Interview Rocco Versaci
You have written about comics. What is your opinion on the quality of modern comics scholarship?
Modern comics scholarship is very exciting. There has been a veritable explosion of comics courses in higher education and in a variety of departments, such as English, art and art history, and communications. Comics scholarship has become so prevalent that the Eisner Awards (the comics industry's version of the Oscars) created a new category a few years ago to accommodate the growing number of scholarly books on comics. In fact, my friend Charles Hatfield's book on comics legend Jack Kirby--"Hand of Fire" (U of Mississippi Press) was that category's first winner. Another prominent comics scholar is University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute, who has written on women's autobiographical comics ("Graphic Women") and has another book coming out about historical comics ("Disaster Drawn"). You state that 'the comic book is an active reconstruction of the past'. What do you mean by that?
I believe that I made this statement in my book, "This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature," in reference to autobiographical comics. The point I was making was that comics--in large part because they are drawn, and drawn in panel formation--are obvious artistic reconstructions of reality. There is no easy "escapism" in comics because their constructed nature is foregrounded by the medium itself, thus reminding the reader that our access to the past always travels through some filtering text (to paraphrase historical theorist Hayden White). In this way, nonfiction comics like those of art spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel, and others are able to operate, at some level, in similar fashion as, say, the French New Wave films of Jean Luc Godard, whose manipulations of film (e.g., jump cuts, filters, etc) called attention to the presence of the medium. Why are comics 'the ideal medium in which to examine characters over a long period of time'?
Because comics can have very long runs and can be produced much more inexpensively than other media, like film and television, their characters can age more or less in "real time." Two prominent examples of this are Frank King's "Gasoline Alley," which he worked on from 1919 to 1959. The strip still runs today, but it's best known as King's work, and over that 40-year period, his characters aged along with their readers. Another example is the Hernandez Bros. "Love and Rockets," which has been published regularly by Fantagraphics since 1982. In it, we have seen characters age from children up into (currently) middle age. What is your opinion on the concept of 'visual literacy'. Can an understanding of images be learned?
I believe that visual literacy is a crucial skill to understand and develop in today's image-soaked age. It doesn't take much to see how something like the news has become much more visual (and, perhaps, visually confusing) since the 1970s. I've noticed among my students today that they are quite adept at assimilating various competing images into a coherent whole; in fact, doing so is necessary if one is going to be able to navigate the internet in all of its forms (especially social media). The problem is the "literacy" part, which implies that one not just read these images but read them critically. What is the relation between escapism and comics reading?
"Escapism" is a word that often has negative connotations, suggesting as it does that the work in question somehow lacks depth because it's engaging. One of the main characters in Michael Chabon's wonderful novel, "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," muses at one point that the ability to provide such "escape" to the reader is nothing less than magic. One of the qualities of comics that draws me to them is their dual ability to both provide such "escape" yet still present themselves as an obviously-constructed version of "the world." And I think this lies at the heart of what I feel is the biggest misconception of all about comics: they are easy to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because they manipulate both word and image, because they operate at the level of both panel and page, and because all of this makes multiple demands on the reader's eye and attention, comics represent a very sophisticated model of reading.