Reviewed by Matthew J. Costello
Professor of Political Science
Saint Xavier University
Chicago, IL USA
Woo and Stoll have curated a collection of essays to point comics studies beyond its language and literature roots, and situate it within a social-scientific tradition. To bridge the gap between social sciences and humanities, they define a general social scientific orientation derived from mid-twentieth century sociology emphasizing the meanings people attribute to social action and tempered by Bourdieu’s approach to cultural production. The anchoring frame is Howard Becker’s notion of “art worlds,” comprised of “everyone necessary for a work of art to be produced in the way that it was in fact produced.” (xiv) and this would include the creators, corporations, retailers of various kinds, critics, scholars and consumers. The fourteen essays are grouped into three general categories of the comics world: production, circulation, and reception. Woo and Stoll note that an art form as diverse as comics may have “many worlds” (xiv). The essays reflect this by examining diverse communities of producers and consumers from the US, Latin America, and Asia; and multiple channels of circulation using a variety of methodologies, including ethnography, survey research, economic geography, and institutional analysis. The volume thus captures much of the diversity across various comics worlds.
The essays are strongest overall and cohere best in the section on production. Together, the five essays in this section seek to identify who produces comics, where they produce comics, and the global and political influences on comics production. Woo’s essay reporting results of a survey of comics producers notes that most producers engage in multiple fields of production—with a publisher or self-publishing, work-for-hire or creator-owned—and that few make comics their full-time job. Essays by Maynard and Lent explore communities that produce comics geographically and by gender and the importance of these communities for creating a space for comics production. Exner and Gomes offer essays on the transnational and editorial roles in the origins of manga and the use of comics as tools for political education during the Unidad Popular in Chile, respectively.
The second section, circulation, is more of a mixed bag. The consequences of comics’ move from ghettoized niche form to major commercial center of popular culture are explored in Bart Beaty’s consideration of the rise and fall of the comics press and Salkowitz’s classification and discussion of different fan communities at Comic-Con. The use of comics for school and social education are explored in essays by Sabeti and Wieskamp. Wieskamp’s study of Priya’s Shakti reveals how transnational ties and non-western ideas can be used in a comic to try to bring about cultural change, in this case to raise consciousness of how to address violence against females.
The essays on reception are probably the weakest in the collection. Sinervo’s essay on comics scanning makes a convincing argument that scanners considered themselves fan participants in the comics world rather than pirates or free-speech defenders, and Galdieri shows that readers’ participation in leadership elections for the Legion of Superheroes demonstrated fan commitment to the series’ history. Neither essay really fulfills its promise of revealing underlying ideologies of their subjects. The other two essays in this section identify that Comic-Con attendees seek a sense of community and that comics fans see fandom as informing other parts of their lives.
Together the essays provide a description of the comics world (or worlds as Woo and Stoll prefer), but they do not provide much analysis of how this world is shaped and why, although many point in directions that would be interesting to explore. How, for instance, does the political economy of the culture industries generate specific kinds of comics production? Woo’s essay suggests that comics producers continue to be an economically marginalized community, more diverse at the economic margins. Maynard and Lent show how marginalized communities can work together to build support, with Maynard, in particular, exploring how government gate-keeping in the area of cultural production can force such marginalized communities together. Considering how these different communities are affected by and navigate the structures of the political economy of cultural production and how that affects their products seems one clear direction for research. Another is how the reception by fan communities is affected by the hegemony of neoliberal production in the culture industries. Beaty shows that the comics press has been undermined in both form and function by the explosive growth of comics in mainstream culture. Salkowitz examines how Comic-Con has been transformed by the influx of non-fan cultural tourists, and Sinervo shows how the move to digital publication by major producers effectively subsumed and destroyed the scanner sub-culture. While these discrete pieces offer descriptive histories or sociological snapshots, they cry out for a systematic analysis of the effects of the changing political economy of the comics industry on fan communities. Finally, the essays by Exner, Gomes and Wieskamp offer insights into specific political and transnational influences in the comics world. How does increased globalization affect the production, circulation, and reception of comics? Exner suggests that manga was influenced more by US cartooning than previously thought but also notes the reverse effects in recent years. Gomes describes how the Unidad Popular government sought to use comics to reverse the imperialist ideas imported into 1960’s Chile. Wieskamp demonstrates that diasporic communities can cross national boundaries to create comics that bring non-western ideas to address major social issues. These essays suggest another fruitful direction for research would be to interrogate the ways various cross-national ties link, inform, and empower the marginalized communities discussed by Maynard, Lent, and Woo to produce different kinds of comics in different worlds in the face of the hegemonic and homogenizing neoliberal influences.
Woo and Stoll’s The Comics World is a well-conceived and thoughtfully executed catalog of many of the ways that social scientists would describe the 21st century comics worlds. It is an important starting point for the development of a social scientific study of comics. As such should be of interest not only to comics scholars, but to anyone interested in the sociology of culture in general. More importantly, it points toward new directions for further research and sustained causal analysis of how the changing political economy of the comics worlds affects production and reception and how it creates opportunities for marginalized communities to appropriate elements of the comics worlds to engage these power structures. I expect this text will be widely read and cited and remembered as a foundational text in the broadening of comics studies.
A version of this review will appear in IJOCA 23:2.
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