Convergences: Comics, Culture and Globalization
As the market for Japanese and Korean comics explodes throughout the west, and as films like Persepolis bring widespread attention to comics with transnational themes, it is increasingly impossible to ignore the potential of comics to build global communities of scholars and fans. The importance of globalization in the contemporary comics marketplace is undeniable. As Bruce Campbell observes, the verbal-visual nature of the comic makes it a privileged means of representing globalization, by allowing it to circulate transnationally:
The narrative character of the comic opens it to an abstract social vision, much as Benedict Anderson and others have observed that the novel form has historically imagined the nation. The interactive combination of narrative and visual image allows the comic book to serve as a unique vehicle for representations of the principal actors and processes of globalization, by literally visualizing national and global realities and the relationships between them. (5-6)
At the same time, the contemporary comics avant-garde is becoming an international movement. Bart Beaty again cites Anderson to explain that cartoonists worldwide increasingly see themselves as members of a transnational community:
As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, it was in large part the commoditization of the printed word that made it possible for growing numbers of people to recognize that there were others like themselves beyond their immediate community. Following this line of thinking, it is possible to suggest that the creators and consumers of comics constitute a shared community, or what Anderson terms a ‘deep historical comradeship.’ (128)
In much the same way as the novel did in the 19th century, and due in no small part to the formal parameters it shares with the novel (e.g. seriality and mass reproducibility), the comic has the ability to draw readers and artists together, creating a sense of imagined community. This community is often one that extends beyond national boundaries. At the same time, the comic serves as a vehicle for reflection on the complex interactions between globalization and national culture. As Dorfman and Mattelart observed in 1971, the comic can also easily be co-opted as a means of imperialist propaganda, and the influx of foreign product often has deleterious effects on local comics industries.
Various formal properties of the comic make it uniquely adaptable to the context of globalization. Visual images tend to be more easily translatable than words, and as Joel Simundich argues in this issue, cartoonists like Jason have deliberately leveraged the translatability of comics in order to facilitate the circulation of their work across national boundaries. Moreover, the comic is usually a mass-produced artifact rather than an auratic one, and this facilitates the international circulation and distribution of comics. The global reach of comics has now been expanded even further thanks to the growing popularity of webcomics.
However, the global community of comics scholars remains rather fragmented, due to the still nascent state of the field in many countries and the poor availability of translations of scholarly works (a situation which is now being remedied by the important efforts of the University of Mississippi Press and others). In organizing the 2009 UF Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, “Convergences: Comics, Culture and Globalization,” one of our goals was to increase awareness of the global nature of comics scholarship and the richness of global perspectives that could be brought to bear on comics.
Thanks to the generous support of the Alachua County Public Library, the France-Florida Research Institute and the UF Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere among others, the 2009 UF conference brought together comics scholars from across the nation and elsewhere, along with Matt Madden and James Sturm, two artists whose work has contributed to the formation of the international comics avant-garde that Beaty describes. The works discussed covered a wide spectrum of comics culture, from the globally dominant markets of Japan, France and the United States, to less prominent producers such as Mexico and Norway, to burgeoning cartooning culture in areas as unexpected as contemporary Azerbaijan. The present issue of ImageTexT features a selection of papers presented at or inspired by this conference. We hope it will serve as a small contribution to the growing awareness of comics as a transnational phenomenon and of the need for comics scholarship to address comics in a global context.
Both Franny Howes and Joel Simundich approach the compositional power of the image. In “Imagining a Multiplicity of Visual Rhetorical Traditions: Comics Lessons from Rhetoric Histories,” Howes argues for a broader understanding of the field of rhetoric that incorporates ideographic and pictographic traditions equally rather than labeling them as primitive or childish, thus decolonizing the rhetorical tradition and giving greater weight to both native rhetorical histories and the study of comics. Simundich, in “‘Surrounded by Stillness and Quiet’: Translation, Transparency, and Genre in Jason’s Jernvognen,” suggests that the graphic medium necessitates a change in the way we look at translation and, indeed, at reading itself.
Alison Mandaville shares Howes’ concern with the place of images in the rhetorical tradition. In “Mullahs to Donkeys: Cartooning in Azerbaijan,” Mandaville illustrates the prominence and persistence of cartooning in Azerbaijani print culture and sociopolitical commentary.
Finally, Derek Royal and Phillip Wegner consider issues of genre, medium and representation. Royal goes beyond existing studies of Native American representations in historic and superhero comics to assess how indigenous peoples are represented in other popular comic genres, particularly the detective comic. Wegner, meanwhile, considers the conflation of popular mediums and cross-cultural narratives into the uniquely comic construction of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and the role that such conflated comic texts play in developing and drawing on secondary literacy.
All of these authors demonstrate the adeptness with which comics traverse cultural, generic and even linguistic barriers and give us hope that the emergent field of comics studies is one that will lend itself to a truly cross-cultural field of scholarship.
Beaty, Bart. Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s. Univ of Toronto Pr, 2007.
Campbell, Bruce. ¡Viva la historieta!: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization. Univ Pr of Mississippi, 2009.