Derek Royal and the status of comics in the academy


Derek Royal and the status of comics in the academy

Un libro di Derek Parker Royal

“The University L'Orientale was able to bring together such a diverse group of individuals in a way that nonetheless created this sense of cohesion”

Mr Royal, you are the Director of Philip Roth Studies. Can you describe this project and its importance for the american literature studies?

“I founded the Journal Philip Roth Studies in 2003 and the first issue was in 2005 and we’re now in our seventh volume year. The journal is devoted to anything about Philip Roth: essays devoted to his fiction or comparative essays, we have a number of essays that are comparing the work of Roth to other authors: there was an essay on Roth and Art Spiegelman and how they do with the issue of representing the father; we have had Philip Roth and Tony Morrison; we even had some that wouldn’t seem to make to sense, like Philip Roth and Jane Austin but we run quite a number of those comparative essays. We’ve published essays about the cultural impact of Philip Roth, because he does have more than a literary impact, he has a cultural impact and this mostly comes from his novel that was published in 1969, Portnoy’s complaint, which in the United States was the best selling novel, the best selling book of that year. It was also a big scandal because it was very explicit when he came to issues of sexuality; so he became a cultural figure and a celebrity because of that. The journal is devoted to anything dealing with Philip Roth.

In terms of american literary studies I believe that Philip Roth is one of the several important american authors alive right now. Other american authors that are still alive that are most important, I would say, Philip Roth along with Tony Morrison, Don De Lillo, Cormac McCarthy and Tomas Pynchon, are the five authors who probably have the most respect, critically speaking and also in terms of readership. The thing about Philip Roth that I find so striking is that, above all those five that I mentioned, he is by far the most prolific. In many ways he’s like the Woody Allen of literature in that you can always see Woody Allen come out with a film a year, and it’s that way about Philip Roth: about every year he comes out with a novel, or ‘novella’. He’s phenomenal in his output and he’s also the only living american fiction writer that is currently collected by the Library of America, which is a very prestigious line of books that collects the greater american literary pieces, and he’s the only american fiction writer that is collected in it. It’s my hope, it’s my belief, that years from now, centuries from now, we will look back at the last part of XX century and maybe even the early part of XXI century and see that Roth is one of most important american authors. This journal is a part of that. In many ways I’m helping to summand to the ground work for the critical reception of Roth’s importance.”

Your research interests cover the full scope from traditional literature to comics. What about the actual status of comics in the academic world?

“That’s an interesting question because my work in comics, in certain ways, reflects some of the reason changes in the way that comics have been seen in the american academy. By that I mean that when I first started my carrier – in graduate school, my dissertation and then my first several years as professor and researcher – I focused on what we would considered traditional literature: novels, short stories, poetry and things of this sort, the respected literature. As a kid I read comics all the time, and I loved comics through up this entire period, but I never thought in graduate school, for instance, that I would do any kind of scholarship in comics. So after I established myself and my scholarship by publishing in more the traditional literature, then I started to do scholarship in comic studies. And I say it reflects what’s going on in the contemporary academy: twenty years ago you wouldn’t find much of any scholarship in comic studies. Now it is growing quite significantly. I mean the young students, all the time now, who are writing dissertations specifically on comics not on traditional literature and maybe using comic as one example: the focus of the entire dissertation is on comics. And what it tells me is that things are really opening up in the academy; and you’ll find at the Mother Language Association Convention – that is held every year and my feel is that it is the biggest convention – there are more an more panels devoted to comics than ever, and this is growing each year. So it’s safe now for those interested in comics studies to do it with the feel of, let me say, literature languages.”

Why comics have been so long unnoticed in the higher levels of education, considering that they entered in the academy just few years ago?

