Just a few more comments on Todd Hignite’s The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death. One of the first things you’ll notice about this book is its introduction, written by Alison Bechdel. She is the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For as well as the much-lauded Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. It makes perfect sense for her to write the introduction to Hignite’s art book, in that she is one to take issue with the way that women have been traditionally represented in comics, the big-breasted fantasy vehicles that you see in many of the superhero stories, and therefore appreciates the more moderated or realistic approach that Jaime takes to his women. And indeed, this is one of the strengths of his art. It also makes sense to have Bechdel write the introduction in that she is one of what I tend to call the “usual suspects” in comics studies. By that I mean that Fun Home is one of those books that is used over and over and over and over again in the classroom. In my term “usual suspects” I don’t intend to demean Bechdel’s work, which I really appreciate. Fun Home is deserving of the attention it gets…as are other “usual suspects” and their works, e.g., Spiegelman’s Maus, Yang’s American Born Chinese, and Satrapi’s Persepolis (god…especially Maus and Persepolis). I have nothing against these books, and I think they’re wonderful comics to read and to teach, but when they’re the only things that educators use in the classroom, to exclusion of many, many other comics that are at least as inventive and captivating, then I have a problem. I’m not sure how this works on the high school level, but I know in higher education that there there are certain titles, such as those just listed, that tend to crop up on syllabi ad infinitum. Part of this is due to the sheer popularity of the books–and they are good works, so that makes sense–but another part is due to laziness on the part of instructors. Many rely too readily on what’s popular in certain educational circles and are just lax about going out and discovering new titles. Bechdel’s Fun Home is one of these titles that gets used all the time, and in this way, I tire of the attention she gets. It’s a shame that the artist, for whose work she writes the introduction, gets far less attention than she does…and this artist’s work is far more significant, inventive, and far-reaching than hers.
But I digress. Bechdel does an okay job with the introduction to Hignite’s book, and she points out much of the value in Jaime’s comics. But there’s a passing comment she makes in her introduction that gets under my skin. As she recalls first encountering Love & Rockets in a comics shop, she states, “Every now and then I would brave the collectibles and super heroes and pubescents to look for a copy of Weirdo or American Splendor on that tiny shelf in the back.” It’s almost as if the more conventional comics, the “super heroes and pubescents,” were some sort of poison and that any touch from them would taint her integrity. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that line, but it’s of a kind I tend to see all too often in academia as well as with advocates of alternative comics (for lack of a better term). There’s an aversion to purely genre-based comics, especially the superhero kind, and many will tend to lump all of them together without distinguishing any differences or subtleties. It’s a form of aesthetic tunnel vision, a kind of comics snobbery. This is the same kind of attitude I found in some of Harvey Pekar’s comments, and at times they’d really get on my nerves. In his introduction to Houghton Mifflin’s first edition of The Best American Comics, for example, he wrote discussing his selections for that volume, “even if you don’t like every choice in this collection, [comics] don’t’ have to be about costumed superheroes, cute little kids, and talking animals.” Pekar’s rejection of superhero comics is well known, and–at the risk of speaking ill of the dead–his was another example of the kind of comics snobbery that refused any distinctions of differences within certain very popular genres. I got the sense from Bechdel’s introduction that she is of a similar mind. (Note her mentioning of American Splendor, for which she has to risk encountering the “collectibles and super heroes and pubescents.”) At the same time, I see a similar kind of snobbery when it comes to superhero comics fans rejecting outright the more experimental and/or non-mainstream, or unconventional, kind of comics that academics tend to gravitate toward. It’s just a shame all around.