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, September 13, 2022

Remembering Martin Barker by Ian Gordon and Jonathan Gray

 IJOCA has reached out to some of the people close to the ground-breaking scholar and asked for their remembrances of Prof. Martin Barker.


Martin Barker (1946-2022)

Ian Gordon

I saw that Martin had died through Paul Gravett’s social media post. Earlier Roger Sabin emailed to let me know Martin Barker had died. Roger knows how much I appreciate Martin’s work, but for some reason this message went to the spam folder, like so many important emails. I am not sure how many emails Roger sent out but if the outpouring of love on social media are any indication it might have been a lot. Martin touched many academic lives and his generosity knew few bounds.

I first met Martin at the College Art Association meeting in Washington, DC in February 1991. I was just at the start of my PhD research and attended the conference specifically to meet Martin. It was held in the cavernous Marriott hotel (then a Sheraton) in Woodley Park with the overflow of attendees in the Omni Shoreham across Calvert Street. Martin’s presentation at the conference was a breathtaking image driven piece. He used three projectors (no PowerPoint then) and counterpoised a series of images. Looking through his publications this paper gave rise to Martin’s piece on Judge Dredd. He dealt with the shift from corporation control to creator control of comic art characters. He spoke of fan communities’ roles in opening these opportunities and the corresponding direct marketing set up by entrepreneurs. He was weary of the entrepreneurs, but hopeful about the fan communities. This was 1991!

I remember being nervous and wanting to introduce myself to Martin and realizing there would be a throng of people wanting to talk to him at the end of the session. I anticipated a long wait so went to the bathroom during the last paper and there, washing my hands, I met Martin. I hesitantly introduced myself and apologized for doing so in that space. He laughed. I mentioned how wonderful and helpful I had found A Haunt of Fears when doing some work on comics as an undergraduate. I mentioned my research and he took particular interest in my tracing of when comic strips spread to newspapers across America, then a rather difficult process of research using microfilm at the Library of Congress. After about 10 minutes standing outside the bathroom with audience members starting to spot him there (look we all drank a lot of cheap coffee at these things in those days) and wanting to chat we agreed to meet the next day in the hotel foyer and have lunch. Martin went back to the session. The next day I waited and waited, but clearly there had been some miscommunication. I was quite happy though to have met him and to have had a better chat than the snatched few words that so often happen after a popular paper at a conference.

I did write to Martin and asked what had happened. I also outlined some more aspects of my work including an interest in intellectual property. Being a pack rat I have both these letters still. He apologized and said the whole session had been a blur thanks to his nervousness and when asked by Nina Kallmyer to go to Philadelphia, he had forgotten our arrangement. Reading his letter, I had not remembered that it was Martin who pointed me in the direction of long time-Duke, and now Columbia professor, Jane Gaines’s work on intellectual property and Superman, work that shaped my thinking on that issue and indeed eventually saw me write a book on Superman. That’s a thirty-year intellectual debt and I’m glad to have been reminded of the connection. I saw Martin again at the International Conference on Graphic Novels and Comics in Manchester in 2011. He was working the room approaching scholars young and old to discuss their papers and, in some cases, solicit contributions to his open access online journal Participations. I wish I had spoken to him more, but I do remember being thrilled to see him again and very chuffed to be asked for a piece.

For me, Martin’s stand-out work on comics is Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics (1989). Writing for the volume Secret Origins of Comics Studies in 2017 (p. 125) I noted it “is a work often overlooked by comics scholars but widely cited in cultural studies work. It is a rich and complex book, although written in a conversational tone, with many useful cautions about drawing conclusions based on methodology that a priori sets up the conclusion as the only possible outcome of the research. Barker addresses ideology in comics directly and takes issue with many scholars’ readings of ideology into comics. Barker’s absence from so much comics scholarship is perhaps explained by his primary focus on British comics and his explicit exclusion of superhero and underground comics from his analysis. Barker criticizes scholars’ too-easy use of a notion of identification, the resort to media effects as a justification for moral panics on both the left and the right, develops his own approach to ideology, and brings this all together as a theory and a method in a case study application in reading How to Read Donald Duck.

One reason Barker is not so widely cited in comics scholarship is that he is not a theory builder, but rather a careful critic of theory who avoids totalizing statements and generalizations. To demonstrate the weak points of Dorfman and Mattelart’s work he offers three other interpretations of Disney that “appeal to exactly the same evidence from the stories” (1989, p. 287). As he tells it “for Reitberger and Fuchs … capitalism is mocked by being made absurd,” for another critic Dave Wagner “if we were not able to laugh at Scrooge, he could not survive to be the object of our derision” and for Michael Barrier “the humour is a parable of human absurdity”—how we are undone by our obsessions (Barker, 1989, p. 287). For Barker it is not that comics do not have an ideology, but that such is not singular, even within, say, Uncle Scrooge comics and that getting at this requires more than a reading of a comic or set of comics. What he calls the production history of comics is also important. For Barker the Scrooge comics oscillate between “two poles of American middle-class ideology: a self-congratulatory but humourous desire for wealth; and an obsessive fear of power-politics” (Barker, 1989, p. 299). Barker’s views here are predicated on his belief that comics establish a contract with their readers in which various negotiations of topics and content occur, negotiations somewhat observable through circulation figures and changes in plot devices, tropes, and the like in comics. In Disney’s case, the Scrooge comics are absent the awful lack of play induced by Disney’s creation of theme parks where all the work of play has been done already, and they also lack the horrible prettiness of Disney’s nature films where “animals end up performing to a Disney script with a voice-over narration making then cutely, dehumanised humans” (Barker, 1989, p. 290). Barker saw his work as “hints and gestures” and that “new kinds of research” that it was necessary to do more."