“I can always speak to what I know and that is an american readership and the american academy, because in France there is something completely different with the Band dessinèebeing much more respected. I think the reason that it’s taken so long is that for the longest time comics were seen as kid stuff, comics were disposable, comics were something that only young readers dealt with, which is not entirely the case. Even in the early days of the comic book – I think about the 1940ies especially – you had an adult readership because comics were sent overseas to the american soldiers. And then, during the 1950ies, these american soldiers – who have been reading comic books during the war – came back home and they expected to read more comics and so you can look at the titles: those were not just kid type of comics, those were serious kinds of comics. Many of them dealt with certain genre issues, like crime and horror, but they were very sophisticated in what they did; but because of a variety of different things – and one of them was like a big comic book scare in the 1950ies when a lot of americans thought that comics were causing problems like delinquency – there were a lot of comic book burnings. Only as a result, many of the titles – after this comic book scare – were like the friendly-happy-animal kind of comics, the kid stuff: they were not offensive, they were not violent, they were not explicit in any way. And so, especially after that period, comics were seen as kid stuff and because of that it took the longest time for the academy to see comics as something serious worth to study.

In many ways comics – which actually came to the fore about at the same time as film did – was behind film in terms of its acceptance in the academy. But film had its own problems being accepted as a serious cultural product and it just is taking no longer for comics to catch up to be considered as film now, a serious cultural product. We should keep in mind that a couple of hundred years ago novels were seen as frivolous and not serious, an entertainment for people like women who stayed at home who had nothing better to do. And now we are treating these novels as secret tons, so, who knows, maybe in another hundred years we’ll be treating comics as secret tons.”

You have been invited at the Congress “Un ambiente fatto a strisce”. What about the topic of your talk?

“My italian colleague Alberto Manco invited me to come and speak about the role of american race and ethnicity in comics, and that’s what I do in most of my work in comic studies and that’s how different ethnic communities in the United States represent their identities through comics and there is a variety of different ways to do this. I mean some are very explicit in their ethnic identity and some are not: some completely erase who they are ethnically and you would not know if they are jews, afro-american, italian or american by looking at their work; on the other hand, some are very jews, very american, very asian or very italian or what have you.”

How did you get in contact with comics and such “strips world”?

“Like a lot of people I got involved as a child, so my love of comics developed from when I first started to read them as a kid; now I can’t remember how old I was but I do remember that my mother read them when she was a kid and so she encouraged me to read them, and I did it as well. Since the earliest time I can remember, I always read comics: Mad Magazine, Plop, SergeantRock, Weird World Talesandcertain superheroes titles like Batman and Superman, I read those as well; and there were a quite number of titles I read. I was very familiar with comics, I read until my high school years, at then once I was at the college I lost touch with comics just because at age your are involved in college and girls and evrything, so it was after graduate school I started to return to comics through my scholarship.”

In your opinion, is there a very effective example of communication through comics?

“One of the things that Scott McLoud points out in his book Understanding comics is that, in certain ways, it is a kind of international language because it deals with images, and images can be a much more effective way of communicating than text, than language. I mean images are a kind of language but they are much more immediate. So, for instance, almost everyone understands the image of a man or a woman on a bathroom door. There is something similar with comics: I think we can understand a basic story line even if we can’t understand the text. If I look at a comic that was written in italian or french, and I’m not able in reading italian or french, I may understand what the story is about. So I think that comics are the most effective in terms of communicating, as a communicative medium, when there is more reliance on the image. It’s true that comics are a mixture of text and image but you can have a comic without text, while you can’t have a comic without image! If you have a comic without image it’s a novel or a short story, or an essay, and that’s what it is. So, about the balance of image of text I feel that the primacy should be given to the image, because without that you don’t have a comic. So, that’s why they are so effective as a communicative medium.”

What about the differences between comics, graphic novel and graphic journalism, if you think we can talk about differences?

