Talking Comics with Tim: Jeet Heer, Part II with Kent Worcester
If you have not read the first part of my interview with Jeer Heer, follow this link. In this second part, the email exchange branched out to include Kent Worcester. Worcester, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Marymount Manhattan College, has collaborated with Heer on two books, co-editing 2004’s Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium and (more recently) 2008’s A Comics Studies Reader. We discuss both books. My thanks to Heer and Worcester for their time.
Tim O’Shea: Would you ever consider preparing a revised edition of 2004’s Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium? How has your perspective changed–looking at the 2008 critical landscape in comparison to your 2004 view of the medium?
Kent Worcester: Yes, we have considered preparing a revised edition of Arguing Comics. There are at least a few essays on comics by major twentieth century intellectuals that we overlooked the first time around. A second edition would allow us to not only incorporate new material but also to expand the discussion in the introduction concerning the relationship of comics-oriented discourse to larger cultural conversations. I would very much appreciate having the opportunity to strengthen our underlying argument, which is that debates over comics are central to the so-called “culture wars” that have been a defining feature of American politics for many decades.
As far as whether our perspective has changed, I won’t speak for Jeet, but from my vantage point the last few years have only reaffirmed my sense that twentieth-century debates over comics are worth taking seriously and remain relevant not only from a historical perspective but from a literary-critical one as well. Many of the issues that our authors addressed continue to percolate across the culture, from what constitutes appropriate reading material for children to the political lessons of the superhero genre.
Jeet Heer: To add to what Kent has said, I’d say that an expanded edition of Arguing Comics would be influenced a bit by the outpouring of good scholarly books on comics in recent years, such as David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague and David Michaelis’s Schulz biography. These books have given us a new sense of the past, so I think we could include a greater range of essays on, say, the censorship debates of the 1950s or some of the early articles from the late 1950s on Schulz and Feiffer (then seen as part of a new wave of intellectual humor). Our view of the past is always changing as we get newer and better researched histories. So there’s a lot to expand in Arguing Comics. I should also add that I’m been very happy with how wide the readership for Arguing Comics has been; it shows up on a lot of academic reading lists and I think it’s made a strong contribution to the conversation on comics.
O’Shea: A Comics Studies Reader marks the second time you two have collaborated in editing a book. How do you decide which of you tackles what when you do projects like this?
Worcester: Jeet is a pleasure to work with. Both collaborations were enjoyable as well as productive. For both books, we worked as equal partners on selecting material. Nothing went in unless we both approved of the selection. And in both cases, I wrote the first draft of the introduction and then Jeet improved both drafts enormously. Also, in both cases I put together the index. So if there are problems with either index the fault is entirely mine.
Heer: I should add that in addition to Kent and I working together, we had a lot of outside help for this book in particular. We wanted to really be up-to-date on what’s the best current scholarly writing on comics so we turned to a lot of experts for help. This introduced us to some new and out-of-the-way material, which really enriched the book.
O’Shea: A Comics Studies Reader is intended to introduce “readers to the major debates and points of reference that continue to shape the field“–were there certain more recent debates and points that you were pleased to be able to work into the book?
Heer: I think the major thread that runs through the book is the question of formalism: to what extent do comics have their own intrinsic properties and does that require the development of a language unique to comics (as opposed to borrowing terms from literary and film analysis). The early section deals with historical essays that are pre-formalist, focused on “what happened in the past” rather than “how comics work.” The middle sections introduce formalist analysis. The final section involves writers trying to fuse together historical analysis with formalism, looking at the works of specific cartoonist, placing them in their biographical historical context, but also providing a formalist reading of their work. So the drama of the book is the story of comics critics trying to develop a formalist critique of comics, but also synthesize formalism with other approaches. Or at least that’s one way to read the book. To put it another way, many of the essays in the book grapple with the ideas raised by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. If I were teaching a course on comics I’d use the McCloud book together to form a rich dialogue.
O’Shea: Two of the topics covered in the book are the “international anti-comics campaign, and power and class in Mexican comic books”. It really seems like the book is ambitious in the ground it covers. As informed a person as you are, were there any trends or issues that you knew nothing about before previously and that you became educated about it through the book?
Worcester: I won’t speak for Jeet, but I learned an enormous amount from working on this book. I now have a much greater appreciation for the kinds of theoretical issues raised in the chapters by Charles Hatfield, Thierry Groensteen, Joseph Witek and others. Comics are endlessly fascinating from a formal-analytic point of view.
Heer: I agree with Kent, but I would also say that the essays in the last section, dealing with particular creators like Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell and Spiegelman, is also very rewarding. As I mentioned earlier, I think the most promising development in comics criticism is the merging of a historical approach with formalism; that’s what we really see in the last section.
O’Shea: I’m amazed at the list of folks contributing to this book, for instance, how were you able to get Chilean-American novelist/playwright/scholar Ariel Dorfman to contribute to the book?
Worcester: In the case of Dorfman, we contacted him via his literary agent and never communicated with him directly. We paid a reprint fee, of course, for use of that chapter. In most cases, however, we contacted the authors directly. Happily, no one turned us down. Like us, our contributors seemed to think this was a good time for a Reader of this type.