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Review of Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling

By Aaron Kashtan

Jared Gardner’s Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling is an exciting book which I hope will represent the beginning of a new trend in comics studies. I have some concerns with the way Gardner frames his material, and I enjoyed some of the chapters less than others. Nonetheless, this is an impressively researched book, displaying a level of academic rigor rarely seen in comics studies, and it breaks new ground in its exploration of questions of media, materiality and audience which other comics scholars too often ignore.

American academic comics studies in recent years have tended to be more concerned with questions of content than questions of form or media. The most popular topics in the field, as demonstrated by works like Hillary Chute’s Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics or Michael Chaney’s Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels, have included memory, trauma, and historical representation. The dominant theoretical perspectives that have been imported into comics studies from other humanities disciplines have included feminism and trauma theory. In my view, one result of this orientation of the field has been to call attention away from questions of mediacy and materiality. Comics scholars have not shown a lot of interest in the actual stuff that makes up comics—that is, the physical, material and technological parameters, such as artistic materials, printing technology, and publication format, that both enable comics to exist and shape the ways in which readers interact with comics. Typically, the material and physical form of the comic is treated as a mere a priori container for images and text.

Projections represents a welcome reversal of this trend. The book bills itself as an attempt to situate comics within “the history of twentieth-century storytelling,” as the subtitle indicates, but what the book is really about is “how comics creators have engaged with their readers, how readers have responded to the demand that they project themselves actively into comics, and how this history helps us imagine the future of storytelling going forward” (Gardner xiii). More specifically, Gardner’s book investigates different media forms in which comics have been instantiated—for example, comic strips and comic books—and discusses the way in which these media forms have affected readers’ engagement with comics. Gardner’s first chapter contrasts early cinema with the earliest newspaper cartoons; his second chapter contrasts the differing forms of seriality employed by comic strips from 1907 to 1938 and by contemporaneous films; and his third chapter discusses comic book fandom from 1938 to 1955. His sixth chapter speculates on how comics have influenced the development of DVD technology and on ways in which comics themselves might be affected by the transition to digital technology. These chapters are full of fascinating insights about how the formal and material structures of comics were not neutral, but instead played an active role in shaping how readers responded to these forms. At the same time, Gardner is also attentive to how readers actively used those same formal structures for creative purposes. Examples of these insights include that “the pleasure that readers took in engaging with their comic characters as if they were historical figures is in many ways unique to the serial comic strip after 1919 with Mutt and Jeff and to the daily newspaper in which it took place” (45), or that “the image of the comics reader as lonely and isolated is itself largely a product of the postwar anxiety about the rising popularity of the comic book form, a form that openly inspired not isolation but collaboration, community and communication” (104).

Furthermore, these chapters also do an exemplary job of situating comics in the context of other related media, particularly cinema. Gardner is sensitive to formal similarities and differences between comics and cinema, and he discusses comics not in isolation but as an element of larger media ecologies. Gardner is able to do this so effectively because of his expertise with film theory and literary theory. By training Gardner is a scholar of cinema and American literature, and he brings the theories of his home disciplines to bear on comics studies, while also showing an understanding that these theories might not be strictly applicable in the case of comics.

As alluded to above, I do have some concerns about how Gardner frames his discussion in these chapters. Gardner groups his chapters together under the rubric of “storytelling,” but this is an excessively ambiguous term which creates the misleading impression that the book is about narratology. I wish he had used terms like “media,” “materiality,” or “technology” instead, as his work is not about storytelling as such, but about the material and technological means by which storytelling proceeds. Similarly, while Gardner’s work is often very close to fan studies, especially in the chapter on comic book fandom, he never actually cites any fan studies scholarship or uses any theoretical insights from fan studies. This is especially odd since Gardner cites Henry Jenkins in a different context (192). The addition of a fan studies perspective not only would have expanded the appeal of Gardner’s work but also would have enabled Gardner to draw some interesting connections between 1950s comics fandom and more recent fan cultures.

A more serious problem is that in chapters 4 and 5, Gardner largely abandons his focus on form and media and instead focuses on the sorts of questions of content I discussed above, with unimpressive results. Gardner’s fourth chapter begins with a fascinating discussion of the genealogical links between 1950s comics fandom and the underground comix of the next two decades, but the rest of the chapter is largely devoted to close readings of autobiographical comics, including some, such as Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, that have already been extensively discussed. Gardner’s discussions of autobiographical texts do not represent a significant advance on the work of scholars like Charles Hatfield and Hillary Chute. The fifth chapter, which discusses the theme of the archive in the work of Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor and Chris Ware, is more exciting, but this chapter is still not attentive enough to the sorts of medial and formal issues discussed in the rest of the book. This is especially unfortunate in the case of Chris Ware; Gardner spends a little time discussing how Ware’s books function as material and formal artifacts (169), but he could have discussed this even more. Furthermore, I wish he had tried to theorize the graphic novel in the ways in which he theorizes the comic strip and the comic book; that is, I wish he had discussed how the graphic novel determines readers’ responses as well as opening up possibilities for creative reading.

Despite these objections, however, I can enthusiastically recommend this book, and I hope many comics scholars will read it and draw inspiration from it. Gardner’s book offers an inspiring vision of where the field may be headed.

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