“This is one of the things I addressed at the congress during the question and answer session during the third day. Comics is the term I use for the medium. It’s the like when we talk about cinema or film: a film can be a documentary, a western, science fiction, whatever genre or mixture genre, but it’s all film, it’s all cinema; same thing with comics. When you have that mixture of image and text then it’s a comic: now whether that comic is in magazines or pamphlet form (which we may call a comic book), if it’s in a book form – with more than 25 to 50 pages, so graphic novel – or something like a comic strip in a newspaper or maybe even an editorial cartoon, a political editorial cartoon, they are all comics, it’s all comics. The difference between comics and a graphic novel is the difference between the medium and the delivery system. Many people think that a graphic novel is a long form comic. I have a problem with the term ‘graphic novel’ for it sounds a little snooty, just call it comic. It’s almost as if we’re trying to legitimate something that should already be legitimate. And also not all comics that are in graphic novel forms are novels. A couple of people during the congress spoke of Joe Sacco, an excellent comics artist and a great example of comics journalism, but they consider books of his like Safe Area Goraždeand Palestine to be graphic novels, but there is nothing novelistic about it, it’s journalism; so why don’t we call it just a comic? Within comics there could be different kinds of writing, there could be novelistic kind of comics, there could be short stories collections comics, there could be journalistic comics, expository writing – again I mentioned Scott McLoud Understanding comics,it’s been a very influential book, it is an expository piece of writing but it’s in comic form. So, when you talk about graphic novel we are talking about a package or delivery, and when we talk about journalistic comics it’s a genre within comics, but comics incapsulates it all. It’s what the medium is.”

In comics, words and images merge together and the result is a complex text. Considering the immediateness of images, which is the role of language in comics creation and translation too?

“I think obviously that if you have a comic without text there is not much need for translation, there may be some in terms of certain contexts. For instance, if I am not aware that in manga the image of a bubble coming from someone’s nose means that they are snoring, if I didn’t know that, I would not understand. I’m not saying that if it’s without text you don’t need translation, there may be some; but if you have a comic without text there is not that much need for translation.

But also most comics do have some kind of text. But the text itself can also become part of the image. When you draw words we were talking at the congress – onomatopoeia like boom, bang, ping, ect., – sometimes those words are written in a way that tries to emphasized what they are trying to say, so BOOM will be written in large letters, sometimes explosive looking letters. So, in that case, image and text merge into the same thing, where the text becomes image and viceversa. Text is not less important in comics and where that fits in terms of translation it’s up to the translator to find the best way of translating, but you have to consider the same things in any kind of translated text, a novel, a short story, a poem, etc.”

How did comics change in the last 50 years, in terms of issues and reader’s perception?

“I can only speak to my experience in America. Over the past fifty years comics – and not just in the academy but I think in the general culture – has been accepted more as an art form. In many ways we are catching up to what is the state right now in France and Japan. In these countries comics are considered a serious form not only of entertainment but also of art. In Japan you will see young and old, adults as well as kids, reading comics out on the train and subway and so on. For years, for decades, they’ve been considered a serious art form in France, with the Bande dessinèe, and I think we are just starting to catch up with that and much of this came with what was happening in the 1980ies in America. We can go back even further, to the 1960ies and 1970ies, because you had what we called the underground comics, comics with an X-movement, people like Spain Rodriguez and Kim Deitch and others who were writing these comics that were pornographic, explicit and very very political. In other words these were the things that were proved by the comics code of the major publishers; but they were sold in stores, like magazine stores and grocers stores, they were sold in alternative ways, but the people who read these things as young individuals, young adults, then went on to became adult creators of their own in the 1970ies and 1980ies. And in the 1980ies you have a series of important books: one was TheDark Night, the other one was Watchmenand then another text is Maus. All three of them were published within a year of each other and it was at that point that comics started to gain – at least in the United States – very serious attention: this is a product, a cultural product, that can be very artistic and have an important message, not just something for kids. Even though the serious stuff was going on before, in the 1980ies with Mausand especially Watchmenand Batman: The Dark Nightyou found that... hey! There’s something really interesting going on here! And I think that helped to encourage a lot of other comics artists to explore other possibilities and break out of the comics code; because under the comics code authority there are certain things you could and certain things you could not write about. We also had in the United States what we called the British Invasion, and I don’t mean the British invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 1960. In comics it’s the British people like Alan Moore with Swamp Thing, Neil Gamon with Sand Man, Grant Morrison with Animal Man, these were peoples who were taking titles and transforming them into something very creative and imaginative. And so, this along with the other things I mentioned – Watchmen, The Dark Night and Maus– started to happen at about the same time. So by the time we get into the late 1980ies and early 1990ies there is a lot of very interesting stuff going on. On the West Coast, in Seattle, you had the publisher Fantagraphics, starting to publicize the work of people such as Peter Bagge and the Hernandez brothers, things that were innovative and serious, and they get not that mainstream type of comics that americans were used to. Again this is happened all within the past thirty or thirty five years. I think it is a dramatic change, and not only in the business of comic books but in the public’s awareness and acceptance of comics.

