How should we tell the history of comics?

Until now, the task has largely fallen to fans and collectors, and they have understandably and unsurprisingly focused on the comics that mean the most to them: the ones they think are important, influential, the best. As a result, the standard history of the American comic book is a list of great comics – individual and, by definition, unusual works that “changed everything.”

As the study of comics has been taken up in the academy over the past two decades, this model of historiography has largely gone unchallenged. As with other scholarly sub-fields that emerged within humanistic research traditions, comics studies struggles with the problem of the typical. Key studies in comic book aesthetics, narratology, history, and culture depend primarily or exclusively on the study of a canon of “exceptional” texts that are regularly enlisted to stand in for comics per se.

To take but one obvious example, the Bonner Online-Bibliographie zur Comicforschung lists 243 scholarly contributions about Art Spiegelman's widely celebrated autobiographical comic book Maus. On the other hand, there are only two on the more than seventy years of comic books published by Archie Comics, at one time the top-selling comic book publisher in the United States. While, of course, much can be learned from close readings of the “best” comics, these atypical works provide an unreliable basis for generalizing about the form in any meaningful way. Paradoxically, Maus is celebrated as an exceptional – which is to say, highly unusual – comic book but, without an understanding of the typical comic book, it is difficult to articulate the precise ways in which it deviated from the run of the mill products of this cultural industry.  

We want to shift the study of comics away from the broadly humanistic study of exceptional works and towards a more rigorous focus on works that typified cultural production over time. Speculative and theoretically abstract questions such as  “what are comics?” and “what could comics be?” have heretofore set the agenda for much of comics studies. Instead, this project asks the empirically grounded question, what were comics?

A data-driven history of the American comic book.

We are constructing a data set that indexes the development of the American comic book over its eighty-year history. This project will select a random sample of comic books representing two per cent of all publications produced in the United States each year from 1934 to 2014. Comics will be indexed for a variety of formal and material elements (story length; page layout; panel composition; volume of text in captions, word balloons, and sound effects; scene transitions; advertising; creator credits; etc.). This will enable us not only to ask specific questions about the historical development of the American comic book as a medium but also to model the “typical” comic book as it has changed over time.

Our project is the foundational step in a larger program of work that seeks to reorient the study of comics (comic books, comic strips, graphic novels) through the use of large-scale, quantitative research methods. We will create the most comprehensive and accessible research tool for the study of the American comic book, and we will use the data produced by this tool to write a data-driven history of the American comic book as the development of a set of styles and techniques that existed across the industry as a whole. We believe this will enable new approaches to periodization and force us to re-evaluate many taken-for-granted truths that have long circulated among fans and scholars alike.

By re-inserting what Margaret Cohen has termed “the great unread” – those unstudied, forgotten, and forgettable works that make up the vast bulk of cultural output – into the study of comic books, we will be able to more accurately mark the shifts in genre, composition, and materiality that have characterized this art form over time.

 

This research project has been sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, with contributions from The University of Calgary and Carleton University.