Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Monstrous Alchemy of Alan Moore: Promethea as Literacy Narrative

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Monstrous Alchemy of Alan Moore: Promethea as Literacy Narrative

Article excerpt

I am having trouble with this book. But this book has none with itself, and none with Promethea... --Cixous, The Book oj Promethea (1) 

It's no secret that the comic/graphic novel still lurks on the outskirts of the university-inscribed literary sphere. Many scholars have told the tale of this marginalization, of the relegation to academic liminality (Berninger, Ecke, and Haberkorn 4). Still, scholarly interest in comics seems to have moved mainstream, even while the genre itself remains textual Other within the academy. As Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester have pointed out:

The bourgeoning of comics studies is testified to by a wide array of evidence: impressive new biographies and monographs; the construction of a scholarly infrastructure (archives, conferences, journals, listserv groups, and so on); greater theoretical ambition and sophistication; the internationalization of comics scholarship (facilitated by the web); the recovery of lost classics; and the growing audience for talks, books, and articles on the history, aesthetics, craft, and politics of comics. (XI) 

For those of us researching the comic and graphic novel, the story of textual abjection is both professional charm and curse. In the twenty-first-century academy, with grit, a bit of luck, and the will to survive, one may capitalize on one's abjection, even turn the monstrous into gold. Yet this can very easily become a fixed state; once a boundary-crossing has been made, dwell forever on the margins we must, celebrated as Other, labeled as literary heretic or harridan. Our foul is fair, and fair foul indeed. (2) Yet perhaps all scholarly work ever has been such equivocation and ever thus shall be: our monsters are ourselves. We consume texts and spin careers; this is what we all do, this is how the modern Western academy has survived since its medieval origins in the Catholic church. As medievalist and cultural critic Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it in his Monster Theory: Reading Culture: "Do monsters really exist? Surely they must, for if they did not, how could we?" (20).

In his now famous comic theorization of the medium entitled Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argued--and demonstrated visually--that comics are "more than" simply hybrid texts, that their juxtaposition of pictorial image and word creates a kind of "magic and mystery" (66). For McCloud, it's precisely the reader's rather mysterious experience of movement in a comic, or what he calls the mystical "dance of the seen and the unseen"--the process of connecting word to image within individual comic panels, and making causal connections between panels--that leads to narrative closure and thus to readerly comprehension. Crossing the "gutter," the space between each panel, is a magical practice, one that readers learn to do with comics. This is why McCloud states that "something strange and wonderful happens in this blank ribbon of paper": because the spaces between units of visual and textual meaning in a comic force readers to fill in their own blanks. Comics and graphic narratives, then, uniquely require their readers to actively participate in meaning construction, in the learned craft of reading both what is visibly presented in each panel, and what is invisible. As McCloud writes, "No other artform gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well" (92).

McCloud's analysis certainly advanced the status of the comic within the academy, demonstrating what many of us who teach the genre have discovered: if casual reading of the comic demands such active cognitive commitment, the level of rigor required of scholarly readers is deep indeed. Rather than ye old institutionalized intellectual snobbery, might it be their very rigor that allows graphic narratives to remain on the academic margins? It seems clear that the comic resists traditional (or what has been institutionalized as "traditional") methods of reading, and of literary analysis and critique, precisely because it enacts so many monstrous layers of meaning at once, all which require the ongoing complicity and active, conscious commitment of the reader. …

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