Hints and gestures. New kinds of research. And necessary to do more. These are Martin’s legacy. The reminder to be humble in “hints and gestures” should not override the extraordinary rich work of Martin Barker. 


Big Name B: With Thanks to and in Memory of Martin Barker 

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin – Madison)

The first academic conference at which I ever presented was the Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) Conference in London, 2002. I was two years into my PhD and ready to share some thoughts, findings, and ideas. But my talk wasn’t till the last day, and I’d been warned this meant nobody would come: they’d all be on a train home. So I realized that receptions were likely my only place to make any kind of intellectual contact. Working up the confidence and gumption to introduce myself to Big Name A whose work I admired took the whole first half of the event, as I stood nervously eating crudités. Then I went and talked to him and he was a monumental jerk: condescending and rude, he seemed angry that I liked his work, disdainful that he needed to stoop so low as to talk to me. I retreated, shell-shocked, and decided I should maybe head home. As I shuffled off ignominiously to the door, though, I saw a man standing with no interlocutor. His name tag grabbed my attention since I loved his work. Big Name B was Martin Barker. Figuring that BN-A had already done the damage, and what worse could BN-B pour on, I thought I’d give this a second shot. Ten minutes later we were still talking. Barker was lovely. Gracious in receiving my compliments, yes, but quick to pivot to ask me about my work, and then enthusiastic and generous in discussing it. He challenged some of my assumptions and recommended some remedial reading, but all so constructively. In a room in which I didn’t matter to almost everyone, he made it clear that my ideas did matter to him. Later on he encouraged me to send him some of my work, which I did, fully expecting no response, and feeling apologetic for doing so (surely he was just being nice, and now here I was calling his bluff?) … and shortly got a long response back with incredibly thoughtful comments. Barker was probably the first person who wasn’t one of my own professors to express interest in my ideas, to communicate they might be important and valuable, and to encourage me to move onwards.

I’ve held that story privately for two decades, since egregiously Barker and his work weren’t more widely known. And then he passed away, and all of a sudden, Twitter and Facebook came alive with remembrances from so many others echoing my story. Except it was their story too, clearly, of Barker being enthusiastic and encouraging at an early age, generous and constructive, supportive and inspirational. And so although I share “my” story, I am now happy to know that it is a shared experience that many of us had, because Martin Barker really cared about ideas, not the position or name on their name tag.

I’ve also come to realize how appropriate this is given his scholarship. Barker wrote important work about comics, but the work I knew best was about film audiences. What was especially exciting and important about it was that he regularly talked to the audiences before the film was released, or at least in its early days. This may strike some as profoundly odd: surely, one might think, an audience has to be created in the act of consumption. How can one study “reception” or audience “reactions” to something that “doesn’t [yet] exist.” Barker sagely realized, though, that so much of the work of interpretation happens before we interact with a text, at the levels of anticipation, expectation, and framing. Thus his superb book with Kate Brooks, Knowing Audiences: Judge Dredd, Its Friends, Fans, and Foes (Luton: University of Luton Press, 1998), reports back on audience research conducted with people who were anticipating the Stallone Judge Dredd. Barker and Brooks posit that we all come to films with/in our own SPACE (Site for the Production of Active Cinematic Experience), our own orientation, and they insist that audience reception should begin with a consideration of these, not with the naïve assumption that audiences arrive as blank slates. Then, with Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami Harindrinath, The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception (London: Wallflower Press, 2001), he tracked how the censorship campaign surrounding David Cronenberg’s film Crash was so overpowering in the UK that it framed the film, trapping it within tight interpretive bonds, for all audiences (even those who found the campaign odious). More ambitiously, he then worked towards a large and multinational reception project examining reception of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, where anticipation was once more a key (but by no means) the only object of analysis. So when I say it’s only appropriate that Martin Barker cared so much about helping young scholars, it’s because his work announced his realization that beginnings matter, that trajectories can be established from the very outset. He knew this of media, and he ensured that he cared about it with people studying media.

It saddens me to know we’re now without Barker. My last email from him came about two years ago, out of the blue, with pages worth of comments and questions about my most recent project. He never gave up being a mentor, yet never talked to me as though I was a mentee, just a colleague, peer, and equal who was working on something. May we all learn something from him. Be, or seek to be, Big Name B.



Monday, September 12, 2022

Martin Barker in 2002 - Kicked into the Gutters: or, "My Dad Doesn't Read Comics, He Studies Them."

British comics scholar Martin Barker passed away last week. We're working on getting a remembrance of him, but here's something he wrote for us twenty years ago about his career.

Kicked into the Gutters: or, "My Dad Doesn't Read Comics, He Studies Them."

