Comics Memory: Between Waste and the Archive

Comics Memory: Archives and Styles reviewed by Daniel Stein

Many avid readers of comics are also collectors and archivists of some kind, unless, perhaps, they get their daily dose of comics from an online subscription. But even then, questions of collecting and archiving are crucial, as comics have proven quite resilient against wholesale digitization. In the early stages of the medium, when the newspaper strip was the ruling format, reading comics was not necessarily intended to trigger the impulse to collect and archive the material.

Yesterday’s newspaper was always old news, and the use of cheap paper and ink reinforced the idea that comics were originally meant to be consumed rather than preserved. Yet many readers clipped and filed each installment of the strips they liked, with visionary figures like Bill Blackbeard amassing such a bulk that several trucks were needed to ship them to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University in the 1990s for professional storage and cataloguing. Why this predilection toward the cultural practices of collecting and archiving? For one, comics are an essentially serial medium, even if not all narratives are told serially. Historically, and despite the recent rise of the graphic novel, most comics have been produced, published, and consumed in a serial fashion. The regular engagement with and investment in these narratives breeds personal attachment, and this attachment frequently culminates in a desire to preserve not only the material form of the narrative but also one’s personal reading history. Comics thus function as a marker of time, both personal and historical, and as a reminder of our former individual and collective selves. Secondly, being a marginalized medium that has only recently gained public recognition as a relevant cultural expression, comics have long afforded their readers a countercultural pedigree, enticing them to read, collect, and archive the material precisely because it was deemed disposable by the ›official‹ culture. Finally, there is the very materiality of comics, which frequently facilitates an intimacy between creator and reader through hand-drawn images, the transportability especially of comic book floppies, and a price that ensures access for anybody with a bit of pocket money. This materiality is conducive to the personal collection and archiving of comics, even though it constitutes a nightmare for librarians tasked to accommodate the sprawling and unruly material.

These and many other issues are addressed in Comics Memory: Archives and Styles, an important essay collection edited by the Belgian comics scholars Maaheen Ahmed and Benoît Crucifix for Roger Sabin’s Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels series. The volume collects papers from the »Comics and Memory« conference at the University of Ghent in 2017. These papers are framed by an introduction and coda by the editors and organized into six sections, ranging from assessments of remembering practices, memory styles, and forms of comics embodiment to analyses of comics history, archival memory, and archiving by other means. They focus on Franco-Belgian and Anglophone comics (at the expense of manga and other comics traditions) by creators such as Seth, Emmanuel Guibert, Edmond Baudoin, Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, Sylvie Rancourt, Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Morris, Jack B. Yates, and Mary Duval. Each of the contributions sheds light, in one way or another, on the intersections of memory, style, and the archival drive in comics.

Ahmed and Crucifix’s insightful introduction calls for an »archival turn« (8) in comics studies, drawing on work by Theodor Adorno, Henri Bergson, Astrid Erll, Jared Gardner, Robin Kelsey, Aleida Assmann, Hillary Chute, and Abigail de Kosnik to make its case. Coining the concept of »comics memory,« the editors frame the volume as a »reflect[ion] on the multiple relationships between comics as a medium for memory and the memory of comics as a medium« (3), and they plausibly suggest styles and archives as key rubrics for understanding these relationships. The coda usefully synthesizes the insights generated by the volume into ten observations that offer a »roadmap« or »manifesto« for those interested in further exploring comics memory (283). In all of this, the editors endorse Abigail de Kosnik’s concept of rogue archives, defined in her eponymous study (MIT Press, 2016) as an »[e]ngagement with cultural memory [… that] not only [entails] what comes after the making and distribution of cultural texts [… but] often precedes that making, or occurs at every step throughout the process of making« (4).

The scope of the volume is too extensive to appreciate each contribution. Personal favorites are Giorgio Busi Rizzi’s unpacking of nostalgia in Seth’s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Mel Gibson’s study of readers’ recollections as »oral archives« that construct their own reading autobiographies, Chris Reyns-Chikuma’s association of Trondheim and Parme’s Panique en Atlantique with the historiography of the L’Association collective, Christopher Pizzino’s account of Brubaker and Phillips’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent as a parable of the fraught process of selective comics legitimization, Jean-Matthieu Méon’s cartography of Marvel’s memory management strategies, and Nicolas Martinez’s consideration of the reprint and canonization practices surrounding Morris’s Lucky Luke series. In the section devoted to issues of female embodiment, Rachel R. Miller describes the resistance to cultural expectations of femininity in Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl and Barry’s Cruddy, while Eleanor Ty assesses Rancourt’s rumination on sex work and female desire in Melody. Both essays forcefully underscore the necessity of gender-sensitive excavations of previously ignored or marginalized creators and their works as an antidote to male-dominated memory culture. The final section, »Archiving by Other Means,« ventures beyond the world of academia into the culture of comics at large by showcasing Simon Grennan’s notes on the workings and purposes of the free online Marie Duval Archive, Roel Daenen’s appraisal of Belgium’s problematic stance towards its comics heritage, Gunnar Krantz’s review of early Swedish comics fandom, and Philippe Capart’s appreciation of Michel Deligne’s bookstore and publishing ventures from the 1970s onward, which appear as alternative (non-official, non-institutional) ways of archiving materials beyond their official sell-by date.

In Cultural Memory and Western Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Aleida Assmann suggests: »the movable and indeed unfixable borderline between value and worthlessness, between cultural waste and the cultural archive, is the effect of continuous decisions and negotiations« (379). Ahmed and Crucifix’s Comics Memory is a timely and excellent contribution to, and a welcome critical reflection of, these processes, pressing us to continue to think about the volume’s central questions: »What do comics do with, and to, memory, and what does memory do to comics?« (3).


Comics Memory: Archives and Styles
Maaheen Ahmed and Benoît Crucifix (Eds.)
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
290 p., 119 Dollar
ISBN 978-3-319-91745-0