which you mention throughout the book?
JR: That was solely due to issues of space. I chose vampires and zombies because they have both enjoyed instances of incredibly popularity over the last century and so, although not the most important gothic archetypes, they are certainly the most dominant. I really enjoyed writing the final section of the book and would have loved to extend its reach further, but I didn’t even get to say everything I wanted about these two archetypes. Obviously a complete survey of vampires or zombies in comics was beyond the scope of a chapter or two — these sound like complete books in themselves! — but there were some great examples that didn’t make the cut in both chapters, which was a real shame. I would have loved to say more about iZombie and additional titles such as Babble or Empire of the Dead, especially because the concept of “infected language” appears so often in recent films/novels (such as Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything and Stephen King’s Cell). Crossover texts such as Max Brooks’s Extinction Parade also deserved a mention, which they didn’t get.
As far as other archetypes go, the werewolf, in particular, very nearly made it in. (I have hopes they will be our next big gothic monster once zombies have had their day, particularly in light of an increasing cultural concern with environmental and animal issues!) I also wanted to say more about female characters in light of the gothic heroine and madwoman archetypes (notwithstanding the excellent work already done by Laura Hilton and others in this area). The devil was a very strong contender that nearly got in. Sandman, Preacher, and of course Lucifer were texts I really wanted to look at in more detail and could have brought back in here. Warlocks and witches was another potential chapter (and would have allowed me to indulge my John Constantine crush just a little more, as well as giving Hellblazer some much-deserved critical attention) — the list goes on and on really.
PM: You are not only addressing “historical gothic,” but a broader, more flexible, modal genre that engulfs many tropes and later developments (horror, weird fiction, science fiction, etc.). What is the underlying and common principle that would unite all “gothic texts” (or “cultures,” even)?
JR: It’s very hard to identify a singular principle, since gothic is (as you say below) so excessive in tone, style, concept. I would say transgression is a defining feature of gothic, but, of course, that notion in itself is something of a contradiction, as Chris Jenks identifies. We used to see transgression as something Other and dangerous, but a revisionist viewpoint would argue that it is inevitable and, in fact, desirable. It could even be seen as conservative in some senses, since it helps define — and redefine — the borders of what is acceptable and create consensus as to this.
So perhaps more accurately I should say gothic is focused around contradiction, or paradox. For me that seems quite accurate. There seems to be a central tension between binary ideas (such as living/dead) in gothic characters, structures, and themes that produces unsettling results.
PM: To a certain extent, gothic was treated as a sort of excessive, demeaned form of literature in its romantic cradle. Comics, at least in their later “comic books” avatar, were also seen as a bastard form of entertainment. Do you think that that positioning among the cultural hierarchies of their times made the latter “always already” open to engage with the themes, subjects, affective ambients and storylines of the former?
JR: Great question. And yes, although I don’t think it’s the only factor. It’s certainly easier to challenge the status quo when you live at the borders and aren’t ideologically invested in it. Looking in at the mainstream, it becomes easier to take established ideas and rework them, which I think was exactly what the first gothic texts were doing (picking up on romantic high literature and combining it with folkloric tropes). American and British Comics did similar, feeding off each other and the stories told in other media.
PM: To be more specific, do you think that one of the possible strong affinities gothic has with comics is that both are open to the transgression of many normative categories?
JR: Yes, absolutely. Comics have traditionally existed in a subversive space and been dogged with controversy. They’ve been able to transgress so many of the categories we traditionally use to assess literature: genre, format, audience, materiality, marketing, ownership, authorship…the list goes on. It’s such a flexible medium.
PM: This is a rather personal, and even silly, question, but I do believe that the border between a purportedly detached, objective academic attention towards a given object of study and a fannish inclination is actually non-existent. Did you belong to, identify with, or feel any affinity with the modern goth post/sub/culture (or still do)? And how important is such an “integration,” belonging or actively participating in such a culture, in terms of its anthropological implications?
JR: Ha, totally! (And I don’t think it’s a silly question). The majority of my teens and early twenties were spent behind a thick layer of white foundation and up to my elbows in black hair dye. Regarding the first part of your question, I’d agree that the border between academia and fandom is often blurry (although I think it does exist) – Henry Jenkins’s comments on “aca-fans” ring very true to me, although I’m not sure this is a terribly new thing. I think we often grow to love the things we study just as much as we want to study the things we love. Did I start liking goth culture because I enjoyed gothic literature or was it the other way around? I have a distinct memory of discovering and reading two miniature hardback bound copies of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Alexander Dumas’s The Black Tulip at my grandpa’s house at a very young age — certainly too young for some of the content! Brantlinger argues a strong case for Haggard as imperial gothic, and the opening of the Dumas book (a lynching and dismemberment) horrified and repulsed me (but I kept reading). I’m not sure if finding these books led to an interest in darker literature and its associated trappings, or if the trappings themselves made me interested in the books. I remember the leather and gold binding as well as I remember the stories.
I absolutely still feel an affinity with goth culture, although I acknowledge that it has changed (as has my position within it). The second part of your question is really interesting and hard to answer. I don’t think I could have written the chapter on goth culture without having actually gone to Slimelight myself on many occasions and watched it (as well as many other clubs) change over the years. But as I don’t live in London, I’m not completely integrated into the subculture there. So in a sense, I had the best of both worlds, some critical distance combined with an ongoing involvement that enabled me to have a vast amount of “data” collected over many decades. Having a working knowledge of goth subculture/rituals was also incredibly helpful. It meant I didn’t get sidetracked by surprise at elements that might seem ridiculous or pointless to someone outside it.
I was asked recently if a particular text was “worth studying.” I had to confess, I had no idea what was meant by that. For me, all cultural practice has value.
PM: Drawing from your intense study of the specific narratology aspects of comics, your scholarship achieves a remarkable level of integration of comics theory. How important is formal analysis (of art styles, transitions, braiding, page composition, lettering, diegetic elements, materiality, seriality, etc.) for the cultural, political, and philosophical interpretation of any given text?
JR: You’re very kind. I think I am, at heart, a formalist, and it comes through in my critical approach. I am quite suspicious of analyses that claim to separate medium from content. For me, the choice of (say) what page layout to use quite literally frames the content in a particular way and thus affects the ideas being conveyed. The choice of art style can offer a metafictional comment on the story (as in Moore and Gebbie’s Lost Girls, for example), create emotional affect or have ideological significance. Panel transitions dictate rhythm and pace, and the types used may even have cultural significance. (Even though I dispute McCloud’s categories as overlapping and confusing, he notes a dominance of certain types in North American comics which I find very interesting.) Groensteen’s braiding is also a fascinating concept as so much of it relies upon reader recognition, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the iteration of certain layouts, motifs, or compositions not only affects the telling of the story, but that through this reuse a story’s symbology gains in resonance. Materiality affects how we approach a text from our very first encounter with it — and again, it can carry metafictional resonance that only gains in impact the more years of comics history we have — so fanzine and underground formats can be used to frame appropriate (or comment on non-appropriate!) content. So in this sense the medium creates and modifies its own content and tells us how to read it. These things seem incredibly important, especially in comics, where the narrative and material possibilities are so vast.
Be sure to get your copy of Round’s book, as well as some of the other works mentioned in this interview: