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.



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