Interview with Jeet Heer

[Originally Published Feb 10 2010 at Posting this Jan 18 2023 but backdating the post to the original publish date. Note links may now be broken.]

Jeet Heer is an academic and freelance journalist who has contributed significantly to the understanding and appreciation of comics in both scholarly and mainstream circles. His ideas on the form are held in high regard, and he has written extensively for dozens of publications on culture and comics. I recommend strongly this interview with Robin McConnell, from Robin’s wonderful Inkstuds podcast site, for background.

In April 2009 Jeet and co-editor Kent Worcester released the award-winning A Comics Studies Reader, a collection of almost 30 essays from the last 20 years from the new comics scholarship.

Dave Howard: I wanted to talk about the state of comics scholarship today. There’s been an explosion of comics scholarship, is this right?

Jeet Heer: Yes, that’s very true.

Howard: What I find interesting is that comics, because they are seen as a multi-disciplined form, are popping up in different academic departments. In one university comics are popping up in political science, in another in women’s studies, in another philosophy, in another it’s traditional literature courses – there’s no one place comics have come to rest. I wouldn’t want to ghettoize them, but one of the reasons comics have flown under the radar for so many years is that people believe the form to be a hybrid of other disciplines. I have never believed that. I believed are a homogeneous form in and of itself.

Heer: You’ve mentioned a lot of things, and it’s absolutely true there’s been increase in the amount of scholarship given to comics. I think to some degree there was scholarship in the past but often it was coming from a place of hostility. I mean, Frederic Wertham was a scholar. A lot psychologists and educators in the 1940s and ’50s studied the impact comics had on kids. Not all of them were as hostile as Wertham, in fact the main consensus among educators and sociologists in the 40s and 50s was that comics weren’t harmful.

But in any case, what’s different now in the last 10 or 20 years, is that there’s an interest in comics that’s coming out of a belief in the positive value of comics. If you have comics studies in an English literary course, it’s because it’s considered to be a good book – like Jimmy Corrigan or Maus – so in some ways the growth in comics in academia is part of the larger mainstream success of comics. Arguably, the increase in quality and the amount of comics that are dealing with serious adult subjects.

But also that other aspect that you’d mentioned, there’s many different disciplines that are studying comics, and in many ways this is mirroring what’s happening in academia at large. That is to say, traditionally there have been very tight disciplines, like English and History and Art History, and they police their borders very carefully. Nowadays, if you’re a historian, it’s very hard to teach a historical novel without offending the people in the English department.

Howard: I’m thinking also of brain studies and the social sciences.

Heer: That’s right. I think one reason why comics took so long to take off is because of the increased inter-disciplinarian studies, which is to say studies that combine different approaches. So you’re not just looking at literature, looking at the text, but you’re looking at the images in the text. With someone like Dickens, many if not all of his books actually were illustrated, so there’s an increased emphasis in trying to bring different disciplines together and combine them. And so comics actually fits into that very nicely. You can bring in, if you’re looking at comics, literary studies of narrative, but also art history; you can bring in the sociology of readership; you can bring in, as you say, cognition and the sciences of the study of the mind. There’s a lot of work being done by psychologists on how comics work as a language.

The success of artists like Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware have also given comics a new legitimacy, and then also people in academia are interested in these forms that combine different disciplines. You’re right in saying that comics aren’t a hybrid, that they’re their own thing – but a lack of clear demarcation of what is comics and where they fall is part of the reason people are interested in them.

Howard: I know there’s been a lot of discussion around the dumbing down of society in the last while. They say there’s been a decrease in literacy, and people are throwing up their hands saying, “People are reading comics now instead of literature.” Where do you think comics fit into that schema? Do you think there’s any truth to this?

Heer: It’s a very interesting point. The way that I would frame it is to say not that there’s a decrease in literacy but a change in literacy related to changes far bigger than comics. McLuhan would call it the Guttenberg Era, the classic era from the end of the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, an era dominated by print. Not just print, but a particular way of reading: reading silently, reading long books. It wasn’t just words on the page but it was the way of reading that had its own cognitive style. That way of reading was tied to a way of thinking and a way of living. Now, that sort of literacy still exists in our society but it’s very much sort of a minority phenomenon. There are people who are very much into reading as a solitary experience, reading alone, reading a consecutive narrative, but what we’ve seen is, through technology, the development of other ways of reading. The way that we read a twitter page or read a blog is very different from the way that we read David Copperfield, a 900-page novel.

