Review: Triëdere #6

My review of the Triëdere magazine issue on comics was published on the ComFor weblog four days ago. If you’re interested in German-language comics research, here’s my English translation of the review:

Triëdere – Zeitschrift für Theorie und Kunst #6 (1/2012), „Art moyen & Yuma: Spezifische Potentiale des Comics“ [specific potentials of comics], Vienna: Verein Zeitschrift Triëdere, 133 pages, 11 €. (ISSN 2075-5031)

The wording “magazine for theory and art” suggests that Triëdere (the name refers to a term coined by Robert Musil) is a scholarly journal. However, Triëdere is not primarily about theoretical texts about art, but art (in the sense of visual arts and literature) and theory, i.e. primary and secondary literature, are on a par here. This premise explains the “anachronistic” materiality of the magazine as a “bibliophile’s limited edition on real paper” (http://www.triedere.com). An aspect of the bookbinding design which deserves a positive mention is the paper dust jacket, which is glued onto the outsides of the cardboard cover (“french brochure”), so that it can’t slip or even fall off, but its inner sides can still be used as bookmarks.

The short editorial (pp. 1-2) reviews the current state of comics scholarship, but says little about the place of this magazine within it. Therefore, the questions remain as to why comics were chosen as the topic (topics of previous issues were e.g. “memory” or “drawing”), how the authors were chosen, and how this magazine is different from other publications in the field. Furthermore the statement seems strange that it is “a central characteristic of comics […] to be free from the demand to be realistic”. You would have thought we would have overcome this old prejudice by now that comics are per se less realistic than other art forms.

The first article is Thomas Becker’s “Wer hat Angst vor der Neunten Kunst? Kurze Archäologie eines Legitimierungsdiskurses” [Who is afraid of the Ninth Art? A short archaeology of a legitimisation discourse] (pp. 5-13). In this article, Becker gives an account of the tentative development of the field of comics from an art moyen in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense towards a legitimate art, while listing the well-known key events: the Louvre exhibition in 1967, the Guardian literature award for the comic Jimmy Corrigan in 2001, etc. At the same time one gets the impression that Becker not only describes a discourse, but also takes a stance within it by regarding Art Spiegelman’s and Chris Ware’s comics as somehow superior to, for example, “trivial science fiction”. On the formal side of the essay, it is striking that it only contains six footnotes, so that many statements remain unreferenced; the four images are not explicitly referenced in the text and only have a vague connection to it; the captions are very short and don’t contain the dimensions of the original pictures (which would be appropriate if a Roy Lichtenstein painting is juxtaposed with its comic source, as in figure 1). Here what I said earlier becomes evident: even if the contents of the Triëdere articles seem scholarly, they are not scholarly articles in the strict sense of the word.

This also becomes clear in the second contribution, “A Sense of Yuma” by Ole Frahm (pp. 14-21), which primarily aims at a semiotic analysis of the humour in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. In doing so, Frahm quickly expands the scope to comics in general, which doesn’t seem very convincing, e.g. when he says, comics “combine the sign repertoire of drawings and writing” (when it is well-known that many comics do away with written text), or when he cryptically phrases: “[comics] reject the question of hermeneutics, which determines a sense after the reading, and instead raise an epistemological question.” In common with Thomas Becker’s article, there are some inaccuracies in the captions (two out of the three pictured Krazy Kat strips are undated) and the limitation of a mere six references.

Barbara Eder’s text “Horror vacui & Outer Space. Das ‘gelobte Land’ der 8×6 Zentimeter” [the ‘promised land’ of the 8×6 centimetres] (pp. 23-33) makes loose connections between the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and various comics. This results in debatable, over-generalised hypotheses such as: “deterritorialised people […] have become preferred figures in comics.” In addition to the almost incomprehensible content, formal carelessness can be found here, too, for instance quotes that differ from the speech bubble texts in the images (e.g. Eder quotes, “Still the wisest is the man, who knows what he truely hungers for.”, but Jon Macy’s pictured comic reads, “Still, the wisest is the man who knows what he truly hungers for.”).

The most convincing article in the magazine is probably Doris Neumann-Rieser’s (pp. 35-46), above all because it has a clearly defined subject matter: the reception of comics in the communist magazine (Österreichisches) Tagebuch in the 1940s and 50s. The essay title “In der Uniform des Gegners. Der Comic im Österreich des Kalten Krieges” [in the uniform of the enemy. The comic in Cold War Austria] is somewhat inaccurate, though, because the “Cold War Austria” can hardly be represented by a single magazine. At any rate, on the one hand Neumann-Rieser points out the Tagebuch authors’ anti-comics stance, grounded in anti-Americanism and pacifism, and on the other hand she shows examples of “very peculiar usages of the medium of drawn picture sequences” which were printed in Tagebuch. However, it would have been preferable if the author would have taken the trouble of tracing the sources for the pictured comic panels of the Tagebuch article she references (including a panel from Jack Cole’s “Murder, Morphine and Me” that was also pictured in Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which suggests that the Tagebuch author presumably only knew Wertham’s book and not the original comic).

