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My Excellent Mississippi Adventure
By Karen Green
Friday November 14, 2008 09:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Gosh, have people really been reading comics this past month? Me, I've just been sitting at my computer, obsessively hitting "refresh" on political blogs and polling sites. Thank heavens this election is over—I mean, I've got a living to earn.

Luckily, however, I can write about my most excellent field trip to Natchez, Mississippi, where I had the great privilege of addressing the academic librarians of the Mississippi Library Association—fantastic men and women who paid actual money to come hear me talk about why comics belong in academic libraries. Oh, and to eat lunch. That's probably what they actually paid for.

The opportunity for me to go to Natchez came as a result of a chance meeting over a different lunch table, this past June, at the American Library Association meeting in Anaheim. There, Judy Hilkert, an extremely clever and capable librarian at the Raymond campus of Hinds Community College, overheard someone asking me about, well, about this very column.

Judy and her colleague Jean Greene (at HCC's Utica campus) have run into difficulties getting their graphic novel collections off the ground, and she thought it would be interesting to have me come down and talk about how and why I began Columbia's collection. As Chair of the Mississippi Chapter of ACRL, she had the power to make it happen, and I thought it sounded like terrific fun. I'd never been to Mississippi!

Well, first of all, Mississippi was AMAZING. Simply beautiful! And the food? Did you know about fried dill pickles? You did? Then why didn't you tell me??

Anyway, the turnout for the luncheon was pretty good; nearly sixty people. Even the president of the Mississippi Library Association was there. Some of the librarians I spoke to before my presentation (Flickr set of slides in that link) were, well, skeptical about comics in their libraries, but seemed open to being convinced. Others were clearly already on board, but were looking for more information, or for arguments for their own administrations.

I didn't know how much exposure my audience had to the medium of sequential art and, because I'm an historian, I felt compelled to start with the long view: from the caves of Lascaux to Trajan's column to the Unicorn tapestries to Hogarth and Cruikshank and on into more familiar territory, like Töppfer and Feininger. I also stole shamelessly from Kim Deitch's terrific PowerPoint at last year's SPLAT! Symposium, where he provided an historical overview of graphic novels for grown-ups. My goal was to make explicit the notion that graphic narrative was neither new nor inherently juvenile, to place comics in a context that would be reassuring and also provide a little gravitas.

What next? The concept of the "graphic novel," that term that continues to vex creators, publishers, bookstores, and readers. From Eisner's coinage through the three blockbuster publications of the mid-‘80s that finally brought comics to mainstream attention, to the use of "graphic novel" as shorthand for everything from newspaper-strip compilations to superhero archives to collections of graphic short stories, this seemingly innocuous phrase has muddied the waters considerably and added to the confusion of medium and genre.

We're told that when building an argument it helps to define our terms, but what are you supposed to do when they're undefinable? People keep trying to come up with new umbrella terms—the latest I've heard is "graphica"—but I think that ship has sailed: "graphic novel" is here to stay and it's now the Procrustean bed on which we have to fit everything that gets published.

I gave them the overview of my own history with comics, some of which you've seen here and here, and how that informed my plan to initiate a collection at Columbia, which you've also already read about.

So, it was time to talk about how the collection is being and can be used. When I told them the story about the master's student who came to me for a reference consultation on the topic of superheroes as heirs to the pulp-fiction/film noir anti-heroes, I put up this slide:


I had debated long and hard with myself about including that image from Preacher. As more than one person pointed out to me on my trip, Mississippi is the "buckle in the Bible Belt." Would they find the image offensive? I wasn't trying to shock or browbeat my audience, I was trying to inform them. And, in the end, I did include it. But I took a moment to tell them a little bit about the plot of Preacher and to admit that while the series is violent, blasphemous, and extremely funny, it's also deadly serious about examining the role of faith in society.

When I was a medievalist grad student, I was fascinated with the way that, through early Church history, one function of heresy was to force the Church to clarify and refine its doctrine. Lord knows I'm not calling Garth Ennis' work heretical, but in some ways stories like Preacher--and, earlier, True Faith--serve a similar function for the author and his readers, as each tries to work out the role of faith in society for himself.

Religion is a not uncommon theme in comics today, and while the tone is often questioning, it is rarely dismissive. It's easy to condemn such work as scurrilous or dangerous, but everyone in that room was an academic, and as such we know the importance of questioning -- of the Socratic method -- of dialectic, as a means to reach truth.