Martin Barker

IJOCA, 4(1; Spring 2002), pp. 64-77

 I never dreamed that I would become a comics researcher. Just about everything about me indicated against it. I didn't much read comics as a child (the odd solace of comics on holiday, plus a period of secret fascination with "Paddy Payne, Hero of the Skies" [The Lion, late-1950s]), and didn't at all as an adult, apart from a brief period of reading 2000AD. But comics, for 17 years or so, became a focus of my intellectual life. If there is worth in the ensuing autobiography, it is in the weird combinations of accident and necessity that can characterize real research histories. 1

I went to Liverpool University in 1964 to study Philosophy. Not just any old philosophy: Liverpool's Department had a studious fixation with the minutiae of analytic and ordinary language philosophical work, which provoked but didn't move me. No, I wanted Philosophy (capital P). Instead of Ludwig Wittgenstein, my mind got blown away by the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, in particular his "architectonic," and the way that he proposed a vast account of the nature of "man" along with such small extras as an understanding of the nature of human history, human ethics and potentials –all derived from his ontological accounts of reason, understanding, imagination, and the senses. I was really only interested in philosophy in so far as it would answer big questions (including political ones), by dealing with big concepts: the exact opposite of everything I was being taught. One sign already of what would motivate me eventually in the study of comics: I am a contrary swine. But it is still a long journey from philosophical anthropology to panelology…

This was the 1960s, and I was hectically involved in both student and radical socialist politics. Malgre what many people say, it was a great time to be alive and committed. Its aftershocks were complex, but it left me essentially a happy, busy person, who entered higher education teaching in 1969 without a clue what I was really doing there. The answer to that came slowly during the 1970s. With just two colleagues, Anne Beezer and Jean Grimshaw, I became involved in the British cultural studies tradition. Cultural Studies (note the capitalization), now, is a wide-reaching collation of fields and approaches. If they have a common core, it is in the commitment to study the role of the ideational and imaginative within all aspects of human life. But in those early heady days it was more specific. Then, cultural studies (note the lower case) was grounded in debates within academic Marxism about the role of ideology in the maintenance or break-up of power blocs. The pull of cultural studies was paradoxical to me. I won't speak for Anne or Jean, whose trajectory has been different from mine, but for me there was a theoreticism, and a politics consonant with that, that just rang all wrong. The project was vital, the emergent theories all to pot. The courses we developed at, then, Bristol Polytechnic combined it with elements of philosophy and sociology to study the nature of ideas and ideologies, from the broadest (we examined socio-biology and behaviorism as theories of human nature, along with accounts of "human needs") to the most particular (we studied everything from TV police series, as a case-study of narrative, to Daily Mail reports on immigration, in order to query definitions of"racism").

Because we were in a Communication subject group, our students were also acquiring practical audiovisual skills. What to do for content, though? Our bridge between theory and practice was to get our students to combine two processes: deconstructing some particular media materials, so as to bring out their implicit patterns and proposals to audiences; and then designing and producing an audiovisual demonstration of what they had found through that deconstruction. At their best, these could be quite remarkable -- I have to this day vivid memories of particular projects on press reporting of a students' grants demonstration in London; on a curious docu-comic produced to celebrate the Iranian Embassy siege by the SAS; and on the role of the presenter in TV current affairs debates. Mind, some of them were truly awful, as well. But they had the collective virtue that they pressed our students to work at the gaps between the specificity of their materials and the gross easy conceptualizations then dominant.

This was when I encountered Irena. Irena knew what she wanted to do -- she wanted to study Superman. She also knew how she wanted to study him -- through the lenses of Carl Jung's psychology. I tried to supervise Irena, with rising despair. The despair wasn't primarily with her, but with two things: the seeming arbitrariness of applying Jungian concepts to something as distant and detailed as the pages of particular issues of Superman; and my own inability to do any better -- I knew damn all about this comic, or comics in general. And it got my goat.

One day in the late 1970s, I trudged to our library to find, from its pre-electronic catalogue, what it could offer me on comics. Just two items turned up. One was an early collection on aspects of popular culture, with one essay on Superman and other things (Bigsby, 1976). The other was a weird leftover book, surviving from the days when this had been a teacher training college, by one George Pumphrey (1956). Sorry, who? And what, when it was once at home, was the "Comics Campaign Council" to which he attached so much importance? More intriguingly, what exactly was this campaign to which it must have been attached?

