International Journal of Comic Art blog

News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Vault of Culture: a home for cultural criticism (with a comics bibliography!)

The study of comics has become too big for any one journal, even IJOCA, to cover, and other venues may be of interest to our readers. I was in an online conference recently with Shawn, and asked him to let IJOCA's readers know about his e-journal.

 by Shawn Gilmore

I edit a cultural criticism site, The Vault of Culture, “an edited, semi-scholarly space devoted to publishing a wide range of approaches to a variety of cultural objects, from comics to film to novels to video games and everything in between.” We aim to be a home for public scholarship, and while we publish on a variety of media, we have a strong tradition of presenting comics criticism, and I'd like to invite members of the IJOCA community to contribute.


The Vault of Culture publishes writing aimed at a broad audience that takes a scholarly (or semi-scholarly) stance on one or more aesthetic/cultural objects, giving those writings some editorial guidance, a nice visual presentation, and a home beyond individual conference presentations, blogs, facebook posts, twitter, etc. We’re quite open to the kind of work you may already be doing, including previously-written/-presented or new work, one piece at a time or in series.


To give a sense of the range of works we've published on comics, here are some highlights from the last year or so:


Feel free to take a look at the site and poke around. Or, like the facebook page to see new entries as they go up or follow along on twitter: @vaultofculture. If you are at all interested in participating, you can see ways to get started on the “about” page, including inquiring about one-off pieces or recurring series. Or, email and let us know what you’re working on.


Feel free to prompt those far and wide that might be interested in contributing—we always hope that VoC can include a wide range of voices and approaches.


Thanks for your time and attention.

Shawn Gilmore

Editor, The Vault of Culture


Here are the articles and features on comics that have appeared in The Vault of Culture through June 2021.

Akhauri, Aki. 2021. “on Kay Sohini’s ‘Pandemic Precarities’.” In Gilmore, Shawn (ed.). “On Comics: a U-C Comics Colloquium introduction to COVID Chronicles (2021).” The Vault of Culture (24 May 2021):

Ash, Evan. 2019. “Don't Know Much About Comic History: The Early Anti-Comic Book Movement, 1940-1944.” The Vault of Culture (29 September 2019):

Babb, Tiffany. 2020. “The (Illusion of) Safety in Little Nemo’s Walking Bed.” The Vault of Culture (6 November 2020):

Bryan, Peter Cullen. 2020. “The Endless Media Adaptations of Little Nemo’s Walking Bed.” The Vault of Culture (6 November 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2019. “On Comics: Cole Pauls, Dakwäkãda Warriors (2016-19).” The Vault of Culture (11 November 2019):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2019. “On Comics: Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing is Monsters (2017).” The Vault of Culture (16 September 2019):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2019. “On Comics: Fiona Smyth, ‘Skin of Fate,’ in Nocturnal Emissions #3 (1991) & #4 (1992).” The Vault of Culture (9 August 2019):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2019. “On Comics: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009) and Alan Moore & JH Williams III, Promethea #32 (2005).” The Vault of Culture (26 August 2019):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2019. “On Comics: Jillian Tamaki, ‘SexCoven,’ in Frontier #7 (2015).” The Vault of Culture (4 October 2019):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “‘Drake Waller’ (Arnold Drake & Leslie Waller), Matt Baker, and Ray Osrin, It Rhymes with Lust (1950).” The Vault of Culture (8 May 2020):  

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “Don Freeman, It Shouldn’t Happen— (To a Dog) (1945).” The Vault of Culture (24 April 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965).” The Vault of Culture (25 June 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence, The Trigan Empire (1978).” The Vault of Culture (20 April 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “On Comics: Chris Ware, ‘Rusty Brown’ in The ACME Novelty Library #19 (Fall/Winter 2008, collected 2019).” The Vault of Culture (28 January 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “Otto Nückel, Destiny: A Novel in Pictures (1926, 1930).” The Vault of Culture (6 May 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn. 2020. “Scale and Formal Presentation of Little Nemo’s Walking Bed.” The Vault of Culture (6 November 2020):

Gilmore, Shawn (ed.). 2021. “On Comics: a U-C Comics Colloquium introduction to COVID Chronicles (2021).” The Vault of Culture (24 May 2021):

Gilmore, Shaw. 2021. “on Zack Davisson and Lili Chin’s Yōkai Parade Presents Amabie!’” In Gilmore, Shawn (ed.). “On Comics: a U-C Comics Colloquium introduction to COVID Chronicles (2021).” The Vault of Culture (24 May 2021):

