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Benoît Crucifix, Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel

Élizabeth Moulin
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Benoît Crucifix, Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023, 274 p., ISBN 978-1-009-25093-1, €99.20.

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1Building upon his previous works on seriality and archiving, Benoit Crucifix’s new monograph, Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel, broadens his research with a most welcome incursion into the history of the post-2000 North American graphic novel.

2Despite its ongoing expansion and influence, the medium of the graphic novel still struggles to completely secure its rightful position within the annals of literary history; as such, works delineating the genealogy of the medium are paramount to facilitate its formal recognition and institutionalization. While Crucifix is not the first to delve into the aesthetic history of graphic novels, his innovation lies in his approach to presenting this history. Unlike conventional narratives that adhere strictly to chronological sequences, Crucifix eschews a singular focus on individual authors or works as well as the temptation to draw up an inventory of comic works. He instead adopts a multifaceted approach, centered around the different techniques with which comics artists participate in the transmission of comics history, placing themselves in the continuity of a shared visual heritage. Alongside its meticulously researched historicist work, the book explores an extensive and delightful array of graphic authors and cartoonists, some renowned (Seth, Clowes, Ware, Spiegelman), others more obscure (Panter, Laliberte, Manouach). The pun in the title cleverly encapsulates the dual nature of this historical inquiry, meaning both “deriving from” and “re-drawing”: the process of selection of past objects and how contemporary graphic novelists utilize and appropriate them. In the former sense, Crucifix draws from Ann Laura Stoler’s definition of the 1990s “archival turn” as a shift “from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject” (Stoler 44) to view archives not only as repositories of historical records and documents but also as subjects of critical inquiry. He delves into the preservation of comics, the criteria for selection, their integration into cultural memory, or conversely, their loss—a process primarily driven by comics artists themselves. In the latter sense, Crucifix focuses on the visual and textual elements, exploring the “stylistic circulation” (28) between past and contemporary authors. His approach to temporal perspective is hence both synchronic and diachronic: by studying how the past influences the present and how contemporary moments are saturated with references to earlier periods, the book aims to understand the mechanisms of cultural transmission and the evolving conceptions of comics memory. It acknowledges the importance of combining both synchronic and diachronic perspectives to comprehensively map out the “changing conceptions of comics memory” (14). This question becomes significant in post-2000 comics due to the numerous changes that the genre underwent. It is worth noting that the book’s introduction grapples with the nuanced distinction between comics and graphic novels—a distinction often either overlooked or contested by both historians and practitioners in the field. Although throughout the book the author does seem to adopt the debated view that comics are defined by their serial nature, while graphic novels distinguish themselves by their longer, self-contained format, he acknowledges the “multiplicity of historical objects and cultural practices” (13) encompassed under the umbrella term “comics.”

3The first chapter, titled “Collecting,” raises the question of the constitution of an archive, and its influence on our perception of objects as source material. In this endeavor, the medium of comics presents two distinct characteristics that pose unique challenges. First, their serialized format complicates archival efforts. Historically, comics have been published in non-standardized, dispersed formats, such as newsprint, necessitating efforts to reconstruct stories from disparate sources or to navigate incomplete archives, a process aptly termed “artistic archeology” by comics artist Seth (Seth 175). In this chapter, Crucifix explores the interplay between notions of loss and remembrance: in response to the ephemerality of the medium, subcultures emerged in the late 1950s advocating for the preservation of certain comics while actively discarding others, often segmented along gender lines. Unlike other forms of archiving, comics archives were primarily cultivated “from the grassroots,” driven by the initiative of fans themselves and stemming from private collections. In this context, it is essential to recognize the pivotal role of Bill Blackbeard, who effectively facilitated the transition of private collections into the public domain. In the late 1960s, as libraries began discarding comics in favor of microfilm, Blackbeard founded the SFACA (San Francisco Academy of Comic Art), a nonprofit organization dedicated to salvaging discarded comics. This initiative culminated in the establishment of the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, which Crucifix identifies as the starting point for the creation of comics “collections.” Often considered the foremost collection of its kind, the Smithsonian Collection validated comics as cultural artifacts and immortalized these ephemeral strips as material heritage. Blackbeard’s endeavor intersects with the second unique challenge posed by comics format: namely, the materiality of comics in terms of scale and color, aspects that were compromised in microfilm reproduction. Crucifix juxtaposes Blackbeard’s Smithsonian Collection with the critique Eddie Campbell leveled against it in 2018. In The Goat Getters, Campbell sought to preserve the “messiness” of comics, employing a scrapbook technique to retain the essence of the newspapers in which they were originally published. Both archival methodologies not only contributed to the legitimization of comics but also situated them within a broader media-historical context, redefining notions of archives and reproduction beyond conventional institutional frameworks of memory preservation.