So what’s happening is that there’s a development of a new form of literacy, new forms of reading and new forms of writing that people do – computer, emails, forms that are very different than the literacy of earlier centuries. One of the reasons comics were so successful in the 20th century – and are still vital– is that they are part of this new way of reading.

Howard: Reading in a non-sequential way?

Heer: Reading in a non-sequential way. In a comics panel, everything is happening all at once, rather than the linear fashion of prose.

Howard: Yet the sequence of the panels adopts both the sequence and the more “electric process.”

Heer: In some ways comics are a bridge between the classic high-literacy and the world of the internet. There’s ways in which the panel form itself, I think, has really influenced other things. You know, on a television screen now, they’ll have 10 different things going on at once, and on a computer screen as well, on a website, you have information streaming in different ways . I think comics are part of this process of developing this new, non-sequential type of literacy, or a literacy that has a visual component.

You know, I’m very much a sort of books person and an academic, and I can see there are problems with students who are not able to read in the old way – ideally you would want to have both. But I don’t think that difficulty comes from the reading of comics, it’s an issue of teaching, and other things as well, like character and discipline. I do think that if you want to preserve the old form of literacy you have to think harder about how to teach people to read. And comics are a part of that as well, actually.

Howard: Do you think comics have a role in schools?

Heer: Oh yes, at all different levels. Actually, to go back to that, there’s a lot of cognitive stuff as well in terms of comics helping people to read, to be that sort of bridge. I think comics are valuable for their own sake, but also valuable, especially for children, as a way of starting to read. I think there’s a lot of emphasis now, a lot of people who are into kids’ comic. Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouley, they’re very interested in that aspect. One of the social functions comics have is helping kids who are having trouble reading, to develop those skills.

Howard: Comics is a medium and it appears in many different forms: the strip, whether in print or on the web; as a serialized pamphlet; as traditional “comic books.” Now comics are filling out the mold of the novel. Can you talk about that emergence of comics within this closed narrative format?

Heer: An interesting thing about comics is that for most of their history – with a few exceptions – comics appeared in periodical form, rather than bound in one book. That has all kinds of impacts on how they’re read and what’s possible in them. That is to say the relationship of comics to genre fiction came out of the fact that genre art is often in periodical form. And you have things like recurring characters, and recurring plot lines, all of which are very important aspects which lend themselves to the way comics work.

The idea of the comic book as just sort of a single unit in a book form – artists have tried to do that quite often actually, but it’s never really taken hold. One of the earliest cartoonists, Rodolphe Töpffer, the Swiss artist, did these books, and there were woodcut novels in the 20’s. So, I guess the advantage of the book form is to give the artist a much greater control of the material, in the sense that they don’t have to be redundant. In a lot of comic strips and comic books you often have to repeat information because you’re always assuming the reader’s coming in fresh.

There’s also a pleasure to this redundancy, I think. One thing cartoonists would often use is a recurring characters for comic relief. But there are also limits. It’s really difficult in that kind of form to have characters change and evolve, because you always have to have them coming back to what they were. Mickey Mouse can’t be anything other than who he is, you know? Umberto Eco talks of this. You have a character that goes through an experience in a story, and then the next story opens and he’s back to where he was at the beginning of the previous story.

I think one of the difficult developments of comics in the novel form is that it allows characters to undergo change and evolution. It also gives artists a much greater control over recurring images. Seth in his George Sprott book can show a building in one panel and 20 pages later have another view of the building and you can assume the reader will be able to flip back and forth. You can’t really do that in a serialized delivery, you can’t build that level of completeness. So it is a major shift for people who are doing comics as books as serialized fiction.

Howard: I’m thinking the anticipation of the end helps the reader to take a more critical role in their understanding of the text.

Heer: I think what comics are going through is somewhat similar kind of what happened to fiction. There always were novels done in complete form but there was a long period where there was only serialized fiction. And in the early Dickens, he is very shambling. He sort of has characters running around and then in the last half chapter sort of ties everything together. But he developed as an artist, he started to plan things out more, even though he could serialize it. He could pretty much do his books with the intention that this will be a coherent story. So I think that that’s a big part of it as well, there’s much more emphasis on planning. Think that the classic cartoonist, even very great artists, like John Stanley, would often sort of do their stories on a page-by-page basis.

