Interview: Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner

Conducted by Pedro Moura

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present is a great book and a wonderful addition to the shelves of books on comic book culture. And even taking in consideration the many works that are available in the market on the history of the art form, it is still a ground-breaking project for its scope, diversity, and readability. It is not only for more popular audiences, who will have access to many great high-quality reproductions of comics pages from all over the world and across many genres, but also for scholars, who can find here a balanced account of the cross-pollination of comics throughout the globe.

It is quite possible that some readers are well-educated on world comics, not only from its “three main centers” — France-Belgium (more than “Europe”), Japan, and the United States — but also from other important poles of production such as Italy, Spain, the UK, Germany and, more recently, South Korea, Finland, and Eastern Europe. But my guess is that most readers still have much to learn. And while there MazurDannerare more detailed accounts about specific genres, styles, eras, and national traditions out there, from highly researched academic books to beautiful coffee-table tomes, this is a wonderful map for a planetary-scale comics circumnavigation. Sure, there are absences in the coverage, but then again, there will always be absences, there will always be an issue of distributed attention. Being Portuguese, I am a little sad that this is not yet the opportunity to introduce the world to our wonderful artists, or the also wonderful children’s comics and contemporary alternative authors from Brazil, but I do realize the difficulty of creating a balanced account about texts that already do have some circulation to complicate it even further by using the space and time to introduce “unknown” traditions. Maybe next time? The point is to create a flowing, integrated, and just account of the elements that are present. And that, I’m sure, is accomplished by the authors.

In a necessarily abbreviated, yet decisive and pointed manner, the authors go through an incredible number of titles, authors, styles, and genres, providing short synopses, historical and editorial contextualization, biographical data, and even excellent brief formal analyses. And the equilibrium between mainstream comics from the US and Francophone auteur bande dessinées, between alternative manga from the 1960s and highly popular Italian titles, is perfect. The organization of the book allows its readers to use it quickly for reference points, but it is not an encyclopedia nor is it a dictionary. Quite the contrary; the short, focused chapters are beautifully written and fully integrating its references (and they are overwhelming) into a coherent, fluid narrative. This invites us to either read chapter by chapter, combining themes or geographical settings, or even read it in one go.

Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner took their time to answer a few questions in a joint email interview.

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Pedro Moura: Is this project a one-off thing, or are you planning further volumes?

Dan Mazur: Yes, the plan is to do a “first” volume, the global history of comics up until the late ’60s when this volume starts.  We were originally going to do a single volume encompassing all of comics history, but it quickly became clear we couldn’t do that in this format. The publisher suggested two volumes, but wanted the “second” volume first, because they thought it would catch on better that way.

PM: What lead you to do such a comprehensive project, in light of the available material? I do not mean that this is not an enormously important volume different from other projects, but I was wondering which models you had in mind that you followed and that you also avoided?

DM: For me, the model was probably art history surveys like H. W. Janson’s History of Art.  More broadly, I have at various times read extensively on art and film history as well as comics history.  I felt that literature available in art and film — and music, literature, architecture, etc., I assume — on the whole creates a sense of a global history, that there are national or regional “schools” in every art form, but that movements and influences cross borders, oceans, language barriers as well.

I can’t imagine being a serious film watcher and not being versed in French New Wave, in the films of Kurosawa, Ozu, etc., Italian neorealism, Fassbinder, Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene, and Hong Kong action films. (My “serious” film-watching peaked about thirty years ago, so I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot of more recent work, such as Iranian film-makers.)  Or to be unaware of the influence of Hong Kong cinema on Tarantino, or of French New Wave on British “kitchen sink” cinema of the early ’60s, German expressionist film on film noir. So it just seemed the pleasure of comics appreciation and scholarship was limited by the lack of this approach in books about comics, which, in English, offer so little about European, Asian, or other cultures’ comics. What we wanted to avoid was an approach that grows out of “fandom,” with its emphasis on Golden Age, Silver Age, etc., and an uncritical acceptance of the big sellers as important work.

PM: What was the process of choice in terms of — overwhelmingly difficult, I’m sure — the time-frames, the geographical origins, genres, authors, particular works, and the organization of the chapters?

DM: After deciding based on publisher’s wishes to start with the later period, we felt that the mid- to late 1960s were a good turning point period to begin this volume.  It was a period where, in almost all the major comics-producing cultures,  it’s fair to say, the transition of comics from a children’s/commercial medium, toward an adult/artistic medium, really took off.  Undergrounds in America, Nejishiki and the beginnings of watakushi, or “I-manga,” the ambitiousness of La ballade de la mer salée, the change in tone at Pilote, the appearance of Buzelli’s first independent books…. lots of “indicators” that this was a period where many comics artists were increasing their ambitions for their medium. In tune with the global zeitgeist of the ’60s, of course!

