David Ball delves into 'Critical Approaches to Comics Artists'

I have a good deal of admiration and respect for the author and professor David Ball, so when he tweets me that he's editing a new series of books to be published by the University Press of Mississippi, I snap to attention.

And, indeed he is. Modeled on a book he co-edited with Martha Kuhlman, The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, Critical Approaches to Comics Artists will be an ongoing series, each volume collecting  essays from a variety of scholars on a particular cartoonist. The plan is to release two books a year, with the first book on Joe Sacco coming out in 2015. Future volumes will focus on Herge, Charles Schulz and George Herriman.

Actually, this is apparently rather old news, as Ball blogged about this stuff more than a year ago. Still, it was news to me, so I took the opportunity to quiz him over email about this series and his hopes for it.

Robot 6: OK, first off, for those too lazy to click on the link above, what’s the basic concept behind this series?

David Ball: Whew, low bar. It’s 288 words long. They definitely shouldn’t go out and buy a copy of this (or grab a copy from their local public library). Or take a look at some of the most interesting writing about comics coming out from academics around the world. And that’s just some of the work in the last few years from the University Press of Mississippi; it doesn’t begin to touch some amazing work from academic presses that’s changing the way we think about comics. It’s an exciting time for fans and scholars alike.

The idea behind this series is to bring together collections of essays from as diverse a chorus of scholars as possible — by subject, argument, academic discipline, nationality — on the subject of major comics artists. So one cartoonist, 10 to 15 essays on their comics all by different authors. I’ve been especially excited to see contributions from established and emerging scholars, many of whom represent the next generation of compelling thinkers about graphic narrative. While monographs by a single author are great, they take a long time to write and publish, and I’ve always learned the most when reading collections of essays that bring together differing viewpoints. Everything we publish will be original essays with arguments that make new claims about the artist under discussion. So while richly illustrated, these aren’t coffee table books or collections of interviews (UPM has a series in that vein already), but readable and approachable essays written by art historians, cultural studies scholars, historians, and literary critics that treat comics as a subject worth thinking and writing about. If the series can account for even a fraction of the texture and richness of the graphic narrative out there now, it will have been a success.

How did this project come about? What was the impetus? 

I co-edited a volume titled The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking back in 2010 that emerged out of a scholarly roundtable I put together a few years earlier. I picked up Jimmy Corrigan and was just blown away by what I read, which both resonated with and altered my understanding of the novels I was reading in my day job as a literature professor. I wanted to talk with other similarly minded people and see what I could learn from them, and the response was so overwhelming it quickly became apparent that I had a book on my hands.

When I went to pitch the book to UPM, I did some research on what books were based on a similar model — academically rigorous, multiply authored, all original content — and there was next to nothing. A 2003 volume called Considering Maus, which largely collected previously published work. No volumes on Robert Crumb or Osamu Tezuka or Charles Schulz, all books I wanted to own.

Unfortunately, I’m not smart or productive enough to write all of those books, but I thought the model of The Comics of Chris Ware might serve as a template for these other titles, and I pitched the idea to UPM. They gave me the green light and I’ve been trying to get a pipeline started ever since.

Who are some of the cartoonists you have lined up so far? 

Right now we have two volumes under contract, with the first — The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World — going to press as I write. It’s forthcoming in summer 2015. I couldn’t be happier with the inaugural volume: It features scholars from three continents representing the fields of literary study, cultural studies, Italian studies, Russian studies, communication studies, political science and geography. The Comics of Hergé is in the final stages of completion, and I’m hopeful it will also be released in 2015. I have an amazing looking proposal for The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life on my desk now, and high hopes for a George Herriman volume in the not-so-distant future. I’m confident that as the Sacco book hits the shelves, I’ll start seeing more and more proposals in my inbox.

Are you editing all these books yourself? Tell me about your role in this series. 

Each volume has its own editor. Daniel Worden is heading up the Sacco volume, and Joe Sutliff Sanders is spearheading the Hergé book. I think the series is valuable in proportion to the diversity of voices it can represent, so I don’t want to dominate the conversation but rather facilitate and sharpen the work of others. I’m vetting proposals as they come in, making suggestions for revision — both for the volume editors and individual contributors — and then reading over the completed manuscripts for another round of revision. Given that we have so many voices from so many disciplines and intellectual communities, I want to ensure that the writing throughout is approachable, lively and engaging. For those already neck-deep in comics theory, the essays should be challenging and of the highest quality; for fans and enthusiasts, I want to ensure that the writing still jumps off the page without sacrificing the rigor of the arguments being made. In order to truly thrive, comics scholarship has to tap into existing communities of scholars as well as the wider audience of smart readers of comics who want to learn more about the medium. I want this series to be a model of that engagement for professors as well as non-academic readers who really want to dive into the artists they cherish.

Are you delving into an artist’s entire career or are you hoping to focus on certain specific works or will it vary from artist to artist? 

For a volume to be successful, it has to bear the weight of 10 to 15 essays on different topics and with varying scholarly approaches. This naturally trends toward artists with longer careers and with multiple works. Even in those cases where a single work or strip dominates the interests of contributors — Herriman or Schulz, say — the introduction to the volume can still give an overview of the artist’s broader career, the range of their work, and the existing scholarship already written about them. But I don’t want things to be too rigid or formulaic, and I’d love to see original interviews with comics artists in dialog with editors, reproductions of unpublished sketchbook pages, tribute comics and concordances like those Daniel Raeburn did for The Imp … I want to be as creative as the form (and the Press’ budget for image reproduction) will allow. I’m ready to run with whatever ideas present themselves in the proposals I receive.

When’s the first book coming out and what’s the publishing schedule?

We hope to do two books a year for the next five years, starting with the Sacco volume next year. I suppose sometime around 2018 UPM will figure out whether or not they want me to stick around, but I can’t imagine running out of artists to talk about at any point in the foreseeable future, and the volume and range of impressive comics being released grows every year.

Are you still looking for contributors? If so, what should an interested party do?

Absolutely. I’d love to see proposals on Winsor McCay, Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Osamu Tezuka, the Hernandez Brothers and Lynda Barry, among others. And this list is by no means prohibitive, it only represents my own interests and biases, which I’m ready to have challenged. I’m particularly eager to see proposals focusing on women artists, writers of color, and creators from outside a North American context. I’d be happy to talk to anyone at any stage of putting together a manuscript at criticalcomics@gmail.com. I also have a (too infrequently updated) blog here, and I’m @english_nerd on Twitter. The best part about this job is keeping up with the field of comics studies and learning how other thinkers are pushing the boundaries of what we know and can say about comics. I’m looking forward to what’s next.

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