Peppard, Anna F. 2020. “‘Til Death Do We Part, at Least for a While: My Undying Love Affair with Undying Superheroes.” The Vault of Culture (9 March 2020):

Rondinelli, Zachary J.A. 2020. “On Comics: Even Batman Has (K)nightmares: An Analysis of Form and Communication in Tom King’s ‘Knightmare’ Arc (Batman #61-63, 66-69).” The Vault of Culture (17 March 2020):

Rondinelli, Zachary J.A. 2020. “Sunken Treasure: Transformation, Mysticism, and the Father in Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder (2012).” The Vault of Culture (1 May 2020):

Rondinelli, Zachary J.A. 2020. “Trippin’ on a Prayer: Masonic and Anticlerical Readings of Little Nemo's Walking Bed.” The Vault of Culture (6 November 2020):

Rondinelli, Zachary J.A. 2020. “The #WalkingBedWeek Roundtable at the #WelcomeToSlumberland Social Media Research Project.” The Vault of Culture (6 November 2020):

Smith, Axlan. 2021. “on Rivi Handler-Spitz’s ‘We made faces instead.’” In Gilmore, Shawn (ed.). “On Comics: a U-C Comics Colloquium introduction to COVID Chronicles (2021).” The Vault of Culture (24 May 2021):

Thacker, Mara. 2021. “on Mike Heinrich’s ‘Two Weeks’ Notice’.” In Gilmore, Shawn (ed.). “On Comics: a U-C Comics Colloquium introduction to COVID Chronicles (2021).” The Vault of Culture (24 May 2021):

Totten, Chris. 2020. “The Animated Legacy of Little Nemo’s Walking Bed.” The Vault of Culture (6 November 2020):

VanCalbergh, Michael. 2020. “On Comics: The Universe is Watching: Backgrounds in Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam (2018).” The Vault of Culture (23 June 2020):

Wigard, Justin. 2021. “Ludocomics: Play and Interactivity in Comics, Games, and You are Deadpool (2018).” The Vault of Culture. (12 April 2021):

Williams, Kelly. 2019. “Female Readership and Corruption in The Dark Phoenix Saga (1980) and Dark Phoenix (2019). The Vault of Culture (23 May 2019):


Friday, June 18, 2021

Book Review: Empire of the Superheroes: America’s Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion-Dollar Industry by Mark Cotta Vaz

Empire of the Superheroes: Americas Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion-Dollar Industry by Mark Cotta Vaz. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021.

reviewed by Charles W. Henebry, Boston University

Ever since the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, American superhero comic books have celebrated individual heroism—the bravery of the stalwart few who challenge the power of gangsters and tyrants. Yet for decades, even as publishers grew fat off the popularity of these heroes, individual creators almost all got a raw deal from the industry: paid by the page with no promise of royalties or pension, cheated out of their intellectual property, ground down by an evil corporate empire with no avenging hero in sight.

This, anyway, is the story told by fans about the travails of Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and other comics luminaries. It has the advantage of moral clarity, mirroring that of the comics themselves. The full story is more complicated. Comic book publishers considerably cleaned up their business practices in the course of rising from the margins of pulp publishing to become the crown jewels of media multinationals. Corporate ownership of characters helped to ensure their continued vitality, as comic-book readers grew up to be comics creators and movie producers. Distribution shifted from newsstands to direct sale stores, and eventually online. Paradoxically, comics became a niche product pitched to an older audience even as they lost their disreputable aura—and even as superheroes came to dominate popular culture. Finally, decades of legal wrangling provided redress to some early comics creators—though by no means all of them.

Such is the saga spun by Mark Cotta Vaz in Empire of the Superheroes, a 400+ page tome from the University of Texas press. Its a big story, even for such a long book, and Vaz covers the court cases in far greater detail than any of the other angles. At the urging of lawyer and comics collector Mark Zaid, Vaz plumbed the depths of the National Archives, reading through depositions and testimony from suits brought by Siegel, Simon, Kirby, and other creators against their former employers, as well the DC vs. Fawcett case regarding Captain Marvels infringement of Supermans copyright. A prolific writer on pop culture—21 titles on topics ranging from King Kong to Batman—Vaz does an impressive job breathing life into stolid legal discourse. Whats more, he supplements archival research by interviewing comics creators, store owners, and collectors, as well as by drawing anecdotes and insights from fanzines, websites, and popular-press books.

