Reuniting With My Comics Collection: A Tale of Scholarship in the Face of Despair
Of all the reunions I’ve had since moving back home to Tennessee from Scotland, where I pursued a masters in comics studies, my reunion with my comics collection has given me the most pause. Old haunts and friendships have slipped back into my life as if I had never left, but unpacking my comics collection somehow left me feeling adrift. As I looked at my partially completed series and hastily unpacked shelves, I tried to make some sort of sense of the requisite Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis cozying up against Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird and the DC Comics Encyclopedia peeking out from under a stack of comics created by my cohort. I shifted and restacked piles in an attempt to establish a sense of order not only for shelving purposes, but also for how the collection fit together - or more accurately how it fit my identity as a comics enthusiast and scholar together. The lack of cohesion made me wonder if my move back home had in fact stretched me too far from the magic of studying comics full time. Perhaps, I had returned home not just geographically but to a past where I believed that I had to background my love of comics for “more important and practical concerns.” And I imagine anyone reading a comics academia site can understand why that feeling was deeply disturbing.
If comics have taught me a single thing, though, it’s that you need a good moody entrance to set you up for the good stuff. (I mean, I still love the angst of Batman soliloquizing from dark Gotham rooftops). And if comics scholarship has taught me anything, it is that when something makes you uncomfortable you should stare it full in the face until you either understand it better, or have a multi-pronged, well-researched essay defending your position.
At the intersection of these lessons and my organizational meltdown, my comics piles might have still looked like a maelstrom of disorganization, but my understanding of my collection shifted to feel more like my understanding of comics panels. On the page, print or digital, a comic’s first panel may sit next to the second, but the fifth panel will still connect back to the first to color both of their meanings. It is a function of reading comics that Thierry Groensteen calls braiding, or in other contexts weaving. (For an absolutely stunning example of this check out Rachel Davis’ discussion of her favorite comics page from Afterlife With Archie #3.) In a similar way, through their haphazard shelving, my comics began to represent panels that informed each other’s meaning and contexts across the pages of my collection to build a story of my own comics journey. For example, Satoru Kannagi and Hotaru Odagiri’s Only the Ring Finger Knows, a shoujo manga, speaks across the shelves to Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color, a French graphic novel, as panels that tell my own story of coming into my queer identity through comics. Mother Panic, The Batman Chronicles: Volume 1, and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? remind me that I have another dissertation in my back pocket about why I still love the World’s Greatest Detective - not in the least because I think of him as a doorway to how we can tell better, more diverse superhero stories. The comics create an imperfect mise en abyme of panels - comics as panels themselves telescoping down into and beyond the panels on the page. As above so below or, in this case, as within so without.
The lesson in this rabbit hole of a metaphor is that while these comics make up the content of a comics collection, like panels on the page, what makes it my comics collection is the stories that I create in the spaces between them. My answer, if you will, lies in the space between panels: where scholars build their own arguments or, to borrow from Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, readers uniquely participate in the sequence’s sequence’s events; they are the creator’s partner in crime. The comics gutter is an essential aspect of comics’ uniqueness as a medium, and one that is often taken for granted in discussions of comics as a verbal-visual artform. The gutter is the very mechanism that played into the creation of this site title. We are comics scholars, after all, and thus our minds will always be deeply in the gutters. Gutters carry answers in their blank space that exceed the boundaries of the panel. (It behooves me to note that there are innovative comics structures that complicate calling the gutter simply “blank.” That’s a discussion in its own right that I will tackle in another time and place.) Being able to see the blank spaces between my comics as part of the story, instead of damning absences, completely changed my relationship to my collection.
As with much in comics scholarship, this metaphor is not a clean cookie-cutter match-up, and begins unraveling almost as soon as it has been set up. Am I the scholar, reader, or creator of this metaphorical collection-comic made up of comic books parading as panels? How well does my ability to physically reorder the “panels” match up with actual panels in stationary order on the page? However, just as it is in the gutter that our story starts, it is in this metaphoric instability that the concept evolves. As one of my lecturers, Dr. Golnar Nabizdeh, commented on an essay of mine: “Is [an unstable foundation] necessarily a bad thing?” This instability of comics studies continuously challenges one to question any and all assumptions in order to build a better argument - an argument that is not an unassailable answer but a careful balancing of multiple factors that instead builds an interesting perspective.
In this case, the challenge leads me to consider my recent dissertation, which revolved around the idea that comics and archives could both benefit from an interdisciplinary collision. In this light, not only is my collection a theoretical comic book, but these comics also make up my own personal archive. While perhaps semantic on the page, the additional designation opens up my considerations to a whole new lens of theories and perspectives. I could go on teasing out the implications of this, but the morsel I would like to offer here - for brevity’s sake and given my own personal angst about incomplete series - is that archives are inherently incomplete. For a multitude of reasons both practical and theoretical, archives will never show the past in its entirety or even contain every record. Geoffrey Yeo, Honorary Research Fellow at the University College London and author of some incredibly interesting archival theory, has suggested on multiple occasions that archival records be understood as representations. While he goes into a much more nuanced argument, to serve my immediate purpose, I point this out to say that my comics serve as representations - touchstones and markers - of the much broader span of comics history, culture, and my own studies. In short, they represent the world - they don’t have to be the whole damn thing.
At a multitude of intersections which beg for further exploration - of comics and scholarship and archives and tenuous metaphors - my comics collection makes more sense to me than ever. The comics are panels through which I can dive to build entire scholarly worlds, and also an archive that represents my story thus far. For now, my comics collection is grouped by many things: comics that feel the same to me, comics that will all be in an article some day, and sometimes comics that are just the same size and fit on a particular shelf. These days I’m looking not just at my comics collection, but at the spaces and possibilities in between each comic. Instead of representing only where I was, I can now also look at my collection as a map of where I am going. It is the perfect microcosm to continue studying the intersection of comics studies and archives, and the delicious possibilities seeded in this combination of disciplines.