PRINT Summer 2014


Page detail from Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3" (Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2011).

HERE IS ONE STORY about how North American comics—or, if you prefer, cartoons or sequential art, or, later, graphic novels, the multiple monikers themselves being part of the tale—reached the stations they occupy today. In the beginning, comics creators were hamstrung by early-twentieth-century systems of publishing and distribution that confined strips to newspapers, longer-form comics to drugstore racks, and everything to intrusive corporate owners who insisted on work for hire, preferably involving capes and bad guys, and nothing (except for a few years in the early 1950s) that would shock fathers of eight-year-old boys. If you made an ambitious, difficult comic for grownups, nobody would publish and distribute it, and nobody would find out about it if you did.

Then, around 1968, came the Underground: comix with an x, eager to break taboos and free to invent, exemplified by the irrepressible and sex-obsessed Robert Crumb. At first, comix were often self-published; later, in strip form, they were usually paid for by the alternative weekly papers of the 1970s and ’80s. Underground comix begat autobiographical comics, beginning with Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972); gay and lesbian and later trans and queer comics, in the strong traditions summed up by Justin Hall’s fine anthology No Straight Lines (2012); and avant-garde comics, as in the anthology series Raw, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, who brought out twelve issues between 1980 and 1991. Raw, in turn, published the first installment of Maus, Spiegelman’s graphically inventive yet scarily simple long-form comic about his father and the Holocaust, with German cats and Jewish mice.

Completed in 1991, Maus changed both the image of comics in the wider literary world (the Pulitzer board gave it a special citation) and the horizons for future comics makers. Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth [2000]) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic [2006]), for example, found readers and critics for their visually and verbally ambitious book-length work. Such artists were auteurs—they planned and wrote and drew their work themselves, in contrast to mainstream comic books’ production teams; their visual styles could be anything, from the scuffed-up art brut of Lynda Barry to Joe Sacco’s expressive details and David Mazzucchelli’s clean Calder-esque lines. Many of these comics incorporated memoir or (as with Sacco) reported nonfiction; much of the rest (Barry, Daniel Clowes, Phoebe Gloeckner, Ariel Schrag, Justine Shaw, Adrian Tomine) presented realistically troubled teens.

Here is another story about the history of the best-known American comics. In 1938, two Cleveland boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster slapped a cape and an origin onto an action-hero stereotype; they couldn’t get this “Superman” into the newspapers, so he ended up in comic books, spawning a parade of unrealistic champions whose exploits would soon shape the US comics industry (as well as affect comics overseas). Romance, crime, and horror competed with heroes, but a mid-’50s moral panic shut most other genres down; sanitized stories ruled a shrinking business until a handful of ’60s creators—among them the visual genius Jack Kirby and his self-important collaborator Stan Lee—made their characters a lot less wooden, their layouts and lines a lot more fun. Under the near duopoly of DC and Marvel, commercial comic books provided space for beauty and invention, embracing creators from the visual magician (he was also a stage magician) Jim Steranko to the capable storytellers (John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Len Wein) responsible for the X-Men. Superheroes became literary—which is to say tragic or modernist or openly fascist, and in any case meant for literate adults—with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986–87), and they have oscillated between light and dark, slapdash and subtle, predictable and astonishing, ever since. Despite tight institutional constraints, and tighter limits on visual style, talented writers such as Kurt Busiek (who favors a gentle realism) and Grant Morrison (who prefers grand cosmic gestures) still make intricately thoughtful work.

That first story follows a medium, comics, whose series of pictures—with or without words—show events taking place. The second follows a genre, one among many (since mystery and memoir and bildungsroman and war reportage and expressionist portraiture are genres, too)—a genre from which, in some tellings, the illimitable energies of the comics medium have now broken free. Must comics for adults, comics that count as literary and aesthetically engaging, confine themselves to other genres in turn? Can we describe the history of comics in a more inclusive way?

Here is another story about the medium and the genres it can contain. In the 1730s, William Hogarth became famous for his series of engravings in which representative English characters succumbed to the faults of their time: A confident madam tempts an innocent seamstress; a drunken arriviste reclines at an orgy while ladies of the evening steal his watch. Neither mere reportage nor strict allegory, but something in between, A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress set a precedent for serial art at once popular and complex, easy to follow yet deeply anarchic, chasing and then rebuking the taste of the age. Hogarth and his imitators led, eventually, to political cartoons such as Thomas Nast’s; serial art on the Continent, such as Rodolphe Töpffer’s; Victorian narrative illustrations in magazines; and, in the new color supplements to US Sunday papers, Richard Felton Outcault’s The Yellow Kid (1895–98), which depicted—“floating out of [a] phonograph’s horn,” as Paul Gravett writes in Comics Art (2014)—the first speech balloon.

