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  • The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books by Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo
  • Ben Saunders (bio)
Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 156 pp, $54.99.

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The provocations begin with the cheeky title, which (of course) the authors do not intend literally. Their purpose is not to identify or celebrate comic book "greats," but rather to analyze the social, material, and aesthetic structures that shape the evaluative vocabularies (and the unexamined prejudices) of the diverse interpretive communities that make up the larger comics field. By asking us to imagine what comics studies might look like under different regimes of value, Beaty and Woo invite us to think again about how we select our course texts and construct our canons; they also push us to reconsider the kinds of questions we typically put to those texts, and maybe ask some different ones.

The intellectual godfathers of this project are the American film scholar David Bordwell and the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Beaty and Woo have thoroughly internalized Bordwell's rhetorical understanding of "meaning" as a multivalent, formally [End Page 254] elaborated process rather than an inherent essence, and have also absorbed Bourdieu's many lessons regarding the social contingency of aesthetic value. The influence of these thinkers is palpable throughout, even when they are not directly cited. Fortunately, in stylistic terms, Beaty and Woo are closer to Bordwell than Bourdieu (who can be very hard to parse). What's more, neophytes have nothing to fear; the authors provide definitions for any potentially unfamiliar terms and concepts (such as Bordwell's "plausible" text, or Bourdieu's allodoxia), and never employ jargon for jargon's sake. Indeed, the book is compulsively readable, exemplary in its clarity and brevity, the pithy formulations frequently illuminated by flashes of sardonic wit.

The best arguments of The Greatest Comic Book of All Time are also the most audacious. For example, the brilliant chapter on Robert Crumb exposes the limits of traditional literary scholarship when confronted with a genuinely "dangerous" creator—one whose oeuvre resists recuperation according to standard humanistic pedagogic logic, which naïvely presumes the redeeming social value of the arts. The relative lack of peer-reviewed scholarship on one of our most famous living cartoonists is thus diagnosed as the function of a methodological blind spot rooted in a failure of scholarly nerve. Taken as a whole, the chapter is a rebuke of unexamined humanistic attitudes that persist within contemporary critical practice, even at this supposedly "post-theoretical" moment. Beaty and Woo reminded me here of Jonathan Dollimore's thesis in Sex, Literature, and Censorship (Polity, 2001) that "those who love art the most also censor it the most"—another gauntlet tossed at the feet of professional literary critics, more than fifteen years ago now. It's refreshing to see that gauntlet taken up in the context of comics studies.

Similarly, the chapter on Alan Moore dares to suggest that it is only within the relatively small interpretive community of mainstream fans that writers such as Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison could be identified as challengingly "highbrow" authors. From another (still more literary) perspective, Moore and his successors clearly occupy a space "betwixt and between" the poles of the rebarbatively avant-garde and more welcoming, accessible genre fictions: in short, they constitute the very definition of "middlebrow." The point, I should emphasize, is not to denigrate Moore, et al., but rather to show how limiting and imprecise literary categories of value can be when it comes to assessing the particular achievements of comics creators, even the most avowedly literary among them. "Yes," the argument goes, "Alan Moore is certainly widely credited for having elevated comics writing to the standard of 'Literature'; but does that widely accepted idea really help us to comprehend what he and Dave Gibbons were actually doing on the pages of Watchmen? Or does the argument from literary value actually sometimes get in the way by, for example, rendering Gibbons's contributions relatively invisible?"



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pp. 254-257
Launched on MUSE
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