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Aug
13
2019

Forest vs. Trees in Marc Singer’s Breaking the Frames

At this point it’s not news that Marc Singer’s recent book, Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies, has stirred up a fair amount of controversy. It’s a testament to the provocative nature of the book’s assertions that this controversy has spilled out beyond the usually insular world of the book’s chosen subject matter–comics studies in academia–into the wider sphere of comicsdom in general. I’m case in point; while I do teach illustration at an art school, I’m by no stretch an “academic,” but I bought and read Breaking the Frames shortly after its release. I’ve noted as well much discussion of the book on Twitter (most notably via Kim O’Connor’s weekly chapter-by-chapter read through) and it’s been brought up at more than one beer-sodden post-con get-together I’ve attended. And of course it’s no doubt been a subject of much chatter I’m not privy to in academic circles.     

When I read through Breaking the Frames I took detailed notes, thinking I’d do (as I now am in fact doing) a blog post about the book and my thoughts on it. Now however, some seven months after the book’s release, I doubt I have much to say about the minutiae of the book’s particular arguments that’s not already been hashed over in some other more widely-read venue. I do, though, have a couple of–as the title of this post hints at–very general points that I took away from my reading.

What Comics Studies is Studying

The first passage in this book that made me stop and do a double-take occurs before the book proper even gets going. It’s here, at the end of the introduction, where Singer lays out how the book is organized:

This certainly wasn’t intended as any sort of “bombshell” proclamation, but I did a full stop when I read it–not because I doubted its veracity, but exactly the opposite: I recognized it as true. In laying out the organizational scheme for an analysis of the field of comics studies as a whole, Singer just casually drops that you can basically divide the types of comics that the field actively engages with into exactly two genres: superhero comics… and non-fiction/memoirs.

Imagine reading a book on the current state of film studies that–without much further comment on the matter–divided itself into a section on high school summer vacation comedies and a section on nature documentaries. Before you got much further, your first thought would most certainly be, “Well, there’s clearly something wrong with the current state of film studies that’s not related to the actual practices within the field, but rather what material the field is engaging with.” And that’s exactly what I thought here.

The most interesting, exciting, active, popular, and engaging work in comics in the last twenty or so years has been occurring in areas like YA/all ages comics, indie comics, webtoons, mini-comics, webcomics, and manga. This obviously isn’t germane to the particular arguments that Singer will later go on to lay out in Breaking the Frames, but fact that comics studies is apparently not engaging much with these vital areas of contemporary comics (other than some instances of crossover with memoir) seems like a pretty major systemic problem that should merit some discussion. 

Singer acknowledges this in passing in the same section, saying that works outside these two general areas (as well as concerns about marginalized creators who have to this point been excluded from canon) are, “not a part of this book, which takes as its primary subject comics scholarship in its present form.” I’d argue that what comics scholarship is not taking as its primary subject in its present form is just as important as what it is.

 

Comics are Made out of Little Drawings

Here’s the another very odd (to me, anyway) thing I noted in Breaking the Frames:

This is a passage in which Singer quotes a scholar discussing Frank Miler’s The Dark Knight Returns. Again, this isn’t notable in itself, but it is notable in the context of the overall book in that it occurs on page 80–a full third of the way through Breaking the Frames–and it’s the first time artwork is mentioned in any evaluative sense.

Comics are made of drawings. That’s arguably their defining feature. And yet, the fact that comics are made up of drawings is often completely ignored and they’re discussed solely in terms of their plots–no differently really than if they were prose stories.

This has been a peculiar trait of comics academia for as long as I’ve been aware of it. It’s not wholly unsurprising given that the field of comics studies originated within academia from English, literature, communications, etc. departments. It is, though, damn strange. 

Somewhat related, I noted on several occasions that discussion would drift without any explanation from comics to TV shows or movies about superheroes and then back again to comics. In these sections I found myself stopping in my tracks and wondering, Why are we talking about Smallville or some Batman movie in this book that’s ostensibly about comics criticism?

To be fair, the latter chapters of the book engage a bit more with the artwork than the initial chapters do, but again, this tendency to conceptualize–and write about–comics as simply narrative seems to be a large holistic issue that should bear some addressing before getting into the particulars of current comics studies. 

 

Why are we Talking about This Book?

An observation of a somewhat different nature than the two above: reading Breaking the Frames really highlighted for me that comics that are discussed and viewed as important among comics fans and cartoonists, and comics that are discussed and viewed as important among comics academics form a Venn diagram in which there’s for sure some overlap, but also substantial areas that don’t intersect. The most surprising example of this for me was the amount of attention that Breaking the Frames pays to Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner

I don’t think I’ve heard a fellow cartoonist or anyone I interact with on Twitter (or elsewhere online) even mention Nat Turner in the last decade, yet Breaking the Frames concludes with a nearly fifty-page chapter on the book (which, admittedly, I mostly skimmed, having not read Nat Turner recently enough to really engage with such a granular discussion of it). This is in no way a knock on Nat Turner (I love Kyle Baker’s work); just an observation that this is one of many books which are apparently canon in academia but which for whatever reason don’t occupy the same space discourse-wise outside of academia. 

I noted as well some other interesting and peculiar apparent disparities between attitudes about comics in academia and the comics talk of more general fans/practitioners. Singer devotes a fair amount of effort to “defending” comics–and in particular superhero comics–as an art form from its supposed marginalized status. Is comics still “marginalized” within academia? I genuinely don’t know… but there’s definitely a “chip on the shoulder” vibe to a lot of that sort of discussion in the book that seems more in line with the early 2000’s than now–at least to someone looking in from the outside.

Similarly, there’s almost an entire chapter devoted to pointing out something that seems obvious on its face to me (and is acknowledged by pretty much everyone it’s come up in discussion with): that Marjane Satrapi’s drawing style is derived stylistically in a large part from David B. (who was her mentor for a while). This is apparently a matter of some contention within comics academia.

 

Breaking the Frames is Good and You Should Read it

That fact that this book has caused a bit of a kerfuffle is, to my mind, a good sign that it’s addressing things that need to be addressed. The points I raise above, as per the title of this post, are just a few “big picture” observations about the book–and are admittedly observations coming from someone well outside of comics studies. As someone who makes–as well as teaches–comics, it’s fascinating to see how people engage with work on the page. I’ve likely overplayed the “kerfuffle” aspect of Breaking the Frames, as a substantial portion of it isn’t Singer directly criticizing the work of other comics scholars, but him engaging directly with comics himself. Some of these comics are works that I’m interested in (Chris Ware’s work, Persepolis, Alan Moore’s work, etc.) and some of it not, but Singer’s writing is always interesting, engaging, and well-argued. 

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