I had never done empirical research. Philosophers in my experience reduce "empirical evidence" to randomly generated slick examples which allow them to make a neat point. But I had at least learned, through working with our students, how to sample newspapers, magazines, and other ephemera in order to conduct close analyses. A combination of this with my philosophical training and political commitments did produce one useful tendency: a will to take a hard look at other people's concepts, to strip them out, and to explore their implicit claims, theories and world-views. That had enabled me to research my first ever book. The New Racism (1981) examined the emergent account of culture" in the political speeches of anti-immigration campaigner Enoch Powell, and a peculiar confluence between this and the rise of two strands of innatist biological thinking: ethology, typified by Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey; and the socio-biology of Richard Dawkins and Edward O Wilson. But I had never learned to do the kinds of thorough digging that, for instance, would be bread-and-butter to a historian. Intrigued by my own ignorance of this comics campaign, I blundered gaily into all kinds of areas. Some, I got miraculously right -- a letter to a teachers' paper, asking if anyone had memories of the campaign, turned up six people who had been pretty centrally involved. Others, I got dreadfully wrong and had to be rescued by those more knowledgeable -- belated thanks to those comics collectors who told me gently that you can't just expect someone to offer you a spare copy of Crimes By Women 3 -- but who nonetheless helpfully led me to reprints, copies, cheap and cheery rip-offs. Learning to do empirical research has become over time a way of rebuilding myself. To me, now, it is driven by three tough questions:

a) How do I know I am going about this inquiry in the right ways?

b) What am I getting that is new, surprises me, or challenges existing thinking?

c) What needs rethinking as a result? What further research should follow on?

The first has taken me longest to come to terms with -- issues of method and methodology in media and cultural studies are particularly fraught.

Interlude 1: My research into the horror comics campaign was inchoate, a melange of questionnaires (badly designed, they taught me nothing), archival investigations (where I made up the rules as I went along), searches for and analyses of the comics involved (here, the payoff was slow, but considerable), and interviews with participants. It was these last that in the end, almost by accident, gave me the story. What I eventually learned was astonishing. That the leading role in the entire campaign had been taken by the British Communist Party. That in the course of their involvement they blinded themselves to what they were doing, shifting their rhetorics from talk of "American cultural imperialism" vs "British heritage" ( a specific Stalinist position) to talk of "horror" vs "children" (a classic moralistic position). That as a result of this move, they ended up attacking the very comics which ( analysis revealed) were among the few popular cultural materials of that period to resist the McCarthyite paranoia about "communists." In other words, their adopted rhetorics led to them attacking their few friends. Many other issues were broached in the process, not least the curious role played by images of children and childhood.

My findings kept suggesting further issues and directions. First, how to think generally about campaigns of this kind? The crucial thing to emerge was the difficult fact that the campaigners' accounts of their own motives and purposes could not be trusted. Only when I dug behind their claims did the politics of the campaign come into view. The then-prevailing concept of a "moral panic" wasn't specific enough to handle this complexity. That indicated more work to do.

 Next, the campaigners' theories. What struck me then, and still strikes me now, is the interweaving of rhetorical claims with bits of science. Most notably, Fredric Wertham 's work on the horror comics provided an intellectual justification of some force and complexity for the campaigners. Yet it was so easy to see how poor his evidence and argument were. How, then, had he been so persuasive? The contrary swine in me would have his day -- I realized that Wertham depended on an un-argued agreement with concepts which are still present and, to this day, largely accepted without argument. None more than the concept of "identification." What should this tell us about the status of such concepts, and how do we ensure we move beyond such disguised partisanship? Work to do -- on two fronts. First, to look at the way campaigns such as this recruit "scientific theories and concepts" for their purposes; second, to make sense of these disinclinations to inquire into some concepts, in my very own field.

 Then, the comics themselves: by this time there was a rising interest in cultural studies in what became known as "textual analysis." Crudely, this was grounded in semiological theories of meaning, which permitted moves from how meaning may be "encoded" within forms of culture generally, to accounts of the particular meanings made in local instances. With care, these could be adapted to the study of comics pages. But in this work was an unquestioned assumption: that encoded meanings work by a process of transfer (whether this be called "encoding," or "interpellation"). Even though this semiotic tradition set itself in sharp opposition to American behavioral psychological traditions, it shared at least one concept with those traditions: the concept of "identification," as a means for depicting how people might become engrossed in a narrative and its meanings. But my analysis of the story which constituted the epicentre of the British debate over the "horror comics," "The Orphan,"3 put that entire concept at risk. Work to do. Why this repeated focus on "identification"? Because of the implications for the audience: unknown, unloved, condemned by implication, no one would speak for them, except perhaps me. I wanted to know who they were. What were their pleasures and engagements with these publications? I had no information, and not a clue on how to find any. Perhaps, given the long lapse of time, it was impossible to find out. 2 It took me several years and two further projects to gain the methodological tools to see how this might be done. In the meantime, I could at least defend their right to enjoy these comics, and show that the comics couldn't have affected them in the ways that were claimed. End of Interlude 1

 What emerged from two years' research on the British horror comics campaign (see Barker, 1984) has largely stood the test of time. Several years later, I was able to examine British Cabinet Papers for this period, and to discover that the Government had been even more loath to introduce the censoring Bill than I had guessed ( this led me to reassess how far the campaign had to succeed -- I realized retrospectively that I had been a bit deterministic about it all). It was even more of a pleasure to learn that first a Scottish comic fan, then two folklore researchers had picked up on the story of the Glasgow vampire scare (which I used to illustrate the ways in which the "panic" about the comics latched absurdly onto other issues), and run with it, to uncover a whole separate history there (Breadner, 1985; Hobbs & Cornwell, 1988). It was a reminder of how much remained to be researched.

