Interview: Maaheen Ahmed

Conducted by Pedro Moura

 

Maaheen Ahmed, Openness of Comics. Generating Meaning within Flexible Structures. Jackson, MI: The University Press of Mississippi: 2016.

 

Maaheen Ahmed is a young, active, and promising comics scholar, whose output will undoubtedly become a fulcrum in the time to come. While she has penned a number of riveting articles and acted as the organizer of a number of conferences, this is her first book. It is a strong theoretical addition to Comics Studies and, while very focused, it brings a — pun perhaps intended — open-ended approach to both its theoretical implications and the texts it discusses.

In a very brief description, one could argue that this book reads comics under the aegis of Umberto Eco’s notion of “openness,” first presented in the 1962 book Opera Aperta (The Open Work), subsequently expanded and specified, as in The Role of the Reader (quoted in the bibliography), but also “limited,” especially in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (not quoted). Openness invites or allows the readers for interpretation based on certain textual clues pertaining to referenciality, ambiguity, scripts, tropes (as well as their subversion) and the always present tension between the novelty of the text itself and its very integration in culture at large. In a way, it’s the interpretative path a given work allows the reader to follow. As Ahmed writes in her introduction, “[a]n open work embeds such features in a narrative offering flexible interpretations within a cohesive structure that filters out irrelevant interpretations” (11).

Comics, due to their own nature, involving images, visual composition, text-image relationships, negotiation between fictive forms and responses to realism, intermediality, its specific meta-fictive and self-reflexive affordances, and so on, bring always incredibly pertinent issues of the intimate, if not indiscernible, relationship between “form” and “content,” which in turn make it “permanently processual and, consequently, open to mutating readings” (see pages 42 and ff.). In order to understand how such openness operates within the medium of Comics, Maaheen Ahmed proposes to perform multiple close readings of very varied examples of comics texts throughout her project. The organization of the book is pretty straightforward. After a grounded theoretical introduction, she presents four chapters that zero in on specific genres and a fifth on a specific relationship with other modes of visual book artforms. So we have memoirs and biographies, adventure and superheroes, noir and crime, fantasy and science fiction where genres are concerned, and the final chapter discusses literary adaptations, the so-called woodcut novel, and artist’s books.

The breadth of Ahmed’s case studies is quite impressive, given the fact that most academic takes on comics are usually centered in one or two specific national traditions. Here we have books that stem from the early 1970s to contemporary work, from countries as diverse as Italy, Finland, France, and the United States, and which belong, arguably, to very diverse territories, describable sometimes as “mainstream” and “independent.” Although other disciplinary contributions are not absent, its particular theoretical focus allows for the author to amass such a diverse corpus in order to interrogate it under her elected analytical tools. On the one hand, this diversity turns the notion as clear as possible, and its “instrumentalization” (a word used in the introduction) almost second nature to the reader as he or she follows the author in her readings. That is to say, openness becomes an extremely operative concept that is not secluded to any specific comics production in terms of genre or origin, but to comics as a specific medium. And while the notion itself stems from literary studies and does have an almost universal applicability in terms of media, Ahmed does a great job in interrogating existing Comic Studies (and, still a rare thing, using from both American and multilingual European sources) to underlines its specificities.

In any case, it’s great to read a book that discusses both Pratt and Gaiman, Mattotti and Deprez, Baudoin and Turunen. It’s quite rare indeed to come across such a diverse library of comics within comics scholarship.

However, on the other hand, its chronological organization, especially within the four genre-oriented chapters, may give the impression to the uninitiated reader that comics have gone through an evolution where older texts were “less open” than the new ones, whereas of course one could come up with a number of examples that would defeat this idea. Ahmed does not argue this at all, but it’s the organization of the chapters that may lead to such a notion. Moreover, a few slip-ups here and there (attributing Transmetropolitan to Grant Morrison, calling Gaiman’s Sandman a “revamping” of the Golden Age Sandman without further elaboration, or the consideration of Métal Hurlant as being “issued as Heavy Metal in America,” a point belabored by Nicolas Labarre, whom I interviewed here), the absence of certain titles that could shade a little more the internal history of certain authors or outputs (Tardi’s Adieu Brindavoine, Dave McKean’s earlier collaborations with Gaiman) and the order of some examples, makes some of the conclusions a tad too linear. While I do understand the need for some economy and the impossibility of speaking about everything, a broader complication would go a long way in precising how comics work in an extremely dense network of influences, back and forth developments, and negotiations between more experimental work and formulaic structures.

