Unidentified Cultural Object

ocni.jpgIn time for the festival, Thierry Groensteen, Director of the national comics centre (CNBDI) here in Angoulême, and one of France’s preeminent comics historians, -theorists, has put out a collection of essays charting the cultural reception of the comics medium in France over the last half century or so. Half history book, half timely, critical commentary. It simultaneously surveys the development of publishing, amateur culture, comics criticism, curatorship and government support for comics culture, and comments on the current state of comics in French culture.

Groensteen acknowledges that comics have come far in terms of the cultural accept that he considers essential for its future health as a medium, but that anything resembling the consolidation of the younger medium of film has had for more than half a century is still far off. Comics remain an Unidentified Cultural Object, as he calls it, beyond the radar of both high and popular culture (by the way, a dichotomy he dissects and argues for the abolishment of in the final, and unfortunately rather slapdash chapter on whether and how comics can be considered as art in relation to the Western Canon).

The most incisive chapter in the book is the first; a revised and expanded version of an earlier article Groensteen has delivered as a paper in the past (Danish readers who attended the Comics and Culture Conference in 1998 or who are familiar with the book of the same name, 2000, will remember it), detaling what he describes at the five stigmatizing “fundamental handicaps” of comics.

First is the fact that comics combine text and image, a practise that has been almost universally reviled in Western culture since at least the Enlightenment. Second is comics’ association with children’s, and therefore less worthy, culture, since around the third decade of the 20th Century. Third is its association with humor, which goes back to its roots in the satirical and humorous magazines of the early 19th Century, Fourth is its independent development and all but total indifference to the trends in the plastic arts through modernism, and fifth is the fact that the individual image in comics is printed in small format and does not invite lengthy scrutiny or aesthetic contemplation in itself. Groensteen argues thoroughly and convincingly for the importance of these factors to the way comics have been perceived in Western society through the 20th century, and maintains that for things to change, they will have to be eliminated.

The second chapter examines the increasingly isolationist strategies of the publishers; their excessive focus on the existing market for fans and their traditional lack of respect for the product they produce and the people creating it. The focus on the series format and established genres in traditional comics publishing, the for decades totally dominant, unitary format of the comics album, the belief in properties over the vision of individual authors, the almost total ignorance and neglect of the classics, the history of comics, amongst both publishers and creators, the excessive pandering to adolsecent male tastes, the encouragement of fan culture, and the devaluation of the core product through merchandising.

This is rather traditional critical fare, in the well-worn tradition of cultural criticism since at least the 60s. There’s nothing new to the core argument, but Groensteen’s lucid summary of comics publishing strategies and tendencies nevertheless convincingly summarises many of the problems perpetuated by industry practice. He acknowledges the many important developments in the industry over the past decade, but maintains that these have yet to result in fundamental changes in both people’s perception of the medium and the possibilities for authors to create works that differ from the established genres, formats and idioms.

Groensteen’s argument is backed up in the chapters covering the history of comics culture in France from the 60s onwards. These are fascinating in their own right, and contribute towards a fuller picture of the historical reasons for the state of things, but also seem rather excessive and distracting to his contemporary critical agenda. A more incisive examination of the current state of affairs would have been more relevant to the goal of moving forward, he clearly posits from the beginning.

It is not that he does not attempt an analysis of the current situation, just that his efforts at this seem insufficient and uncharacteristically imprecise. He devotes a certain amount of space to the evisceration of comics’ association with the fantastic genres, which have led to the depressing run-of-the-mill sword and sorcery-comics choking the shelves today. He however seems like he cannot quite make up his mind as to whether fantasy is inherently a bad thing for comics. Wanting, on the one hand, to defend comics and their history, while on the other deploring the babes-with-swords-saturated mainstream of current French-language comics, he ends up shying away from anything but the general point that contemporary fantasy comics are stultifyingly formulaic, all adhering to the same basic tropes. Fantasy as it is today impedes rather than frees the creative spirit, he argues. Yes, we can all agree that fantasy comics should be better and more original.

The other half of that same chapter, dealing with the proliferation of manga of the French comics market is surely the most problematic of the book. Having conquered upwards of 40% of the market within a few years, Asian comics are reshaping the comics reading habits of French speakers, just as they are in other parts of the West, notably the US. Groensteen suggests a number of reasons for this phenomenon, all of them believable. Amongst the most important is that manga offers children a cultural domain of their own, which their parents are unfamiliar and at times even uncomfortable with – certainly an essential source of its popularity. Groensteen is worried about this. With what strikes me as a typically French attitude, he compares with French import of foreign film, on which the government has imposed quotas so that no more than a certain percentage of the films shown in theatres in a year can be foreign (= American), and rhetorically wonders why no-one seems concerned with the similar threat posed to French comics by their Asian counterparts.

Now, I am the first to applaud government support of the arts, but it seems to me plain that the quotas on the import of foreign film, while it may have increased the number of French films distributed and therefore produced, certainly has not done much to help the quality of French cinema which on a whole has been consistently boring for decades. I find it hard to believe that the perceived “yellow peril” of manga is harming French comics in any significant way. Actually, it might help them in the long term, because it will infuse them with a much needed accultural shot in the arm once the youngsters reading them grow into the cartoonists of the next generation. What is harming French comics is not manga, it is the history and publishing strategies of the publishers, so well catalogued elsewhere in the book, as well as what seems to me an excessive focus on aesthetics – at the expense of story and especially character – on the part of many of the more sophisticated mainstream cartoonists (ie. those that are not hopelessly mired in nostalgia, of which there are many).

All in all, however, Groensteen’s book is the latest in the line of valuable contributions to comics culture, both French and international. In contrast to the regressive attitudes of many fans, he rightly believes in the importance of identifying comics as phenomenon as integral to our culture as other media, of comics being extracted from the ghetto of trash culture and regarded face to face.

Thierry Groensteen, La Bande dessinée – un objet culturel non identifié, Angoulême: Les Éditions de l’an 2, 2006. for more, see here.

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