The following contribution is not an essay but an excerpt from a comic album titled Inmates (pp. 47-65), written by Thomas Ballhausen, drawn by Jörg Vogeltanz and published by his own publishing house edition preQuel. In contrast to the rest of the magazine, these comic pages were not printed in shades of grey, but with additional colour, which results in a kind of sepia look. It is a pity, though, that the comic pages have been fit too tightly into the magazine pages, so that towards the middle of the magazine, parts of the drawings and the speech bubble writing are unrecognisable. Not much can be said about the content of this excerpt, which is much too short and obscure for that. Ballhausen himself says in the introduction, “set in a dark, fantastical world at the edge of collapse, these highly charged, tragic figures perform their deadly endgame.” This prompts the fundamental questions as to why this specific comic was chosen to be printed in Triëdere and in what way it is supposed to be connected to the text contributions.

The next contribution also focuses on comics themselves. Elena Messner introduces four “Zeitgenössische Comics aus Serbien und Bosnien-Herzegowina” [contemporary comics from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina] (pp. 66-100), each of which are pictured on several pages (with German and English text respectively) and commented by Messner on one page. The commentaries on these authors, who are virtually unknown in the German-speaking world, are helpful and make this contribution seem less out of place in the context of this magazine than Inmates. For some reason, however, these commentaries are unfortunately printed in a smaller, lighter, and thus harder to read font than the rest of the magazine.

This is followed by another textual contribution. Under the title “Poetik des Naheliegenden im Comic” [poetics of the nearby in comics] (pp. 101-115), Walter Pamminger explores a thoroughly fascinating formal phenomenon: the “compositional concatenation”. This term refers to pictorial structures that connect over panel boundaries with structures in adjacent panels to larger compositions, which sometimes oppose the traditional reading sequence. It is striking, though, that Pamminger refrains from referencing any of the relevant formalist research literature, which surely exists (Scott McCloud, at least, could have been mentioned).

“Chantal Montellier, der Comic und der Fall der Frauen” [Chantal Montellier, comics, and the downfall/case of women] (pp. 117-123) is an extract from Mira Falardeaus book Femmes et humour, which is supposed to be published in 2013. In the bilingual text – French original and German translation – Falardeau introduces some texts (no comics) by comic author Chantal Montellier, in which she accuses the comic industry of sexism. In this short excerpt, Falardeau barely expresses her own opinions, but only reproduces Montellier’s views, and after reading this one is left with the feeling not to have learned much about Falardeau’s book.

The last contribution in the magazine is “Der Künstler mit der Maus. Oder: wie sich Claes Oldenburgs Kunst Comic-Elemente aneignet” [the artist with the mouse. Or: how Claes Oldenburg’s art appropriates elements from comics] (pp. 125-130) by Wolfgang Pichler. The subtitle clearly defines the object of research, and yet Pichler’s solution of this problem is not entirely satisfactory. For instance, there are several inaccuracies which weaken the power of the reasoning: is Mickey Mouse’s head really the corporate logo of Walt Disney, or isn’t it rather the fairytale castle? Does this mouse head really unequivocally refer to comics, or doesn’t it rather refer to animation? Then there are some examples (the picture “Ray Gun Poster Dog”, the reading of The Scarlet Pimpernel in a performance) of which the connection to comics is so vague that they could just as well not have been mentioned at all. Then again, if in this article really “only the most important and self-evident examples of comic influences in Oldenburg’s works […] could have been shown”, such examples raise the question whether these influences really were as important as Pichler claims. Furthermore, Pichler contradicts himself regarding the status of comics as art: on the one hand, Pichler sees comics as merely “a phenomenon of popular culture that is close to the fine arts”. He also claims a clear distinction between the “different cultural forms of expression” of popular culture (which includes comics) and art. On the other hand, in the last sentence of the article, comics are called an “art form” and one of the “areas of fine art” (without basing either position on art theory).

An aspect of this issue of Triëdere as a whole that needs to be praised is that apparently the authors were allowed to chose their own style of gender-neutral language. Thus, different solutions such as “NutzerInnen” (Neumann-Rieser, Pichler), “Leser_innen” (Eder) or only the male form like “Leser” (the majority of authors) can be found. This shows the respect of the editors towards the authors, instead of patronising them by a unified style. Another striking thing about this magazine is the clear predominance of Austrian authors – out of the 14 people listed in the back matter, 7 are from Austria. This is, of course, related to the location of the editorial office of the magazine. However, it also shows a certain bias in the selection of the contributors that would be out of place if this was a scholarly journal. All in all, Triëdere #6 is a sort of hybrid creature, neither fish nor fowl. According to the subject matter, the magazine seems to address a scholarly audience. And yet, hardly any of the articles would satisfy scholarly criteria, and therefore it would be misleading to call Triëdere an academic periodical. But it isn’t sophisticated comics criticism in the vein of The Comics Journal either. Most likely this issue of Triëdere may serve the German-language comics research audience as a source of inspiration and possibly entertainment. However, it can not be considered compellingly relevant secondary literature.

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