Crumb, Who? Kirby, Who?
This book has two important limitations: it's about comic books, not comics; it's about English (but mainly American) comic books, it's not about all comics or even about comics stories (albums, graphic novels, or whatever) in other languages. That said I agree with the authors when they say that with other scope "The actors change, but the roles stay much the same" (10).
Bart Beaty's and Benjamin Woo's main thesis is that English Departments in Academia dominated the field of comics studies so far. This explains why Maus by Art Spiegelman is at the top of the comics canon. They explain to us that scholars working with lit methodologies favor the graphic novel, serious themes, depth of characterization, etc...
I don't disagree with any of this. Maus is a good example of cultural and economic success, no doubt. My problems with this book start with the following phrase:
While [Robert] Crumb has received little recognition in the literary world, he is arguably the most prominent American comic book artist within the art world - and art world prestige is derived in different ways than is literary prestige.
No, it is not.
Suddenly on page 35 Heritage Auctions are a source of "prestige." I don't know if this "prestige" means "cultural" or "economic" capital, but it most certainly must mean the latter because only original art sold for more than $100,000 is listed. Therefore, no cultural capital comes from Heritage. This is understandable because original art collectors invest in nostalgia and craftsmanship, not art. A Tod Mcfarlane cover sold by Heritage for $657,250 must certainly be a commercial success, but it has low cultural capital, I guess...
Even if “Robert Crumb has received attention from more - and more prestigious - museums and galleries than any other American cartoonist by a margin so wide as to be virtually unsurpassable (38)” he is nonetheless the world's biggest pygmy in the art world; not even a footnote of a footnote in the history of art. In the art world (and he doesn't need to be there because he's a comics artist, not a painter or a contemporary conceptual artist), if compared with the true greats, Crumb is in the lowest quadrant of Beaty and Woo’s chart, with low cultural and commercial success.
Anyway, let's take what Beaty and Woo call a "signifier[...] of quality in literature" (15), characterization. Why is that signifier of quality literature's property? And isn't "looking at [comics'] images" (40) the same as "talking about narrative" (40)? Aren't drawings in comics the narrative too? Unless we extract them from the story. in that case we aren't talking about comics anymore, are we?...
Certain caricatures by Robert Crumb trigger every racist alarm in my head, of course, but since Beaty and Woo invited us to look at pictures, let's really look and forget racism for a moment. Would you say that his blackface pictures are great characterization? Why do you think that the portrait of pope Innocent X by Velazquez is so highly praised? Do you still think that characterization is literature's monopoly? To be candid about it I know next to nothing about today's contemporary art world, but as far as I know, and correct me if I'm wrong, it is highly political in a political correctness sense. That's why Robert Crumb can't really be part of it. On the other hand I'm against essentialism. Beaty and Woo try so hard to show that different disciplines spawn different canons that they fell head and shoulders on the essentialist trap.
The Greatest Comic Book of All Time seems, at times, like a fan history of American comic books instead of an academic essay (subtract the fan history and what you get is a slim pamphlet; ironically it should have been published in a comic book instead of a graphic novel format). But that's not what really bothers me. What really bothers me is this: Beaty and Woo appropriated features (quality signifiers, as they call them) for literature that don't belong to any art form. How is it possible to say that valuing a serious narrative with good characterization is valuing literariness? Do you really want to know? Because lit critics are smart and art crits are dumb, that's how. Let's suppose that the two fields are so far apart as Maus is from Youngblood or the Fantastic Four. This would mean that comics critics with a visual bend would value silly stories with cardboard caricatures.
Oops! They do! This is awful, Beaty and Woo are right!
I wish I could say to you that I was kidding above, but unfortunately I was not. Apparently, in the strange world of comics criticism, lit critics are smart and art critics are dumb. What I don't accept though is that narrative in comics, like characterization, is literature's monopoly. If that's true how do you explain the work of Frans Masereel, William Gropper or Martin tom Dieck, for instance?...