 The piece of research that most directly flowed from this first one concerned the case of Action (1976). I tripped over this story while researching the 1950s, and became intrigued at the possibility of tackling some of the unexplored issues left over from there. In particular, since it was now 1986, only ten years had elapsed. Might I be able to find some of the former readers of Action? Some 50 letters in random local British newspapers later, I had around 170 addresses, which eventually gave me 13 7 completed questionnaires. This questionnaire did work -- in ways I had not anticipated.

 Interlude 2: Action was a product of the British comics industry entering and responding to a crisis of falling sales. Having to reinvent itself, and its relations to readers, the then IPC brought in new editors, writers, and artists -- eventually finding a long-term winning formula in its comic 2000AD and the character "Judge Dredd." Action was one attempt, and a short-term spectacular one, along the way. Forced off the newsagents' shelves after only eight months by a powerful campaign against it on moral grounds ("too violent," "celebrating gratuitous hooliganism," etc, etc), Action had won a readership who showed a real devotion to their comic -- and complained bitterly at its passing. So, what was the story? How did it get to be produced (I hadn't thought of asking that question of the horror comics, although Jack Kamen, EC's uncelebrated artist on "The Orphan" and later my friend, belatedly taught me to think about this)? What was the hidden history of this campaign (I definitely knew not to trust the official accounts)? And what might I learn about the readers, their pleasures and preferences?

 I knew how to be a bit more systematic this time. I interviewed all the major figures involved in the development and production of the comic (company decision-makers, editors, in-house production staff, writers, artists). I obtained, by a mild subterfuge, an entire set of the first (precensorship) run of the comic. I was then given, as a gift, a rare and immeasurably valuable item: one of only seven surviving copies of the edition suppressed by IPC when Action was withdrawn in September 197 6. It allowed me to do a story-by-story, panel-by-panel comparison between what the comic would have been, and what was issued when a bowdlerized Action returned to fade away, after six weeks' absence. And my questionnaire to my 137 respondents was designed to allow me to explore some very specific questions, which I had begun to realize were important. If "identification" isn't a useful term for capturing how people engage with such materials, what might be? I was developing a concept of "commitment," designed to capture the different ways in which, and degrees to which people feel that a story, or genre, or publication ( or whatever) sufficiently speaks to them that they care about it, involve themselves in it, and thereby make demands of it. So I asked my former readers to tell me if they had been Casual, Regular, or Committed readers of Action -- and then analyzed the results, quantitatively and qualitatively. The results were striking -- a clear, sharp difference showed in the very understanding that these groups had of the nature of the stories, and the uses to which they could be put. Crudely, the more Committed the reader, the more he (they were mostly male) saw the comic as intelligent, questioning, cynical, anti-authority. This is the exact opposite of the image presented by both campaigners, and "media scientists."

 Although the context was totally different (mid- l 970s, in the midst of a spate of moral campaigns around various media, with a wholly different publishing context, etc), as with the 1950s it emerged that there was a political drive. Summed up, and made into a practical imperative, by an anonymous company spokesman who instructed Action's production team to "take out all that adult political stuff and tum it back into a boys' adventure comic," this politics resonated with a wider set of issues. It made me address much broader questions about the maintenance of cultural categories (welcome aboard, Pierre Bourdieu) and about the ways, at a particular historical moment, cultural resources can encapsulate and embody the imaginative needs of social groups (make room there, please, for Lucien Goldmann).

 As a result of doing this research, new doors opened for me. The immediate successor to Action was 2000AD -- a sardonic, blackly-humorous science fiction comic. With over-weaning ambition, I set myself to research and produce a critical history of this comic. I read every edition (Prog.) of the comic in IPC's archive, and started to analyze them. I interviewed editors, writers, and artists. I explored (new for me) the important connection with the rising network of specialist comics shops in Britain. I began to study the economics of the comics industry: patterns of capital investment, rates of amortization of capital, calculations of distribution, financial decision-making processes ... I was becoming lost in a field where I simply wasn't grounded enough. The work slid quietly into several drawers, there still to lie – apart from one aspect, to which I return in a moment. End of Interlude 2

 By now, I had "scores to settle" inside my own field. By the mid- l980s there was a rising acceptance that it was good to link teaching to research (an acceptance institutionalized in the early 1990s by the official loved/hated Research Assessment Exercise). Now I was able to develop a whole module for students on comics: their history, their textual nature, their cultural status, their different national traditions, and so on. Increasingly I had to skirmish more widely, to see what reading resources I could find for my students. By this time, Cultural Studies (now definitely capitalized) had developed a tendency to fads, leaping from theory to concept to approach with an unself-critical abandon. Part of my motivation for being a researcher in the first place was to put a distance between myself and this tendency. Around the late 1970s, we were encountering more and more of the output from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was changing, and fast, away from where I stood politically. The new phase that emerged offered heady, but to me hostile, mixtures of feminism, Althusser, and psychoanalysis. This got embodied exemplarily for me in one essay by Angela McRobbie, an essay that was quoted, feted, reprinted -- and utterly wrong. McRobbie's analysis of the British teenage girls' magazine Jackie found within it an "ideology of adolescent femininity" (McRobbie, 1978). The problem was, she didn't say what editions of Jackie she had used, and her method (a "take" on Barthesian semiotics) was singularly un-transparent. I spent many an obsessive hour in the British Newspaper Library tracking down those elusive editions, and then -- an act that even now leaves me feeling faintly nauseous -- reading a sample month of every year of Jackie from its start in 1964. Part of my reason was, again, that suspicion of the overarching theorization, and its "tidy" and convenient political conclusions. Feminism had to win, the "patriarchal" comics had to the villains -- no matter what their girl-readers might have thought about them.

