- Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature by Christopher Pizzino
Christopher Pizzino begins Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature with the premise that even though news stories have proclaimed the arrival of comics as legitimate literature for more than thirty years, comics are still a marginalized medium that resists legitimation, and will be for the foreseeable future. Pizzino argues, "while comics are less reviled now than they were in the worst years of censorship, the medium is still designated illegitimate by default" (3).
The claim might surprise some, especially given forays into comics by the likes of acclaimed authors such as Margaret Atwood (Angel Catbird), Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club 2), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther). This is to say nothing of MacArthur fellow Jonathan Letham and Pulitzer-Prize-winner Michael Chabon, who both draw heavily on comics in their novels, and have written comics as well. How can comics not be legitimate [End Page 257] literature? This question potentially threatens the legitimacy of the cultural producers of comics, the readers, the purveyors, and even the scholars.
For Pizzino, works like these are considered exceptional, or transcendent. They do not legitimate comics as literature. To this end, he argues, the usage of the term "graphic novel" to describe a comic that "transcends" the medium functions to delegitimize comics as a whole. Ironically, in Spain, the word "comic" has replaced the Spanish word "tebeo," and is used in the way that "graphic novel" is used in the Anglophone countries to designate legitimacy.
Pizzino argues against what he terms a "Bildugsroman discourse"—a narrative that contends that comics have grown into "a medium fit for adults; from crudely and functionally produced commodities, often the product of multiple and interchangeable creators, to aesthetically complex work created by self-directed writer-illustrators; from adventure-romance serials to closure-oriented narratives modeled after the novel—and thus, so goes the logic of this narrative, from despised medium with little to no credibility as an art form, a literature or a mode of literacy to a respectable kind of reading with an earned measure of cultural legitimacy" (30). Pizzino's claim that comics still hold an illegitimate position both in the popular press and in academia is a provocative one. He argues his is "a book about how cultural status, and the separation of high and low culture, art and pulp, sophisticated appreciation and vulgar consumption … still influence not only the status of the books we read, but also the value of the act of reading, and the cultural and social standing of readers" (4). For Pizzino, the simple act of reading comics can alter readers' status and respectability.
Choosing to focus his study on critically acclaimed "graphic novelists"—Frank Miller, Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, and Gilbert Hernandez—Pizzino explores what he describes as "autoclasm," or what can be described as the way comic authors "address status problems with extraordinary creative energy" despite its being "a divided and self-opposed energy, split by the pressure of the very problem it confronts" (4). Arresting Development argues that through this autoclasm "creators picture the disenfranchisement that, to one degree or another, comes with the very act of making comics" (5). Pizzino points to the ways that comic writers often have secondary jobs to support their artistic careers. By looking at ways in which acclaimed artists and writers of comics have encountered questions of legitimacy, Pizzino proves the existence of a Bildungsroman discourse, and shows how those who have found critical or financial success still struggle for legitimacy. Even Neil Gaiman has said, "I always loved, most of all with doing comics, the fact that I knew I was in the gutter."1
In chapter three, Pizzino looks at Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) to argue that the work is not exemplary of a literary evolution of the genre, but rather that Miller embraces the "action-packed, lascivious stories" that "abetted the conviction of public figures of the 1950s that comics are unfit reading...