Dartmouth College and the Secret History of Comics Studies

Here’s the line of logic, for those who think it’s been a long journey: if comics are so worthy, howzacum Joe Tobul’s mother tossed out the books I loaned Joe back in 1946 when we were both twelve years old in Painesville, Ohio?

Because Joe’s mother, who was a nice lady, thought they were trash. And why did she think they were trash?

–from Harlan Ellison, “Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?” (an essay on the growing acceptance of comics as a literary form published as “It Ain’t Toontown” in Playboy, December 1988)

When I arrived in Hanover, New Hampshire for Dartmouth’s Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference on April 19th, I immediately took Allison and my father to look for the ghost in one of the classrooms in Sanborn House, the school’s English department. The ghost and I crossed paths only once in the fall of 1994, moments before one of my evening creative writing classes. I didn’t see her this time and the classroom she’d once inhabited looked much smaller than it did when I was an undergraduate. But let me talk about the conference as well as Dartmouth’s role in the history of comics studies before I describe the ghost.

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Photo from the 2013 Dartmouth College Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference courtesy of Allison Felus. You can see more of Allison’s photos of the conference here.

Dartmouth has a small but significant place in the recent history of comics scholarship. Most cartoonists and comics scholars are aware that James Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies is only twenty minutes south of Hanover in White River Junction, Vermont. Dartmouth’s Studio Art Department also has a strong animation component, no doubt in part because of the Ivy League school’s popular Film Studies program. Since the late 1980s, however, Dartmouth has played a significant role in the development of comics studies as a vital academic discipline due to the work of scholars including Marianne Hirsch and Michael Chaney.

In an article in The Dartmouth, Chaney, an Associate Professor of English, explained his goals in organizing the sessions. As the conference’s name suggests, the papers and presentations were not exclusively on comics and graphic novels. How do the worlds of animation and book illustration relate to the study of sequential art? What, for example, is the relationship between an illustrated edition of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and an EC comic?

“The rationale,” Chaney explained in the interview with staff writer Kate Sullivan, “is that all three of these different dimensions are represented: comics, illustration studies, and animation, and so my thought is, if the conference is truly going to be hybrid, in the sense that it would talk in all these disciplines, it would have to risk something.”

Chaney has published widely on issues of hybridity, race, and identity in comics. His collection Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2011, extends the project Marianne Hirsch began at Dartmouth in the early 1990s as she developed the idea of postmemory in her studies of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Hirsch, now vice-president of the MLA and a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, spent years as a professor in Dartmouth’s Comparative Literature Department. Hirsch’s work on Art Spiegelman’s Maus has had a tremendous impact on a new generation of comics scholars, most notably Hillary Chute and her study of graphic narratives, memory, and trauma in her recent book Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics (Columbia UP, 2010).

In her 1997 study Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch defines postmemory as a form of recollection that “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated” (Hirsch 22). Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, a theory she revisits in her recent book The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia UP, 2012), has inspired numerous scholars in the fields of Holocaust and Memory Studies.

Hirsch’s first book on postmemory, like Michael Chaney’s conference program, crosses genres and disciplines. In Family Frames, Hirsch studies comics, photographs, and her own family history. The book itself is a mixture of historical scholarship, art criticism, and memoir. During my senior year at Dartmouth in 1994, I took a Holocaust Literature course with Hirsch and with historian Leo Spitzer, and I remember a few of my peers resisting the idea that we would be studying a comic book about the Holocaust. In the fall of 1994, Maus had not yet achieved the canonical status it has earned since being awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. One of the first major academic studies of Spiegelman’s work was Joseph Witek’s pioneering study Comics Books as History (UP of Mississippi, 1989), which included chapters on Maus as well as on the work of Jack Jackson and Harvey Pekar.

In the fall of 1994, I was not aware of Witek’s book. Before Hirsch’s class, my only exposure to comics criticism had been in the pages of fanzines, newspapers such as The Comics Buyer’s Guide, or magazines such as The Comics Journal. Those of us who’d read, for example, Harlan Ellison’s essay on George Carlson, originally published in Dick Lupoff’s fanzine Xero and later collected in the Lupoff and Don Thompson collection All in Color for a Dime (1970) and in Ellison’s 1990 collection The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, believed in comics as a serious art form. I spent most of my first three years of college, however, hiding my interest in comics, as I encountered several professors who were openly dismissive of the form.

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A photo of me standing not far from Baker Library sometime in the fall of 1991. Courtesy of my mom.

When I arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 1991 I hoped to pursue a double-major in English and Studio Art. Since I enjoyed drawing and writing, I thought I might combine the two interests. I’d been reading comic books since grade school and, although by 1991 the “implosion” of so many independent comics companies and the speculator frenzy of the era had dampened my interest in the field, I began my first year with the desire to study words and pictures. I eventually settled on a major in English and Creative Writing, as I found my English and Comparative Literature professors, including Peter Bien, Jonathan Crewe, Melissa Zeiger, Bill Cook, and the late Suzanne Zantop, were open and encouraging when I would admit my affection for comics, zines, and punk rock. I found I struggled with my art professors, many of whom had been trained in schools of modernist painting that privileged the high over the low. Comics, as one of the painting faculty advised me, were mere illustration, not serious art. To return to Dartmouth, then, in 2013, to present a paper on two artists, Edie Fake and Gil Kane, whose work has been so meaningful to me, proved to be more challenging than I’d expected.

I might have been 18 again. I was terrified.

