Comics and childhood: the pairing of the two seems inevitable, yet remains, somehow, both contentious and under-examined.
Notwithstanding a barrowful of contrary evidence – to take just two recent examples, Adam L. Kern’s Manga from the Floating World: Comicbook Culture and the Kibyōshi of Edo Japan (2006) and David Kunzle’s Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (2007) – the idea persists that comics are rooted in childhood, that is, that comics are grounded historically in children’s culture and psychologically in some longed-for, Edenic state of childlike carelessness, innocence, and simplicity. The recognition that comics are equally rooted in political and social satire, as forcefully demonstrated in Kunzle’s two-volume History of the Comic Strip (1973, 1990), or that comics may speak equally well to the vicissitudes of adult life, that they may even satisfy a hunger for complexity among adult and child readers alike, has done little to decouple the traditional linkage between comics and youth. Certainly in the U.S. the comic book maintains, albeit in diminished form, some of its old totemic value as a marker of childhood and adolescence.
Even among readers ready to recognize the artistic legitimacy of comics for adults, the idea that comics speak primarily to our childhood selves enjoys a scarce-diminished currency. Charles McGrath, in an article on comics for The New York Times Magazine (July 2004), grants that good comics “may require more, not less, concentration” than other books, but nonetheless ends by reinforcing the idea that the best comics “don’t take themselves entirely seriously” and, in essence, appeal to a childhood love of trickery, “that childish part of ourselves that delights in caricature” – that old magic which “reliably turns some lines, dots and squiggles into a face or a figure” (56). This description gives off more than a hint of atavism, of a return to the primitive, preliterate, and naively delightful pastimes of childhood – despite the fact that caricature, as Adam Gopnik pointed out twenty years ago in reviewing Art Spiegelman’s Maus, is a modern form associated as much with the learned and politically factious as it is with the ingenuous doodling of children.
Peter Schjeldahl, writing for The New Yorker (October 2005) in an article subtitled “Graphic novels come of age” – a riff, perhaps, on the hoary journalistic formula “comics have grown up” – in effect reinforces McGrath, describing comics as a hyper-stimulating “young person’s art” with an avant-garde cachet yet also claiming that they “induce an enveloping kind of emotional identification that makes them only too congenial to adolescent narcissism…” (165). Comics, Schjeldahl suggests, are for the teens and twenties: his article begins with a poignant description of a bookstore aisle crowded by lounging “young bodies,” all reading graphic novels (162). Again there is the lingering association with youth, accompanied here by the older writer’s rueful self-awareness: the thought that comics may not be “for” him.
These examples – smartly written examples, to be sure – reveal a skeptical if interested flipside to the current rage for graphic novels among children’s and young adult publishers, teachers, and librarians. Either way, the identification of comics with childhood and adolescence continues, indeed has re-intensified. Literacy professionals have shown mushrooming interest in comics as children’s reading, effectively reversing the current of decades’ worth of hostile or dismissive commentary (Hatfield, Alternative Comics 34-35). A new spirit of boosterism seems to be in play, signaled by: the rise of new comics publishing imprints for young readers, such as First Second Books and Scholastic’s “Graphix” imprint; the increased advocacy of comics among librarians, such as the annual reading list, “Great Graphic Novels for Teens,” recently instituted by the Young Adult Library Services Association; and the growing use of comics as teaching tools, seen in everything from textbooks (for instance, Stephen Cary’s Going Graphic) to curriculum pilots such as Maryland’s state-sponsored Comic Book Initiative, launched in 2004 (see “Maryland”; Mui).
If this new boosterism is perhaps naively wishful about the universal effectiveness of comics as a literacy tool, and perhaps too indifferent to the differences in quality, style, genre, and motive among comics, it has at least had the effect of shining a welcoming light, encouraging new discussion of comics, and spotlighting some deserving work. A signal example of this would be the reception of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006), a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature (a first for comics) and in fact the recipient of YALSA’s 2007 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature (another first). M.T. Anderson, whose The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing actually won the National Book Award, singled out Yang’s comic in his acceptance speech, proudly noting that the Award judges were “leading [the] charge” in recognizing that a graphic novel can be “poignant” and “sophisticated […] literature for young people” (Anderson, n. pag.).
Such recognition may help when comics, as they have and inevitably will, become targets of controversy in the public library – as was the case in October 2006 in Marshall, Missouri, when two autobiographical comics dealing with childhood, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) and Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003), were challenged on grounds of depicting sexuality in ways deemed inappropriate for young readers. (In March 2007 the town’s library board voted to return both books to the shelves [see, e.g., Harper].) We can expect further such controversies, as well as, presumably, a greater self-awareness on the part of children’s and youth librarians when dealing with comics materials.
So, the linkage between comics and childhood is being newly articulated and promoted, debated and defended. As I have recently observed elsewhere (Hatfield, “Comic Art”), these are propitious times for re-examining the assumed connections between children and comic art. Yet certain underlying beliefs – such as the idea that comics are specially “children’s” reading, or are automatically accessible to most child readers, or necessarily partake of the welcoming “simplicity” of childhood – have yet to be seriously questioned or historicized.