Is there an “ideal” comic’s reader?

“I don’t know, there is not just ‘one’ comic reader. An ideal reader of any sort is someone who is perceptive as to whatever they read, rather be a comic book or a novel or a poem or a work of philosophy. Many people, at least in the United States, when they think of comic book readers in terms of audience they think of fanboys and fangirls, people who usually are gaga over the superheros, and so they know everything about the superhero universe, universe of DC, universe of Marvel, but that’s just one kind of reader. I mean there are other kinds of reader as well. My ideal kind of comic readers would be those who – at least, again, I’m talking about the United States – are able to appreciate both the mainstream of superheros stuff as well as the alternative kind of comics that you find in independent publishers, because one of things I found is that many people who like mainstream comics were suspicious of the alternative comic world – because they think it’s too stuffy, they think at themselves as too serious – and then those of the alternative comics were suspicious of the superhero mainstream because they think it’s not serious enough. But I think an assiduous reader who can appreciate this combination of word and image we call comics – well, I like to call comics – is someone who could look at the variety of different genres, whether be mystery, superhero, realism, science fiction, alternative to mainstream, whatever, I like to throw all of them in the mess! And one of the great things about the congress is that I have been meeting a variety of people who do have an appreciation of both alternative and mainstream superhero stuff.

Which is your favorite comic book?

“I have some favorite authors; actually there are three brothers, Gilbert, Jaime and Mario, Hernandez, I love their comic book series Love and Rockets, and also Gilbert’s graphic novel that he has written on his own, outside of Love and Rockets. Another one of my favorite is Ben Katchor an american cartoonist who is out of New York: he calls what he does ‘picture stories’, he doesn’t like the term ‘comics’ or ‘comic book’, he calls his art ‘picture stories’ and he’s another one of my favorites. But I have a lot of comics that I really like: Kim Deitch that is one of my favorite writers, someone who started working in the 1960ies in the underground comics movement. So the titles that I read, most of the titles on regular basis, I love Bill Willingham Fables, I love the House of Mystery, Jason Aron Scout, that is my absolute favorite, a native american detective comic. Those are the once that on a monthly basis I pick up at the newsstand and read, but also the are artists that I mentioned, those are the kind of artists that I always read.”

What about the role of comics in intercultural mediation?

“I think that gets back to the kind of work that I do, in terms of multiethnic relations and multiethnic identity in comics. I think that when you are dealing with issues of otherness and issues of different cultures, comics are perfect because they are a visual medium. It’s one thing to talk about: the different kinds of latino individuals, let say, take the Hernandez brothers as an example. Gilbert Hernandez told me, when I interviewed him, that the beauty of latino culture is made up of a variety of colors: they can go from the lightest to the darkest skin and it’s all latino. And I think that it’s one thing to represent that in texts, but is something entirely different representing them visually, because you can visualize the dark skin tones, the light skin tones, and how that may be or not be significant in the way that people from different cultures interact. So I think about the potential for comics in terms of mediating communication between and among different cultures, it has a lot of potential.”

What about the role of comics in education, considering its appeal for the youth?

