As a long-time reader and fan of Bart Beaty’s Comics Journal column, “Euro-Comics for Beginners”, today continued as “Conversational Euro-Comics” at Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter, I have been looking forward to Beaty’s book on the new wave of European comics since I first heard he was working on it, several years ago. Now it is here, it is called Unpopular Culture – Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s, and it does not disappoint, though it raises a number of interesting and somewhat problematic questions.
Only a few, if any, people besides Beaty could have written this panoramic survey of the development of the comics medium in Europe over the last decade-and-a-half. As someone who has followed the scene with great interest, and even published on it – and also experienced Beaty in the flesh on several occasions – I can whole-heartedly vouch for his commitment, knowledge and critical acumen in this area.
A Panorama of the Expanded Field
It is, unfortunately, testament to the still fledgling field of comics scholarship that a peer-reviewed publication such as this contains as many factual errors and inaccuracies as Beaty’s survey of European comics history, in the first chapter, does. I shall refrain from listing them here, as this is really only a minor quibble: providing a comprehensive history of European comics is not Beaty’s aim, and the context he does give sets the scene well enough, despite the shakiness of its presentation.
And let it be said immediately: Beaty’s grasp completely stops shaking once he gets to the matter at hand. The chapter breakdown of the book makes eminent sense of the incredibly heteronomous field that is contemporary European comics: After providing an overview in his introduction, he starts with a chapter on seminal artist-run publisher L’Association, who more than anyone else can be said to have fathered the new wave of European comics with their tenacious focus on quality auteur-driven storytelling, as well as genres and formats that had previously been rare in comics. The second chapter focuses on such art-first, object-oriented publishers as the Swiss Drozophile and BüLB in an examination of the expanded field of comics formatting.
The third chapter tests the notion of avant-garde in relation to the new comics, with focus on French-Belgian artist-run publisher Frémok. The fourth examines at the international outlook of the new generations of cartoonists and the cross-pollination between national traditions that has been so essential to the developments under discussion. The fifth details how foundational, almost manifest-like in character the genre of autobiography has been to this development. The sixth is about the influence of the small press on mainstream publishing and the crossover success of many of its artists. And the seventh and last examines the remarkable career of the incredibly prolific and multi-talented Lewis Trondheim, almost as an embodiment of the major changes in the European comic book in the period discussed.
I will not go into detail about the individual chapters – suffice it to say that they exhibit impeccable overview, are well-written, and generally make compelling arguments. I however wish to question Beaty’s fundamental assumption that:
The generation of cartoonists who came of age in the 1990s have laid a foundation for a new conceptualization of the form, removing it from its former domain and creating the possibility that comics will be seen as a primarily visual rather than literary, form of communication.
Leaving aside the problem of understanding art primarily as ‘communication’ implicit in this argument, the assertion that the central contribution to the development of the medium made by the 90s generation is to comics as a visual medium strikes me as inaccurate. The vast majority of L’Association’s publications have emphatically emphasized clear storytelling over graphics, and the same goes for most of the other important French-language publishers: Atrabile, Cornélius, Ego comme X, etc. With regards to publication in other languages, the same more or less applies, though individual publishers have by virtue of their considerably smaller number and production, perhaps individually been slightly more diverse in their output. Furthermore, the centrality of autobiography as a genre to the development of the European comic book is almost by default primarily a literary achievement. And, almost without exception, the artists who have found greater audiences – the Satrapis, the Sfars and the Trondheims – work within relatively traditional visual idioms and privilege their storytelling over graphic experiments.
European comics of the last decade-and-a-half have of course seen a lot of visual innovation and diversification, but the overwhelming majority of it has taken place within the parameters of traditional cartooning. Yes, David B. is a stunning graphic innovator in comics, but so was Hergé, Franquin or Moebius. Yes, Marjane Satrapi has shown how relatively simple graphics can captivate a broad audience, but so did Reiser, Lauzier or Calpurnio. And yes, Fabrice Neaud conveys intimacy and inner life through naturalist images in unprecedented ways, but stylistically he is not radically different from Hermann Huppen or Miguelanxo Prado. The point being, firstly, that most of the visual innovators of the last couple of decades have primarily explored the already existing visual tropes and strategies of narrative cartooning, rather than go beyond them, and secondly, that they have predominantly done so in service of a tightly constructed, ‘literary’ narrative.
