By Anastasia Salter
What follows is a reconstruction (from speaker notes and slides) of a keynote delivered at the 2018 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels as part of a discussion of comics materiality. The provocation that guided this talk came from the original call for submissions: “How does form dictate content, and vice versa? How do digital platforms affect engagement and accessibility?” As a scholar who has been immersed in the study of toxic masculinity online, and the ways in which digital platforms create spaces for intense, often hostile, engagement around geek culture, I saw in the call an opportunity not only to bring that discourse to this community of comics scholars, but to call upon that same community to engage with internet studies. Some of the materiality of the keynote—including informal notes, long quotations originally displayed on slides, memes, and references to other work presented at the conference—remains intact.
The Study of Trash
As a scholar whose work and inspiration has grown up in the shadier corners of the web, I confess to having little interest in high culture. My degrees always require explaining when I meet someone: children’s literature, communication and culture—yes, basically fanfiction, videogames, and online porn. When it comes to my passions, I happily admit that much of what I study is what others consider “trash”—as a researcher primarily interested in the changing impact digital platforms have on what (and how) we consume, this is inevitable (Figure 1). But the trash of the web is important: the imagery and stories I see shaping the discourse of this moment, particularly in American politics and social unrest, are decidedly low culture. This is part of a large and well-documented battle:
One of the longest lasting cultural struggles in epic imagination has pitted the educated practitioners of high culture against most of the rest of society, rich and poor, which prefers the popular cultures now supplied mainly by the mass media and other consumer goods industries. (Gans 3)
All of us gathered here are by necessity aware that while comics are experiencing a major surge in popular influence, with superhero adaptations reigning the box office and overtaking network television, they are still on the fringes of academic discourse and allowed in mostly when they are appropriately gatekeeper sanctioned—the work of Art Spiegelman, Allison Bechdel, and so forth. With all due respect for those exalted creators, those aren’t the type of comics I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the comics that are generated outside of literary traditions, that dominate our online discourse and the geek-centered walls of comic shops. Comics have traditionally been a firm fixture of that “low” culture, a convergent space that is both externally derided and internally disputed. Low culture is, to draw on the work of Jenkins, inherently convergent, and social networks are the platforms where things converge (246). It is in this convergence that we find an urgent need for comics studies, comics scholars, and the interventions of those who study at the fringes: comics are woven into the very core of geek cultural discourse, and the web itself.
The discussions throughout the UF Comics Conference have drawn attention to the affordances of platforms, from the potential disruptions of augmented reality in public space and printed comics to Jeffrey Kirchoff’s analysis of what goes seen and unseen in comiXology’s Guided View (Kirchoff). Ian Hague’s discussion of the Materiality of Digital Comics draws our attention to the presence of material features (software, file type, text, creator/reader, hardware, firmware) as intervening elements within the experience (Hague). This recalls Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s argument for platform studies in the study of digital media: we cannot meaningfully engage the materiality of the digital without intervening at the levels of platform, code, form/function, interface, and reception/operation. As Montfort and Bogost argue in their work on platform studies, the rules of a platform govern output:
Sometimes the influence is obvious: A monochrome platform can’t display color, a video game console without a keyboard can’t accept typed input. But there are more subtle ways that platforms interact with creative production, due to the idioms of programming that a language supports or due to transistor-level decisions made in video and audio hardware. In addition to allowing certain developments and precluding others, platforms also encourage and discourage different sorts of expressive new media work. (Bogost and Montfort)
Comics have been materially transformed by social media. Some of the changes are in the process of production, where digital tools intervene and transform labor practices throughout the comics industry. Formal transformation is also a consequence of changing platforms: Instagram lends itself to square comics; Tumblr to narrow, long-form work; and many platforms support GIF animations and other born-digital approaches to comics art. Digital distribution has enabled a direct connection with audiences, and technically anyone with a web connection has access to a publishing platform (if not an audience). On these platforms, remixes and reposts dominate, leaving authors and authorship in question and allowing for continual play with familiar icons (see Figure 2). The pace of comics distribution is instantaneous: thus, comics can be used instantaneously for commentary, critique, and inciting action.
