Hillary Chute reviews Bart Beaty new book in Critical Inquiry:
The cultural legitimization of comics; it is a topic that I, a scholar of contemporary literature and visual culture who has focused on comics, find singularly boring. It can feel backwards looking, instead of forward thinking. I certainly note this issue constantly, a natural impulse, as I track the public discourse around anything that compels me, but I have found that today the question of how and if comics is legitimated is often the least interesting avenue of inquiry one could consider about the form. I am, however, fascinated by the question of what constitutes art, as a practice and as material iteration—and how the form of comics has presented a productive challenge, particularly in the post WWII period, to conceptions of art and literature, and how and where they meet. Bart Beaty’s Comics versus Art, with its polemical title and 1978 Gary Panter illustration of a cape and beret-sporting superhero on the cover, appears a welcome and exciting contribution; finally someone, I thought, will wade right into these murky waters for the length of entire monograph, unfolding connections and possibilities; the title must just be a hook. Beaty, an English professor at Toronto who published the excellent studies Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (2005) and Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s(2007), among others, has also translated some of the most sophisticated French scholarship on comics by Thierry Groensteen and Thierry Smolderen.
But the simplicity of the title is the real critical framework here. Beaty “interrogates the specific historical and social processes that have led to the devaluation of comics as a cultural form and takes note of the recent rise to art world prominence of (certain kinds of) comics. . . . In an increasingly postmodern world in which the distinction between high and low culture is often assumed to have been eroded, outmoded biases continue to persist” (p. 7). Beaty argues throughout, predictably, that the art world hasn’t accepted comics on its own terms, yet. Specifically, Beaty is interested in analyzing comics from a sociological perspective as its own “distinct art world” and network. Inspired by Howard Saul Becker’s 1982 Art Worlds (along with Pierre Bourdieu and a smattering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory ofressentiment), he disputes what he suggests are formalist definitions of comics that ignore the “comics world” and its relation to cultural value.