Comics and Stuff

Book Review: Comics and Stuff by Henry Jenkins

Jenkins says you can read these chapters independently as if they were articles to themselves. That’s only sort of true. Further, that could have been true and I think should have been. Each chapter builds on the last, so there is an arch of the book that is a close textual analysis driven around-about various graphic novel oriented representations of “stuff.”

In particular, the book begins with the obvious: “stuff” here is comic oriented account of materialism of daily life. Then he points to the fact that comics use “stuff” to curate and invest in memories. In doing so, a narrative becomes more interactive and allows for (dis)continuities that are subjective across readers. That is, comics account for authors’ literal collecting habits of stuff as a semiotic reflexivity of memory itself which creates the comic based narrative. As such, this book offers some hot takes about affective investments in between the reader and the artist.

Because of this hinge of using media to explain the connections between the semiotic collections of iconic “stuff” and the affective/emotional quality of media in how we (the comic book reader) connect the dots, there is a way in which this book attempts to be an organic progression from Deleuze’s work on media and memory. However, Jenkins appears to gloss over this by merely covering secondary scholarship on Deleuze without investing at all in the metaphysics he is pulling from, and it costs him dearly.

Jenkins takes a lot of delicate time to insist that there is an aesthetic of comics which requires our own memories entangled with the stuff of comics that gives a comic a subjectivity that is unique between every reader and comic. That said, I think this was a very inefficient way to express these thoughts. I think that Jenkins could have condensed a lot of these thoughts by taking from the visual rhetorical tactics of comic book designers in the way that Scott McCloud does and the way others have done, and condensed a lot of ideas very quickly. This could have been a 120 page book, and not lost a bit of (the important) information. (Let me be blunt about what’s not important: Jenkins’ history of comics to graphic novels, the consumerism related collecting, the masculinity of comics, and the way they include marginalized communities and interact with countercultural movements are merely token gestures to intersectional feminism without actually investing in these political interests or giving any substance to them. A simple Google search can show he clearly doesn’t reference these histories properly.)

To return to my main critique however: this book opens with a set of theories, but does not carry through in using those theories directly throughout the book. I’m not sure I understand this tactic unless it is to give us the false impression that we aren’t dealing with Deleuze’s cinematic planes and Deleuzian (rather than Bergsonian) memory. Clearly we are dealing with these theories! Jenkins frames the book as such when he cites Deleuzian scholars such as Laura U. Marks and other new materialist media scholars, but he never uses these scholars’ language. He mentions them briefly only to bury them quickly after without real investment. It tarnished this read for me that I was being teased with new theory. Really I was getting watered-down Deleuzian metaphysics lectured to me like a child by a communication theorist.

In summary, I think that it is in spite of the ethical disservice of so clearly pretending to be feminist and an anticapitalist in this book that he still manages to tie this book together is a (post-?)Deleuzian notion of mediated memory that extends Cinema to comics. And yet, for some reason, Jenkins decided to bury this argument after the first couple of chapters!

However, as a positive concept that he provides more clearly to me by way of analogy, he briefly ties the stuff in the comic panels to digital hypertext and explains how this is a somewhat useful analogy for practical consideration. With that, he teases us with arguably the most novel part of the book, and then doesn’t explore it any further. He almost explained Boys Club! He almost explained the development of Pepe as a radically anti-author, post-human comic-based memory! He almost extended comics to the new media of Internet Memes! BUT HE DIDN’T! WHY?!?! Of all things, should not this have been the absolute finale in the present moment?! For shame! What a squandered moment!

This wasn’t the only time he teased new ideas like this, but in order to make use of these teasings, it is up to the reader to know they are there as they too will have to know what he’s implicitly citing, because he doesn’t hyperlink it for you. He forces you to do the extra work… seemingly just because he can. And that’s annoying. In a sense, I can only imagine this book is going to come across as more confusing to many, and for those that think they know, Jenkins doesn’t offer enough reference to older media theory for us to really ever know without reading between the lines subjectively. This book makes itself difficult to use either just to make our lives harder or because he is hiding which bits of this book that give away that the vast majority of his conclusive arguments are recontextualized summaries of other people’s work.

From what I can tell, the main takeaway that I hadn’t really figured out how to do for myself before this book was to more organically (rather than structurally) map connections across media formats such as Cinema, Still Life, and Comics. The most valuable part of this book to me aren’t even about comics. It’s about a methodology of synthesis in analysis across media that, frankly, should have naturally followed from the materialist psychology of James Gibson’s “affordance theory” but of course Jenkins never cites that in order to make me make that connection myself. He’s being difficult for no good reason.

Seriously, authors like Jenkins need to stop acting as if they’re “anti-theory” theory. They’re hiding behind mediocre attempts at practicing empiricism in order to pretend their personal theories are disjoint from “theory.” This kind of theorizing is exactly the kind of theory anti-theorists hate, and they produce it themselves as if they’re doing something else. It’s very self-indulgent academia, and only makes the work of understanding harder for other people. It’s a dangerous academic game. You will be misinterpreted if you do this… probably on purpose… and probably in a way you can’t refute. Don’t write this way. This book had such potential and lost itself to its own fetish with glorifying comics half-heartedly.

(NOTE: this review is an update of my Goodreads review of the book from February 10th 2021.)

Image Attribution: Alexander O. Smith

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