Geek cultural discourse is similarly driven by the platforms that govern our online communities, particularly social media with Reddit and Twitter dominant in hosting these communities. But in turn the culture of Silicon Valley is powered by geek culture, creating a symbiotic relationship that builds on a toxic core. What have the platforms of geek culture wrought, and how has comics become a dominant discursive form used for everything from birthday messages to vicious attacks and the spreading of misogynist and racist ideology? Every social media platform operates as a “public,” and thus is imbued with the history of publicness that defies any old adage promising online anonymity, be it to dogs or otherwise. Nancy Baym and danah boyd define socially mediated publicness as coming with an awareness of risk:
As people communicate publicly through social media, they become more aware of themselves relative to visible and imagined audiences and more aware of the larger publics to which they belong and which they seek to create. They negotiate collapsed contexts, continuously shifting power dynamics, and an open-ended time frame. Through discussing the personal, mundane, and everyday, people negotiate a sense of public place and help new publics—both wanted and unwanted—to coalesce. Socially-mediated publicness may be a source of support and empowerment while simultaneously posing conflict and risk. (Baym and boyd)
These risks are realized in part thanks to the geek-driven communities that have harnessed the platforms of socially-mediated publicness to create what Adrienne Massanari refers to as “toxic technocultures” (Massanari). Massanari observes that toxic technocultures make particular use of social media platforms to coordinate attacks:
Members of these communities often demonstrate technological prowess in engaging in ethically dubious actions such as aggregating public and private content about the targets of their actions (for potential doxxing purposes or simply their own enjoyment) and exploiting platform policies that often value aggregating large audiences while offering little protection from potential harassment victims.
Many of these elements echo the supposed meritocracies of technical companies and geek culture, particularly in the obsession with what were once labeled “1337” skills or nerd points (Coleman). These platforms are shared spaces where comics expression + comics fandom collide with other types of making—Claudia Acosta’s talk on transmedia zines, for instance, focuses primarily on Tumblr as a space where these communities circulate work (Acosta).
Just as the tools and platforms of technical dominance have become battlegrounds for toxic technocultures, so too has the media consumed (and associated with) geek culture become a battleground—and a weapon (Massanari). Comics have become the snarky backbone of the web: a weapon of toxic technocultures and an inescapable medium that circulates across any social media platform freely. The single-panel comic, as defined by Abbott, has been appropriated in many contexts to pointed ends—most infamously pre-web in the art gallery pieces of Lichtenstein and his ilk (Abbott). Yet now the most recognizable single-panel (and, in some instances, multi-panel) comics belong not to the newspaper or to the gallery, but to the meme.
What is a meme, fundamentally? Not just a combination of image and text, though certainly the embodied form the lolcat and its heirs resonates immediately to us as readers. Memes are, according to Wiggins and Bower, a “genre” (see Figure 3):
First, memes as artifacts possess virtual physicality, which we offer as a term that describes memes as cognitive as well as digital artifacts. Virtual physicality is a seemingly contradictory term, yet it reveals that memes as artifacts exist in the human mind as well as in the digital environment. The recursive production, consumption, and reproduction of memes evince their importance and underscore their virtual physicality in participatory digital culture. Second, memes as artifacts highlight their social and cultural role on the new media landscape. (Wiggins and Bowers (Wiggins and Bowers)
Limor Shifman offers a broader definition that emphasizes the status of memes as recognizable through common form, meta-awareness, and their patterns of circulation and imitation (Shifman). Many memes rely upon what Douglas describes the concept of “Internet Ugly” as “a previously unnamed style that runs through many separate pieces of online culture, but especially through memetic content. Internet Ugly can be created by amateurs without specific aesthetic intention, or by creators choosing it intentionally as a dialect” (Douglas). This dialect has long outlived its origin points (when images themselves were an online luxury) to become a powerful form of online discourse.
I won’t repeat the great work Olivia Hicks did earlier examining Beronica through various types of Tumblr-circulated comics, but to reiterate: these are comics! (Hicks). A formalist analysis of common meme structures must focus on the essential imagetext relationships at their core. These texts frequently rely on the dissonance of image and text, asking the reader to navigate intertextual relationships to be in on the “joke.” Such memes (and the literacy they demand) are now ubiquitous, circulating from one social platform to the next, makeable by any user with an internet browser at the click of a mouse. Much of the discourse of the web takes place in “comic” form and the affordances of web platforms determine how these comics are read / received / transmitted / understood.