After I learned my paper had been accepted for the conference, I experienced a brief moment of pleasure. Now I’d have the opportunity to return and to articulate my ideas on comics and art with tools and strategies I did not possess when I was 18 or 19. In my first year as an undergraduate, I thought I might convince my art professors of the value of comics by showing them copies of books by Moebius or Hugo Pratt. I was certain they’d like the European artists since, after all, in Ken Viola’s 1987 documentary The Masters of Comics Books Art, which featured interviews with artists ranging from Will Eisner to Jack Kirby, Dave Sim to Art Spiegelman (but, sadly, no segments with Marie Severin, or Trina Robbins, or Richard “Grass” Green), Harlan Ellison explained that, “in Europe, where comic book artists are treated as classical artists,” critics and readers “recognize the importance of this native American art form.”

If Harlan Ellison said it, I thought, it must be true. My professors might not like American comics, but surely they’d love the European ones.

Over the course of my first year of studio art study, I learned that the American and European comic book artists I admired were illustrators, picture-makers. And even though Harlan Ellison had insisted that in Europe comic book artists were understood to be classical artists, I had no luck convincing my professors that Moebius’s Arzach was as profound as Mark Rothko’s No. 8 (Lilac and Orange over Ivory), one of the modern paintings on display in Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art.

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Have you seen the Rothko? a friend asked me.

It must have been our first term at Dartmouth in the fall of 1991.

I don’t think so, I said.

I was afraid to admit that I’d never heard of Rothko. I thought it might be the trade name of some major appliance.

Then we have to see the Rothko at the Hood, she said.

She and I were both comic book fans, and even today, two decades later, we’ll send each other suggestions on comics we think the other one might enjoy. In the fall of 1991, she bought me a copy of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and I insisted that she read J.M. DeMatteis and Jon J. Muth’s Moonshadow.

Rothko’s painting hung in the Hood Museum on a wall at the top of a flight of stairs. As we walked up the staircase, I saw it coming into view.

It will look like it’s pulsing if you stare at it long enough, my friend assured me.

My head was filled with Jack Kirby, John Buscema, C.C. Beck, Bill Sienkiewicz. As we approached, it revealed itself slowly. It would wait for us. I am sure it had been there years before we’d applied to Dartmouth, and it would remain there years after we’d gone.

Standing before it, I remember thinking, it looks so quiet. Like silence. Like it doesn’t need to be anything other than what it already is.

We stared at it for a few moments and then made our way back to the dining hall in the Hopkins Center.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1995, I visited only a few times. The Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference was my first trip through Western Massachusetts and Vermont since the late 1990s. As I read my paper, I found myself pausing again and again to collect my thoughts. I was sitting in a small room in the basement of Haldeman, a bulding which did not exist when I was an undergraduate, but I sensed the anxious, disoriented 17-year old who’d arrived in Hanover in the fall of 1991. Sanborn House, Baker Library, the rehearsal rooms at the Hopkins Center, the ridge of trees behind Rip-Wood-Smith, my dormitory—they all looked so small and so alien.

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A section of Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization in the reserve reading corridor of Baker Library. Photo courtesy of Allison Felus.

I visited several old friends while in Hanover, and most of the places that held any meaning to me, or triggered those old memories. We walked through the reserve reading corridor in the basement of Baker Library. There I asked Allison to take a photo of one of the sections of José Clemente Orozco’s mural The Epic of American Civilization. I did most of my studying in this section of the corridor. Even now, when I read Thomas Mann, I remember these murals as they loomed over me the first time I studied “Death in Venice” for the late Werner Hoffmeister’s short fiction course in the fall of 1992.

But I’m forgetting about the ghost. In the fall of 1994 another friend and I had just had dinner and we were standing outside Sanborn House. Afraid to be late for my evening class, I looked up to the window on the second floor of the building and noticed a light. I saw a figure standing in a dim silhouette. I didn’t recognize her. She appeared to be wearing a dress with a high-neck collar. Did I know her? I said goodbye to my friend, entered the building, and dashed up the narrow staircase that leads to the second floor of Sanborn and, at that time, to the small rooms that housed the Composition Center.

When I arrived at the classroom, the lights were out and the door was locked. I saw no one in the hallway or on the stairs.

I’d taken only a few minutes to sprint from the sidewalk and up the stairs to the classroom. Where had she gone? Her shadow might have been a trick of the light, I thought, an illusion as the sun descended. The window, after all, faced the west, the Connecticut River in the distance just beyond the dormitories built after World War II. Or maybe she was a ghost.

In telling this story I might be telling our secret, but as I first saw that figure standing in the window of the classroom almost twenty years ago, and as she failed to wait for me that night in the fall of 1994, I don’t think she’ll mind. I spent so much time in Hanover a few weeks ago remembering the ghost, and the Rothko, and the dining hall conversations, and the dim light of sunset, and the take-out menus from Mei-Mei’s, and the record store, that I didn’t think too much about comics. I thought most about what has vanished.

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6 thoughts on “Dartmouth College and the Secret History of Comics Studies

  1. Pingback: Notes on the 2nd Chicago Alternative Comics Expo - The Comics Grid

  2. Pingback: Comic Reviews - Review: Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps: From Maus to Now to Maus to Now - Kittysneezes

  3. I missed this entry–I just want to say that you would have probably had greater traction with the Studio Art department if you didn’t stubbornly paint every single picture of your Rothko-viewing friend.

    • Ha! I painted some pics of Batman in there, too, I think. I think I finally sold a conceptual piece I’d made out of cardboard! (For $5…the most I ever made as an artist…)

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