There are, of course, exceptions, such as most of the artists published by Frémok, some of those that have appeared in the productions of BüLB, the Drozophile workshop, or in the Slovenian anthology Stripburger, a good section of the cutting edge of Finnish cartooning today, and a handful of the central artists of contemporary German comics. Beaty covers most of these superbly, but they seem at the same time to have come to occupy a rather too large part of the imaginary real estate he stakes out in his survey. Some of this work is indeed astonishing and visually groundbreaking, but a good deal of it can be justly accused of merely importing the techniques and approaches of fine arts painting, printmaking or photography into something that vaguely resembles comics, without really transcending mediocre transposition. Furthermore, very little of even the truly groundbreaking material has been particularly influential. So far.
And this is where the notion of the avant-garde comes in. Beaty is not alone in attempting to apply this historical notion, a by-product of early 20th-century modernism, in relation to contemporary comics – a concerted though rather ambiguous effort has been made recently by the critics of Jean-Christophe Menu and L’Association’s critical journal Éprouvette (3 issues, 2006-2007) – and it is indeed an interesting experiment. Can comics be seen as a medium that is only now experiencing its modernism “against a larger cultural backdrop of postmodernism”, as Beaty writes? The notion of an avant-garde is inextricably tied to the existence of an establishment, and the argument made both by Menu and Beaty runs that comics, because they are only now emerging from the marginalization from high culture that have characterized their history, could be described as presently being in the process of engendering their own avant-garde.
Never mind the problems of operating with a notion of an avant-garde in the first place (Beaty himself sustains a certain scepticism) – let us look at how the argument applies to European comics today. A central characteristic of the avant-garde is that it challenges its own forms and approaches, from without rather than within – that it brings something radically new to the table. My argument would be that in European comics – and North American for that matter – the real “transformation”, to use Beaty’s word, over the past couple of decades has been of literary rather than visual character. The traditional genres and narrative tropes have been exploded, leaving the medium to work in a vastly expanded field in terms of subject matter and approach to story. Despite a number of notable exceptions, comics remain a storytelling medium, and it remains to be seen whether the avant-garde Beaty reluctantly posits will even the scales significantly. I am optimistic; as he also points out, interest in comics is on the rise in fine arts circles, and an increasing number of younger artists are approaching comics as an ‘art’ medium without even thinking twice about it, without consciously working in opposition to a tradition – without being avant-garde.
Ultimately, however, text vs. image in comics is something of a false dichotomy. Though comics have to a large extent traditionally been regarded as a dumbed-down subgenre of literature, it is as much, if not more, in their visuals that they have had an impact on our culture, and it is their synthesis of text and image that make them such a powerful and fascinating cultural phenomenon. While I agree that the entry of comics into high culture these years is a very important development for the medium, I am unconvinced that comics have not yet experienced their “modernism,” or their “postmodernism” for that matter. To argue that is to expect them to develop in similar ways, and with a similar logic, as the high culture forms they by virtue of their history as a bastard, low-culture medium, are significantly different from. Comics’ “modernism” was their insistence on figuration and archetype at a time when literature and the fine arts, respectively, eschewed those, and their “postmodernism” is their current blurring of boundaries between high and low.
As should be evident, Beaty engages some of the most central issues in comics as a cultural phenomenon today with intelligence, knowledge and brio. While the theoretical foundation in cultural analysis, particularly that of Bourdieu, seems rather flimsy – at times almost like lip service paid to the academic context in which the book is published – this is more than made up for by his command of the material and incisive understanding of the issues it raises. Unpopular Culture is an engaging, informed and at times even provocative book that will surely become a standard work on its subject for many years to come.
Bart Beaty, Unpopular Culture – Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 306+ pages. Read also Tom Spurgeon’s interview with Beaty at the Comics Reporter. The notion of an avant-garde in comics, and the discussion of the medium’s relation to modernism has earlier been touched upon in the Metabunker here and especially here.