These assumptions are understandable enough. Undeniably, the dominant comics markets or cultures are rooted in children’s publishing traditions, whether European (particularly, the Franco-Belgian model of la bande dessinée), Japanese, or American. Every such market has given rise to its own hegemonic model of “mainstream” comics, rooted in children’s titles, as well as its resistant counter-models, its “alternatives.” Children’s comics, selling across generations to millions of readers, are the taproot of modern commercial comics, the ideological counterweights to alternative comics, and, inevitably, items of talismanic significance, so often invoked in the nostalgic reminiscences of today’s comics creators and enthusiasts. What’s more, comics histories often follow a developmental model that charts the change from an idyllic childhood to a more troubled but stimulating adolescence (from Tintin or Spirou to Pilote, from Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories to Mad, from The Beano or The Eagle to 2000 AD, etc.).
In short, both adult and children’s comics, and the ways we talk about them, testify to the centrality of children’s comics. In addition, many of the best – the most stimulating, most troubling, most psychologically questing, ideologically fraught, and artistically vital – comics for adults have as their subject matter childhood and its possibilities: its potential for tenderness, awe, terror, and social critique. Childhood, seen from critical or anti-sentimental perspectives, provides much of what animates alternative comics: from Justin Green’s seminal Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) to David B.’s Epileptic (1996-2003, trans. 2005), from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000-2003, trans. 2003-2004) to Lynda Barry’s 100 Demons (2002), to so much of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000).
Yet the link between comics and childhood remains stubbornly under-investigated. Moreover, critical work on children’s comics as such (notwithstanding the growing body of work on such canonical figures as Barks, Schulz, and Tezuka) remains tentative. While children’s literature studies, as I have argued elsewhere, now seems newly receptive to comics, it is perhaps still constrained by a sense of the otherness of comics vis-à-vis literature and still uncertain about how to approach comics vis-à-vis the prototypical Caldecottian picture book (see Hatfield, “Narrative”). Conversely, comics studies, largely propelled by the comic book’s putative “coming of age,” has yet to find its way to children’s literature and culture studies, that is, has yet to engage the idea of childhood critically, so as to overcome its reflexive embarrassment over the oft-belittled juvenile origins of the medium.
With this special issue of ImageTexT – an outgrowth of, and in part a proceedings for, Comics and Childhood: the University of Florida’s Fourth Annual Conference on Comics (2006) – we aim to begin, or rather to continue, redressing this lack of articulation between children’s culture and comics studies. We do so, not to reinscribe the assumption that comics are exclusively or specially “for children,” but to underscore that comics offer, potentially, a powerful form of cross-writing – by which we mean, in the words of Mitzi Myers and U.C. Knoepflmacher, a “dialogic mix of older and younger voices,” a means of seeking “interplay and cross-fertilization” between child and adult perspectives and thus “dissolv[ing] the binaries and contraries our culture has rigidified and fixed” (vii-viii). We hope to encourage a more robust cross-disciplinary dialogue and to help re-position comics as a vital aspect of children’s literature and culture studies.
As Gary Hoppenstand put it in a recent editorial in The Journal of Popular Culture, comics, even “children’s comics,” though they have appealed powerfully to many children, have never been exclusively “for kids”; rather, they have spoken meaningfully “to the child in the adult, and to the adult in the child.” It is in the spirit of dissolving binaries, and revealing the richness of children’s comics, that we offer this special issue.
Anderson, M.T. Acceptance speech, 2006 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. 15 Nov. 2006. National Book Foundation: Celebrating the Best of American Literature. 7 June 2007. <http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2006_ypl_anderson.html>.
Cary, Stephen. Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004.
Gopnik, Adam. “Comics and Catastrophe: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the History of the Cartoon.” New Republic, 22 June 1987: 29-34.
Harper, Rachel. “Library board approves new policy/Material selection policy created, controversial books returned to shelves.” The Marshall Democrat-News 15 March 2007. 7 June 2007. <http://www.marshallnews.com/story/1193923.html>.
Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
— . “Comic Art, Children’s Literature, and the New Comic Studies.” The Lion and the Unicorn 30.3 (Sept. 2006): 360-382.
— . “Narrative vs. Non-narrative Demands, or, Comic Art and Fragmentation in Aliki’s How a Book is Made.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 30.1 (Spring 2005): 88-99.
Hoppenstand, Gary. “Not Your Parents’ Comics; or Maybe They Are.” The Journal of Popular Culture 39.4 (Aug. 2006): 521-22.
Kern, Adam. L. Manga from the Floating World: Comicbook Culture and the Kibyoshi of Edo Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006.
Kunzle, David. Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer. Jackson: University Press of Misssissippi, 2007.
— . The History of the Comic Strip. Vol. I: The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825. Berkeley: University of California, 1973.
— . The History of the Comic Strip. Vol. II: The Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California, 1990.
“The Maryland Comic Book Initiative.” Maryland State Department of Education. 7 June 2007. <http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE/programs/recognition-partnerships/md-comic-book>.
McGrath, Charles. “Not Funnies.” The New York Times Magazine 11 July 2004: 24+. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/11/magazine/11GRAPHIC.html>.
Mui, Ylan Q. “Schools Turn to Comics as Trial Balloon.” Washington Post 13 Dec. 2004: B01+.
Myers, Mitzi, and U.C. Knoepflmacher. “‘Cross-Writing’ and the Reconceptualizing of Children’s Literary Studies.” Children’s Literature 25 (1997): vii-xvii.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Words and Pictures: Graphic novels come of age.” The New Yorker. 17 Oct. 2005: 162-68. < http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/10/17/051017crbo_books1>.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second Books, 2006.