World Comics Course

Today more than ever we’re seeing the results of the rise of a planetary republic of comics. The history of comic books is a global one. Comic book creators the world over are grown within respective national soils but always with an insatiable appetite to learn from others beyond their proximate experience—and to learn from the many other visual and verbal arts. It is a history of global cross-pollination that includes the physical transmigration of artists and their styles and worldviews from one region or country to another. It is a history that increasingly includes the active participation of creators, editors, and translators in the publishing of comic books across historical periods and cultural contexts.

This course will focus on making visible creators from around the world who have chosen to use visual and verbal devices of comics to give shape to fictional and non-fictional stories that make up our planetary republic of comics. We will see how each country has grown its own distinctive styles and formats:

  • the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (or drawn strip)
  • the Japanese manga
  • the Italian fumetti
  • the Spanish tebeos
  • the Latin American historietas
  • the German comicbuch
  • the Filipino komiks
  • the Korean manhwa
  • the Chinese lianhuanhua

We will see as well how comics cross national boundaries. But to understand the whole system, we must first understand all of its subsystems—each comics tradition as grown within specific cultural sites and historical environments. To this end, this course will aim to identify how comic books are created within specific times and places as well as to show how they exist within a planetary system of comics.

The making of this planetary system of comics has been taking place for some time. Several scholars have considered its incipience to any given moment in history—the Bayeux Tapestry, for instance—when images were deliberately placed in sequence to tell stories. Others identify other, more modern epochs.

Many scholars have spent time trying to peg the origins of the comic book. Was it in the year 1732 when painter and engraver William Hogarth created A Harlot’s Progress? Or, was it in 1885 with German Wilhelm Busch’s Max and Moritz? Was it in 1867 with the creation of the British character Alexander “Ally” Sloper. Was it in 1897 when German émigré, Rudolph Dirk created The Katzenjammer Kids? Was it Filipino José Rizal’s Monkey and Tortoise (1889)? Or, perhaps it crystalized sometime later in the 20th century with the mass production of kashibonya manga in 1920s Japan or when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster published Superman (1933)?

This course will be less about sleuthing out origins than offering a way to understand comics as a global storytelling phenomenon that cuts across cultural and national boundaries as well as generations of readers and creators.

It is a fact that comics use the shaping devices found in other arts such as literature, painting, and film. We know, for instance, that Milt Caniff and Hergé were hugely inspired by the “talkies”. And, taken with the dynamic storytelling possibilities opened up with animation, Osamu Tezuka increased the number of panels to infuse a kinetic dynamism into his manga.

In many ways, film and comics are like close cousins growing up together in the same household. So it’s not surprising that we see a lot of crosspollination here—and not only unidirectional. While many comic book creators learned from Orson Wells’ extraordinary film talents, Wells was also famously inspired by Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates.

Of course, the planetary republic of comics is also informed other verbal and visual arts such as literature, woodcuts, painting and photography. Early 20th century artist Frans Masereel’s woodcuts played a big role in Art Spiegelman’s making of his own comic book style. With Frank Espinosa’s contemporary Rocketo series we see the influence of Joseph Conrad and German Expressionism.

Comics are made and consumed all over the globe. Because of different histories of publishing, translating, and marketing some countries like France, Belgium, the US, Japan, and some countries of Latin America are better known as producers of comics. However, if one looks carefully, there’s nearly no place on the planet that doesn’t have some kind of tradition of comic book making and consuming.

Let’s take the example of manga. After WWII, manga began to explode as a national then worldwide industry. The extraordinarily talented Osamu Tezuka set the bar high with his dynamic and engaging visual style seen in his 1947 published Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) and his 1952 published, Tetsuwan Astro (Astro Boy). The audience only grew larger with the arrival of an edgier, adult-oriented manga style arriving on the scene in the 60s and 70s: the gritty, socially and psychologically relevant gekiga manga; and with the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s, manga solidified its foothold as one of the dominant comic book styles read around the world. By the early 2000s, manga already accounted for two-thirds of all graphic-novel sales in U.S. bookstores.