While one may disagree with some of Ahmed Maaheen’s specific readings of a given work, one will do so under her terms, which goes a long way to see how powerful her arguments are. Sometimes those disagreements may be related to interpretative frameworks or the wish to bring to the table different examples (a typical Comic Studies’ scholars response, more often than not superfluous), but the fact is that the way openness is discussed and discovered by her short, yet captivating close readings is quite exciting, and may teach us to re-read comics in new ways. The way it expands the field both thematically and formally is extremely productive.

The author was kind enough to answer to a few questions by email.

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Pedro Moura: I would like to start with a provocation. At a moment when Comics Studies allows for a broad range of the most sophisticated analytical frameworks being applied to no matter what sort of comics, is it possible to point some works as being more “open” than others? Or, in other words, what sort of theoretical filter do you want to create with your book?

Maaheen Ahmed: Your question zooms in on one of the concerns ‘haunting’ (sorry, I’m grappling with memory studies these days) this book. Does examining the ‘openness’ of comics lead to a situation where some comics are judged or evaluated as being ‘better’ (more artistic or literary) than others? I think the book does indeed examine aspects that contribute towards a more ‘literary’ or ‘artistic’ appraisal of certain works, but it also tests the limits of such appraisals in the case of comics by showing how the grounding for such appraisals, and by extension more ‘literary/artistic’ comics, is anchored in the medium of comics and its conventions (e.g. fragmentation and media references). Moreover, in situating the study within genres which are, for the most part, staples of pulp fiction (even the first chapter, ‘Fictionalized Memories and Biographies’ ends up studying ‘popularizing’ biographies of Saint-Exupéry or Lovecraft, for instance), the book plays on a, hopefully productive, tension, between the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in comics/graphic novels. So yes, it is indeed possible to label some works as being more open than others (and I do that in this book), but the aim of doing so is not to create (or reinforce) an hierarchy crowned by literary/artistic comics, but to gauge the different ways in which comics work, and the different tools they deploy according to their aspirations, placement and target readership. The ‘theoretical filter’ would is therefore a formalist one that is keen on understanding the functioning of comics and distilling their relationships with other arts and media.

PM: You avoid aprioristic judgement values by attempting a reading of comics of many genres, styles and backgrounds. And I do not really want to imply that you use your central notion of “openness” to create or force an hierarchy, but what is, for you, the importance or a role of (whatever and however we may interpret this) a “canon”? And to which extent could the analysis of a given work’s openness to contribute to its inclusion or exclusion from one?

MA: Using openness does risk catering to or even reinforcing the idea of a canon. However, for me, as someone who’d been studying the better ranked arts (to put it euphemistically), the notion helped understanding the meaning-making, experience-generating processes of several comics. So while the specter of the canon (and the canonized or canonizable comic aka the graphic novel) does loom over the notion of openness (since some works can be ranked as being more open, and by extension, higher than others), hierarchical positioning is itself – dare I say this without sounding hypocritical? – not very relevant; it’s the concern for another discourse, one that deals with the reception and institutionalization of comics. It is possible that the more open works end up being part of the canon, but the aim behind using openness was essentially to uncover the meaning-making and aesthetic strategies of comics.

PM: In relation to your corpus, which is very diverse, I would like to know how far were your choices guided by the more or less absence of these titles in more scholarship? Or was it the perceived pertinence of their traits for your project? Were there other works that you would prefer to include but decided not to because, perhaps, they were too obscure?

MA: I did indeed deliberately avoid titles that had already been well analyzed, but I also wanted to try and get a more transcultural perspective on comics by including works from different regions and genres. Since I also wanted to better understand the rise and establishment of the graphic novel phenomenon, I thought it might be more productive to start with Eisner’s Contract with God which can be said to bridge the more mainstream idea of comics and the basic implication of a graphic novel as being a novel. This was also the reasoning behind including Pratt’s long, novel-like Corto Maltese adventure, The Ballad of the Salt Sea as a European counterpart to Eisner’s graphic novel to start the next section.

I did indeed want to include more works (e.g. Aristophane’s Faune from 1995 and only recently re-issued by Frémok, to name only one of the many fascinating, experimental comics published in Belgium). Their absence however is due to more practical concerns of space (since the analyses are kept descriptive in order to provide a well-rounded ‘picture’ of each comic) and structure (of the book itself). I would’ve also liked to include a much larger section on the relationship between (experimental) comics and artists’ books – so much still needs to be done in that area!

