I believe that we are at a crossroads now where a broader recognition of comics is taking place both in the public sphere (readership, general criticism, awards, intermedia translation, and so on) and in academia. Truth be told, this has been a long crossroads, but still. However, I’ve witnessed here and there two problematic attitudes that, at the end of the day, stem from the same prejudice. On the one hand, we have the conflation of the incredible variety of comics production and its convoluted, imbricated history into a monolithic territory, to be dismissed as a whole. On the other hand, we find a too definite, clear-cut stratification of the same field of production, that breaks the continuum and intimate relationships of the texts among themselves, in order to create unquestioned evaluation hierarchies.
So it is not difficult to find people that brush aside comics altogether as unworthy of any kind of intellectual engagement. As it is not difficult either to find people that discuss comics following clues of canonicity and divisions that mimic those from other creative areas: “commercial” vs. “alternative,” “mainstream” vs. “avant-garde,” and even “comics” vs. “graphic novels,” as in «I don’t read comics, but I love graphic novels.»
I mean, sure, there are comics texts that think about themselves in radically different ways from one another. Some of them following scripts that are so intuitively ingrained socially that they appear as “normal” or even “natural,” uncomplicated, unquestioned, whereas others may seem disruptive, challenging, innovative, more attuned to their very own constructed reality. But one or the other, they all provide, of make an effort to do so, that which Stanley Cavell called “directions to answers, ways to think, that are worth the time of your life to discover” (“The Thought of Movies”). But to create a canon, heralding some types of comics above the others in unquestioned manners is a disservice to comics own specific, subtle history.
In the U.S. and most anglophone countries, the story goes that “once upon a time, comics were for kids,” and then, suddenly, lo and behold, Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman came along and changed comics forever. The age of the “graphic novels” was upon us. Other examples may be used, of course. In Francophone Europe, other texts are used as the watershed moment of that evolutionary history, heralding the emergence of the “roman graphiques,” which Vittorio Frigerio calls, sarcastically, “the noble twin brother of comics.” One of them is Hugo Pratt’s La ballata del mare salato, that which would become Corto Maltese’s stories’ first volume, published in France as a one-shot volume, within the (A Suivre)-related collection «Romans (A Suivre)» in 1975.
From the standpoint of the publication of that book, and others that would follow, contemporary historiography, especially with a literary studies bent, looks back and tries to define a shift in the production of comics according to a number of principles. “Graphic novels” – in opposition to conventional comics – are longer, divided in chapters, are more complex and less formulaic (one chapter opposes “industrial simplicity” to “literary complexity”), resist certain formal constraints, go beyond commercial goals, and so on. “Quality,” the author of this book argues, “means here self-reflexivity, conscience of its own means, research on experimental forms, refusal of all ‘mannerisms,’ a more or less marked independence from larger publishers, and a refusal of the constraints usually associated with the comics production that has been dominant since the end of World War II up until the 1980s.” (pg. 18).
This small book (less than 90 pages on a pocket format) puts into question all this. Vittorio Frigerio revisits each and every single one of those traits and scrutinizes if they hold water. In his view, these prevalent ideas may actually need revision, for they might belong “more to speech than practice, to projection than actuality, to repetition than to novelty” (pg. 11). One by one, Frigerio discusses those arguments and shows that instead of a clear differentiation or even original detachment, as if ab ovo, many of those traits had been there all along, even if in different distributions. The goal of the book is not exactly to say that a previous scholar or idea was “wrong,” but to ask for a more balanced and open discussion of the history of comics and not dismiss what was there before the supposed emergence of a new breed of comics – “contemporary,” “adult,” “avant-garde,” whatever term of choice comes along. Frigerio is not interested in evaluation per se, but underline the “voisinages notables” (“outstanding kinships”) between authors deemed as unrelatable.
In order to do so, Frigerio revisits many small but crucial snippets of the course many authors or publishing forces took. From Pratt’s own career within multiple comics markets and milieus and the inner development of his oeuvre, to the concerns of writers such as Michel Greg in coordinating multiple texts in the magazine Tintin’s unrelenting rhythms, to Italian Bonelli’s output of stories that spanned hundreds of pages while upholding the many laws of genre, to the many traces of Surrealism or Surrealist-like inclinations in the long history of comics, there are many, many aspects that act as counter-arguments to the divide that seems to have been created in the name of cultural legitimacy.
This little booklet is, to a certain extent, polemic, in the sense that it wishes to engage directly with a number of arguments that have been made in the last few decades, and very specific authors that have engaged with the bande dessinée tradition. (By the by, from the point of view of a peripheral position such as my own, and the Portuguese in general, open to comics from all around, separating global comics in absolute terms seems absurd). So we will find names such as Fresnault-Deruelle, Bruno Lecigne, Jan Baetens, Thierry Groensteen, Harry Morgan, Éric Maigret, Jean-Christophe Menu, Jacques Dürrenmatt, Ann Miller, but also Hillary Chute, making up a very important constellation of thinkers on the clash (or dove-tailing, depending on your perspective) between the “chose littéraire” and comics, and its broadening critical reception and social transformation. Vittorio Frigerio concludes that “the relationships between comics and literature are revelatory of a moving play of notions branded by sociological, cultural and material conditions typical of every era” (pg. 79). It is a disservice to comics themselves to forget the titular “intersections, fascinations and divergences” that have always already taken place throughout that history. And this book helps us keeping in mind that very fact.