Thoughts on Comic-Con

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This is the sixth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

Comic-Con 2012 has just wrapped up. In recent years, the focus of Comic-Con has increasingly shifted from being an exclusive comic book fandom event–where one could finally indulge in being a part of a community of like-minded individuals (I refuse to call us “nerds”)–to its current incarnation as a Hollywood trailer and audience test market. Now, Comic-Con enables Hollywood’s shiniest stars rub elbows with their adoring fans. Over 130,000 of them, in fact, making Comic-Con an increasingly claustrophobic event that keeps me at home.

From my friends and colleagues’ reports, there were the usual spilling over of panel discussions and movie Q&A’s, as well as the fantastic displays of costume role-playing, or cosplay, that generally take up most media’s attention to this annual event. But of course, the lengths fans will go to indulge their love of a particular story or character can also result in less fantastic expressions, such as getting killed while trying to stay in front of the Twilight line. Academics were there too–and how could they not be, when the confluence of art, mass media, and its consumers is too great an opportunity not to discuss reader-response theory and the literary value of popular culture narratives?

But some discussion-worthy news also emanated from San Diego. Craig Thompson took the Eisner award in the Best Writer/Artist category for his book Habibi. Thompson was already a dual Eisner award winner for his acclaimed graphic novel Blankets, a semiautobiographical story about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family in Wisconsin. Habibi was seven long years in the making, and its process was carefully narrated on Thompson’s blog, effectively building up quite a bit of anticipation. The story of Habibi is about the fortunes of Dodola, an Arab girl sold into child marriage by her illiterate parents. Taught to read and write by her well-meaning husband, Dodola hones a love of numbers and narrative which helps her survive her subsequent experiences. Visually, the book is fantastic, incorporating the cinematic brio of Will Eisner, and a feverish, symbolic vision reminiscent of David B’s Epileptic. Huge Miltonic angels, fearsome djinn, and crowded towns and rivers teeming with garbage are woven together in a grand tapestry of brushwork, interlaced with recurring motifs of blood, rain and the fluid morphings of calligraphy.

While Thompson’s art is unimpeachable, the book’s story is rife with Orientalist agendas. Beyond the New York Times’ excellent review of the problems with Thompson’s narrative, many troubles stem from the heavy recurrence of instances of rape. Dodola is bought as a child bride and from the age of nine her sexuality is commodified both by herself, as a means of survival, and by the men in her world. Dodola’s history is a history of rape, falling into the Orientalist trope of brutal male savages and their oppressed women. Once Zam (or Habibi, the male protagonist) witnesses one of these rapes, both his consciousness and his dreams are plagued by sensual reenactments of her rape. Her objectification is fully realized by Thompson, who presents her (and most of the other female characters) nude, sexually compromised or violated in a vast majority of the book. Beyond thematic difficulties, Thompson employs non-linear narrative techniques, interspersed with stories from Christianity and Islam, with varying degrees of success. As one friend put it, while the artwork is great, the narrative only received praise because one doesn’t typically see that kind of thing in comics. As a film (for example), the narrative would be standard and painfully obvious. Write anything “artistic” and you’re guaranteed a critical hit; yet conversely use that material as scripts or as a book, and not only would nobody bother to watch or read it, but it’d receive a critical drubbing for not actually being much good comparatively.

Among some other interesting bits, Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Anansi Boys) is returning to the comic series that made him initially popular, Sandman. He announced that after 25 years, a prequel mini series about the Lord of Dreams would be available late 2013. This is an interesting juxtaposition compared to another great writer of comics, Alan Moore, who refused offers to return as the author of the commercially successful Watchmen series. Many have speculated this was Gaiman’s attempt to have control over the inevitable cash-grab by the publisher, but Gaiman has since elaborated on his long desire to provide the back story to one of comics greatest series.

A touch of sad news, but my publication Government Issue, Comics for the People did not bring home an Eisner award. My heart-felt congratulations to Walter Simonson and Scott Dunbier on winning the Best Archival Collection Eisner for The Mighty Thor: Artist’s Edition.