 Equivalently, another cultural studies notable Valerie Walkerdine published on younger girls' comics (Bunty, Tracy, Judy, and other titles hardly known outside the UK), mounting an argument about the role of their stories in "training" young girls for submissive adulthood and emotional submission. Back to the British Newspaper Library. Walkerdine's case was a degree more sophisticated, and the methods by which she looked at the stories more explicit. But here again, my suspicion turned on an egregious use of psychoanalytic theory, and yet another version of that concept of "identification." So, combining a reconsideration of her textual analysis with a minimal production history of these comics (not easy to get at – the publishers, D C Thomson, are notoriously secretive), I mounted an argument to show that Walkerdine had misread the nature of these narratives. They couldn't be direct expressions of and "operations upon girls" psychic needs, as she argued -- the publishers were too nervous to allow that. Only once in her studied period had these comics touched their audiences very directly, at a moment when Thomson for once loosened the reins -- in a story which flatly contradicted Walkerdine's account. So nervous were they of the reaction they got, that they didn't repeat the experiment. That one, crucial story breaks the mould upon which Walkerdine's account is built.

 The pattern of my work in this period was pretty unidirectional. It was a series of conscious revisitings of other people's claims about comics.4 I was the debunker, the sceptic within. My interest in comics was primarily that other people were interested in them -- but kept criticizing them in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. The work on Action, McRobbie's Jackie,

Walkerdine's Bunty, etc. combined with revisitations of Dorfman &  Mattelart's classic anti-Disney study and a series of journalistic critiques of children's comics5 came together into one book (Barker 1989). Finishing this book, and outlining my alternative to the approaches I was damning, involved a gargantuan struggle to understand the work of Valentin Volosinov -- and then, in more of a hurry than I like to admit, the construction of my theory of the "contract" between audiences and generic forms.

 In the early 1990s I ascended the dizzy heights of becoming Head of School of Cultural Studies (I didn't even wince at the capitalization!), and a "Doctor." By dint of submitting several books (including Comics), and undergoing a grilling from two good (but extremely hard-hearted) colleagues, I was awarded a doctorate by existing publication. Whilst held over that griddle, my examiners pressed me: here I was making counter-claims to many "readings" of comics, yet it could be argued that my counters were simply that, alternative "readings." Perhaps they were at that level more convincing, but they still remained at that level. Why didn't I dare to do audience research?

 I had of course done it with Action, and in a different way with the children's comics. But the relative truth of that accusation rankled. And those Action questionnaires had left me distinctly unsatisfied. When the book of Action reprints appeared in 1991 (Barker, 1991 ), I began to get a trickle of letters from former readers thanking me for giving it back to them. For all that I wasn't a comics fan, it made me want to hear the voices of the fans and, if possible, to be the person who would enable their de-legitimated voices to be heard. 6 And there was a pleasure, in the other direction, in being invited to speak to groups of fans, to conventions, to feel that the work one does has meaning and impact outside academia. Maybe I could use this.

 The one bit of the 2000AD research to survive was a study of 2000AD readers. In the mid-1980s, I had developed a very complex questionnaire for this purpose. My daughter gave many unpaid hours to input the data into a tailor-made computer program, at a time when such things were still pretty primitive. The results were nugatory, and confusing. I persisted, and eventually among the brute data some small patterns emerged -- patterns which suggested that there might be a number of distinctive, perhaps contradictory, orientations to the comic. So I re-approached a number of the people who had completed my questionnaire, and asked if they would allow me to interview them.

 These people were scattered far and wide -- the furthest away, in Australia (on this one, see Barker, 1997). There was no way I could do face-to-face interviews with them. So I simply invented a device, more in indecent hope than rational expectation. With their agreement, I sent each person a sheet of questions -- mainly gentle, open-ended questions such as "Tell me about your favourite stories in the comic, and why they are these ones" and "How would you say your comics are important to you -- do you re-read them, for instance?" -- and a blank audio cassette. Would they please record their answers? The results were strange. A majority of the people I asked did record their tapes, and they are wonderful. One, in particular, gave me a most extraordinary feeling, when a young female comic fan responded. I had been about to tum off the tape, and almost missed it. Having finished what I had officially wanted, she started talking again for a further 20 minutes, telling me her philosophy of life, and how comics-reading fitted into that -- the fit was serious, sensuous, and stunning. Evidently, at the start, my respondents had felt awkward -- sitting on their own in a room, with a tape recorder, answering questions. To cope with this, they seemed to build up a mental picture of me, and then talked to that. I was at last being forced to think seriously about methodological procedures. I had simultaneously stumbled over a major issue of research practice, and a partial solution.

