Rodolphe Töpffer’s work as reprinted by University Press of Mississippi.
Scholarship often flourishes unexpected and of the way places, tucked in the corner of remote cities and universities. For some reason, St. Louis was the site of the Thomist renaissance and contemporary Hegelian thought has made a home for itself in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During the 1960s San Diego was an unlikely hotbed for Western Marxism (housing as it did Jean Baudrillard, Manfredo Tafuri, and Fredric Jameson, with Herbert Marcuse not too far away).
When the history of comics studies is written great attention will be given to the work of a few editors in Jackson, Mississippi. That’s the hometown of the University Press of Mississippi (UPM), which has been at forefront of publishing scholarly books about comics for nearly two decades. Prior to the 1990s, comics studies as such did not exist, instead there was a scattered and diffuse collection of books published here and there in many different disciplines (art history, media studies, and psychology). The achievement of UPM is not jus that they’ve published many books on comics but that the these books, taken together, have given comics studies a critical mass so that it now forms a coherent discipline, one where scholars can refer to a common set of debates and ideas. (I should add that I’m hardly an unbiased observer here since I’ve co-edited, with Kent Worcester, two books with UPM: Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium and the forthcoming Comics Studies Reader).
Recently other university presses (notably Yale, Chicago and Toronto), have started publishing books on comics, but there is no question that UPM remains at the forefront. It’s a measure of UPM’s pre-eminence that many of there books have gained a mainstream attention far outside of academia: David Kunzle’s biography of Rodolphe Töpffer (and the accompanying volume translating and reprinting Töpffer’s work) was favourable reviewed in the New Yorker, Bookforum, and Harper’s. The New Yorker also commented on Bart Beaty’s Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture while Arguing Comics received a notice in the New York Review of Books.
How did the press develop this prominence in comics studies? In the mid 1980s Seetha Srinivasan, an acquisition editor at UPM, went to a meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association where she met M. Thomas Inge, an English professor with an interest in comics. Inge convinced Srinivasan that UPM, then seeking to define its identity as press, could make a name for itself by covering American popular culture. In 1987, Srinivasan, mindful of Inge’s passions of comics in particular, tapped him to start building a list, beginning with Joseph Witek’s pioneering monograph Comic Books as History and Inge’s own collection of essays Comics as Culture.
In building the list Srinivasan and Inge have followed a multi-pronged approach: they’ve brought back into print older texts (Coulton Waugh’s The Comics, the essay collected in Arguing Comics), published monographs from younger scholars, brought into the fold writers who first made their name in fanzines but whose work was theoretically important (R.C. Harvey), translated works from other countries (including the comics of Töpffer), and commissioned series focusing on key creators (including the “Conversations” series which gathered interviews with creators like Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, and Stan Lee as well as a series of monographic studies). By taking such a forward-looking and diverse approach to building the list, Srinivasan and Inge have made comics studies, hitherto and inchoate body of critical writing, into a coherent field.
Seetha Srinivasan has recently retired from her long tenure as director of UPM. I though it was a good occasion to ask her a few questions about the UPM list.
Jeet: A few other academic publishers are now dabbling in comics, but UPM has been both a pioneer in the field and has built up by far the strongest list of scholarly books about comics. From your catalogue it seems that UPM has interest in books about American folk and popular culture (especially the folk and popular culture of the American South and of African Americans). To what extent did this orientation towards folk and popular culture make UPM a suitable home for a list of books on comics?
Seetha: When UPM established its series in popular culture, it was with the intent of studying of popular culture broadly speaking. Our titles in music, humour, tourism would be among those in this category. The emphasis on comics is very much a result of Tom Inge’s longtime conviction that this was a part of popular culture that was a significant influence but was not receiving the serious attention it deserved. Tom knew individuals who had similar interests and was able to direct them to UPM when we began our series. As the list grew, UPM’s titles in popular culture began to intersect with its titles in other areas, including regional studies, and the whole creates a nice synergy where one list of titles supports others. For instance, UPM’s film biographies and collections of interviews with film directors have series devoted to them but are also popular culture. Is our book Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau popular culture, folklore, or regional studies? It is all of them and more and is the kind of book that we strive to publish at Mississippi.
Jeet: Can you says something about the role of Tom Inge in helping build the list.
Seetha: I believe that I have addressed Tom Inge’s role in our list building: I had ideas, but his knowledge and contacts were key in our executing them. Not only did Tom know scholars of his generation active in comics studies, but he also served as mentor to younger scholars, and since he was associated with our press, we were able to publish their work.
Jeet: One of the interesting things about UPM is how proactive it has been, in terms of publishing on comics at a time (1990) when comics scholarship was still at a fledgling state. In the early days of the press, it seems like you and Tom had to rely somewhat on authors who were outside the academy (I’m thinking here of R.C. Harvey’s various fine books) and also bringing back into print older studies (Berger on Al Capp, the Waugh study of early comics). So it seems like UPM was conscientiously trying to build a platform for comics scholarship at a time when the literature was only starting to coalesce. Is that a fair assessment of the situation and strategy?
Seetha: Once the decision was made to publish in comics studies, we did indeed try to build the list by making available out-of-print books. As you may know, this is not an uncommon practice among presses as they seek to create an identity and strength in a particular area. At UPM, we are open to publishing books from persons outside the academy, especially since all manuscripts are subject to our standard evaluation and approval procedures.
Jeet: In your article for the International Journal of Comic Art, you mentioned that there has been some resistance to comics scholarship. Do you want to expand on that and talk about some of the difficulties the press and its authors have faced in this area? One area that might be worth exploring here is the issue of copyright and the difficulty of reprinting certain art and articles.
Seetha: One of our authors told me that when his dissertation topic was announced at graduation there was derisive laughter in the audience, and this after he had struggled to get his topic approved. Once when discussing a manuscript, I asked an author why his analysis of an aspect of comics was laced with theoretical considerations that were not integral to the subject. He assured me that the book manuscript would be stripped of these; they were in the dissertation to address concerns that his subject was not worthy of scholarship. I believe, however, that these barriers are disappearing as witnessed by the increasing number of comics scholars. Also, as I mentioned there was resistance from some of members of our editorial board who questioned whether UPM wanted to be known as a publisher of books on the comics. Were these worthy of consideration of attention from a scholarly press? It is to the credit of these members that they were willing to be persuaded of the central role comics played in a culture and to take a risk on the first titles. It is also to their credit that they subsequently acknowledged that they were mistaken about the value of this area of scholarship. So far we have not had trouble clearing permissions for use in our books. Even Disney gives permission, though it takes a long time to answer and charges a modest fee. We are particular in advising authors to limit images to those that are essential to the argument and not let them be eye candy. This helps us make our case to rights holders.
Jeet: Conversely, one of the interesting things about UPM’s comics list is how many of your books get reviewed in mainstream, non-academic publications (the New Yorker, Bookforum, as well as the comics press). What are the challenges (and rewards) of getting attention from outside the academic community?
Seetha: The reviews of UPM’s comics titles in mainstream media is a recent occurrence. The books are still primarily reviewed in venues dedicated to comics studies. It is interesting to note that comics themselves are being published in mainstream media. After all, the Sunday magazine section of the New York Times has not always published comics. That mainstream media are reviewing UPM’s books on the comics is testimony to their importance and is reward in itself. A challenge would be the ready availability of books, but since we put on most of our comics studies titles the kind of discount that gets them stocked at bookstores and make them available on internet retail sites, the reviews are more than welcome. Another challenge is how do we get more our comics studies titles reviewed by Harper’s and the like?!