In a world where comics scholarship is now plentiful, Vaz might have focused his project more narrowly. He quotes from David Hajdu (Ten Cent Plague, 2008), Gerard Jones (Men of Tomorrow, 2004) and Sean Howe (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, 2012). But he doesnt reference these prior scholars as points of contrast in defining what his book adds to our understanding of the American comic book industry and its fan culture. Perhaps he worried that a book focused solely on the impact of copyright law on comics wouldnt sell. Or perhaps his experience writing on popular culture for non-academic presses biased him in favor of narrative over analysis. Speaking as a reader who already knows the broad outlines of the story of American superhero comics, Id prefer that Vaz had set that well-worn plot aside in favor of a novel thesis claim.

Vaz chose to structure Empire of the Superheroes as a page-turner, ending each chapter on a cliffhanger. This significantly undermines the books value to students and scholars looking for insight into a particular topic, since it spreads subplots over multiple chapters, interspersing them with episodes from other, unrelated stories. For example, the title of Chapter 16, "Resurrection and Renewal" signals that it will discuss the resurgence of superhero comics in the Silver Age, but in fact the chapter begins partway through that narrative, with the "Marvel Age." Only those who turn back to the final pages of the prior chapter,"Crackdown and Crash," will learn how DC triggered the superhero resurgence in the years before The Fantastic Fours debut issue. Even those who read the book cover-to-cover will find the Table of Contents an unreliable guide when trying to flip back to a half-remembered episode. DCs copyright battle with Fawcett over Captain Marvel winds up spread over no fewer than five chapters, two of which bear titles wholly unrelated to the case.

The books scholarly mission is also hindered by its sourcing. Endnote references are scarce in places, sometimes reduced to a single endnote near the end of a long, multipage passage. Readers curious to follow up on a striking claim or interesting detail must search about for a superscript numeral—and may well worry that a reference found two pages later will turn out irrelevant. In addition, Vaz is sometimes remiss in explaining what qualifies his interview subjects as authorities on a given topic. Michael Uslan, introduced to the reader as a fan who as a teenager attended one of the first comics conventions in the mid-1960s (p.2), is later quoted regarding how Bill Finger felt about his treatment by Bob Kane and DC (p.61). Is this account mere fan gossip? We learn much later that Uslan interviewed comics professionals while writing for a fanzine, worked for a time at DC, taught a course in comics history at Indiana University (all p.269), and eventually played a key role in bringing Batman to the big screen in the mid-1980s (p.347). Which aspect of this rich life experience was Uslan drawing on in speaking about Finger? Vaz doesnt say.

Some minor issues point to the need for better editing at university presses. The most glaring is the misspelling of Trina Robbins name as “Trini,” likely an authorial error that should have been caught by the editor. Others were introduced during the layout process, as for example the first endnote to Chapter 10, which reads Ibid.” not in reference to the preceding note listed at the back of the book, but instead to the source quoted in the Chapter 10 epigraph, 300 pages earlier.

Despite these shortcomings, Empire of the Superheroes draws back the curtain to provide an insider perspective on the American superhero comic-book business. The book offers less insight into recent developments, such as the emergence of specialty comic-book stores and the rise of the Independents. Yet anyone interested in the industry’s early decades will appreciate Vaz’s work in the archives, digging through records from legal disputes for insight into that era’s often shady business practices.

 A version of this review should appear in print in IJOCA 23:2.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Book Review: Chronicles of a Circuit Breaker by Joseph Chiang

Chronicles of a Circuit Breaker, Joseph Chiang, Singapore: Epigram Books, 2021.

reviewed by Mike Rhode

The burgeoning genre of what’s being called graphic medicine started decades ago with earnest PSA giveaway comic books on the dangers of smoking or animated military films warning about diseases such as syphilis and malaria. By 1994, Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year (illustrated by Frank Stack) set the pattern for the autobiographical account of personal suffering from disease which remains the dominant type of story. 2020 saw the genre increased by a wealth of comics in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the lighter additions to these volumes is Chiang’s book collecting his webcomic, which unfortunately and undeservedly might be hard to get by most of our readers, only due to the ridiculous cost of international shipping. The production values and the care that went into it, with some strips redrawn four times and excellent computer coloring mean that the physical book is a pleasure to have. Chiang and Lim provided a copy to me for this review, but the webcomic is readable for free at