 Interlude 3: The main 2000AD research may have been sidelined, but it did throw up other occasional possibilities. While researching at IPC's London archives in 1993, I got wind of a project to produce a new comic, Alternity -- to be a younger version of 2000AD. Tentatively and carefully (because we had nearly had a fall-out over the book of the best, plus suppressed, pages of Action), I asked if it might be possible to observe the processes by which it was planned and produced. An open acknowledgement and thanks: I had nothing but generous help from the publishers, once they knew that I was not the kind of academic they had encountered before, who comes in, appears genuinely interested, then departs to sneer and complain. And I do believe that comics publishers were for a long time right to distrust the research community, at least here in Britain.

 The story of 2000AD's junior partner was fascinating. Three whole tranches of commercial research were funded, dummies produced and tested, and production staff hired in readiness for a launch -- which never happened (see Barker, 1994 ). This episode was important to me. It was my first attempt to research a complete production process. And in particular it pointed me to something which has remained important to me: the ways in which, often through their own research, publishers increasingly form images of their possible audiences, to whom they then address their publications. These "figures of the audience," which I had grown used to studying in the works of moral campaigners, demonstrably played a vital role in the planning of Alternity. But they were not put to the test, because of a major shift in production imperatives. In 1995 IPC was bought out by a Swedish publishing giant Gutenberghus. The logic of their publishing empire required two things: that as far as possible they should deal in brand items -- there are reasons to suggest that they bought IPC in order to acquire the European rights to Disney brand titles; and that, in association with that, nothing should be published that could not, with perhaps a degree of translation, be issued in at least three countries. The history, and operation of these publishing logics are something I still hope to put on my research agenda for the future. End of Interlude 3

 It was my very involvement with comics fans that led to my eventual departure from comics research. In 1995, the news emerged that what 200AD fans had been waiting for since 1977 was to happen: a big screen version of "Judge Dredd." But even as they celebrated that the director was to be a fan of the comic, Danny Cannon, they shivered when they realized that Dredd was to be played by ... Sylvester Stallone. Many a brave face was put on the situation.

 The film was planned for 1995. When I heard about the forthcoming film of Dredd, I knew I had to grab the opportunity. Taking advice on how to make funding applications (something I had tried once before, amateurishly and without success) I applied outside my domain to the Economic & Social Research Council for an 18-month grant to study different expectations of the film, how these turned into different viewing strategies once people got to see the film, and how these then led to different evaluations of it. There is no overstating the excitement, and fear, that goes with succeeding in such an application -- because suddenly every step in the research will be scrutinized and evaluated by colleagues. The findings of that research, co-published with my excellent research assistant, constituted the first attempt to explore the actual pleasures that audiences seek in action-adventure movies (Barker & Brooks, 1998).

 It was in many ways the end of a learning trajectory for me. I now had at my disposal a body of knowledge which I could deploy on the film (about the fans, about the history and nature of the character, about the significance of that character at various levels). I had at my disposal a variety of research methods, both my own and those I was increasingly learning to borrow from the social sciences. I was increasingly involved in the field of discourse analysis, which promised much as a systematic set of procedures for exploring people's repertoires and strategies for responding to things such as films.

 And I had a set of emergent concepts, each derived from my research engagements within the comics field -- but I was off into the world of film. One project, with Roger Sabin, allowed me to cross back, as we explored together the remarkable history of adaptations and transformations of James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mahicans (Barker & Sabin, 1996). What was particularly interesting to me, there, was to see simultaneously that the comic book versions have their distinctive histories -- but that they partake in the broader histories of culture and politics that have governed Cooper's weird role and profile.

 There, and around there, I now reside. I have, since the successful completion of the Judge Dredd research, also succeeded in getting grant support for research into the controversy over Crash in the UK in 1996-7 (see Barker, Arthurs & Harindranath, 2001). I am currently studying a stage adaptation of Crash, and the audiences for that, which I discovered was being developed in Aberystwyth when I took up post here. I am in process of researching the strange world of art-house audiences, via lovers of Being John Malkovich. It is fairly clear to me that I have now left the field of comics research. I've published three and a quarter books and six essays of research directly on comics. My motives have been oddly mixed -- I am not a comics fan or lover, but I have grown to love the ones that I have researched. My motives for leaving are also mixed -- partly opportunistic, partly driven by a sense that the moralistic interventions which I have continuously sought to challenge are centered elsewhere, partly -- let me admit it -- because I personally enjoy films more than comics. I hope that I have left the field more developed than when I entered it in the late 1970s. I do know that many other researchers, with skills and from traditions other than mine, are doing stunning work in there now, and I wish you all well. If I have a message to leave in this "bottle," it is this: distrust easy concepts and theorizations -- they are the bane of understanding, and the tools of our enemies.


1 This essay was not written as a response to Mark C. Rogers' discussion of my work ( among other British cultural studies work) on comics -- in fact Rogers' essay is in general a friendly, accurate summary of main trends. However, it is arguably mistaken in three areas, as this account will hopefully show: first, some of us have sought to address the production histories and contexts of comics. Second, the reasons for the decline in comics research in Britain are more complicated than he allows -- at least in my own case. Third, one sentence is not right: "The work of Martin Barker is all about the issue of how texts affect readers" (Rogers, 2001: 96). The debates about this were certainly my starting point -- they are not where I have ended. I would also note that Rogers' compendium of British cultural studies work on comics is not as complete as he believes -- there has also, for instance, been significant work here on Vietnam War comics, on Underground Comix, and on the use of comics within education.