Cover of Lynda Barry’s The Freddie Stories (Drawn and Quarterly, 2013).

Not for the first time nor for the last, evolution in comics had come via new technologies and means of distribution. The great age of comic strips followed, with the serpentine beauties of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–14) and the desert brio of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913–44).1 Will Eisner raised the bar for comics narrative with The Spirit, a 1940s newspaper supplement that competed with action-hero books. Eisner’s poses and faces—larger-than-life, expressive but never crude—looked back, faintly, to Hogarth’s; his naturalistic A Contract with God (1978) sometimes gets called the first graphic novel. Other strip comics found wit and pathos within traditions of American humor. Think of the animal fables of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, the funny-sad child’s-eye view of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, the topical ironies in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, and—in our digital age—the stick-figure nerd humor of Randall Munroe’s xkcd.

EACH OF THESE WAYS to think about comics—at once a way to read them, a way to see them, and a way to talk about them—may seem inevitable, given a particular starting point. The scholar Hillary Chute’s conversations in Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists (2014) tell the first story, the rise of what she calls “literary” comics, with verve: Barry, Bechdel, Charles Burns, Gloeckner, Sacco, Spiegelman, Ware, and others describe their goals, personalities, methods, and acquaintance with other creators (several met at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, known then as now for its unconventional kids). Some creators say what you might expect: Ware shows how well he knows the comics history on which he so often draws for his own books. Others might shock you: “I never pencil,” Barry explains. “I never know what the next line’s gonna be.”

First published in French in 2009, but new in English, the Belgian comics scriptwriter, scholar, and editor Thierry Smolderen’s magisterially polemical volume The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay tells the story that begins with Hogarth. For Smolderen, comics from the start carried in their very DNA an anarchic power, a drive to circumvent or undermine social and artistic rules. They have been hybrid media since the beginning, not stand-alone, pedestal-worthy visual art, and their great innovators (especially Töpffer) have had the temperaments of rebels; no wonder comics so often lend themselves to humor, caricature, or fantasy.2 The rise of adorable comic-strip characters seems, to Smolderen, like an evolutionary adaptation. By 1900, monthly or weekly journals sought customer loyalty through recurring characters, who had to be attractive and easy to draw; no wonder “cuteness, habit building and serialization” came to characterize the world of strip comics.

Given the right definition, you can draw a clean line between comics and noncomics, between art that has narrative series with panels or borders (“sequential art”) and art that does not. But you cannot draw a line to separate comics from fine art or gallery art: One is a formal category, the other a network of institutions and an evaluative stance. Like all art forms, comics quote themselves, or earlier versions of themselves, and other visual artists have quoted them—not just Roy Lichtenstein, via his all-too-familiar dots, but contemporary artists who respect, and can work within, the medium, such as Raymond Pettibon and Jim Shaw.

The British curator, anthologist, and journalist Paul Gravett never forgets that comics are a visual art. Comics Art, his fast-moving, responsible overview, covers wordless comics (including Lynd Ward’s God’s Man [1929]) and comics from the developing world, such as Les Soeurs Zabîme (The Zabime Sisters, 1993–96) by the Guadeloupean artist Aristophane. Gravett’s story ends up notably international; still other stories of comics take place in Japan—whose manga and anime have become the default way of seeing for young readers worldwide—and in France and Belgium. “Comics makers or lovers [in France],” Mouly tells Chute, “didn’t have to overcome the prejudices that Americans had to contend with.” She means both that French comics art (called bande dessinée) did not suffer from highbrow-lowbrow divisions and (less controversially) that it did not connote web slingers and Kryptonite.

A FINAL STORY—or, perhaps, a preface to all the other stories—tracks conversation about comics, as a medium, a reading community, and a set of genres: In North America, that story runs past the letter columns in mainstream comics, through the founding of the Comics Journal in 1976, Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (1985), Scott McCloud’s trilogy in comics form, Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006), and the present high tide of critical books surveyed here. Understanding Comics remains essential; of the American books that provide both history and theory, the best—and the only one that does justice both to the Pulitzer crowd and to the masks and capes—is Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2007).

Page detail from Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Pantheon, 2012).

