If a Way to the Better There Be: Excellence, Mere Competence, and The Worst Comics Ever Made

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Joseph Witek

Abstract

The conventional interpretive protocols of current Anglophone critical discourse create a historical disjunction between a déclassé “comics” tradition and an emerging culturally legitimated form of “graphic narrative.” These protocols, which assume a unified, fully intentional author possessing a functionally unlimited degree of technical competence, serve to align the aesthetic criteria for evaluating the consecrated graphic novel with previously legitimated cultural forms, resulting in a narrowly conceived set of approved thematic concerns and a truncated and ahistorical understanding of contemporary artistic practice. I begin a project of historicizing the aesthetic evaluation of comics by considering the critical challenges posed by the anomalous work of three creators working in the lowest circles of the commercial comics industry in the United States: Lee Sherman, whose almost boundless ineptitude reveals previously unsuspected criteria for artistic competence; Don Sherwood, who explores the boundaries of professional task avoidance in commercial illustration; and Enrique Nieto, whose visually extravagant and narratively unmotivated character and page designs violate both the implicit critical requirement that “pictures must serve the story” and any reasonable cost/benefit analysis of artistic labor to financial reward. Examining such creators is, I hope, a useful step in developing a critical discourse that conceives of contemporary and future artistic practice as continuous with, rather than a transcendence of, the entirety of comics history.

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Author Biography

Joseph Witek

Joseph Witek’s Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman and Harvey
Pekar was the first book published in the University Press of Mississippi’s “Studies in Popular Culture” series
in 1989. He has been teaching courses and publishing articles on comics for over thirty years, and has served
on the editorial boards of many journals and as an editorial consultant to a number of publishers in the field
of comics studies. He is the editor of Art Spiegelman: Conversations, and the Kathleen A. Johnson Professor
of Humanities at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, where he teaches in the Department of Creative Arts.