Geographically, our decision was to focus on the major comics-producing cultures, North America, Europe, and Japan, with some attention to Latin America.  We realize that this an incomplete picture, but limitations of time and space made it necessary.  It also seemed that the cross-cultural influences that we wanted to get at were going to be more apparent between these three major “industries.”

As far as artists and genres, our decision was to emphasize artistic quality, importance and influence, over commercial success.  I don’t think we made any conscious choices as far as genre goes, other than the genres that the artists that we consider important have worked in.  While we wanted to express our own opinion on which creators are great or important, we felt that we were generally channeling a certain critical consensus as well, not imposing idiosyncratic tastes of our own.

PM: All the text has been written by the two of you. Would you say that together you have a global knowledge of all these comics, or are there strengths of the one that complement the other’s? And are there areas that you know less but still included thanks to the available information, or others that have not been included and that you would have liked to include?

ComicsGlobal1DM: We have different areas of knowledge, which I would say is somewhat generationally determined. I’m about twenty years older than Alexander, so I grew up with underground comics, and the mainstream comics of the ’60s and ’70s, after which I moved away from mainstream/commercial in my reading habits.  Alexander grew up and came of age reading mainstream comics post-Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and as manga was taking hold as a popular force in America and Europe. I think we both learned a great deal in specific research for this book, delving much deeper into Japanese and European comics than we had before, so we were able to include chapters on stuff we’d never even heard of when we set out on the project.  Limitations of time forced us not to include many areas that would have been worthy of inclusion — further work on Latin American comics and on Philippine comics are just two examples.  If all goes well, we’d love to expand the range in a second edition.

Alexander Danner: I think we both came in with much greater knowledge of American comics than of world comics, so we both had a lot of learning to do. I think Dan had more prior experience in European creators than I did, while I was a bit more versed in Japanese comics, though certainly not an expert. As Dan mentioned, I grew up with the superhero comics of the late ’80s and ’90s, so I was able to take over where his reading left off in that area. And I also had significant first-hand knowledge of the early years of webcomics, as that became important just as I was first doing my own creative work in comics. But beyond a certain few interest areas, this was very much a learning experience for us. We had to research everything in order to claim any knowledge at all.

PM: It is quite interesting to see the types of sources that you’ve used or that you quote in the notes and bibliography. Do you think it’s important to be aware (and acknowledge) that some of comics scholarship and expertise is done not only in academic-bound circles but also online, by journalists and fans — which means nothing in terms of seriousness or intelligence, quite the contrary — and so on?

DM: Speaking as a non-academic myself, I would say yes to that, definitely. Of course there are some great works by scholars who work in academia, published by university presses on our list (Bart Beaty, Charles Hatfield), but websites like the Comics Journal, Hooded Utlitarian, Du9, offer lots of great criticism and research as well. And even more fannish online material, like a blog called Three Steps Over Japan, by an American ex-pat in Japan who’s a fan of Garo magazine.  He bought up all the early issues he could and posted synopses and critiques of the stories, as well as scans of some of them.  That was very helpful in orienting myself as far as that material. Since academia still offers relatively few positions to comics scholars, it’s only natural that a lot of important work happens outside the academy.

AD: Scholarly writing about comics is still such a young phenomenon that it would be impossible to rely on it solely. And of course, what there is of it tends to be very focused on specific areas, between which there are great gaps of material that just hasn’t been addressed academically yet. More fannish/enthusiast sources are capable of a thoroughness of breadth that just can’t be matched. I can’t even imagine how I would have navigated all the manga that’s been translated into English without the tome of capsule reviews of Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide, or his and Shaenon Garrity’s manga criticism in House of a Thousand Manga. With a project like this, even figuring out where you should be focusing your initial research efforts is a big question. When you read scholarly works, they already have their answer to that question. I think the more commercial and enthusiast writings offer more opportunity to find your own answer while still providing a wealth of information to base that decision on.

PM: What kind of audience do you have in mind? Thames and Hudson are known for great divulgation of the arts, but the focus of your book is amazingly broad, without ever pandering to any particular view, so I imagine it can have traction among many different sectors. But what would make you happy, if I can say it this way? For it to become a reference title, a go-to book during the next decades?

