This past weekend I had the joy of getting a crash-course in contemporary comics criticism during a conference at my home university – so I didn’t even have to travel! I was super excited, not only because I’m translating a comic series/graphic novel for my MFA thesis, but because I think comics have an interesting place in culture as sort of between high and low.
Because this was being sponsored by a lot of university programs and departments, the framing was seriously scholarly. These were not “fan” events, per se, but chances to talk about the place of comics inside (and as resistant to) academic institutions. There were a number of amazing comics scholars here, and some outsiders too, like Gary Groth of Fantagraphics who made some excellent points about why we should be skeptical of institutionalizing comics as a discipline.
But that wasn’t the only thing that came up. One subject that got bandied about a few times in a few different panels was collaborative comics (as opposed to individually-authored comics, where the illustrator and the author are one and the same). Collaborative art is something I’m always interested in thinking about, especially because translation produces inherently collaborative literary works. In the first panel it came up in, with James Strum, Jessica Abel and John Porcellino, Jessica made the statement that collaborative comics are more commercial than individually-authored comics. She was referring to the “assembly-line” kind of comics production that the major superhero publishers employed; a different person for each part of the process in order to churn out as many pages as possible. But not just this – she said that collaborative comics tend to be less personal and of lower quality than individually-authored comics.
I’m not enough embedded in comics culture to disagree with her yet, but it troubles me for a few reasons. One, I think we tend as a society to dismiss collaborative art making because it challenges our desire, our deeply embedded desire, to ascribe responsibility, authority, to a single creator. Some of this I blame on psychoanalytic analysis of arts; we try to understand the work by understanding the author’s motivations and intents. Of course, the problem with that as most artists will point out is that truly great artistic creations contain far more than the author could have possibly imagined, so it’s reductive to only try to understand them as though they were a mirror of the author’s subconscious. But another reason for our resistance to collaborative art is embedded in this exact commercialization that Jessica ascribed to collaborative projects. The idea of individual ownership of things (including, even especially, art) is infused in our cultural consciousness that we literally don’t know how to handle art except for as personal property. Which is why we have to ascribe, for example, The Oddessey and The Iliad to Homer, though we know historically it was not signally-authored.
As artists we’re taught, even without formal training, because of the way Western society values individual producers, to shy away from collaborative production. Yet many artists flourish when working together on projects. We’re taught that artists are solitary, isolated, reclusive, socially awkward, etc. But many writers at least rely on other writers for at least feedback on their work, if not outright collaboration through an editorial process.
In any case, James Strum argued that the potential for collaborative comics was high, and given the right project and right collaborators could produce very interesting, artistic, personal and culturally valuable works. And I think he’s right!