In a popular American Chopper meme, one author performed a metacritique noting that the experience of the meme varies by platform (Figure 4). In the top image, only the center of the meme is shown, as the Twitter timeline constrains all images to a fixed, horizontal rectangle. The longform is encountered in the expected reader order only in platforms such as Tumblr, which are optimal for long-form comics. In this sense, the digital platforms are continually impacting the ideal structure of memes, which in turn are reshaping the primary forms of comics encountered by readers continually as part of their constant stream of media consumption.
Examining memes as comics allows us to critique their construction and tension and gives us a terminology and framework for describing their function. The “gutters” of digital platforms, such as Tumblr, juxtapose single image memes and longer-form memes into more complex comics that offer a portrait of a current social moment. For example, consider the examples in Figure 5 of a series of Avengers-related memes. Each one relies upon internal tensions of imagery and text: the first combines the Star Wars font and common Star Wars ships, or fan relationship pairings, with the two characters at the center of Captain America: Civil War. The second is a single panel comic, but relies upon recognition of the three political figures along with the context of Nazi-equivalent Marvel villain collective Hydra. The third uses the juxtapositions of similar framings to suggest parallels between Bernie Sanders, Superman, and Captain America. The additional captions and tags provide another layer of text, using the affordances of digital platforms optimally (and often adding metacommentary not unlike the artist captions at the bottom of every issue of Marvel’s Squirrel Girl). The form allows for rapid consumption of the commentary, and thus memes—and comics—become the ideal form for a platform that demands capturability within the constraints of a potentially constant scroll.
The use of comics as an online communication form is not merely a formalist move: the characters, heroes, and themes of comics have themselves become a battleground for these ideological shifts in geek culture. Why are comics as battleground? We can understand “ComicsGate” and its ilk as part of a collective discourse of nostalgic online fandom. Nostalgia is far broader than geek culture, of course, and our transmedia landscape is littered with reboots driven by nostalgia—yet geek nostalgia has a particular power due to a sense of ownership, and awareness in geek discourse of a shift in the visible demographics of geek spaces. Tannock describes nostalgia as responsive
to the experience of discontinuity – to the sense that agency or identity are somehow blocked or threatened, and that this is so because of a separation from an imaginatively remembered past, homeland, family or community. By returning, in text or vision, to those lost pasts, places, and peoples, the nostalgic author asserts a sense of continuity over and above her sense of separation, and from this continuity may be able to replenish a sense of self, of participation, of empowerment, belonging, righteousness or justification, direction. (Tannock)
These terms—empowerment, belonging, righteousness, justification—are things that many online communities offer their members, particularly in geek-coded spaces.
Thus, we might argue that nostalgia functions as the search for continuity… but whose continuity is it anyway? Whose nostalgia gets amplified, and who is omitted? Nostalgia is not inherently conservative but has long been associated with conservative values due to the idea of nostalgia as motivated by identities under attack. Watching intertextually-drenched film Ready Player One (2018), Angela Watercutter described her alienation in terms of absent nostalgia:
If anything, while watching Ready Player One I didn’t feel nostalgia for the days of Atari 2600 and Nightmare on Elm Street sleepovers, I felt nostalgic for the early aughts—before VR and Palmer Luckey funding anti-Hillary Clinton memes, before Gamergate, before I thought Bitcoin could actually screw up my retirement, before Prince died, before TJ Miller’s voice just reminded me of this, before even well-executed Say Anything references made me eyeroll. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I want to go back to a time when everyone was just oblivious to reality; society is much better off confronting these things head-on. It’s just that Ready Player One felt like it was made in a time, and for an audience that didn’t want to take its head out of the sand—or their headsets. Watching it, I was just perpetually reminded that, whether intentionally or not, it was made for audiences who might think that fighting for your right to play and winning the girl is the most important thing in the world (not, like, doing something about the poverty that made everyone escape into VR in the first place).(Watercutter)
A compelling parody of Ready Player One published in McSweeney’s mocks the icons that aren’t part of that book due to their gendered associations (see Figure 6).
This is a tired tale, but it has become more than that—it has become part of a legend, and an origin myth, for spaces within geek culture that perceive themselves as victims and have, in a classic Star Wars twist, become the villains (Salter and Blodgett). Recent headlines are filled with the stories of embattled geek spaces and icons, from the “incel” forums associated with Men’s Right Activism to the alt-right movements of GamerGate, and, in its turn, ComicsGate (Chess and Shaw).