Chiang has collected his webcomic about Singapore’s struggle against COVID-19, and the government’s attempt to break the transmission of the disease via a pause in public life – a circuit breaker – from May through June 2020. “When the Circuit Breaker started, there was nothing to do for artists, which are the most non-essential workers, with no jobs, at that time I started a journal to record to the day-to-day happenings,” Chiang said in an interview with his editor CT Lim (who’s also country editor for IJOCA). His journal was written words but he would add in sketches and when the National Arts Council initiated a special COVID fund, he applied for a small grant for a digital project. While normally a print maker, he decided to turn his journal into a graphic novel, returning to the comics format he’d left about a decade ago. Due to the grant’s conditions, the comic would need to be a webcomic. Since every day was much the same, with everyone unable to leave the house, he decided to do a humorous strip. It was semi-autobiographical, not 100% true, but based on his family and what he saw on the news. “Putting myself in as a character, solved the problem of people possibly accusing me of laughing at other’s misfortunes.” 



His first attempt foundered when he attempted to adapted his journal directly because a straight depiction of his daily life quickly grew dull. Working with Lim, the strip’s look and content gradually evolved to humorous stacked panels, which could eventually be collected in a book, and also displayed in an exhibit. But at the beginning, he mostly wanted to draw a webcomic that he collected as a pdf and submitted it in fulfillment of his grant. The initial project took three months, but for a book, he needed to double the amount of strips, and he didn’t think he could force himself to do more. The end of the book as a result is a post-circuit breaker follow-up and some single-panel ‘lessons’ that Chiang learned.

The book is laid out by day – a prelude introduces the government’s plan and his wife’s immediate hoarding of toilet paper, and his family’s reaction to bonding – by looking at their cell phones just as they had been earlier, day 1 shows his daughter getting tired of her parents ignoring their morning alarm, and deciding to wake them with her saxophone, day 3 is his decision to launch a comic strip about his family (and his favorite page of the book). By day 10, he shows himself being winded by the exercise of running around his couch three times; on day 17 Chiang shows his mask snapping and his running and hiding in a toilet; on day 33, he draws a very traditional gag cartoon of playing Scrabble with his family and getting “covid” as a word; and by day 53, he’s got a suntan except for his mouth where his mask has covered it.

Chiang’s simple, clear cartooning, influenced by American indy cartoonists and traditional comic strips (and colored with faux Benday dots to reinforce that), is a both a serious recounting of some of the issues of isolation and over-familiarity brought about by quarantine enforcement and the fear of a communicable disease with no cure and unclear etiology, as well as an enjoyable light family comic strip. I would definitely recommend this volume to those interested in the genre.  An interview by Lim with Chiang, with a discussion of the cartoons and a look at the exhibit of them, can be seen on Facebook at <>

 A version of this review will appear in print in issue 23:2. Epigram publishes other graphic medicine books including White Coat Tales about attending medical school in Singapore, and The Antibiotic Tales by acclaimed cartoonist Sonny Liew. Also available online is James Tan's All Death Matters, about end-of-life care.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book Review: Critical Directions in Comics Studies edited by Thomas Giddens

Critical Directions in Comics Studies. Thomas Giddens, editor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020. <>

 Book Review by Stephanie Burt, Professor of English, Harvard University

In our experience, matter ordinarily comes in three varieties: solid, liquid, gas. Critical approaches to an art form come in three varieties too: first, fan takes and essays aimed for those who already care about the primary texts. Think film-fan magazines, or letter columns, and then The Comics Journal; think Samuel Johnson’s essays, too. These can be a gas: they circulate rapidly, though-- confined to periodicals-- they may not stick around.

Second come more ambitious and more formal explanations, either showing new audiences how to take the art form seriously, or else laying out tool sets other critics can use. In our field that’s Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics; in another it might include E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. These takes often demonstrate canon formation too, along with counter-canons, anti-canons, and anti-formalist populism (think Pauline Kael). They are the liquids of critical thinking: some move slowly and smoothly, some try to cover everything, and they rarely vanish into thin air.

Third come the books and articles after a canon, a working history, and a formal vocabulary have solidified. Extended works of criticism respond to earlier works; models from other disciplines sometimes alien to practitioners—Continental philosophy, say, or data analysis—build out a robust academic field, taking part in continuing debates that exceed one art form’s discursive world.

Critical Directions in Comics Studies is by these standards a very solid book. “Critical” in the title connotes not only literary and comics criticism (though that too), but self-conscious multidisciplinary approaches to an academic field, with overtones of critical legal studies, Continental Marxist thought, and other radical critique. Its best parts will lead almost any comics critic to ideas they might not otherwise have find.

