Interview: The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach

Aaron Meskin is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Leeds. He is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on aesthetics and other philosophical subjects. He was the first aesthetics editor for the online journal Philosophy Compass, and he co-edited Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007). He is a former Trustee of the American Society for Aesthetics and is Treasurer of the British Society of Aesthetics.

Roy T Cook is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, a Resident Fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and an Associate Fellow of the Northern Institute of Philosophy (Aberdeen). He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He blogs about comics at:

Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you two decide to edit The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach?

AM: I thought there was enough good Buywork out there being done on comics that someone could produce a good book on the subject matter. I like to work collaboratively, so when I met Roy it seemed like a good idea to work together. I suppose there’s also a sort of selfish reason–philosophy is about conversation and I wanted more conversation (and more interlocutors) on a topic I care about.

RTC: Aaron was nice enough to ask me – someone with no prior professional experience in aesthetics – to comment on a three-paper session on comics at an aesthetics conference. The volume was conceived over coffee at the same conference, based on the positive response to the papers and resulting discussion.

PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?

AM & RTC: The book focuses on the aesthetic issues that are raised by the art form of comics. It is not philosophy ‘in’ or ‘through’ comics–the basic idea is to take comics seriously as an art and explore the philosophical questions that art raises. One of the most useful and interesting thing for philosophers of art to do is to focus on the specific issues raised by particular art forms–this strategy has really paid off in recent philosophical work on film and music.

PE: And what is it that draws you to this broad area?

AM: I care about the popular or mass arts. I particularly like comics. I like working in relatively new areas — I like the freedom and the challenge of figuring out what to say about topics that haven’t been previously explored by other philosophers.

RTC: Aaron and I arrived at this shared interest from completely different directions. While Aaron is an aesthetician who began to explore his interest in comics, I was just a guy really into comics who, as a result, started working in aesthetics (prior to this I had neither training nor experience in aesthetics). I think the different backgrounds and approaches helped when we were putting together the volume.

PE: What comics do you recommend for people who don’t know a lot about the art form?

AM: It’s an obvious recommendation, but Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the unquestioned masterpiece of the form. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Some other great works: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Daniel Clowes’ works such as David Boring, Ghost World and Ice Haven. Anything by Chris Ware. The British artist Posy Simmonds is wonderfully literary. I like some things by the (oddly) mainstream comics author, Grant Morrison, very much–Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Seven Soldiers of Victory. George Herriman’s early twentieth-century comic strip, Krazy Kat, is amazing, as is Winsor McCay’s even earlier strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland. The former is strange and profound, the latter is visually stunning.

RTC: Of course, Aaron and I don’t agree about every comic, but I won’t name the comics in his list that I think are overrated! Comics that I would add to the list are Canadian cartoonist Seth’s It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken and Wimbledon Green, anything drawn by either Jack Kirby or by Darwyn Cooke, and anything written by Warren Ellis (who was kind enough to write a preface for the anthology!). Aaron didn’t mention what is, in my opinion, Grant Morrison’s masterpiece – The Invisibles. In addition, I cannot emphasize enough my love for John Byrne’s work on The Fantastic Four and on The Sensational She-Hulk during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Finally, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is widely held to be a national treasure here in the States, but it deserves still more attention (and much more academic study).

AM: And I’m not saying anything about Roy’s list. Except that Seth really is worth reading.

PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind for this book?

AM & RTC: The volume should be of interest to philosophers, philosophy students, and anyone interested in comics (i.e., fans, comics theorists, comics makers). Anyone interested in the popular arts. So everyone, basically!

PE: What sort of reaction do you hope the books will get?

AM & RTC: Philosophers and philosophy students who read it will see that there are serious and interesting issues raised by comics. We hope they’re encouraged to think seriously about comics and other under-explored art forms. And we hope that people from outside of philosophy (comics fans and artists and theorists) will come to understand what philosophical aesthetics has to contribute to the understanding of the art form.

PE: Why do you think people should take comics seriously as an art form and topic of philosophical interest?

AM & RTC: Comics have tremendous artistic capacities–they can do pretty much everything literature and painting can. They have a remarkable capacity to tell complex and emotionally rich stories by means of visual narration. And they raise fascinating philosophical questions about representation, narrative, artistic value, authorship and more. Even those who aren’t fans should recognize that they raise interesting philosophical issues.

PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?

AM: I’ve got a lot of things other than comics that I’m working on–some experimental aesthetics, work on relativism and the semantics of aesthetic predicates, work on the short story, co-editing a book on aesthetics and the sciences. But I’m not going to stop working on comics–I’m in the process of writing an introduction to the aesthetics of comics for a forthcoming anthology on the philosophy of art, and I’ve just had the idea for a way of structuring my own book on comics. It has to do with opera! I hope to get round to writing that book sometime in the not-too-distant future.

RTC: After all the work involved with this volume, I need to get back to my day job – logic and philosophy of mathematics. So I am working on two main projects. The first is developing a version of logical pluralism from an intuitionistic perspective. The second is continuing my work defending, and mathematically developing, Scottish logicism, a contemporary variant of Gottlob Frege’s logicism. On the side, however, I am also currently working on a short book examining John Byrne’s use of metafictional strategies in The Sensational She-Hulk, and what this kind of ‘formal play’ has to teach us about how comics work.

Author: Mr Cooper

I am a teacher. I love THINGS. THINGS are the doorway into knowledge and understanding.

One thought on “Interview: The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: