Everyone in my house is ill with high fevers this weekend (except me … so far), so just a quick recap this time on the whole canon issue that I discussed two columns ago.
Timothy Callahan (author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years) used my column as a springboard to talk about his own feelings regarding the subject and attempted to come up with his own master list, dividing his choices up by time period and influence.
Maybe it’s a definitional thing, but I would define a canon as a thing where it’s what blue bloods believe you have to read X, Y, and Z in order to be “cultured” or because you can’t have an understanding of the history of the thing without having read X, Y or Z or be considered “well-read” without having read X, Y or Z. But that’s– that’s just high status people attacking low status people. For me, I just think of class warfare. We’re already COMIC FANS.
Plus it’s a way of preserving the “essential to read” from the “non-essential to read”, the wheat from the chaff, which… to me is very strange. What makes Popeye great to me, among other things, is that people have gone back and said “no, no, this wasn’t just some trifle– it deserves to be saved” and now there are these big hardcovers that collectors have helped to assemble and… it’s in defiance of that instinct that we should elevate some thing that we arbitrarily term “Great Art” over Great Pleasure, you know? e.g. College professors can teach Maus but I’d just as much want to read Popeye punch a horse in the ovaries.
And yeah, I guess I just think of the exercise as antithetical to anything resembling the pleasure of reading or the sharing of the experience of reading a thing. Pinning something down, ranking it in a hierarchy, trapping it behind glass– for me, at least, that’s not criticism. That’s being a butterfly collector.
Honestly, I’m a bit ambivalent on the whole canon issue, for many of the reasons Abhay cites above (and also later on in the message thread). On the other hand, I can readily see and understand the uses that a more choesive canon would allow for, so long as we didn’t feel as though it was ossified in stone.
My point initially was just to show that there are in fact several comics canons already out there in existence, depending upon what camp you set your tent up in (ie. indie, comic strip, superhero, etc) and that they’ve tended to take shape through overall word of mouth and agreed upon standards rather than being passed down from on high.
Feeling perplexed, I asked Dickinson College professor David Ball, who’s currently teaching a class entitled Graphic Narrative (and who I recently interviewed for a upcoming story I’m doing about comics in education) for his opinion on the subject. I’ll let him have the last word:
The question you ask is an incredibly vexed one for literary studies, and created (and continues to create) a ferment of critical debate and discussion (the so-called “canon wars” of the 1990s). On one hand, canons are necessary devices: they cull essential texts out of an archive that would otherwise be illimitable. Alas, we are only given so much time to read in our lives. Yet at the same time, they often impose arbitrary biases upon the richness and heterogeneity of the texts being produced at any given moment. If you look at literary anthologies from earlier periods, for example, you will find a paucity of women writers or writers of color. Given this bind, I think the best articulations of canon formation are as aware as possible of the standards by which they select some texts and ignore others. I also would hope that a comics canon would encourage us to read more, not less, and would represent the diversity of work being done in the field. A canon should invite debate, not seek to stifle it.
It should be said that Ware in McSweeney’s #13, the Brunetti Yale volume, and the recent “Best Comics of” series are attempting to do a version of this already, whether or not they’re aware of it.
If you’re interested in reading more about literary canons, and the debates surrounding them, I’d recommend a few books: Henry Louis Gates, Loose Canons; Gregory Jay, American Literature and the Culture Wars; Paul Lauter, Canons and Contexts; John Guillory, Cultural Capital (this last one gets dense in places).
Update: Doug Wolk emailed me a link to this interesting essay by John Holbo that used Wolk’s book Reading Comics as a springboard to talking about the canon issue.