When you start as far back as Smolderen does, then read forward into our century, you can separate out all these stories from one another, but you can also see how their branches intertwine. You can see, in particular, how strip comics—from the 1910s, ’20s, and ’80s—inform so much of the best new long-form work: So many of the makers of book-length comics either got their start in strip-length work, or cite its icons, or both. Bechdel began as the artist of Dykes to Watch Out For, a biweekly strip about lesbian life, serialized from 1983 to 2008; though she now works slowly, from photographed poses, her line and expression still owe a little (as Dykes owed a lot) to Doonesbury. (“My cartoon idols,” she declares, “are Hergé and R. Crumb.”) Continuing the comics editor and writer Trina Robbins’s decades-long effort to give women comics artists their due, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013 connects the successful strips and illustrations of the 1910s (starting with Rose O’Neill’s Kewpies) to the history of fashion illustration; the long career of Brenda Starr; the delightful adventures of Tarpé Mills’s costumed Miss Fury; the women, womyn, wimmen, and wimmin of the ’70s indie scene, among them Aline Kominsky-Crumb; and the early-1990s boom in photocopied zines and minicomics, encouraged by Riot Grrrls.

Robbins’s story of women in comics does not make sense—not in its early chapters, and not today—unless we see the ways in which artists, writers, and editors could shift back and forth between illustration and comics proper, between commercial romance and commercial action genres, between more and less independent forms, and among work “for kids,” work for adults, and work about, for, or even by teens. To insist on tight genre distinctions, to segregate literary from nonliterary comics, is to make nonsense of many artists’ careers; that is not to say that genres are fakes, but that they have really evolved, and spoken to one another, throughout the history of comics form.

They still do today. Jeff Smith, the editor of the Best American Comics 2013 anthology, owes his fame to Bone (1991–2004), a terrifically entertaining all-ages narrative in which three funny-animal characters straight out of Pogo get stuck in a Tolkienesque land of dragons and prophesied queens. Smith’s edited volume includes lovely drawings for children (Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s Giants Beware!) and work no child should read (Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer). It has fiction and nonfiction, teenage high jinks in vigorous black-and-white (Faith Erin Hicks), adult memories (Bechdel), nearly abstract, lavishly colored comics in a Continental semi-Fauvist line (Jesse Jacobs), and science fiction with a woodcut look and a South Asian theme (Eleanor Davis’s Nita Goes Home). Each of them overlaps—in its imagined audience, in its techniques, in how its world feels—with some of the rest. And as much fun as Smith’s volume is to page through, it also leaves out—as anthologies inevitably must—one of the chief pleasures that comics can give: the pleasure of entering, exploring, and spending an hour inside a created world. Gloeckner, who is no escapist, tells Chute, “I feel like I’m really lucky, because I can create pictures. . . . I feel like I’m making a world.”

COMICS CAN—as Understanding Comics insists— tell any kind of story, build any world. “All it is is a medium,” Spiegelman repeats. “It’s not a given that it be any one kind of thing.” Yet the medium has proved especially fruitful for certain kinds of things, which is to say for certain genres: for humor and caricature, where characters must be repeated and recognizable, but not realistic; for confession, where comics’ ability to place us in a character’s shoes can keep us attached to repellent or mopey protagonists; and for genres of escape, of wonder and fantasy, because comics can defy the limits of language and escape the budgetary constraints of film. Genre in comics is not just a category of plot but a way of drawing—photorealistic, “cartoony,” fine-grained, or cross-hatched. It is also a way to arrange what you draw—big panels or tiny ones, the familiar nine-panel grid or a wild asymmetry, thick borders or none. Sketchy, hasty, blocky-looking art can add sadness or harshness to a quick anecdote; elaborate formal beauty can render bearable a life that would sound bleak and spare. “I wanted to make [Jimmy Corrigan] as beautiful as I possibly could,” Ware explains, “to make it almost something of a counterargument to the story.”

Those effects, too, can make comics seem unruly: Their elements (words and pictures, lines and layouts) can clash with one another, or harmonize for a consistent setting and mood. And in doing so they refer to comics’ history, showing again how hard it is to separate out “literary” comics from the rest. Maus is, among many other things, a very adult appropriation of quasi- and pre- and post-Disney funny animals. Costumed villains and heroes, and the tools that evolved to depict them, often serve as the repudiated or transformed “other” in the contemporary American graphic novels that Chute rightly recommends. The hapless antihero of Jimmy Corrigan looks up to a caped figure called Super-Man; the protagonist in Clowes’s Ghost World (1997) sports a Batman-like mask. The visibly deformed teens in Burns’s Black Hole (published from 1995 to 2004 and anthologized in 2005) are like gross, helpless X-Men, with “mutations” that cannot help them save anybody from anything. McCloud returned to his irony-free science-fictional hero, Zot, even after he became a famous theorist;3 he learned to draw, and to write, alongside Kurt Busiek. Gravett begins his story of all comics everywhere with Dylan Horrocks’s winningly informal Hicksville (1998), set in an imaginary New Zealand town where everybody loves art comics: The whole of the plot pushes back against the domination of comics by superheroes, yet its denouement draws on the true story of Kirby and Lee.

