As innumerable popular and scholarly publications have argued — and as sales figures, bookstore shelves, and library stacks amply confirm — the comics medium is here to stay, as it were. Its cultural standing is today such that, although plenty of fans and scholars engage in loud and plaintive hand-wringing, it is difficult to credit any description of comics as an “outsider” medium. While there is certainly reason to speak of comics in such terms historically, in the US and elsewhere, doing so now is counterproductive. Indeed, the academic study of comics is a rapidly growing intellectual pursuit in several counties; there are today numerous scholarly journals and book series devoted to it; and comics scholarship is increasingly finding its way into conferences, journals, anthologies, and book series in other fields.
In short, academics studying comics are living in truly exciting times. But this activity and infrastructure also show that comics studies is no longer a young field—as the recent edited collections by Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, and Frederick Luis Aldama attest—even if the lowbrow status of comics has made it either very difficult to study comics and receive tenure and promotion, or only possible while talking about certain comics using certain disciplinary frames. As an area of study, comics scholarship has started to develop a body of central works so that a selection of “plausible texts” has become essentially canonized. In addition, a few privileged strands of analysis and areas of focus have begun to emerge, and a debate about how to treat the field’s chosen material occasionally surfaces. But while some discussion is taking place about whether to privilege the visual or textual aspects of comics, and while some methods for analyzing comics are more popular than others (e.g. semiotic, narratological, historical, or sociological approaches), it is still uncommon in Anglophone comics studies to see theory as a driving engine in comics scholarship.
Comics scholar Bart Beaty, a foundational figure in the field, makes the important point in Twelve-Cent Archie that “[c]omics studies has rarely focused on the truly popular, opting instead for work that can be presented as groundbreaking,” and that because of this trend in text selection, the field has a long history of “misunderstanding and misrepresenting the contributions of the past” (6). Together with Benjamin Woo, Beaty has also contended that notions of quality and greatness have become so deeply entrenched within the field of comics studies that the biases that underlie those notions have disappeared into the background (Beaty and Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, 15–16). As a result, comics studies treads the same water time and again, with scholars discussing the same material over and over, with few other of so many potential corpuses studied, and with few texts studied at critical (i.e. non-fannish) distance.
Thus, there is today a cautious but growing acknowledgment in some areas of comics studies that the field needs a push in a different direction—we need to look at new texts and we need to do it with an eye toward critical understanding within the context of larger questions being asked in the humanities and social sciences, and not because of some misguided notion of redefining prestige values to include comics or to argue for canonization of a favorite work. Moreover, we need to do so without the illusion that comics scholars can or should be arbiters of cultural value, even as we might operate from time to time as critics in more public-facing writing. From Rocco Versaci (“the real challenge lies in how to distinguish the crud from the non-crud—the ‘low’ from the ‘high,’ the mediocre (and worse) from the ‘literary’”; This Book Contains Graphic Language, 7) to Charles Hatfield (“a critical stance that posits no meaningful distinction among comics cannot do justice to the art form”; Alternative Comics, xiii), many comics scholars have failed to grasp a central facet of scholarship: we are not stewards of the texts we study and we are not supposed to defend the aesthetic distinction or worth of our sources and subjects as fans of that work.
Quite to the contrary, we hold that a “meaningful distinction” among comics cannot be usefully critical, because—as Beaty and Woo so clearly illustrate—“quality” is not a valid analytical category but rather an ideological and sociocultural one that should itself be subject to analytical rigor. In fact, Beaty and Woo’s sociological analysis of the comics field and Aldama’s conceptualization of the “will to style” (Latinx Superheroes) in the production practices of comics artists both offer ways to think productively about the sociological and political functions of discourses of “quality” in comics that would not be possible were a distinction based on aesthetic experience and taste applied to the work analyzed.
A careful, critical, non-fannish approach to comics is needed in academia as a counterpoint to long-standing tendencies, but to date—while the theorizing done by Woo, Beaty, and others, like Marc Singer (Breaking the Frames), shows that it is needed—few concrete steps have been taken toward that shift. Following this emergent critical gaze and with the hope of helping to sustain the trend, we offer Encapsulations as an avenue for new forms of engaging and engaged academic comics criticism.