- Decoding Comics
There is a "Comics Scholars' Discussion List," housed at the University of Florida, which also holds an annual comics conference every spring. There are peer-reviewed journals devoted to comics, such as the International Journal of Comic Art, which began in 1999 (and is hard to find), and ImageTexT, which began in 2004 (and is readily available online). There are the two recent, enthusiastic articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education about comics in the academy (the first, from 2002, is by James Sturm, who is the founder of the National Association of Comics Art Educators and the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies; the second, from 2003, is by Brown University's Paul Buhle—and despite its zeal about the invigorating possibilities of studying comics, it was met with outrage by the comics scholars list for not granting the contributions of their community sufficient gravitas).1 And while attention to the possibilities of comics is clearly growing, there are not yet many compelling book-length studies of comics from within the academy.2
While academic publishing on comics is on the rise, the most useful recent texts are still, by and large, anthologies that are yet spotty, and not-always-easy-to-locate works published abroad, where the academic study of comics has a more established and serious history.3 Charles Hatfield's 2005 Alternative Comics, a sustained critical study of the contemporary comics form, aims explicitly to address that gap. He claims in his introduction that "comics are clearly in the process of being repositioned within our culture," and he surely intends his own book to be part of the repositioning (xi).
Alternative Comics opens on a promising note as Hatfield describes his critical approach, which he correctly remarks has been missing from book-length studies. "This study views comic art primarily as a literary form," he writes. "This is not the only productive way comics can be viewed, but it is an important and thus far neglected way. . . . At the core of this book is an interest in comics as a narrative form" (xiv). As such, Hatfield notes his interest in the kind of formalism that studying comics invites: "alternative comics invited a new formalism," he asserts, noting a page later that watershed studies by comics authors themselves (such as Scott McCloud's 1993 Understanding Comics and Will Eisner's 1985 Comics & Sequential Art) have also "given rise to a new, or newly self-conscious, breed of comics formalism" (x, xi). Ultimately, however, despite his admirable inclusion of aesthetic considerations in a field that has been more interested so far in socio-historical angles on comics, Hatfield could elaborate with more precision some of the fascinating themes and tropes he suggests to explain the narrative power of comics.4
Hatfield defines "alternative comics" in his introduction as those comics that can trace their origin or motivation to the countercultural [End Page 1015] underground comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which inspired work that "[flouted] the traditional comic book's overwhelming emphasis on comforting formula fiction" (x). He sees today's alternative comics as "driven by the example of underground comix"—a movement that launched such luminaries as R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman—but that ultimately, after the dwindling of the underground in the mid-to-late 1970s, "cultivated a more considered approach to the art form, less dependent...