Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Hillary Chute reviews Comics versus Art

Bart BeatyComics versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.  274 pp.

Review by Hillary Chute

The cultural legitimization of comics; it is a topic that I, a scholar of contemporary literature and visual culture who has focused on comics, find singularly boring. It can feel backwards looking, instead of forward thinking.  I certainly note this issue constantly, a natural impulse, as I track the public discourse around anything that compels me, but I have found that today the question of how and if comics is legitimated is often the least interesting avenue of inquiry one could consider about the form.  I am, however, fascinated by the question of what constitutes art, as a practice and as material iteration—and how the form of comics has presented a productive challenge, particularly in the post WWII period, to conceptions of art and literature, and how and where they meet.  Bart Beaty’s Comics versus Art, with its polemical title and 1978 Gary Panter illustration of a cape and beret-sporting superhero on the cover, appears a welcome and exciting contribution; finally someone, I thought, will wade right into these murky waters for the length of entire monograph, unfolding connections and possibilities; the title must just be a hook.  Beaty, an English professor at Toronto who published the excellent studies Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (2005) and Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (2007), among others, has also translated some of the most sophisticated French scholarship on comics by Thierry Groensteen and Thierry Smolderen.

But the simplicity of the title is the real critical framework here.  Beaty “interrogates the specific historical and social processes that have led to the devaluation of comics as a cultural form and takes note of the recent rise to art world prominence of (certain kinds of) comics. . . . In an increasingly postmodern world in which the distinction between high and low culture is often assumed to have been eroded, outmoded biases continue to persist” (p. 7).  Beaty argues throughout, predictably, that the art world hasn’t accepted comics on its own terms, yet.  Specifically, Beaty is interested in analyzing comics from a sociological perspective as its own “distinct art world” and network.  Inspired by Howard Saul Becker’s 1982 Art Worlds (along with Pierre Bourdieu and a smattering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment), he disputes what he suggests are formalist definitions of comics that ignore the “comics world” and its relation to cultural value.

Even for an institutional analysis, there is too much critiquing the critics here—among those critics comics scholars struggling to define the form and art critics who, post-Clement Greenberg’s outright dismissal of comics as kitsch, unsurprisingly look for art historical references when reviewing comics.  More attention to Beaty’s own definition of art would have added enormously to Comics versus Art.  Often the book seems to cave to conventions of cultural stratification it implicitly seeks to reject, simply by according those conventions so much space that they crowd out the author’s statements of his own ideal vision for the dynamic between fine art and comics generally meant for reproduction.  Beaty also misconstrues the work of today’s academic literature departments, where comics and graphic novels are often taught, suspecting them of focusing primarily on the words of a comics text at the expense of its images.  (Sadly, very few images actually appear in this book; the only images are chapter headers.)  The study of “word and image” as a rubric, and the rise of visual culture, led to fresh debates in English and Art History departments about disciplinary interpenetration in the 1980s and 1990s; and while there still can be unease, most literature departments pay plenty of happy attention to visual culture and to images across many different media.  (A response to the anxiety around so-called visual culture I have always enjoyed is Tom Conley’s, when he wrote in October in 1996 that “images are by definition riddled and stippled with language” and vice versa.)  

Beaty is highly knowledgeable about comics worlds and is at his best when he digs in to provide an impressive level of detail about them.  This is clear in his fourth and best chapter on popular genre comic books, which is eye-opening on the subjects of Carl Barks and Jack Kirby, recently anointed artists and kings of comics who were yet often forbidden from signing work or even owning their own originals in many cases.  And when Beaty makes his own aesthetic and political judgments, instead of just tracking others’, as in his chapter addressing accusations of famed underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s racism, the book’s plot, and relevance, thickens.