In the 20th century Europe, the Franco-Belgian author Hergé and together with the magazine, Spirou (1938- ) put bandes dessinées on the world stage. Hergé’s cool, clear ink lines used in Tintin (1929-1975) caught the attention of readers—author/artists-as-readers—the world over. The comics that appeared in Spirou showed the world a different, more exaggerated and elastic style to tell stories.

As comics and their authors increasingly moved across borders, we see intensified cross-pollination and regeneration of narrative forms. For instance, while there’s no mistaking the Franco-Belgian entrenched style of bande dessinée established before and after WWII, it too experienced a transformation in later years. The contact of new generations of European creators with other comic book creators and traditions such as that of the 1970s underground comix scene in the US led to radical innovations—both in form and content. For example, in France there was the publishing of the all-female comics quarterly, Ah! Nana (1976-1978) that brought across the proverbial pond the work of US creators such as Trina Robbins, Sharon Rudah and M.K Brown. This greatly expanded French and Belgian comics traditionally filled with more staid and safe storylines such as seen with Tintin and Asterix to include the full-frontal sexism as well as homophobic issues faced by women and LGBTQ communities.

As we already briefly mentioned, the shaping of a planetary republic of comics also happens when actual creators transplant from origin to host country. For instance, during the repressive rule of Mussolini, in the late 40s Italian comic book creator Hugo Pratt led a migration of Italian artists to Buenos Aires. Hugo Pratt worked alongside Argentine creator, Héctor Germán Oesterheld (El Eternauta). Along with others, they helped lead the charge in what became a comics explosion in Argentina that lasted until the 1950s when the economy collapsed and many Italians returned to Europe. When Pratt returned to Italy he brought back the styles and worldview of Argentine comics.

For different reasons—political and personal—creators move from one country to another, all while transforming the comic book scene of both countries. We see this in with Chilean born creator Alejandro Jodorowsky who spent his adult life living in Paris and Mexico City. It was his collaboration with Jean Giraud known as Moebius that radically transformed French bandes dessinée into the daring, otherworldly stories seen in works like their sci-fi cosmic epic, L’Incal series (1981-)—a comic that dared to use dashed/hatching and that filled its postapocalpytic storyworld with Mexican symbology and social critique. This style that came to be known as the Nouveau Réalisme of the early 1980s in France and that was given further expression in the work of Jacques Tardi along with other Latin American transplants, Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz was characterized by a shifting, subjective vision of the real with engagement of the social and political in the construction of antiheroic stories set in unstable realties.

The Internet has opened up even further the access to comics and also creators. With advances in communication technology, the world has shrunk. This has meant that creators in places like Japan can and are influenced by those in India and Europe and so on.

The physical and virtual movement of creators and their comics is not a given, however. The global marketplace continues to prove an uneven playing field for many creating in countries outside of the US, Europe, and Japan. For this reason, readers and scholars of comics in the US know little of the creators and their exceptional comic book work in countries and regions of the globe with robust traditions such as the Middle East, Africa, and India, for instance.

The global circulation and marketplace for comics tends to favor those written in (or translated into) English. And within this it is often the superhero and manga comic book that tends to receive the kind of publishing push needed to cross national borders. Even the hugely popular and massively translated Astérix never really received the marketing support necessary for the grabbing of a US audience. So, while the inspirations, inceptions, and creations of comics is planetary, global economics tends to delimit reach.

The way comics move across borders is through translation. While the dominance of this storytelling format with the visuals help—in fact, many creators displaced from one country to another often reveal in interviews how they were able to learn their new host country language through exposure to comics—they still require a certain amount of translation for non-native readers to get the fullest out of the comic. And language is only one of the layers of translation possible when moving a comic across linguistic borders. It involves the translation of the visuals to capture the new host’s other cultural traditions; it can also be constrained by publisher demands on new formats.

In this course, we will see how comics have actively participated in the shaping of a world storytelling system built out of idiomatic and shared world storytelling mechanisms.

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