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Comics and Modernism Collection of Essays

Categories: Popular Culture, 20th & 21st Century, 20th & 21st Century, Comics & Graphic Novels, Cultural Studies
Event Date: 2020-04-10 Abstract Due: 2020-04-10

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein recounts a remarkable interaction with her close friend Pablo Picasso. As they are headed out the door, their conversation slipping between paintings, French lessons, and tea with Picasso’s wife Fernande, Stein pauses:

"Oh I forgot to give you these, said Gertrude Stein handing Picasso a package of newspapers, they will console you. He opened them up, they were the Sunday supplement of american papers, they were the Katzenjammer kids. Oh oui, Oh oui, he said, his face full of satisfaction, merci thanks Gertrude, and we left."

These comments, while fleeting, bear witness to the myriad connections between the world of avant-garde art and literature and the burgeoning medium of newspaper comics, challenging the tired distinctions between “high” and “low” aesthetic forms. Indeed, Picasso and Stein were hardly the only modernist figures fascinated by the possibilities (and pleasures) of this strangely charming new mode of pictographic storytelling: T. S. Eliot and e. e. cummings adored George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (and the latter famously wrote the introduction for the first selected edition of Krazy comics, published just two years after Herriman’s death); the poet Dorothy Parker wrote astutely about the cultural value of comics in her columns for The New Yorker; even James Joyce, on entering a local bookshop, would often skip the literary reviews and head straight for the comics. 


The connections between Picasso and Rudolph Dirks, Eliot and Herriman, Parker and Frank King are more than just anecdotal. As Jared Gardner has written, “it is hard not to see intimate connections between the formal experiments with the novel by Joyce or Faulkner and the fragmentary, looping narratives” that characterize so much comics art. Indeed, popular comics and avant-garde modernism had a lot to teach each other: the crowded, bizarre pages of Frank King’s comics (especially Crazy Quilt) are deeply inspired by cubism; Marcel Duchamp’s experiments depicting movement, evident in his famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, owe much to the motion lines of contemporary newspaper comics (to say nothing of the signature “R. Mutt,” which adorns his Fountain and refers in part to the popular Mutt and Jeff comic strip). 


Scholars have not overlooked the important relationship between literary modernism and long-form graphic narrative. Critics such as Isaac Cates, Daniel Worden, Katherine Roeder, David Ball, Jackson Ayers, and Janine Utell, to name just a few, have offered compelling contributions to our understanding of how contemporary comics has carried on the legacy of high modernism. From Alison Bechdel’s frequent allusions to modernist writers to Chris Ware’s careful exploration of discursive consciousness, comics art is woven into the fabric of modernist aesthetic praxis.


While few scholars working today would question the connections between avant-garde modernism and comics art, there are still significant gaps in our understanding of their shared cultural, political, and material histories. How does comics art—early newspaper comics, superhero comics, long-form auteurist comics—refine our definitions of modernism? What formal characteristics of comics emerge, shift, or ebb when we position the history of the form alongside the avant-garde? What sorts of shared material and technological histories governed the mechanical modes of reproduction common to comics art, little magazines, and even finely printed editions of modernist novels? How have political formations—race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality—shaped the production, circulation, and reception of both comics and modernism? How do audience, readership, and accessibility converge or diverge to cultivate an aesthetics of taste?


This volume, which has attracted the interest of a major university press, seeks to address these and other questions, and contribute to scholarship in both modernist studies and comics studies. The collection is not just about taking comics seriously as a mode of aesthetic expression; it’s about coming to understand the ways in which comics has always been taken seriously, and how comics art forms a constituent part of our contemporary understanding of modernism. Proposals on any topic relevant to disentangling the complex shared history of literary and visual modernism and comics are welcome. Please submit 300-word abstracts and a current CV to joncn@bu.edu by 10 April. Drafts of completed manuscripts may be requested by 31 December 2020. 

joncn@bu.edu

Jon Najarian