We have a lot of works in our collections that have profoundly challenged perceived social order and societal norms – Henry Miller, Jean Genet, James Joyce -- and many of these are now classics around which entire courses are built. It would be disingenuous of us, I think, to hold graphic novels to a different standard just because they tell their stories with pictures.

But where was I? Oh, right... How to use the collection. Well, there's one way: using it to further stir up the pre-conceptions of one's students. Or simply to include it as another medium of expression to make the point one already makes with conventional texts.

Faculty are already increasingly using film in their classes to provide just such an alternative. Graphic novels can do the same. There's a course at Columbia in which students are asked to examine various ways in which war has been depicted and perceived in society—in novels, non-fiction, film.

War stories have been a staple in the comics, starting with the classic Two-fisted tales published by EC. A simple catalog search on the subject term "war" or "soldiers" plus "comic books" will yield a wealth of options


for just about every war in global history, from the Punic Wars to Iraqi Freedom. Some are polemical, some are personal, some are reportorial, but all provide a valid alternative to works in more traditional media.

Then, after some advice on how to build a collection once the decision's been made—looking at award winners, checking out some of the guides that are out there, going to Cons, frequenting comics shops, subscribing to newsletters like PW Comics Week – and a discussion of some of my initiatives for promoting the collection, it was time to open it up to questions.

The first question, and one that threw me off my game a little, was: if you're a small school with a small budget, how do you justify expanding collection areas to include comics? Do you know the expression l'esprit d'escalier? My best friend taught me this phrase, which has become kind of a mantra for me. Literally, it means "the spirit of the staircase," but what it refers to is the brilliant retort that you finally think of when you're walking downstairs on your way out of an event.

I'm, like, the queen of l'esprit d'escalier. So, of course, the best answer to this very valid question didn't occur to me until about two hours after the luncheon was over. And, basically, it's this: no one's saying you have to go out and create a comprehensive comics collection. Columbia is really fortunate to have the resources to allow me to do so (although the current financial meltdown is playing merry devil with the endowment that helps fund our book budgets).

But where funds are constrained, you can buy comics exactly the way you buy everything else: selectively, and to support your school's curriculum. In a way, it's more challenging, because you really have to think about what titles fit with the courses that are being taught, but it's also more rewarding, as it's a surefire way to see that the collection gets used.

After I came home to New York, I learned about a further development from the talk. It seems that Amanda Powers, a librarian at Mississippi State University, was Twittering my presentation. One of her Tweeps is an art history professor at MSU who, by the end of the talk, was planning a course on graphic novels for the spring semester. I think they may have actually worked out their entire syllabus, including guest speakers, via Twitter, by the end of the meal. It was amazing to think of this almost viral dissemination of support for comics in the academy.

Midway through my talk, I called out to one of the librarians I'd met earlier, who had told me she had to be convinced: "Kathleen, how'm I doing?" She smiled and acknowledged, "You've given me some food for thought." And, really, what more can you ask for at a luncheon?