PM: The book is organized by genre-related chapters and then a last one addressing more cross-arts forms. Each of the “genre chapters” presents a number of works that are organized chronologically, and in many moments you argue that the most recent are also more open (in the sense you discuss) than the older ones. Isn’t there the slight danger of compounding chronology with causality of an increase of openness? After all, one could point out examples of more open works that came before subsequent titles…

MA: That is a very good point. In retrospect, it probably would’ve been better to go with a more non-chronological arrangement, because it is possible to find examples of open works since their inception/s. On the other hand, it is, I think, possible to argue that more recent works are more likely to be more open simply because there is a greater degree of interest in experimentation in comics.

PM: You point out how the importance of a “cohesive structure,” or a “structured story” is important to anchor, if I can say this, the work’s openness. How do you feel that this notion could be explored with other sorts of works, from Oubapo’s exercices de salon to the manifold instantiations of abstract comics or other more experimental output? Is “narrative” an absolute necessary dimension for the openness?

MA: This is where the specter of the graphic novels comes up again. The book was essentially trying to work out the storytelling possibilities in comics, hence the emphasis on non-serial narratives. For this, I combined Eco’s later essays on the model reader envisaged by open and closed texts (collected in English in The Role of the Reader) with his first book on openness (Opera Aperta or The Open Work), which examined modernist and experimental literature as well as works of art. I would not, however, equate a cohesive structure with a structured story too easily: the latter suggests a closedness within the story itself, whereas the former emphasizes cohesiveness of the overarching structure but allows for the content itself to be connected (or braided) through links  that are less suggestive.

My emphasis on narrative in the context of comics and graphic novels aside, Eco’s concept does rely on a certain structure, maintaining a “dialectic between form and openness” (The Open Work, Harvard University Press, 1989, 64). So while narrative is not necessary, a structure or some kind of context is, which is provided by constraints in the case of the Oubapo.

Abstract comics present a very intriguing case. I would say that, from the little that I know and understand about abstract comics, a structure is probably still retained by the presence of a mental gridding or framing (on the artist’s side as well as the reader’s)? Comics do provide a certain form which is tied (in most cases) to their binding and the expectations attached to the medium.

PM: A little within that very same theme, you write “openness is generated through the subversion of basic genre codes and expectations,” in the chapter that deals with noir, black comedy and crime comics. Of course, this is something that you also admit being important on all the other genres and formats. But what happens when all traces of “codes and expectations” go out the window? Can “too much experimentation” lead to “closedness”?

MA: That’s where the structure comes in, I think, to frame or contain the experimentation. As Eco puts in The Role of the Reader: “An open text, however ‘open’ it be, cannot afford whatever interpretation.” (Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 9). In other words, yes, too ‘too much experimentation’ can lead to closedness since a closed work (as is often the case with genre fiction) lends itself to too many possible and – this is key to understanding the open-closed tension – divergent interpretations. Eco makes this beautiful analogy with a burnt out joint to illustrate the collapse of an open text (e.g. Kafka’s The Trial) if read on the terms of a closed text (e.g. ‘a trivial criminal novel’, Role of the Reader, 9-10). Here Eco’s use of ‘trivial’ does imply a certain ranking of works as being ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ but it’s really more about trying to understand how different kinds of texts work and involve the reader.

PM: If you argue cohesively throughout the book to pay attention to intermediality, intertextuality, and so on when analyzing any given work, your last chapter goes a little further by opening up the comics experience closer to other artistic disciplines or word-image formats (the illustrated novel, the artist’s book). Of course, we may point out examples through the history of comics that have attempted similar things, but do you think that we are living today in times that are a little more receptive to this sort of experimentation? And does it have to do with circulation, economic matters or actually the critical reception of comics?

MA: Yes, I do think, we are a little more receptive to experimentation. It’s a key concern for the ‘fine arts’ since modernism.  In the case of comics, this can be linked to the success of the graphic novel notion and the critical interest surrounding it that helped, for the want of a better word, ‘liberate’ comics from their niche.

PM: One of the things that I’ve noticed over the past few years is that there is an increasing dialogue between North American and European comics scholarship. Your book does some very balanced cross-reference. How important is that for you? Do you think there’s still much to be done in that direction?

MA: Yes, I’m a strong believer in transcultural studies. They make more sense for a globalized world where influences and trends often transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. We should definitely try to do more in this direction for both comics and comics theory since each linguistic sphere comes with a distinctive way of looking at comics.

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Check out works mentioned in this interview:

 

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