- The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books by Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo, and: Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature by Christopher Pizzino, and: We Told You So: Comics as Art by Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean
How does one assign value to a medium assumed to possess no value? The question could apply to any form of printed ephemera—magazines, newspapers, and other disposable print, for instance—but it is particularly [End Page 189] resonant for comics, which, for the bulk of its existence, has been an object of public disdain. The narrative is familiar to anyone working in the field of comics studies; from newspaper strips consumed and discarded on a daily basis, to crime and adventure comic books blasted as insidious influences on young readers, to contemporary superhero comics derided as corporate artworks more beholden to shareholder demands than aesthetic quality, comics is a medium seemingly beset on all sides by assertions of its own worthlessness. While various incarnations of comics have become more culturally ubiquitous in the twenty-first century, adapted into films and television series, proliferating online, and filling bookstore shelves, that success has aroused even greater suspicion in many circles, the refrain of “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” meeting with pronounced skepticism that the medium could be anything more. Inevitably, these perceptions have led to a parallel counter-narrative, which holds that comics, thanks to its outsider status and associations with children’s literature, actually undermines the arbiters of artistic value that would denigrate it. By this argument, a comic’s cultural and aesthetic value comes from its assumed lack thereof, making practically any comic a referendum on the conditions that lead professional critics and casual readers alike to devalue it as something unfit for adult reading. An undistinguished issue of Alpha Flight or a daily installment of Garfield could actually serve as a commentary on its own lack of cultural capital, and thereby advance a subtle yet powerful critique of the logic of culture more generally.
As this binary should suggest, the actual situation of comics is far more complex. Whereas comics criticism partially arose as a challenge to the notion of comics as a simplistic, valueless medium, recent critics have also begun to question the idea that all comics should be celebrated as a kind of critique from below, or that the value of comics can be applied uniformly to all instances of the medium. As they maintain, an issue of Alpha Flight might well possess real substance as an agent of critique, but it could just as easily be bad. Similarly, a self-consciously literary graphic novel, sold in major bookstores and published by a trade press, could advance the medium in unanticipated ways, but it might also do exactly the same things that such books have done for decades now, despite popular critics’ assertions that it changes the game, or lends a new maturity to a medium whose associations with superheroes and children’s cartoon characters would doom it to perpetual immaturity. [End Page 190]
Comics studies is increasingly attentive to this state of affairs, and, as three recent books on the subject illustrate, the result is a field in the process of transforming itself by examining the conditions that place comics within competing, often contradictory models of cultural value. Two of those books—Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo’s The Greatest Comic Book of All Time and Christopher Pizzino’s Arresting Development—are by important voices in comics studies, while the third, an oral history of Fantagraphics, arguably the most significant American publisher of art comics, graphic novels, and popular comics criticism, shows how those working in comics publishing perceive the issue of cultural capital in an oversaturated media environment. All of them...