Comics are a medium for these larger battles of “nostalgic” geek culture. The concept of nostalgia is used to frame the “social justice warrior” as the antithesis of the nostalgic, and the enemy of those who would protect the “canon.” Nostalgic lenses cast change through a rhetoric of war: women become “invaders” of spaces that belong to geeks.
It is thus not surprising that nostalgia is such a significant part of the rhetoric of the alt-right, where the same type of nostalgia for dominant white masculinity is prevalent in both memes and discourse. Comicsgate has brought these conflicts into clear focus (see Figure 7), but the broader mobilization of “anti-SJW” and “alt-right” in comics and geek spaces builds on a general association of nostalgia with white supremacy:
Nostalgia for a mythic past of fixed gender dynamics and racial homogeny is an important underlying tenet of popular social conservatism, but alt-right discourse brings this imagery to the unmissable foreground, while fusing such nostalgia with an explicit rhetoric of victimhood and betrayal. This fusion frequently involves an appropriation and distortion of the language of the activist and academic left, a technique most overtly utilised by Richard Spencer, creator of the alt-right label and self-described spokesman of ‘identity politics for white people’.10 When Spencer invokes ‘our lived experience … being a young white person in twenty-first century America, seeing your identity being demeaned’, he is adapting a familiar far-right tactic: a reversal of left-wing progress is cloaked in a narrative of white victimisation. (Kelly)
The disputes over the perceived battle between the nostalgic (white, male, cis, straight) view of comics canon and the perceived outsiders promoting a broader view have grown to such a scale as to be part of the comics themselves. For example, when interviewed about his choices inGreen Arrow: Rebirth #1, Benjamin Percy described the character with the same term used to label such outsiders (Figure 8):
Green Arrow is a social justice warrior. Green Arrow has his finger on the pulse of the moment. We’re channeling the zeitgeist. If you’ve been reading the newspapers over the past few months, you’ve encountered headlines that we have considered filtering into — slanted versions of — into the series. And the thing that I’ve struggled with, since taking Green Arrow over, is his billionaire status. This is a Robin Hood figure. And the pull quote from the trade, without question, will be, “How can you fight the man if you are the man?” That’s a question that Black Canary poses to him. Green Arrow has lost his fortune before, but this will be the first time that he’s complicit in that loss. (Rogers)
Green Arrow is far from the only character whose identity is caught up in the current discursive battle: recent issues of X-Men make explicit reference to toxic fandom, recalling disputed properties outside of comics (such as the Ghostbusters remake and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and their notable white male villains.
A need for greater discourse and understanding between the study of comics and the study of memes is evident in these moments, even as those same memes become a more and more visible aspect of literal battlegrounds and a means to understanding the communities where such violence thrives. As Suzanne Scott argues in her work on the intersections between media, fan, and comic studies:
I am in no way advocating that comic book studies rehash (or worse, be subsumed by) media studies methods and discourses designed to address wholly different media forms. Nonetheless, this essay suggests that comic book culture is currently witnessing a potentially transformative feminist intervention in which the “how” and the “what” of comics are being placed in meaningful conversation. Like Simone’s Women in Refrigerators list, which situated a discussion of superhero comics’ narrative tropes and representations within broader concerns about the comic book industry and its conception of the audience, what I am calling for is an integrated approach to comic book studies in which discussions of the distinct pleasures of comic form and ideological analyses are not mutually exclusive. At the risk of overburdening LaMarre’s comment, I am interested in a future for comic book studies that creates critical intersections between the “how” and the “what” of comics, in addition to considering the “who” (audience) and the “why” (economics/industry demographics). (Scott)
Comic studies needs platform studies: we need to consider how the platforms of memes are both the technologies that allow them to circulate, the forms borrowed from comics that give them meaning, and the originating texts that infuse them with resonance for the reader. From lolcats to American Chopper, from Pepe to Gritty, these are the memes of our lives. Comics are central to the visual language of the web, and likewise central to every “gate” and nostalgic discourse that emerges in meme-tic culture. Likewise, the memes of 4Chan and Reddit form the first and perhaps most visible images of comics for a rising generation. Scholars of the internet like myself need to pay more attention to how these memes evoke and play with the construction of comics—and likewise scholars of comics in spaces like this have an opportunity to intervene and reimagine comics as part of both the language and formation of networked publics on social platforms.
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