4The second chapter, titled “Curating,” delves into the public archiving of comics within established institutions. Crucifix undertakes this exploration by examining two exhibitions as main examples: Le musée privé d’Art Spiegelman, displayed at the Festival d’Angoulême in 2012, and Eye of the Cartoonist: Daniel Clowe’s Selections from Comics History in Columbus, Ohio, in 2014. These exhibitions provide insight into two key aspects of comics curatorial practice: firstly, the intersection between comics and the realms of art and literature, wherein comics masters are employed for curation, enabling art institutions to leverage cultural and financial value from cartoonists; and secondly, the process of canonization within the comics community, at the hand of comics artists themselves. Building upon the groundwork laid in the first chapter, which demonstrated how fan subcultures shaped comics archival practices, this chapter extends the discussion to artists as curators. Both Spiegelman and Clowes, appointed as curators of their respective exhibitions, meticulously selected and contextualized the comics on display, offering insights into their choices and themes. By doing so, these comics artists actively contributed to the canonization of comics, redefining the “official” narrative of comics history and embedding it within their own comics memory. In positioning themselves amidst the backdrop of comics’ ambiguous cultural recognition, Crucifix highlights how both cartoonists poke fun at this process of legitimization by “high institutions” as a primarily financial endeavor. Drawing on Christopher Pizzino’s concept of “autoclasm” (Pizzino 3), Crucifix scrutinizes Clowes’s texts within the exhibition, which serve as poignant examples of this subversive approach to institutional recognition.

5In the third chapter, titled “Reprinting,” Crucifix examines the process through which past comics are extracted from their ephemeral print contexts and consolidated into monumental and often costly book collections, frequently overseen by comic book artists themselves. This chapter traces the evolution of the comic book market, from 1960s publishing houses like “Nostalgia Press” dedicated to reprinting old comics, to the establishment of comic book shops that fostered collecting practices and slowed the obsolescence of comics. Crucifix also delineates a significant shift towards book publication, as opposed to periodical publication, which gained momentum in the 2000s, with renowned publishing houses such as “Fantagraphics” and “Drawn and Quarterly” releasing collections of past comics edited by contemporary authors like Seth or Ware. Though this signaled the literary institutionalization of comic books, these published collections were more often than not subjected to commercial imperatives. Crucifix astutely highlights the limitations of employing well-known authors to re-edit past comics: while lending gravitas to the publication and capitalizing on existing fan bases, it also results in collections influenced by the editor’s distinctive graphic style, prompting questions of appropriation versus fidelity. Crucifix’s investigation is notably specific to the medium of the graphic novel, as the continuity between text and paratext in comics diverges from conventional book-historical approaches to reprinting. Republishing in book format inevitably entails some loss of the original text-image integrity of the comics. Drawing parallels between book design and memorial architecture, he references Erwin Panofsky’s exploration of this dynamic in the mid-1950s, encapsulating the risk of comics stagnation with the vivid metaphor of “pinning a dead insect in a vitrine” (123) to emphasize the delicate balance between preservation and historical documentation within the realm of comics reprinting.

6In a scholarly account of comics history, it may seem unexpected to encounter a chapter dedicated to the fabrication of counterfeit archives. Nonetheless, such is the focus of the fourth chapter, “Forging,” which delves into the techniques employed by comics artists to fabricate “forgotten” comics (by interweaving references to real cartoonists with imaginary comic books, by inventing cartoonists altogether, etc.). Crucifix situates this chapter within the broader context of literary historical discourse on pseudo-works, drawing upon Judith Schlanger’s insights on citations, whether authentic or forged. In this intriguing departure from his prior, more conventional approach, he reframes the narrative away from a traditional history of archives to one centered on the “non-archive.” This strategic shift solidifies the monograph’s overarching goal of presenting not a linear historical account of comics but rather a typology of transmission gestures between past comics and contemporary graphic novels. These “ad hoc” documents exploit the established relationship of nostalgia between early newspaper comics and present-day graphic novels, capitalizing on the unique intermediality of comic books. By forging comic narratives, artists can play on references to the past, digitally simulating the seriality and aging process of vintage comic books, “thus underlining their dynamics of memory and oblivion” (140). These dynamics of “pseudo-seriality” thereby offer a redefinition of nostalgia as a vibrant rather than static phenomenon. The use of “polygraphies” (Smolderen 129) as various visual languages and styles within graphic narrative, transcends the conventional definition of comics as sequential art, engaging in a dialogue with various visual idioms, and simultaneously adopting and transforming them to sustain the continual evolution of the medium within a tradition. This redefinition of comics is particularly pertinent in the contemporary landscape of digital comics, as Crucifix reminds us aptly, if a bit concisely.