 2 Much later, in an essay revisiting my research on the campaign, I managed a small approach to this -- drawing on some fragments of evidence, and locating them within a broader framework. See Barker, 1999.

 3 Originally published in EC's Shock SuspenStories 14 (1954), it was reprinted in Britain in A Haunt of Fear l (1954). This story received significantly more abuse than any other, at this time, therefore was of singular interest.

 4 I returned to this later, in a one-off contribution to a book on photography. An invitation from the editors to contribute gave me the opportunity/excuse to look at the way in which, over time, comics have dealt with the digital. Being me, I had to have someone to club in the process. Claudia Springer, in an essay first, then in a book, sought to make big theoretical claims about the significance of a group of comics (titles) for yet another emergent Cultural Studies fetish of that time: the cyborg. Latter-day feminisms, seeking a way to refresh their politics, took up in a big way the highly-flawed but mightily cited essay by Donna Haraway ("A Manifesto for Cyborgs") as a basis for developing theories of new gender-identities. Ever the sceptic, my essay looked at the contexts of the production of the comics which Springer claimed to analyze. See Barker, 1996.

 5 I have long been especially pleased with my analysis of the comic-strip 'Scream Inn' and what I learned about its readers from a close quantitative analysis of readers' applications to propose stories for this. It was my first major foray into quantitative work, and I've always regretted the fact that it has elicited no interest at all. That's a researcher's life for you.

 6 In this sense and to this extent, my ambitions were not that different from those of the tradition of fan-research which developed, particularly in America, in the late 1980s. The work of Henry Jenkins, Lisa Lewis, John Tulloch, John Fiske, Camille Bacon-Smith, and others has been important and influential. It has also, rightly in my view, been quite sharply criticized for its devotional attitude to its fans, which has gone far enough in some hands to want to treat, for example, Star Trek fans as a kind of radical political resistance movement.


-Barker, Martin. A Haunt of Fears: the Strange Case of the British Horror Comics Campaign. London: Pluto Press, 1984. Republished, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

-Barker, Martin. Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

-Barker, Martin. Action: the Story of a Violent Comic. London: Titan Books, 1991.

-Barker, Martin. "Very Nearly in Front of the Children: The Case of Alternity." In David -Buckingham & Cary Bazalgette (eds). In Front of the Children. London: BFI, 1994.

-Barker, Martin. "On Seeing How Far You Can See: The Fans of' Judge Dredd." In David Buckingham (ed), pp. 159-83. Reading Audiences: Young People and the Media. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

-Barker, Martin. "Drawing Attention to the Image: Computers and Comics." In Martin Lister (ed), pp.188-213. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. London: Routledge.

-Barker, Martin, with Roger Sabin. The Lasting of the Mahicans: History of an American Myth. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

-Barker, Martin. "Taking the Extreme Case: Understanding a Fascist Fan of Judge Dredd." In Deborah Cartmell et al. (eds), Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and its Audience, pp.14-30. London: Pluto Press, 1997.

-Barker, Martin, with Kate Brooks. Knowing Audiences: Judge Dredd, Its Friends,Fans and Foes. University of Luton Press, 1998.

-Barker, Martin. "Getting a Conviction: or, How the British Horror Comics Campaign Only Just Succeeded" and "Fredric Wertham -- the Sad Case of the Unhappy Humanist." In John A Lent (ed), Pulp Demons. London: Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 1999.

-Barker, Martin, with Jane Arthurs & Ramaswami Harindranath. The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception. London: Wallflower Press, 2001.

-Bigsby, CW E, ed. Approaches to Popular Culture. London: Edward Arnold, 1976.

-Breadner, Alex. "The Gorbals Vampire." Fusion. No.5, 1985.

-Dorfman, Ariel & Armand Mattelart. How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. NY: International General, 1973.

-Hobbs, Sandy & David Cornwell. "Hunting the Monster with Iron Teeth." Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, Vol. III, pp.115-37. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.

-McRobbie, Angela. "Jackie: An Ideology of Adolescent Femininity." Occasional Papers, CCCS University of Birmingham, 1978.

-Pumphrey, George. Children's Comics: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, London: Epworth Press, 1956.

-Rogers, Mark C. "Ideology in Four Colours: British Cultural Studies Do Comics." International Journal of Comic Art. Spring 2001, pp. 93-108.

-Springer, Claudia. "The Pleasures of the Interface." Screen. 32:3 (1991), pp. 303-23. Reprinted in her Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. London: Athlone Press, 1996.

-Walkerdine, Valerie. "Some Day My Prince Will Come." In Angela McRobbie

& Mica Nava, eds. Gender and Generation. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.

 Martin Barker is now Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, after working for 29 years at Bristol Polytechnic/University of West of England (Bristol) and briefly at the University of Sussex. He is the author of eleven books on various aspects of cultural and media studies, including (recently) From Antz To Titanic: Reinventing Film Analysis (London: Pluto Press, 2000). He is currently researching film and theatre audiences, and planning a major study of the effectiveness of film education materials produced for young people.