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Author: Christopher Pizzino
Publisher: University of Texas Press
Publication Year: 2016
WHAT IS IT?
Arresting Development uses the work of four celebrated creators to look at the way that comics’ status as “literature” continues to be tenuous, even as graphic novels are making inroads in popular culture as well as at libraries and bookstores.
Pizzino shows that creators have long struggled with concerns about the legitimacy of comics, and the respectability of a career making comics. Moreover, many creators have leveraged comics as a means of exploring concerns about the status and future of the medium.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Arresting Development confronts what Pizzino sees as a problematic “mainstream narrative” about comics. Comic books, this narrative implies, started out as disposable entertainment for children. Over the last century, they have been slowly climbing the evolutionary ladder of literature and “coming of age.” But he notes that even when comics are celebrated as literary achievements – as in the case of Watchmen or Maus – the rhetoric used normally makes it clear that these works are a divergence from the norm. Such comics are looked at as rare and unexpected jewels in what is still a lower-class medium.
Pizzino is having none of this. He argues that comics don't need to "grow up" in an attempt to gain respect from literary or fine art critics. EC Comics, Mad Magazine, and most of the best comics of the modern era succeeded not by conforming to the status quo of popular culture and respectable literature, but by confronting society's sacred cows in ways that other media did not or could not. Comics, and comic creators, risk giving up much of what makes comics great as they succumb to a quest for respect and status for the medium, because that status with literary or art critics is attainable only by playing by the rules of other media. In the end, Pizzino posits that comics can only truly take their place as a legitimate medium when we stop wondering whether they are "grown-up" enough, and simply celebrate them for the diverse and distinct form that they are.
As part of this attempt to identify and analyze creator concerns about respectability and status in comics, Pizzino looks at four celebrated and influential comic series:
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
Charles Burns’ Black Hole
Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories from Love & Rockets
The book does a good job of using what Pizzino calls "the bildungsroman discourse" to show how readers – and even many comic creators – continue to call for comics to “grow up” and become something more than they have been. Rather than thinking of comics as a unique media that has served, and will continue to serve, audiences of all ages and tastes, we too often think of them as an adolescent stage of literature, somewhere between picture books and novels. I have often found myself thinking of comic history in this “developmental” framework, but I think Pizzino’s argument against the "comics aren't just for kids anymore" narrative is valid and important.
Pizzino’s analysis of The Dark Knight is absolutely spectacular. I still have my 1st printings from back in the day, and one of the reasons I return to the series occasionally is that Miller rolls so many big and seemingly contradictory ideas into it. Now Pizzino has given me even more to think about, as he presents a very compelling reading of The Dark Knight (supported by Miller’s comments in other places) that lets you read Batman, his issues with legitimacy, and his place in Gotham as analogous to the struggle for comic books to find legitimacy and acceptance in America.
His look at Allison Bechdel’s work is similarly thought-provoking. Pizzino looks at Fun Home as a work that is explicitly and overtly literary, and uses it as an example of a comic that is self-conscious of the fact that it is a comic, and tries to compensate through heavy use of literary references and easter eggs. Pizzino understands that Bechdel is a supremely talented cartoonist and storyteller, and does not try to diminish the value of Fun Home, but rather questions why Bechdel needed to embellish her comic book with literary easter eggs and brand it as a “graphical memoir” for it to find success.
The last two works considered are Black Hole by Charles Burns and a selection of Love & Rockets stories by Gilbert Hernandez. Both chapters were interesting, although I believe that Pizzino's case is stronger with Miller and Bechdel. Black Hole is used to explore exclusion and disenfranchisement, and Love & Rockets is considered in terms of victimhood and goes deep into the idea of autoclasm, or “self-breaking.” Fans of Burns or Los Bros Hernandez will enjoy these chapters quite a lot as they have a good deal of backstory on the creators and their work.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
This is a difficult work, rich in critical theory and jargon. While this is perfectly reasonable considering it is an academic work, Pizzino’s ideas (especially about The Dark Knight and Fun Home) deserve a wider audience than Arresting Development is packaged to attract. I really wish that this book were a bit more accessible, because it has ideas that comic fans – and especially comics creators – really should read and think about.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Arresting Development is a fascinating book and, if you are willing to put in the time, Pizzino offers interesting and thoughtful reflections on a number of important comic creators and works, and presents a refreshing new way to look at the question of "status" in comics and the place of comics in relation to literature and fine art.
Read this if: Arresting Development is a great option for those interested in revisiting comics' relationship to literature and fine art. It uses the comics' texts effectively, and fans of the four works featured will doubtless learn something new about these creators and their stories.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
To consult the original texts: The Dark Knight by Miller, Fun Home by Bechdel, Black Hole by Burns and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love & Rockets
To hear comics creators discussing issues of respectability and status in their own words: Eisner/Miller by Will Eisner and Frank Miller
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Pizzino is an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia. Besides Arresting Development, he has also written numerous other articles and book chapters examining comics using literary theory. You can find out more about his other work here.
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