(This review is from an advanced reader copy.)
I’m going to throw this right out here at the start. This book is a dense dense read. It took me quite awhile to read it digitally over weeks. Comics and Stuff is so packed with information and new ways to think about comic books that my brain became exhausted and I had to take breaks in order to retrain my synapses to accept these new ways of thoughts. For these reasons I cannot recommend this book more for those of us who love to study the medium that is comic books. This book needs to sit right next to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art as a must have resource to truly understand all that comic books can be.
In Comics and Stuff Henry Jenkins looks at not only comics as “stuff” but at the use of stuff within the panels of comic books. To love comics is to place value on a thing that many people find as disposable. Even trash. Those who create comics create worlds which may be familiar or strange, but still created. Everything within these worlds is placed there by the conscious decision stroke of a pen or pencil. If the Bible is on a shelf in the background of a comic, it’s there for a reason. If a character is drinking Coca-Cola and not Pepsi, it is for a reason. Character development, emotion, cultural meaning, or something else. It is there on purpose. Sure, comic readers and collectors always end up with books that aren’t their usual interests. The majority of one’s possessions and the ones which are displayed the most prominently tell us a lot about a person. In reality or in fiction. This is why we look at someone’s book shelves the first time we enter their home. This is why a pencil and ink bookshelf reveals just as much.
Last year I went through an identity crisis as a blogger. The site had outgrown it’s original name and needed something else to sum up all that it could be. For awhile I leaned towards “Masked Ephemera”. Which unfortunately is a word many aren’t familiar with and don’t understand. If I had this book last year I may have continued with that name.
The concept of the ephemeral emphasizes disposability and perishability, the arbitrary nature of what survives. John Johnson… defines the ephemeral as “everything that would normally go into the waste paper basket after use”, while Mary Desjardins talks about “throwaways not thrown away”.
Right there is my entire reason for writing. The things that give me great joy: comic books, pro wrestling, and heavy metal overlap quite a lot especially in terms of respect. They are seen as things for children, or those with the mind of a child. Much like some people swear by a self help guru who found a way to verbalize what they have been feeling for years, Jenkins has given my feelings validity. Even better, I discover I’m not alone in this feeling. Innovative comic creators started as curators. No one was giving early comic books or strips any merit and thus it was difficult to conduct any research or education. While comics have gained some ground in recent years and the internet has helped immensely, this time is not that far gone nor are comics completely escaped from that disdain. As a personal example, when I was assigned to write a biography of someone I admire in a sophomore high school English class, I chose Jack Kirby who had died earlier that year (1994). The co-creator of some of the most legendary comic book characters was no where to be found in my school library. Or the local library. Or their resources at the time. I borrowed from my local comic book shops and the patrons within in order to write a good paper which I could properly cite. This was only 25 years ago. Head to your local thrift shop and find paperback collections of everything from Peanuts to Wizard of Id that were deemed as quick disposable reads. But at least they had a spine. Single issue comic books and comic strips from the newspapers had no chance.
Much like the auteurist critics who shaped film studies in the 1960’s, Spiegelman and his contemporaries are rescuing works from undeserved neglect.
Those of us who see ourselves as “rescuers” are more plentiful now than before. We also have a problem of staying in our little communities. Sometimes thanks to social media or the local comic shop it seems like our work is done now that everyone knows and respects these forgotten creations. We forget that that is only within the community. Your neighbor or your co-worker most likely still has no clue who or what you’re talking about. Or worse, they don’t care.
As much as our “stuff” can act as a short hand of who we are, the counter arguement is the items are controlling us. The movies we go to, the stores we shop at, these choices and more result in only meeting and interacting with those of similar mind. The possibility of experiencing something brand new is limited. We become possessed by our possessions.
Jenkins entire book is to ask questions that I now realize are the same ones I’ve been searching for answers my entire adult life. This book is the other half I needed for my life’s answer of “42”.
What does it mean to live in a world where in theory we could reclaim every toy and every comic our parents ever threw in the trash? … What changes as we develop expert discourse around objects that previous generations held in cultural contempt?
Or, in my experience, if you think the things that define me are worthless then do you also think I am worthless?
A sense of worth plays a large part in the comics (and graphic novels too, I’m using the term “comics” as a catch all and others can have this debate) Jenkins unpacks over the course of this book. Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, Derf Backderf’s Trashed, and finally, Jeremy Love’s Bayou. And so much more. I cannot express how much I want to get my hands on My Favorite Thing is Monsters. And as soon as someone local has it in stock and I’m allowed to go out and get it, I will add this to my stuff.
In a section about Clyde Fans by Seth, Jenkins says:
Prior to that moment, collecting gave Simon’s life purpose… the sum total of what the collector knows about his collection, and thus the justification for all of the work involved.
By giving these items value, we give ourselves value. If I start looking at (looking around the room) cat food packages. Cataloging, looking at changes in packaging, marketing, etc I not only give value to these items but as author of their history I also give value to myself. By attaching myself to an item in people’s lives which will always have at least some no matter how small amount of people interested in this item I am also now of interest to these same people. Maybe there are some who find me disposable. Toss me in the ground and forget. But now thanks to this attachment I have also become immortal. We want stuff to matter so that we can also matter.
I cannot express how much this book has already meant to me. Comics and Stuff really needs to be added to college courses and the shelf of anyone breaking down what comics mean. At a time when people have an infinite amount of storage units and an equal amount of TV shows about clutter it’s becoming important to explore what this means and says about the person. I know why I’m a collector, and have probably revealed some of those reasons here. Thanks to Henry Jenkins I also know I’m far from alone and feel like I understand myself better at the end of this book than I did before. I hope Jenkins as a comic loving kindred spirit understands that he matters and his work at least to me has transcended being just “stuff”.
My only complaint is of my own fault. A digital copy of this book was provided for review by NetGalley and I really need to own a physical copy. When the world returns to “normal” this will be one of my first purchases.