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010



Gerard Jones (1 year ago)
In response to klg19
Oh, and it was interesting watching Nixon resign through a TV in Natchez. My parents were both Nixon-hating liberals, and everyone around us was an older, white, Mississippi conservative, the very people Nixon's "Southern strategy" was built upon. They were all quite glum--and I could sense my mom holding herself back from cheering.
Gerard Jones (1 year ago)
In response to klg19
Glad I could be of service. And yes, Watchmen influenced a lot of people's approach to writing and drawing comics, especially superhero comics. Although Alan had already had a huge impact through Swamp Thing, Marvel Man/Miracle Man and other projects, so it wasn't as if Watchmen came out of the blue. Among many other things, though, it pointed to new ways of structuring and layering comics in "novel" form. The 12-issue superhero "maxi-series" already existed at that point, so the form had been laid out, but Alan and Dave showed everyone how to use that form to tell a story with the coherence of a novel.
Peter Jaffe (1 year ago)
In response to klg19
We used to have deep-fried pickles at the county fairs in Ohio... it's not just a deep-south thing, I guess.
klg19 (1 year ago)
Jason, of course you can bring up manga! Although I confess it's far from my area of strength.
I think it's true that comics can inspire a profoundly visceral reaction. Maybe the combination of verbal and visual engagement? Your comments about the power of art made me think of St Augustine's embarrassed confession that, as a young man, the theatre could move him emotionally in ways that real life never could.
Gerard, I had to look up Nixon in Wikipedia to make sure 8/8/74 was the date I thought it was! Yeah, I can see how that would be memorable. Thanks SO MUCH for your comments about the contemporary context of WATCHMEN. Since I didn't read it until so many years after it came out, I wasn't aware of how it was received commercially or critically. That does explain, though, that while I remember vividly the '80s releases of MAUS and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, I wasn't even aware of WATCHMEN until so long afterwards. But it was influential within the confines of creators' development, was it not? Would it be correct to say that, although it wasn't a commercial success in terms of being a "big graphic novel" it was still a milestone in the development of what we see in graphic novels today?
Gerard Jones (1 year ago)
Day-um, Karen! There's so much to comment on here! The girl was clearly cooking with gas when she wrote this one. I wish I could have heard your talk--and not ONLY to find out what you said about my book. (But yeah, that too.) And I'm glad you liked Natchez. I haven't been in that particular city since August 8, 1974 (how do I remember so precisely? Hmm, maybe it was what was on the TV set in that diner that everyone stopped to stare at...) but I've been to Mississippi many a time and it does weave a spell. I even find myself forgiving it its dominant politics when I'm down there among the people and the magnolias. You were smart to see it in the fall, too, as the kudzu vines were probably dying off.
So let me choose a thing or two to comment on here. Hmm. Eisner's coinage of "graphic novel." Well, he wasn't the FIRST to coin the phrase, even if he arrived at it independently. It had emerged in comics fandom by the late '60s, before Will was back in the business. (I can look up the fan-critic it's generally attributed to, if you're curious.) Will always seemed to feel sincerely that he'd arrived at the phrase on his own, and maybe he did. But I keep thinking, those years talking to Denis Kitchen and other undergrounders, scouring the current comics scene to get back to speed? I find it unlikely that he completely missed seeing a use of "graphic novel." Will was a thorough student, whatever he undertook. I think he may sincerely have forgotten that he'd read it somewhere and thought it was his own, but I think the credit belongs elsewhere. No question he popularized it, though. It might not even have become the accepted label had it not been for him.
And the big three of the '80s. No question that Maus was THE turning point in the broad acceptance of graphic novels. And Dark Knight Returns, though it started as a "comic book" and not a "graphic novel," was in g.n. form early enough and sold well enough that it's certainly the next milestone. But Watchmen is interesting in that I think subsequent events have colored the perception of what it seemed to be at the time. It was a HUGE event in hard-core comics fandom, no question. But it was a 12-issue monthly that dragged way behind schedule. Started in late '86, I think, and it had to be well into '88 before the last issue came out. (Someone correct me if my chronology's wrong.) Then the graphic-novel version came out...and promptly bombed. Big print run, but remainders showing up everywhere. The hopes of serious fans that Watchmen would become another big event in the broader acceptance of the medium seemed dashed.
But then, during the '90s, came a slow build. Sandman became a big thing and drew attention to its ancestors, Alan Moore in particular. From Hell had a certain break-through quality that brought people looping back to Alan's other stuff. And every serious comics geek was telling everyone he knew to read Watchmen. By the turn of the century it was definitely doing a lot to get graphic novels and superheroes taken more seriously. But in the moment, in the '80s, it felt more like an insider thing. Our big secret treasure.
I'm fumbling for a non-comics analogy. Henry James? Sherwood Anderson?
gajderowhat (1 year ago)
Graphica. Sounds like "erotica!" Maybe it's best that one didn't work out; there's enough of an uphill battle to fight without that term working some sort of subliminal voodoo on more suggestible minds.
I don't know if it's the sort of creators comics draws in, or some inherent power of the medium (text + image--this is probably partially the case), or what, but various comics are consistently among the most visceral pieces of art I find myself in contact with. You don't have to have enormous amounts of money to create or even publish them, so there's actually space for intellectual product, original voices, marginal voices, etc., and I suppose that's part of it.
Anyway, when you were talking about war comics, I thought about Barefoot Gen. I can bring up manga, right? Anyway, I was having a conversation about Hiroshima/Nagasaki with some family members this summer, and they had this horrible, skewed view of the Japanese during WWII that then cascaded into their opinion on whether the bombings were justified or not (they thought they were!), etc. It made me think. As strange as I suppose it sounds at first blush (often humorous comic book on the bombing of Hiroshima), that really is such a sensitive and complex book, with all the different points of view on the war, and not to mention the ways those points of view are shaped/enforced. I'm almost rambling now. All I mean to say is that this really is a powerful, life-changing medium. Yes it should be well represented in libraries!
klg19 (1 year ago)
By the way--visual proof of fried dill pickles, for the unbelievers...

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