If there’s a through-line, it comes from legal studies (five of thirteen contributors, including editor Giddens, come from the law): comics, according to much of this volume, reveal the assumptions that underpin modern society by breaking its stated or unstated rules. Christopher Pizzino’s opening chapter adds a persuasive reading of Kyle Baker’s magnificent Nat Turner (1986), with its frame-breaking, texture-heavy pages, to a perhaps unhistorical broader claim. There’s something especially mediated, material, embodied about a comic book, Pizzino suggests, so that “its great theme is violation,” whereas—with its disembodied prose—“the novel is on the side of the law.” (p. 27) Pizzino supports this contrast via the anticomics discourse of the 1950s. But almost every moral panic around a new art form has ventured similar claims: the new art (whatever it is) excites readers’ bodies, rather than guiding their minds. Consider video games in the 1980s, or Gothic novels via Northanger Abbey (1803). Pizzino’s emphasis on physical pages also raises questions: is the stunningly successful webcomic Check, Please! not embodied? Or not a comic?

Yasemin Erden gets more reliable results in her serious reading of (wait for it…) Marvel’s Deadpool, “a being without an essential nature” (p. 61) whose utter, disorienting, ridiculous freedom makes him an existentialist antihero, his “identity tied up with the breaking of things generally: of rules, of people, of walls.” (p. 69) (OK, but what makes him funny?)  Maggie Gray offers a careful history of comics-making at the countercultural 1970s Birmingham Arts Lab, with its anti-elitist, anti-commercial mission, “distributing expertise… and democratizing culture and media.” (p. 123) And Matthew J. A. Green examines Utopian visions in Mary and Bryan Talbot’s The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia (2016), a graphic novel about Louise Michel, who took part in the Paris Commune of 1870 and ended up in New Caledonia. Non-UK readers may, and should, discover the intricacies of the Talbots’ joint works here.

Books like this one often focus on indie comics, but the most complex of its persuasive arguments takes on a classic Marvel hero. Timothy Peters looks at secular law and Christianity in two runs of Daredevil, whose alter ego Matt Murdock is both a blind lawyer and (since Frank Miller’s run in the 1980s), a devout, troubled Catholic. Kevin Smith’s 2003 story “Guardian Devil” shows Matt deceived by material entities, as if Creation were full of snares (a deeply Protestant position). Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s “Born Again” (1986) instead finds a “participatory legal aesthetics,” showing in Daredevil’s actions and in our experience of comics form how our bodies exist as “part of the law.” (p. 99) Like Matt, we must connect justice to equity, rules to cases, spirit to all of the senses, removing the law’s metaphorical blindfold.

What if the best thing to do with the law is to break it, to smash an entire society in hopes the future will build something else? That revolutionary, or anarchist, hope animates several writers here. Two focus on Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, whose anti-hero or hero in his Guy Fawkes mask brings about (according to Peter Goodrich) “the destruction of Parliament, the end of representational politics… so as to take back the theatre of the political and embody it in the community.” (p. 257) Giddens himself recommends the graphic novel 100 Months (2010), which the British artist John Hicklenton completed as he was dying: its demonic heroine Mara “is the unstoppable wave of beyond that destroys, that undoes and razes” a humanity ruined by capital. (p. 229)

These essays enlist Walter Benjamin (despite his protest against the aestheticization of politics!) and Giorgio Agamben (“bare life cannot separate itself from sovereign power”) (p. 210) in a somewhat predictable anti-political politics. People who have lived through revolutions rarely end up so excited about them. Fortunately the collection does not end there. Instead it concludes with another legal scholar, Adam Gearey, examining the 2010 graphic memoir To Teach, in which the onetime Weather Underground revolutionary and present-day expert on pedagogy Bill Ayers, together with artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner, model the open-mindedness teachers require: “unless you confront your own self-certainty, you become lost in your own impeccable radicalism.” (p. 293)

Matter actually has four states, not three. Under high enough heat and pressure, it turns into plasma, a gooey high-energy state that eliminates boundaries between atoms. Comics criticism, too, has a fourth state, in which it becomes its own hand-drawn subject. In a trio of “comics interludes,” Giddens, the education researcher Lydia Wysocki and the literary scholar Paul Fisher Davies cartoonify their preferred, and self-conscious, approach. Wysocki parodies Olivia Newton-John’s music video for “Physical,” whose stills give Wysocki a model for her light-hearted, multi-modal, heteroglossic, frame-by-frame affair. “Let’s get critical,” her headband-wearing athletes demand. “Let’s get into critical.” (p. 106) There’s a lot to get into here.

A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23-2.