DM: We definitely hope that it would be used academically, as a text book, for a kind of world comics’ history class that I would hope is more and more common in universities.  But as a general “go to” reference title, yes, of course that would be great.  Personally, I think of the books that I read (and looked at the pictures) over and over until the bindings fell of, when I was a kid and later. In a lot of ways the images are more important than the text, like the Couperie and Horn History of the Comic Strip, or the Smithsonian collections, the books that leave a big imprint, create a mental structure of the history of the medium. If anyone gets that kind of enrichment from our book, I’m happy.

PM: How important it was for you to actually write organized chapters, flowing paragraphs, and and actual close, if brief, analysis of content, form, and artistic processes, instead of opting for an “encyclopedic” or “dictionary” style of writing?

DM: Having just said that the images are more important than the text… I think we definitely wanted to “tell a story” of the history of comics. For that reason we chose a chronological as opposed to a thematic structure.  And I love good historical/critical writing on art and popular culture.  Pauline Kael and David Thomson on film, for instance, Bruno Lecigne on comics, Lester Bangs on rock and roll, Frederic Jameson on theory and just about anything. Critical writing with a strong, opinionated personality, and a sense of “narrative.”  I think you give a lot more to the reader when you try to write with personality, not just dry and informative.  Even if the reader ultimately disagrees with the critical position.  So while our principle goal may be to present a chronological overview, we wanted to leave an imprint of critical judgment as well, and that’s best done with good, even colorful, writing.

AD: Ultimately, I think we do have a thematic structure, but one that rose naturally out of working chronologically, since that structure allows the major “movements” and cross-cultural influences to come into starker clarity than an encyclopedic approach would. Personally, I think we did our best work when we dwelled in tracing trends and transitions, rather than trying to provide a complete catalog of every significant artist within a particular movement. I think some readers will certainly be disappointed that this or that favorite artist isn’t mentioned, or isn’t discussed as thoroughly as they would like, but that’s a necessary sacrifice when creating a more narrative history.

PM: One of the most fascinating things in the past, say, 10 or 20 years, is the emergence of a real memory of comics. To a certain extent, and others have discussed this issue (e.g., Thierry Groensteen and Christophe Dony), only recently we started to have actual access to the texts that make up the history of the medium, from critical editions to complete works by certain artists, celebratory and monumental volumes on certain series, and whatnot. So interested people can actually take a long look and leisurely read past texts that make up that history. This is something that started with Blackbeard’s editions, perhaps, and has reached at least one peak with Maresca’s outstanding, gigantic tomes. What is your take on this “memory emergence,” where there is a surer consciousness about the overwhelming production and diversity of comics?

AD: Certainly, the emergence of academic interest and more welcoming environments in libraries has enabled the creation of these more archival editions and collections — which in turn feeds and expands awareness and interest at the academic level. It also helps that, historical antecedents aside, comics itself is a young enough medium that we’re only just beginning to become aware of works that could potentially be lost forever, but we have an advantage that it’s not too late to save them, unlike so many ancient works of art and literature. So there’s a valuable sense of urgency there.

DM: I appreciate the expanding availability of reprinted comics, which has certainly expanded the available canon of inspiration for younger artists, but I think for a lot of cartoonists the “memory” has been there for quite some time, preceding the recent flood of high-quality reprints and scholarship. I think that one of the key factors in comics maturing as a medium has been young artists applying a new sensibility to the styles and forms of past comics.  This includes the comics that the particular creators read as children, of course. They reconcile (or contrast) “childhood” and “maturity” in  a way that seems uniquely suited to comics.  But the backward-look went further than some artists’ childhoods as well.  For example, the underground cartoonists in the US can be divided into those who responded to EC Comics, especially the horror material and its censorship — S. Clay Wilson, Spain, Jaxon, Irons, Holmes, Corben — or those who, like Crumb, looked further back to the ’20s and ’30s newspaper strips (including also Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Glibert Shelton).  The Dutch underground artists shared some of these influences, but also gave a similar nostalgic/ironic treatment to the Clear Line school of Herge, Vandersteen, etc. And Futuropolis, as a publisher in the ’70s and ’80s, combined the revival of forgotten greats with opportunities for the cutting edge: their first book was a collection of Calvo, and I think their second was a breakthrough original by Tardi. The use of older styles remains important through the next generation of alternative cartoonists: Seth, Charles Burns, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes. Perhaps thirty years ago these artists had to do a little more archaeological digging in used bookstores to find their sources than they do today.  These days, Ernie Bushmiller has been resuscitated as an aesthetic and spiritual model, and I also see young independent cartoonists transforming the (to me, crappy) comic books of their youths — the Rob Liefeld/Image era — into bizarre new and creative forms.

