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Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924

Alternative Comics : An Emerging Literature

Author: Jan Baetens
Published: November 2005

Charles Hatfield, Alternative Comics : An Emerging Literature
Jackson: University Press of Mississipi, 2005, 182 p., ISBN: 1-57806-718-9 (hardback); 1-57806-719-7 (pb)


Charles Hatfield's study is a welcome and excellent contribution to the fast growing field of (contemporary) comics scholarship. A good mix of close reading and historical-institutional analysis, Alternative Comics brings two important innovations, which both concern the very status of the genre (provided one may call it a genre).


On the one hand, the book embeds the 'alternative', i.e. creative, non-formulaic, segment of recent graphic storytelling within the broader field of the comics industry - a decision that is far from being widely shared or accepted today. On the other hand, it also refuses the more fashionable label of 'graphic novel', which most readers would have expected to see here. Both stances are courageous, since there has been a strong tendency to isolate the more interesting comics by withdrawing them from the low-cult comics while upgrading them simultaneously as high-cult graphic novels. Yet Hatfield demonstrates very convincingly that such a reading of alternative comics would imply a double error, not only at the level of the sociological position of the genre, but also at that of its creative output. Alternative comics, he argues, do need the comics environment and the comics industry in the very broad sense of the word: without that industry and without that subculture alternative comics are simply not viable; the more the global comics scene is strong and productive. In other words, the more it becomes plausible that other, 'alternative' forms emerge. Moreover, Hatfield continues, the decision to repurpose alternative comics as 'novels', i.e. as works whose format is no longer determined by the serial form of the comics industry, will prove a real danger, creatively as well as commercially speaking. The most fascinating chapters of Hatfield's book are devoted to this double issue. First, the author provides important historical evidence to make the claim that alternative comics did not start as a kind of outsider or maverick, but that they have to be interpreted at the crossroads of the subcultural spirit of the 'comix' and of new types of marketing and retailing that were being experienced in 'post-comix' era. In this sense, Alternative Comics should be read as a crucial complement to, for instance, Roger Sabin's work on a similar corpus ( Adult Comics , Routledge, 1993). Second, Hatfield also manages to demonstrate the dangers of forsaking the basic features of the industry. His point that graphic novels cannot survive outside a commercial and industrial structure of serialization is made very persuasively (at least in the North-American context). In either case, Hatfield's demonstration relies upon an excellent knowledge of the historical, cultural, artistic, and economic aspects of the alternative comics scene in the US, which is a real achievement given the many missing links and blank spaces in the archival data that have been conserved. This book is a dramatically important step in the good direction. It will soon be possible to complete it with another study, slightly different in scope and more detailed as far as the history of the genre is concerned, namely Jean-Pierre Gabilliet's PhD Des Comics et des Hommes (the English translation is now announced with the same publisher).


On the other hand, Hatfield defines also the alternative comics as a form of literature. This apparently very simple statement (after all, this is what all the graphic novel fans have been arguing since the very beginning) is quite a challenge in the framework of this book, which does not deny the fundamental popular and commercial character of its corpus. Yet if the literary aspect of the (sub)genre does not result from its socially upward mobility, there must be for Hatfield other and better arguments to make a plea for its literary reinterpretation. The basic claim that the author makes in this respect is that comics (and not only alternative comics) represent a form of literature, since they suppose a form of (very complex) reading . Hatfield continues here the main ideas of Eisner and McCloud, whom he criticizes at various points for accepting a ramping dichotomy between the text and the image. The viewpoint adopted by Hatfield is outspokenly semiotic (although there are almost no traces of semiotic jargon in his book): the reading of an image is no less coded than that of a text, and this reading transforms a comic, and certainly an alternative comic whose decoding is never automatic or 'naturalized', into a form of literature. I am personally less convinced by this argument, which seems rather oblivious of the social implications of the notion of 'literature' (not everything that has to be 'read' is literature) and the practical confusion between coded reading of images on the one hand and literature on the other hand does not seem very helpful, unless of course one's aim is the upgrading of the genre (but this would be in contradiction with the desire to firmly root the alternative comics production within the comics industry).


Nevertheless, this point is not to crucial to what Hatfield is doing with the works he analyzes in his book. More than half of Alternative Comics is devoted indeed to a close reading of some landmark publications (Spiegelman, Peakar, The Hernandez Brothers, for instance). For a European audience, these chapters will offer interesting information, but nothing more (the analysis of the work by the Hernandez Brothers being by for the most outstanding). The theoretical remarks on issues such as authenticity and irony are less surprising. European readers, who are familiar with an alternative comics production that is much richer and infinitely more variegated than the US one and who may be used to the implementation of literary theory in the reading of comics, may consider them too general, or too much content oriented, but it would be unfair to make this kind of reproach to a book that fills a gap in our current knowledge of what goes beyond the mere graphic novel.



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