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Review of Unpopular Culture

By Tim Lanzendörfer

Beaty, Bart. Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

A review of Bart Beaty’s 2007 analysis of European comics production in the 1990s, Unpopular Culture, in 2012, might start with the observation that Beaty’s chapter on autobiography has already found its way into Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester’s Comics Studies Reader (2009). Such a quick canonization of Beaty’s book is, it should be added, entirely deserved: well-written, erudite, and sweeping, the volume offers a view of European comics in the 1990s (and indeed, into the 2000s) that is refreshing, concentrating, through Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the field of cultural production, on the interactions between small press and large press comics publishers, autonomous artistry and heteronomous market forces, and the underlying question of the cultural legitimation of comics. Beaty’s argument, severely foreshortened, is that small-press artistic comics producers in the 1990s, especially L’Association and Frémok, redefined the comics field through artistically ‘serious’ works that adopted alternative forms of distribution and production, “non-traditional aesthetics” (11), and an emphasis on visuality over textuality. He relates these issues to voluntary associations of authors, to comics festivals, to trans- and international perspectives, and to a particular genre (autobiography) and a particular artist (Lewis Trondheim). Overall, he identifies the 1990s and 2000s as a time of “un-popularizing [comics] culture” (15).

The first three chapters identify the importance of autonomy and ‘artistry’ to the self-conception of the small presses which Beaty highlights as the engines of the change in the field of comics production. Here, his Bourdieuan approach works best, identifying the positioning of the small presses in an autonomy of artistic production that is fundamentally opposed to heteronomous mass culture, and the modernist avant-garde aesthetics of the small press comics as a reflection of a new tension in the field of comics production. Beaty especially identifies the comics produced by the Frémok publishing house as tying all interventions into politics intimately to interventions into the comics medium (cf. 98), emphasizing “intellectualized comics production” (105) and a departure from “the traditional aesthetics of comics production” (95). However, the three chapters also highlight the constitutive differences between the approaches to avant-garde comics by L’Association and Frémok, emphasizing, with Bourdieu, the shared antagonism to the existing dominant traditions as the uniting characteristic of the Frémok artists, and the far more radical self-conception of the latter (and later!) group. Indeed, Beaty’s argument highlights in all three chapters that autonomy in the comics field is created precisely by negatives: whether in L’Association, in the formal experiments of OuBaPo (Chapter Two), or in the modernist visual aesthetics of Frémok, it is important that the works are not commercial, not hard-cover albums of 48 pages, not made by cartoonists, and/or not ephemeral.

Chapters Four and Five, by contrast, tax Beaty’s reliance on Bourdieu’s concept of the field. Chapter Four’s mixture of the global perspective and the personal relationships between individual artists raises the question of the boundaries of the field of comics production and its relations. Perhaps a bit unfortunately, Beaty here speaks of a “choice” (119) for each artist: whether to place himself nationally or internationally, or to “internationalize the local context”. His examples notwithstanding, it may be doubted that it is indeed as easy as all that, and indeed a fully Bourdieuan reading would rather insist that there is not so much choice as an interaction between the strategies of actors in the field and the field itself, neither wholly autonomous nor wholly heteronomous. Chapter Five, on autobiography as authenticity, also seems to benefit less from the Bourdieuan theoretical grounding. Its analysis on the metareflective character of many contemporary autobiographical comics—their discussion of the very production of autobiographical comics—is a thoroughly sound discussion of the works he foregrounds (David B.’s L’Ascension du Haut Mal, for example), but claims such as “[t]he insertion of the self into the aesthetic and business practices of the underground movement suggested new possibilities for the promotion of the field of comics as an art movement” (145), a phrasing which does not seem to square easily with field theory—how does one promote a Bourdieuan field, or indeed, why should one do so?

Chapter Seven summarizes Beaty’s findings of the previous chapters with a closer look at Lewis Trondheim, whose own career touched upon all the different aspects of the transformation of comic book production that Beaty outlines. A founder of L’Association, an avant-gardist, autographer, and finally an artist producing genre comics for large publishing houses, Trondheim allows Beaty to recapitulate Beaty’s thesis: he is “the product of an entire cultural movement rooted in the small-press renaissance” (240). Even if Trondheim’s unique position in the field of comics production may almost make the choice to end the book with a discussion of his work obvious, it is to Beaty’s credit that the chapter still adds, in the particulars of Trondheim’s journey, to the overall thrust of the book—and that Beaty recognizes the great opportunity which a review of his thesis through the person of Trondheim represents.

If a criticism can be leveled at the book, it would be that its ambitions are too great. Beaty is well aware of that, as he acknowledges in his introduction (14-5). One of the consequences of his focus on the small-press movement’s influence on the field of comics production since about 1990 is that his fundamental argument about the “way that a historically marginal form of culture has moved closer to […] cultural legitimacy” (9) comes to seem a bit one-sided, especially since his theoretical approach through Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of the cultural field would seem to suggest that a much broader viewpoint is necessary to fully understanding the changes in comics production that Beaty so ably traces.

Suggestions of the possibilities of such an approach appear especially in Chapter Six, where Beaty focuses on the interrelationships between large and small publishers, and suggests their potential to reciprocally benefit each other. Since Beaty reads the 1990s as a point of “transformation,” he would seem to implicitly suggest that such interrelationships did not previously exist—something that may well be true, but might leave the reader wondering. Likewise, one would have very much appreciated a glance at one of the levels that Bourdieu himself deems crucial, that of literary criticism’s function of enshrining, and thus producing cultural capital for, authors and works.

The complaint about difficulties with Bourdieu’s theory in the nitty-gritty details and the extent of Beaty’s analysis, however, should not be overemphasized: indeed, it is possible to ignore the references to Bourdieu entirely (especially in Chapters Five to Seven), while still coming away from Beaty’s book vastly enlightened about the relationships which have influenced European comic book production in the 1990s. Especially with regard to the still pre-dominant penchant, strong in literary studies, to regard comics as by definition a medium of popular culture, Beaty’s look at the complex entanglements between creators’ claims of autonomy from the literary marketplace and the limitations and potentials for cross-fertilization across the ‘divide’ between autonomous ‘arts’ comics and the heteronomous production of ‘popular’ works is a helpful counter-narrative. Beaty’s book is exciting both for the points it itself makes about the European comics field in the 1990s and 2000s, and for the perspectives his approach opens for comics studies. It is to be regretted that a similar study does not yet exist for the Anglophone field of comics production—Unpopular Culture certainly offers a good blueprint for such a study.

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