Author’s Roundtable: Thomas A. Bredehoft, “The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus”
Response by Shawn Gilmore

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[On October 28, Unit for Criticism and Interpretative Theory held an Author's Roundtable hosting Thomas A. Bredehoft to discuss his new book, The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from Beowulf to Maus. The response from Shawn Gilmore (English) is below.]

"Comics: Immedia et Realia"

Written by Shawn Gilmore (English)

The arguments that Thomas Bredehot puts forward in The Visible Text provide a new and valuable model by which we might reconfigure our notions of the long history of textual production, while also quite usefully highlighting the tension between the textual and paratextual components of various text objects, exposing the linked and shifting relationship between production and reproduction within various eras in the history of print. As a scholar of comics and graphic narratives, I am drawn to Bredehoft’s rather bold claims about the role that comics play at the end of his genealogy of textual forms. So, in what follows, I want to briefly highlight what I read as the key to Bredehoft’s conception of comics, and then move (somewhat tendentiously) to two challenges that this definition poses if we are to move forward with his schema in mind.

Bredehoft’s argument dismisses some traditional assumptions about the aesthetic logic of comics—including the basic assumption that comics are imagetexts and the more foundational assumption that comics constitute a medium—as he carefully delineates comics from the logic of both the facsimile and the edition. Instead, he draws comics into a long history of printed textual works, focusing on the contiguity of their printed forms (including comics books and graphic novels) with previous modes of textual production. What differs with comics, argues Bredehoft, is the relationship between text and paratext, held together by a unified material publishing form—in short, that comics artists are able to blur the typically fixed relationship between text and paratext, which allows them to integrate their work in ways that sets their comics apart from the markers that establish the legitimacy of traditional textual categories, such as the facsimile or the edition.

Following on this, he comes to define comics as production-in-reproduction, asserting that we can know this newer mode of textual production (i.e., comics) only in the specificity of its printed forms. We must, according to this argument, dismiss some traditional categories of legitimization, including a reliance on the authorial original (i.e., drafted comics art before its published version) and instead focus on the aesthetic practices on display in the published comics that are pushing the medium forward. To show these advances in the medium, Bredehoft draws on Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan (as well as noting a few features of Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen). This, however, raises two related issues, which I will briefly outline below.

First is the issue of authorial intent and our subsequent assumptions about the production of particular comics. Bredehoft draws our attention to Maus and Jimmy Corrigan, focusing on how Spiegelman and Ware, respectively, manipulate the paratextual material of their comics—their covers, endpapers, pagination, etc.—“highlight[ing] the radical materiality of comics textuality,” which contributes to “comics’ resistance to the ideology of print” and their “challenge to the notion that ‘the text’ is ideal, imaginary, linguistic, irreal” (149). Here, Bredehoft highlights one key to what I’ve termed elsewhere “the invention of the graphic novel,” or the conceptual and material unification of the components of book-length comics that was necessary to recognize the graphic novel as a new publication format using the medium of comics. However, this awareness of paratextual manipulation is directly premised on a notion of authorial intent and control, as the examples Bredehoft employs all involve an invocation of the intentional aesthetic and stylistic impulses of artists such as Ware and Spiegelman.

Watchmen #1 (Sept. 1986), p. 6, as it appeared in serialization
What, then, are we to make of the much larger and perhaps more representative world of comics produced by multiple creators—the kind of comics that we typically think of as “comics”? Take for example, Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and penciled by Dave Gibbons. In his fourth chapter, Bredehoft attends to a minor publishing variation in Watchmen—a colored speech bubble—but Watchmen might be a good trial case to see what this issue of authorial agency looks like in practice. I’ve chosen just one page to look at for a moment, page 6 of Watchmen #1 (September 1986). Bredehoft suggests that we must dismiss the original art of a work like Watchmen, which cannot in and of itself legitimize the notion of the comic. However, even the paratext that appears on the first issue’s sixth page starts to present problems. While the title “At Midnight, All the Agents…” is Moore’s, as found as the title of his original script, its presentation on the page is Gibbons’. The page layout and composition are Gibbons’, while the content is Moore’s. The title is from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (1965), but is only identified as a quotation, via quotation marks, in its original comic-book form, and only confirmed as a line from Dylan at the end of the first issue. Further, the original version provides production credits, while subsequent editions place these elsewhere (the cover, trade dress, title page, etc.).

Watchmen (1987), p. 6, as it appears in collected editions
What do we make of this manipulation of paratext? In this case, Gibbons, the artist, seems to have had a hand in arranging the text. But the title is not his; instead it is Moore’s. And I can only reconstruct a narrative of this composition because a traditional authoritative edition of Watchmen, the Absolute Edition, and a facsimile edition of much of Gibbons’ art, Watching the Watchmen, have been published. This seems to challenge Bredehoft’s conception of the role of the comics artist. Only by reference to the original art and the publication history of Watchmen can I tease out the composition of its pages and the coherence of its material form. And the versions of Watchmen all sit at the intersection of two primary artists, Moore and Gibbons, and two secondary ones, John Higgins (the colorist) and Len Wein (the book’s editor). What, then, are we to do with this more typical comics publishing situation? What are we to do with works by multiple creators, or works with strong editorial control? What of works whose provenance or development are unclear or unknown?

This brings me to a second concern: namely, the exceptional nature of the “comics” under consideration. Bredehoft uses the term “comics” in an unconventional sense—to designate a genre of works that a very small subset of comics artists have been able to produce when given a good deal of editorial control over the final material terms of their publication. As Bredehoft puts it, these “authors are beginning the work of incorporating these formal and ideological innovations into their works, and where the genre of comics is ultimately headed may not yet be either clear or fully determined” (155). While I concede the important boundary-pushing of these creators, I am concerned that their exceptional position limits their analytic usefulness. Much as I admire Ware and Spiegelman, they are both allowed editorial liberties that most comics creators are not. If the majority of comics creators are not allowed this range of aesthetic possibilities, are we truly talking about comics? About a particular vanguard of comics?

Perhaps more importantly, Spiegelman and Ware are the beneficiaries of a long history of comics artists—of which both are well aware—working in recognizable comics formats since at least the middle of the 19th century. What, finally, do we do with that long history of visual innovation and juxtaposition, what I’ve called elsewhere visual parataxis, which only recently has entered the modern world of printed books in the 20th century? If Bredehoft’s notion of comics describes a possible future of comics, how then are we able to sync these notions up, to use his fascinating framework and terms such as production-in-reproduction, to apply to the wider range of comics and graphic narratives as they have been and are now practiced?


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