PM: I think, however, that there is still some issues on translation, internationalization, and circulation. There are still many things that are not that available from language to language, and that is true even if we address only the three main centers. Pratt is not that known in the US, there are several Japanese artists that are unequally translated into French, English, and Spanish, for instances (which makes following a certain author a mind-boggling affair across languages, if you can do it). And let’s not even start about people from lesser known countries, such as my own, which is a shame! What’s your take on this? What is left to do or happen, editorially speaking?

AD: Unfortunately, I think this is primarily an issue of commerce. The greatest works are often only translated once a market has been proven through successful sales of the most commercial works. Manga offers a great example of this. The US market has been inundated with waves and waves of manga in translation, but while much of that is enjoyable, the majority of the most interesting and complex stories told in the form remain unavailable in English. This is especially true of josei, or adult women’s manga, whose lyricism and eroticism are both viewed as unmarketable to American readers. Fortunately, there are publishers working to identify and translate interesting and unusual works, but this is a trickle compared to the flood of action comedy we’ve seen. The key, I think, is finding a way to tie the works being translated to something already known to work. For instance, the European works that have seen the greatest success here, such as Epileptic or Persepolis, have been memoirs, because personal memoir is already a popular form in the US. So that’s one way to get publishers interested in the works of regions they haven’t considered yet, point them to authors working in that specific genre. It’s not my ideal solution, but it can be effective.

DM: Of course I think everything good should be translated, and there’s a huge amount of work that isn’t available in English. I basically learned to read French to research this book, and it was like discovering a new planet. Without reading Japanese, gaining access to and understanding of that universe — such as the josei that Alexander references, but many, many, MANY other genres and creators as well — was challenging, frustrating, fun, and rewarding. In a way, the challenge and discovery makes all that work all the more exciting and precious to me. I think that every English-speaking comics enthusiast should learn at least to read French — it’s really not that difficult. The French do a better job of translating other European languages into theirs, so that’s a great way to start.  Besides the economic difficulties, as Alexander rightly pointed out, there are also some comics that are challenging to translation for other reasons. For instance, Dominique Goblet was at SPX this year. Her work certainly deserves to be read in English, but her idiosyncratic hand-lettering (I’m thinking specifically of Faire semblant c’est mentir), makes translation a much more complicated proposition. So we must all learn a few languages!

PM: Every year, we have discussions all over the place about “the best books,” “the 100 comics,” and similar types of lists. How important do you think canon-formation is for the medium of comics? And how important is it to also fight against a too conventional canon?

AD: I think that “debating” the canon is very important, but actually “choosing” the canon is not. These canon projects are really just a way of motivating ourselves to think and talk critically about the works we love, and to see familiar works in new ways. It helps us to identify self-imposed limitations and to spot new avenues of the form that are under-explored. But for us to ever actually settle on one concrete canon would be an indication of stagnation. It is the disagreement itself that is most valuable.

DM: I agree with Alexander. Canons are fun to talk about, they make you think and clarify your judgments. It’s also convenient and useful to have a list (inclusive and flexible) of work that the “well-educated comics reader” should be familiar with…as long as it’s fluid and evolving. I’m all for that, and I hope that our book helps expand that canon.

PM: Comics are a very varied form where genre, formats, and styles are concerned, and as one can learn perfectly from your book. But do you find that its cultures (and I’d like to stress its plurality) are too parochial, with fans of mainstream superhero being oblivious on European graphic novels, and contemporary autobiographical novels aficionados as wholly ignorant of great and popular manga series, etc.? I mean, of course, we are here talking within a savvy community that has a wide specter of interests and tastes, but would you agree that there is still too much divisiveness largely or are things overlapping more today?

AD: I’ve personally always found that divisiveness strange, but sadly I think it’s intrinsic to human thinking. If you look at any other art form, you see the same behavior: readers who will only read memoirs, or who will only read epic fantasy, or who will only read histories, or will only read “literature.” It’s as much about clan identity as it is about taste. Probably more so, in fact. And most American only read American novels, and listen to American music, and watch American movies. (Of course, that may be a distinctly American problem.) Even when non-Americans gain popularity here, it’s usually because they’ve been filtered through American channels. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman didn’t become famous for the works they produced in the UK. They became famous for the works they produced for the American publisher that recruited them. It’s still very recent that we’re seeing major exceptions to this pattern. I certainly hope that our efforts contribute to diminishing that parochialism, but it’s a quixotic goal to begin with.