Howard: I’m reminded of the British sit-coms which may have 7 or 12 episodes or so and then end, as opposed to the North American sitcoms which never changes.

Heer: That’s right, that’s a real problem with the situation comedy. I can think of maybe a better example, The Wire, which is different from earlier TV drama in the sense that, really, each season was conceived as a single narrative and the show itself to a large extent was planned out beforehand. You can do something very different if you have that limitation, it allows you greater control and much greater freedom.

Howard: I’m also thinking of manga. Manga is a wonderful hybrid of story that continues, yet has an end that you can anticipate. It is also serialized. I think that’s one of it’s strengths – you can serialize it, and you can benefit from the serialization of it, in terms of it’s publication – you’re building anticipation, you’re building readership, people buy back issues. But manga is not like Superman or Spiderman, stories that just never end.

You’ve mentioned in the past the Hernandez brothers’ and Dave Sim’s work spanned the era where a lot of artists were changing from the pamphlet form to the graphic novel form, and that a lot of their work is a hybrid of story arcs within a larger story.

Heer: I think the Hernandez brothers and Dave Sim are bridge figures between the old world and the new world. There was a time when Sim was doing a monthly comic book and the Hernandez brothers a quarterly form. It’s interesting that all of them were able to make that leap into the graphic novel form. Gilbert Hernandez in particular is increasingly moving towards the graphic novel, where even though he has recurring characters, he conceives each unit as a book-length. I’m thinking of his most recent work, like Troublemakers.

Howard: Where do you buy your books when you’re in Toronto?

Heer: For graphic novels and comics I go to The Beguiling.

Howard: Any other places you go?

Heer: For non-comics I go to Book City and sometimes a place called Type. I think there’s been a lot of attention given to the fact that Pages closed down and David Mirvish Books closed down. I think it’s also worth pointing out there are people who have started up new stores, so I think that’s something that’s very heartening.

Howard: Do you think people are buying more online?

Heer: There’s no denying that, if you talk to any publisher, the shares of their books that are going through are increasing, and the bookstores less so, but I think that – and The Beguiling is a good example of this – the bookstore also serves as a community centre. I think one of the big changes that’s happened with The Beguiling with [owner] Peter Birkemoe but also especially [manager] Chris Butcher, who deserves a lot of credit for all the events that they do and the artists that they bring in. And they also do TCAF. That’s really allowed them to weather the recession and the rise of online sales. The store really serves as a community centre as much as a retail outlet.

To be honest, I think a lot of stores should look into that. Pages had that as well, and their This is Not a Reading Series still continues. That seems to be the way to go. You have to have a value that you can’t get from buying a book online.

Howard: You published last year with Kent Worcester A Comics Studies Reader. How is that going?

Heer: That’s going good. The book is being used in a lot of courses as a text book, and it won an award from the American Public Culture association, a major American award, so we’re really gratified by the response. It won the Peter C. Rollins book award, which is given to the best book in American cultural studies.

Howard: One thing about your book is that you did not silo people from academia, you left contributionsopen to anyone. Comics has opened the door to a lot of examination in general to culture. I find that an interesting thing, there’s something non-pretentious about comics that allow people to approach, to think about it, and in turn get at culture and get at ideas about our society.

Heer: That’s right. I think there’s a wide variety of things that can be done with comics, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface. There’s a lot more that can be done, for example, with history and comics, which Chester [Brown] has done with the Louis Riel book. There’s also the international aspect. Certain countries where comics are stronger – like the Unites States, France, and Japan – are the major comics powers, you know? But there’s a huge amount of comics being done everywhere, like in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. One of the interesting things about manga is that kids are reading translated manga that reads right to left. Part of the reason that’s possible is because comics are both words and pictures – half of the translation work is already done. So you can look at a comic book in a language you don’t know and you won’t get everything but you can still get a fair bit of what it’s about. And so they have this sort of function as cultural ambassadors. You can actually learn a lot about a culture just by looking at the comics.

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