“I’m a big believer as a teacher, as a professor, that it’s a good idea to try to take students on their terms and then to challenge them from that point. For instance, in my composition courses, I try to work in something with social medium – like facebook or myspace – and they are familiar with that, but then I tried to have them do something exciting with that, in order to improve their writing; same thing with comics. I think that if we can tap into younger as well older students’ interest in comics then we can definitely make a part of our curriculumbecause you can teach a variety of different disciplines through comics. I have colleagues in my former university who are History professors who used comics to teach History. As Language teacher, teaching American literature – and specifically race and ethnicity issues – I use comics to teach those. And so you can use comics to teach Political science, people like Joe Sacco in graphic journalism, were using political editorial cartoons to instruct about the differences in political views over the centuries. I mean there are so many possibilities. So, I think that the youth interest in comics can be a powerful resource to tap into. On the other hand, when it comes to use an interest in comics, I’ve tended to overemphasize my student’s interest. What I mean by that is when I taught comics in the class in the past I thought: “Of course my students are going to be interested in comics, because they’re young and they read comics”. Well, that’s a kind of a false assumption because many of my students – most of my students – don’t read comics; only about, let say, a quarter of them read comics on a regular basis or use to read comics on a regular basis. So, one of the things that I found I had to do in my comics classes is to teach students how to read comics. It’s like teaching in a film class: before you can ask students to understand how to appreciate the content of a film, it may be a good idea pointing out some of the esthetic basis of film. It is the same in literature: what is a character, what is a plot, those basic formal issues. The same thing with comics: what is a panel, what is the space between the panels – called the gutter – and why it is significant, how is time manipulated in comics. And so, I found that most, if not all of my students, had to be educated as well about comics.”

What about your future projects?

“My interests are a kind of varied, because I do works in traditionally studies as well as in comics, so I have project going on in both directions. Right now I’m trying to finish on a special issue of the journal, devoted to Woody Allen and his films after 1990, but I’m also working on two other special issues: a special issue of the journal ImageTextdevoted to Hernandez brothers and a special issue of the journal of world literature on the topic of politics, comics and animation. But I also have three books projects on their way: I’m trying to finish up a collection of interviews with the Hernandez brothers, and this is going to be for the University Press of Mississippi; I also have a book that I hope will be published by the University Press of Mississippi and it is a collection of essays that i’ve edited on multiethnic and racial issues in american comics after 1980; and I’m also starting to pull together a collection of essays that I’m editing on Jewish comic strips and graphic novels.

In terms of more traditional literary studies I keep needing to finish up my own book manuscript on Philip Roth – a monograph i’m working on, More than Jewish Mischief – nearing the subject of Philip Roth’s later novels. So I probably should have finished it before now, but I keep taking on more projects. My problem is that I take on more than I’m able to finish, but I’ll get it all done.”

Talking about the congress in Procida, what about your experience? Did you get some pulses? What kind of pulses did you get?

“One of the things that most excited me about this congress is the fact that it was truly eclectic. What I mean by that is that everyone was interested in comics in some way, but we were coming from different perspectives. Most of the conferences I go to – literature conferences or conferences that deals specifically with comics – we all do the same kind of things. We are all scholars, we all teach, mostly in English departments or maybe Art departments or History departments, but our profession is more or less the same. The great thing about this congress is that everyone was interested in comics but we all came from different perspectives: there were some of us who were scholars, there were some of us who didn’t teach in the university but were journalists and critics of comics – and Fernando Ariel García was one of those – we also had an healthy dose of the artists themselves and I think that’s important, the various workshops we had. Many times I get a lot in the perspective as a college professor and I don’t think about the creator stuff, so it’s great to have someone like Pat Masioni talking about what he does, how he creates; I think it gave a completely different twist. Also people in publishing, publishing houses, editors of graphic novels getting their perspective of what the profession looks like, what comics looks like from their stand point. And also the linguistics approach to comics that is very different from what I do, in taking a more narrative approach to comics. So, that I found was exciting as well. One of the things that impressed me was the fact that during this congress the University L'Orientale was able to bring together such a diverse group of individuals in a way that nonetheless created this sense of cohesion. I think it was a great success.”

Azzurra Mancini