Henry Jenkins

 

On his book Comics and Stuff

Cover Interview of May 06, 2020

In a nutshell

After decades of disreputable status, contemporary comics are undergoing a transformation into the hard-bound graphic novel, shifting from a disposable to an enduring medium. There has also been a move from the larger-than-life subject matter of superhero comics towards an alternative focus on everyday life. We thus see a shift in what comics depict from urban landscapes and epic battles to still life drawings, which focus the attention on “stuff”—understood as the material objects with which we surround ourselves and the emotional baggage they carry for us, thus becoming our possessions.

Our culture is awash in stuff, and comics are one of the mediums which help us to make sense of our material culture. They do so in three ways: comics are stuff which we collect and appraise; comics depict stuff through their images; and comics tell stories about how stuff enters or exits our life.

Following a two-part introduction which guides readers through key concepts from comics studies, material culture research, art history, and cinema theory, each chapter centers on a contemporary comic artist and their work read through the lens of ‘Stuff Studies.”

So for example, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, an autobiographical comic about working as a waitress, evokes the tactile dimensions of working in food service; Derf BackDerf’s Trashed shows us the way our trash collectors see our lives through what we discard; and Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant deal with the emotional and physical labor family members perform in going through what’s left behind after the death of a parent. On the other hand, David Mazzuccheli’s Asterios Polyp captures the ebb and flow in a romantic relationship through a series of panels focused around the furniture arrangements in their apartment, while Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters shows a young girl’s transformative practices, such as turning her Barbie doll into a werewolf, because she lacks the resources to collect the paraphernalia associated with the monster culture of the 1960s. Seth and Kim Deitch come at collecting culture from many different perspectives, helping us to think about, in Seth’s case, the ethical relations between rival collectors and in Deitch’s case, the haunted history of popular media. And there’s more.

In each case, our ability to read the social cues associated with the accumulation, display, and discarding of stuff gives us an entry point into the emotional lives of the characters and the particular obsessions of the comics artists themselves. Each, in turn, sheds life on our own everyday practices and our own physical and mental landscape. Comics invite us to read the depicted stuff the ways we might read a friend’s book shelves or knickknack collections.