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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The present-day genre of comics might begin with Rodolphe Topffer in 1837; Punch magazine’s 1843 satiric cartoons; Richard F. Outcault’s 1895 The Yellow KidFamous Funnies, the U.S. magazine that standardized the comic book format in 1934; or Action Comics, the 1938 series that turned the fledgling industry into mass culture in a single bound. When defined by formal qualities, however, comics date to at least the Medieval period, with a long tradition of panels and speech scrolls in illuminated manuscripts establishing conventions that would become standard in newspaper strips and graphic novels in the 20th century.

Because the rise of comics coincides with the ebbing of Modernism, and because Modernism often is defined in opposition to popular culture, the notion of “Modernist Comics” might appear oxymoronic. As Jackson Ayers writes in the introduction to a three-essay “Comics and Modernism” section in the Winter 2016 Journal of Modern Literature, comics are “Modernism’s wretched Other.” Yet the wordless woodcut novels of Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri, and Laurence Hyde, as well as Max Ernst’s surrealist collage novel A Week of Kindness, can be analyzed fruitfully via comics theory. Further, the image-incorporating poetry of Langston Hughes, the concrete experiments of Guillaume Apollinaire, and even the page-space arrangements of William Carlos Williams all employ visual strategies common to later comics and comics poetry. Finally, the comics of George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, Windsor McCay, and other early 20th century creators might be reevaluated as Modernist texts.

That’s the call-for-papers I posted on the Modernist Studies Association’s conference webpage last year. Happily three other scholars took interest and submitted proposals, which I then compiled into a a panel proposal and sent to the MSA organizers, who, more happily, accepted it:

This panel will explore such lines of inquiry between Modernism and comics through the following papers:

“Human Desire: Marc Chagall’s Caricatural Illustrations for Dead Souls”

Jessie Kerspe (Shu Hsuan Kuo), PhD, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society

Marc Chagall’s 96 illustrations for the Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s epic novel Dead Souls (Les Âmes Mortes, 1923-27) can be seen as an example of modernist comics in a broad sense. Despite the format of book illustrations, the large amount of 96 pictures in fact contributes to a coherent reading of the story like today’s sequential arts. Chagall’s caricature styles such as pictorial hypallage, abstraction and uneven proportions, respond appropriately to Gogol’s writing techniques of hyperbole and metaphor. Through the comical presentation, Chagall’s illustrations emphasize on the bodily desires implied in the novel and therefore visualise the world of feast and eroticism, as in Bakhtin’s carnival aesthetics. As an early modernist artist, Chagall’s choice of illustrations reflects not only his own identity of Russian roots, but also the correspondence to his contemporary publications of livres d’artiste (artists’ books), as well as the activities of Jewish avant-garde artists.

“A Battle of Wills: Wood, Materiality, and Affective Production in Ward’s Woodcut Novels”

Olivia Badoi, PhD Candidate, Fordham University

The newly rediscovered genre of the woodcut novel can help us re-examine existing theories on modernism and the art object. Departing from Adorno’s notion of the artistic material as “historical through and through”, wood can indeed be regarded as the “artistic material of modernity”. I will focus on the work of the American artist Lynd Ward. From the eve of the great depression to the onset of the second world war, Ward crafted his wordless graphic narratives using not only the oldest material, wood, but also the oldest printmaking technique. While this choice seems paradoxical and anachronistic in the age of unprecedented technological development, it is reflective of modernist anxieties such as a sense of overwhelming acceleration, and a generalized feeling of loss of authenticity and of emotion. Reading a wordless woodcut novel requires a certain kind of reading praxis, one which implies a certain level of defamiliarization: literature is transformed from prose to visual art, while simultaneously, visual art is transformed into literature. In the process, the experience of time becomes less linear, meaning is rendered more malleable, and thus more difficult to manipulate and control.

At a time when the function of language as a tool of mass manipulation became increasingly and painfully evident, Ward’s refusal to engage with words inscribes the woodcut novel within a larger modernist project of denaturalizing and de-stabilizing language as a known, finite and fixed category in a radical way – by doing away with words entirely, and instead offering as alternative a purely visual means of communication that is centered on emotion.

“Comics and Modernism’s Little Magazines”

Suzanne Churchill, Professor, Davidson College

Rather than reading comics as “modernism’s wretched other,” we can see the little magazine, which was so generative of modernism, as a comics form that not only deploys actual comics drawings but demands us to read and enact closure in some of the same ways that later comics do. I will explore the use of comics in Rogue magazine, including those by Clara Tice and Djuna Barnes, and in the Little Review, including a series portraying the editors’ activities making the magazine, and on the cover of The Blind Man. Together these examples argue for an understanding of the modernist little magazine as a verbal-visual form that is informed by comics and demands to be read using similar multimodal strategies.

“The Proto-Barksian Dialect of Frans Masereel”

Chris Gavaler, Assistant Professor, Washington and Lee University

Comics scholar and cognitive psychologist Neil Cohn identifies two major artistic “dialects” in contemporary comics, “Kirbyan,” after superhero comics artist Jack Kirby, and “Barksian,” after Donald Duck artist Carl Barks. Comics historian Joseph Witek similarly divides comics genres between the naturalistic mode and the cartoon mode, divisions that parallel Cohn’s. Beetle Baily artist Mort Walker was the first to define the norms of the Barksian dialect / Cartoon Mode in his 1980 The Lexicon of Comicana. It is striking then how thoroughly German artist Frans Masereel demonstrates and so prefigures these later norms in his woodcut novels The Sun (1919), The Idea (1920), Story Without Words (1920), and The City (1925). In addition to a style that employs the simplification that Scott McCloud identifies as central to cartooning, Masereel establishes Witek’s cartoon “ethos,” one in which stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic rather than the laws of physics.” Masereel’s woodcuts then are not only foundational graphic novels, but also evidence of Modernism’s defining and enduring influence on the comics form.

The panel has since evolved. Suzanne had the happy dilemma of being booked on too many panels (MSA is strict about that), and Jessie had the unhappy dilemma of not getting travel support from her institution. But, happily again, Lesley Wheeler has just joined the panel to present “Anne Spencer and the Comics.” The conference is the second weekend of August and, even more happily, in Amsterdam. Our kids are coming too.

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