- The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts
The Rise of the American Comic Book Artist: Creators and Contexts is a collection of essays that sets out to survey "the distinctive ways in which the dynamics of comics' creativity has been reconfigured in contemporary culture" (xii), a project already exhaustively pursued in Bradford Wright's seminal work Comic Book Nation. Instead, The Rise offers an elitist outlook on the comic book medium under the pretense that it has now become literary and therefore needs to be analyzed as such. With a few notable exceptions, most of the essays in this volume approach comics as though they were novels. This leads to two consequent problems: rather than writing in the discipline of Comics Studies, these essays are still entrenched in the world [End Page 400] of literary criticism, and as a result, many of the authors bring with them evaluative ideas about high and low artistic forms, the result being that comics are valued only to the extent that they are literary.
In The Rise of the American Comic Book Artist: Creators and Contexts, the rise is meant in terms of becoming literary, not in terms of how the comic book artist came to be. The word "art" is recurrent and can be found several times in the introduction ("artist" is present in the title and "art" is present again on the back cover). Despite this emphasis on art, rarely is there an analysis of the artwork in the entire book since the emphasis is placed instead on the literary experience. In the chapter "A Purely American Tale," Paul Williams analyzes Chris Ware's comic book as a novel under the pretense that it resembles the Great American Novel, and he therefore never mentions the visual material. Although the back cover blurb proclaims the book to be "an exploration of an art form's transformation," this promise is only partially fulfilled as the contributors largely ignore the visual aspects of these works in favor of treating them as novels.
By contrast, Ware's artwork is analyzed in "Comics Against Themselves: Chris Ware's Graphic Narratives as Literature," presumably because this particular work is comprised of a series of New Yorker cartoons that include very little text. The analysis of the artwork, though, ends up being superficial. Some essays in this volume, however, do attempt to explain the rise of the American comic book artist through a more socioeconomic approach that goes beyond the volume's emphasis on narrative. Stephen Weiner does a wonderful job of this in "How the Graphic Novel Changed American Comics," where he explains how graphic novels, considered more literary by the authors of this book, came into being thanks to the direct market, which he defines correctly as "selling comics to specialty stores at a greater discount than that offered t the newsstand on the proviso they could not be returned" (4). He points out that graphic novels also come into being thanks to the enforcement of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954—the CCA prohibited drugs and violent narratives in comic books, so the solution was therefore to transfer them into a different medium, one that looked more like an actual book: a graphic novel. As a graphic novel, the CCA could not approach the medium and thus allowed for more mature content. While the editors claim graphic novels came to be because of "academic institutions that have reshaped comics' production and reception" (xi), Weiner's essay actually argues that the form needed to mutate in order to sustain itself financially.
Julia Round adopts an approach similar to Weiner's in "'Is this a book?' DC Vertigo and the Redefinition of Comics in the 1990s." There, Round steps away from the academic perspective to consider [End Page 401] the evolution of comics. She gives a thorough explanation of the print technology in the 1980s with the example of Shatter: "Produced on a 128k Apple Macintosh computer using MacPaint, it has an obvious computer...