DM: Well, I think people should read what they like, so I don’t hold it against anyone for staying in their own niche. Personally I find great rewards in hunting down unfamiliar work, and in the feeling of having a “big picture” of the medium. On the other hand, I tend to avoid superhero comics reflexively these days, so maybe that’s a prejudice that’s causing me to miss out on some good stuff, or seem like a snob, so I’m part of that divided readership as well. That’s answering the question from the point of view of the individual. In terms of institutions — critical journals and, especially, educational institutions as they increasingly take notice of comics — I think it is imperative to offer readers/students a broad perspective and exposure to different types of material, including a variety of genre, format, and country of origin.

PM: The last chapter deals with materiality, different formats and new technologies. I quite appreciate the way you do not reify any of the possible options artists have today, and you do not create any hierarchies between them. How do you think that this incredible variety works towards the strengths of the medium, which forces consequently to a variety of means of distribution, modes of writing and reception, critical attention, and so on?

AD: I’m very interested in the interaction between art and technology, especially as new forms of art often grow out of new forms of technology. It’s easy to forget that the “novel” is called so because at one time it was new, and only became a viable mass form due to improvements in printing and distribution technologies. Comics especially have always been very influenced by changes in printing technology, since it relies so heavily on the physicality of the paper’s quality and dimensions, among other elements. Digital technologies have changed much about how comics are both produced and read. Production is much faster now, and distribution is potentially infinite. This makes new approaches possible that were never possible before. I very much enjoy seeing the most experimental minds at work. Unfortunately, commercial concerns do not disappear, so creators working in more familiar structures, just adapted to the new technologies, tend to find greater audiences for their work, and so are more likely to continue producing it.

And technology has it’s obstacles as well, especially in the area of preservation. There are already significant and wonderful works that have been lost, such as David Gaddis’ Piercing and Patrick Farley’s Delta Thrives, two early digitally-published stories I would love to use in my teaching about comics, if only they still existed anywhere I could find them. Had they been printed, I could potentially still hunt down copies, even if they were rare. But as digital art, once they disappeared from their servers and Internet caching, they were lost.

DM: I’m not a good reader of digital comics, though when I do delve into them it’s certainly worthwhile. I just have a harder time than Alexander keeping track of it all. What I like is how many younger artists and comics readers will still say, “I just like holding the comic in my hand.” Makes me feel that digital isn’t going to kill off paper.

PM: The previous chapter points out to all those editorial experiences in which we have really international projects, towards a real “global comics culture” that goes beyond mere translations. However, you talk less about artists who have attempted to create within their own oeuvre a balanced mix of the usual characteristics of the “three centers” (one could base these on Taiyo Matsumoto’s beautiful quote — “America comics are powerful and cool. European comics seem very intellectual. And Japanese comics are very lighthearted. If you could combine the best of all three, you could create some really tremendous work”), like Paul Pope, Barbucci and Canepa, David Rubín, or others. Do you have any take on this hypothetical “global comics style”?

AD: I don’t think we will ever see a unified “global style,” nor would I really want to. While it’s certainly wonderful to see various comics cultures inform each other, if they began to homogenize, that would be the end of cross-pollination. But I don’t think that’s a real worry anyway. Even within the most consistent cultural styles, there are always artists who want to stand out and break out of that accepted way. Matsumoto’s efforts to combine the three centers is his own way of doing that, since it’s an approach rarely tried. If it were already commonplace, he’d likely be doing something else entirely.

DM: I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s sort of similar to a dilemma to do with comics’ “growing up.” How much do we lose of the unpretentious, crass anarchic splendor of comics when they become widely accepted as an “art form”? But yet, we fight for that acceptance and rail against the philistines who don’t recognize it. Similarly, the “global history” that we want to celebrate in this book has everything to do with comics, for the most part, developing independently in the “three centers” and elsewhere — with occasional cross-cultural influences, but mainly responding to the particular conditions of the regions in which they’re created. I think everyone would agree that diversity is better than homogeneity, as long as we avoid parochialism.  A couple other examples of artists we discuss who embody a meeting of the “centers” (at least two of them), include Bryan O’Malley in the Scott Pilgrim series, and Baru and Baudoin, who both, like Paul Pope, had the opportunity to work for manga publishers, which led to some specific developments in their work.

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Be sure to get your copy of Comics: A Global History, as well as some of the other books mentioned in this interview:

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