7The fifth chapter explores the intricacies of a distinctly comics-centric practice known as “swiping.” This practice involves the appropriation of elements from one comic panel or image and their incorporation into the artist’s work, in a citational tactic of intericonicity. Crucifix posits that the heuristic significance of swiping lies not so much in understanding how it conveys meaning between images, but rather in recognizing the conventions and standards within comics medium that influence the perception and evaluation of swiping. Aligning with Philippe Marion’s concept of “graphiation,” he argues that comics swipe files provide a framework for conceptualizing patterns of imitation and citation. In comics, graphic styles are often distinct and attributable to individual artists, revealing the “hand” behind the creation. Swiping, however, offers readers a glimpse of the “second hand,” allowing for connections between artists and drawing attention to the process of “redrawing,” thereby blurring the boundary between imitation and transformation. Consequently, swiping serves as a pivotal conduit of cultural memory within the comics medium, fostering the development of a graphic repertoire akin to techniques of musical sampling. Moreover, the discussion on swiping prompts a reflection on the use of comics images outside their narrative context, repurposing them as visual objects to be seen rather than strictly read, analogous to their display in museum exhibitions. This interrogation sheds light on the multifaceted nature of comics imagery and its potential for reinterpretation and recontextualization.

8Finally, the sixth chapter, “Undrawing,” delves into avant-garde techniques for repurposing vintage comics, particularly within the evolving landscape of digital media. This innovative segment of the study centers on comics produced within the past decade, spanning from 2010 to 2020. Echoing the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s advocacy for “uncreative writing,” Crucifix’s concept of “undrawing” explores the formal and narrative aspects of absence and substitution between old and new comics. By highlighting the reliance of the comics medium on acts of repetition and appropriation, “undrawing” allows for a reflection on the reuse of comics without “graphiation,” that is to say, devoid of an overt authorial presence. The experimental comics works studied in this chapter (Laliberté’s BrickBrickBrick or Manouach’s Blanco) underscore the continual process of “withdrawing” (199), challenging conventional notions of comics’ materiality and implicitly critiquing the semiotic view of comics as a purely grammatical language. Despite the regrettable limitation in affording the referenced artists the deserved level of attention for their innovative contributions to the comics medium, this segment nevertheless provides a compelling survey of the works of these lesser-known comics artists. Their pioneering endeavors would surely merit further examination in subsequent scholarly endeavors.

9In this thorough and detailed analysis of comics memory as archival matter, one might wonder at the relatively sparse references to more conventional artistic and literary theories, commonly found in studies on comics as an iconographic medium. Instead, Crucifix appears to favor references from popular culture studies, particularly those concerning pop music, video games, and analyses of social networks. This preference offers a fresh perspective on “lower” art forms, allowing for a more contemporary approach to a modern artistic medium. If this overview does not do justice to the richness of the meticulously crafted comics analyses offered by Crucifix, the full appreciation of which ideally necessitates the inclusion of the exquisite comic panels featured in the book, it strives to give a sense of the significant effort undertaken to compile the many archival gestures of comics artists and enthusiasts. Ultimately, Crucifix’s work achieves the objective that every monograph on the comics medium endeavors to fulfill: expanding the definition of what is encompassed by the term “comics” by bringing to light the incredibly diverse formats of the medium, though one might regret that while he critiques the gendered history of comics, his analysis predominantly features male authors, underscoring the ongoing struggle for female artists to gain recognition in the comics domain.

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Bibliographie

FILIPI, David, and Jenny E. ROBB. “‘Through the Eyes of the Cartoonist.’ Gallery Guide to Eye of the Cartoonist: Daniel Clowes’s Selections from Comics History and Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes.” Wexner Center for the Arts, 2014.

GOLDSMITH, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

HOFFMAN, Eric, and Dominick GRACE, eds. Seth: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015.

MARION, Philippe. Traces en cases : travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia, 1993.

PANOFSKY, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955.

PIZZINO, Christopher. Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.

SCHLANGER, Judith. Présence des œuvres perdues. Paris: Hermann, 2010.

SMOLDEREN, Thierry. The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay, translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

SPIEGELMAN, Art. “Le Musée privé d’Art Spiegelman.” Cité internationale de la bande dessinée, April 2014. www.citebd.org/spip.php?article3385.

STOLER, Ann Laura. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

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Élizabeth Moulin, « Benoît Crucifix, Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22832 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x3h

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Élizabeth Moulin

Sorbonne Université

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