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Comics OR Philosophy? A Review of Comics as Philosophy(2005)

By Mervi Miettinen

McLaughlin, Jeff, ed. Comics as Philosophy. Minneapolis, MN: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

For an essay collection that aims at exploring the connections between philosophical inquiries and comics, Comics as Philosophy should be approached with caution. The aim of the eleven essays of the collection is to “explore the ways in which comics, both in form and content, can articulate and complicate philosophical concerns” (xi), and themes ranging from ethics and aesthetics to ecocriticism and existentialism are presented with the mention of comic books that justifiably bring forth and “articulate” these issues. To its credit, Comics as Philosophy, published already in 2005, clearly precedes the recent trend of combining popular culture phenomena with philosophical approaches, and the collection does manage to incorporate a wide variety of philosophical issues into a single volume. However, the book is regrettably uneven in its quality of essays, and several of the essays approach their subject with the somewhat unimaginative formula of merely locating philosophical issues within comic books instead of analyzing the way comics as an art form itself can access philosophical debates. Furthermore, the total lack of images within the book is a serious disadvantage to the overall aim of the book.

One of the major issues when accessing the collection is the somewhat misleading premise of the book’s title, which proposes to approach comics as philosophy. However, instead of even considering how the medium itself relates to philosophical issues through the multimodal hybrid of text and images, several of the essays (including editor Jeff McLaughlin’s own “DC’s Crisis and Leibnizian Possible Worlds”) follow a disappointingly mechanical formula of introducing a philosophical concept or a school of thought, locating and/or applying it in a comic book, and then using this level of the comic book to illustrate the philosophical concept. The focus is predominantly on the philosophical, for which comics are seen as an illustration. For example, Kevin de Laplante’s discovery of how Paul Chadwick’s Concrete can be used to teach issues on environmental philosophy is presented in a way that not so much addresses the comic as philosophy as the philosophical concept, which the comic then simply helps him to teach. Ultimately, Comics as Philosophy is an essay collection on comics by philosophers, not comics scholars—Robert C. Harvey’s short and amusingly cynical “etymological safari” on the definition of “comics” (his ill-fated word of choice is “cartoon”) and Amy Kiste Nyberg’s well-crafted discussion on the ethics of the Comics Code are the few exceptions. Revealingly, both of these articles pay but a formal attention to philosophy, and their inclusion in the collection remains unclear.

Despite its unevenness, a collection such as this is still a welcomed addition to the field of scholarship on comics, and at their best the essays offer a fresh approach to both comics studies and philosophy that is both innovative and well executed, with clear precision and knowledge of both fields. Jeremy Barris’ take on good and evil in “Plato, Spider-Man and the Meaning of Life” reveals a deep appreciation and knowledge of both texts, and demonstrates a clear joy of writing on the topic. Barris’ argument on defining the meaning of life through a balance of good and evil creatively juxtaposes the traditional views of Plato and Spider-Man without mechanically applying one to the other. Similarly, Iain Thomson’s “Deconstructing the Hero” approaches Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s acclaimed Watchmen with a carefully crafted essay that avoids the pitfalls of mere application, producing a discourse on superheroism and philosophy where Nietzsche, Heidegger and Moore engage in a fruitful dialogue on the fate and relevance of the superhero at the end of the 20th century. Another source of scholarly joy is Pierre Skilling’s rather long reading on the politics of Hergé’s Tintin—the only non-English language comic book within the collection—which produces a multifaceted view of the governmental politics embedded in The Adventures of Tintin, even though Skilling’s view of Tintin as a “work aimed at children” comes through as almost apologetic. These articles stand out as testifying to the collection’s challenging title: to analyze comics as philosophy, not just to apply philosophy to a reading of a comic.

Several of the essays in the collection deal with heroes, whether super or otherwise. Stanford W. Carpenter’s essay “Truth Be Told: Authorship and the Creation of Black Captain America” is based on his interviews with the authors of Truth: Red, White & Black (2003), which tells the story of black men being tested for the super soldier serum, rewriting the history of Captain America. The essay has the potential to discuss the ethical dimensions of authorship and comics, which is far from unproblematic, especially within the genre of superhero comics: as superhero comics have been written and illustrated by a large number of authors, the questions of origins and authorship are of serious interest. Disappointingly, Carpenter’s essay resembles more an elaborate letter to the editor than a scholarly essay, as he (rather naively) focuses on demanding authorial control in the critical analysis of comic books instead of approaching the theme of authorship itself. Aldo Regalado’s essay on the American superhero and his ties to race and modernity has a very promising premise, too, but ultimately his argument is overwhelmed by his use of unclear terminology and the questionable decision of claiming Tarzan as a “superhero”. Both essays call attention to the production of comics, but fail to address the philosophical dimensions of authorship satisfyingly. Terry Kading’s “Drawn into 9/11, But Where Have All the Superheroes Gone?” is the last essay of the collection, bringing together the real-world tragedy of 9/11 and its relevance on the superhero genre. However, cut off from the other superhero essays, it appears somehow forgotten, as if an afterthought to claim more relevance for the publication today. This also illustrates a larger problem with the collection: the essays all exist as separate texts, and the lack of cohesion within the collection becomes apparent as no real dialogue is formed between the essays, despite their inherent potential to do so. This is indeed especially apparent in the superhero themes, which could have been tied together to produce a multifaceted and analytical discussion on superhero comics and philosophy.

As already briefly mentioned, for a collection aiming at analyzing the way comics can be accessed as philosophical articulations, Comics as Philosophy rather surprisingly does not include a single image. Thus, Laura and Paul Canis’ article “Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Enid Coleslaw: Existential Themes in Ghost World,” though a well-researched piece of work on its philosophical content, leaves a lot to be desired when imagining the possibilities of locating existential themes of the comics through Daniel Clowes’ visual language alone. In order to comprehensively offer an academic approach on comics as philosophy, the crucial importance of visual analysis seems to have been by and large forgotten. This is the case despite Robert C. Harvey’s essay at the very beginning of the book, defining comics as consisting of “pictorial narratives or expositions in which words usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa” (20). Instead of pictorial analysis that would approach comics as a multimodal object, several essays exert little effort in trying to combine the visual aspects into their philosophical issues. A stronger emphasis on visual analysis, complete with at least a few carefully chosen images, would have strengthened the collection, enabling it to live up to its name. Similarly, a thematically motivated division into smaller subchapters would have undoubtedly enabled a more favorable comparison between the essays. As it is, the order of the essays does not support any coherent or logical framework, instead offering a rather random collection of essays on a variety of philosophical topics under the heading Comics as Philosophy.

The result is an ambitious, yet disappointingly uneven collection of essays written mostly by philosophers on philosophy. Lacking the methods of comics studies, several of the essays fail to adequately take into account both the visual and the textual aspects of comics when discussing their merits in philosophical debates. The essays also betray a confusion as to who is the intended audience—despite the scholarly pretext, some of the essays are nothing more than basic introductions to philosophical issues illustrated with a comic book example, while others are highly complex essays that demand a wide knowledge of philosophical issues in order to follow them. However, there is hope that the collection will inspire both philosophers and comics scholars to look further from their own respective fields and to actually produce research that demonstrates the way comics can be accessed as philosophy.

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