Richard Felton Outcault, The Yellow Kid, October 25, 1896. From a strip appearing weekly in the New York Journal.

Horrocks went on to write scripts for DC’s Batgirl, “making comics I couldn’t respect.” Two new books of his independent work will appear this year, but fans need not wait; since 2009 he has posted, page by page, his work on his website—the charmingly metafictional Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen has, at press time, reached page 135. In this Web-first strategy, Horrocks is far from alone. The Internet has transformed comics, maybe more than any other medium. The webcomics revolution first hit the humor strip—think xkcd or Allie Brosch’s Hyperbole and a Half—but it has opened up to embrace longer narrative as well. Some artists, as McCloud predicted, treat the screen not as a page but as a window or as an adjustable lens. Many more conventional creators take advantage of webcomics’ low capital threshold and ease of distribution, riding the long tail. Two-in-one comics–cum–video games such as Homestuck (which my students keep recommending) could not exist without digital media. Nor could such niche productions as Fried Chicken and Sushi, about life as a young black American in Japan, or the neat transgender teen soap opera Rain: They are too specialized to have sustained a print audience, but flourish as labors of love in digital form.

“FOR ADULT INTELLECTUALS ONLY”—the satirical tag that Crumb placed on an early comic—may no longer sound sarcastic. Yet the highbrow interest in work that is just for mature readers, work that breaks taboos, revisits trauma, or resists the untrained eye, can occlude inventions elsewhere in the medium. Comics form is a hybrid form, making categories messy; it is also an absorbing form, whose words and pictures draw the reader in. Theorists of comics (McCloud among them) sometimes emphasize the space between panels, the gutter, where a reader imagines what happens from frame to frame. That is one reason comics can seem addictive; it is also a reason we seek them out.

It could seem perverse, given how comics history works, to separate out a discrete canon of literary comics, setting these a few yards above the rest. And yet if you read a lot of comics—if you read or see a lot of anything—some of them will look better than the rest: better or best, at the very least, of their kind (and genre is one synonym for kind). Some of the best work appears to exceed its kind—an autobiography for people who dislike memoirs, an adventure that appeals to meditative types. Other work, though, requires that you accept its kind, that you not object to the genre, in order to see what makes this example great. If you can’t handle science fiction at all, for example, you’ll miss out on a lot of remarkable narratives, and few are more remarkable than Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder (1996–), a series of comics stories, or graphic novels, that shows as well as almost anything some of what its medium can do.

McNeil describes Finder as “aboriginal science fiction.” Its stories—collected in nine graphic novels so far—take place in and outside a domed megacity called Anvard, whose upper classes belong to clans with special talents and distinctive visages. Outside the dome live the neoprimitive Ascians, whose tribal culture plays off against the intricate, unfair, high-tech society inside. In the most recent graphic novel, Voice (2011), the eldest of three unlike sisters competes in a pageant for the title and status that belong to her clan, loses an heirloom ring, and has to trawl Anvard’s underworld, seeking help from her Ascian not-quite-stepfather, to find it.

McNeil stands apart not because she rejects derring-do, sprawling fantasy worlds, or the graphic approaches associated with them, but because she does them better, more thoughtfully, in her own uncompromised terms: Varied arrangements, clever points of view, and repeated details (what video gamers call Easter eggs) emerge only when you reread. (One melancholy, lyrical installment of Finder, called Talisman, is about rereading. Its protagonist, who rejects high-tech entertainment, tries to track down a beloved childhood book.) You can explore McNeil’s world at your leisure—its layers of alleys, its video screens within screens, its deathbeds, romances, and chase scenes. You can also use it to think about urbanism and ecology, about childhood and unconventional families, about many kinds of gender and sexuality, about tribal customs, social class, and religion in our society. McNeil isn’t much like Ware, or much like Spiegelman (though both draw talking animals), but with her gift for story, her off-balance panels, her built-up and symbol-rich city, she has become one of the true heirs of Eisner—and, for my money, of Hogarth, too.

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. His latest book of poems, Belmont, appeared in 2013 from Graywolf Press.


1. Many of these strips are now in the public domain and on the Web, for example at

2. You can confirm this vision of comics—and spend your whole day at it—on Smolderen’s beautiful, both a repository of old comics images and a digital home for new francophone comics.

3. For the results, and much else, see