In Print and In Conversation: Rocco Versaci

In his 1940 essay on the subject of “Boys’ Weeklies” published in the journal Horizon, George Orwell expressed the belief that “most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life”. Fortunately, very few people today feel the way Orwell felt in 1940, but those who do should pick up a copy of This Book Contains Graphic Language, in which Palomar College English professor and comics aficionado Rocco Versaci musters a series of compelling arguments to make the case that comic books are not just the “equivalent” of their literary and cinematic counterparts, but are actually, in many ways, a more powerful form.

Taking comics seriously may not sound like such a radical enterprise to students of, say, art history or graphic design, but for those in the field of literary studies and English, or for those raised to believe in the supreme, unassailable power of “literature”, it’s not such a no-brainer. In fact, surprising though it may be to PopMatters readers, there are those who still feel that a taste for comic books is a sign of arrested development, or wasted youth.

Part of Versaci’s endeavor in this book is to defend comics from their critics and detractors by introducing readers to a selection of powerful, narrative- and character-driven, self-reflective works, including Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and Daniel Clowes’s Eightball, all of which, Versaci demonstrates, have earned the right to be taken just as seriously as any other literary form. In the words of comic author Neil Gaiman: “any argument that states that comics (or radio or film or a musical or the novel or insert your favourite medium here…) by its nature trivializes its subject matter is foolish, shortsighted, dim, lazy and wrong. You can say ‘This is a bad comic.’ You can’t say ‘This is bad because it’s a comic.’”

The second part of Versaci’s argument is even more interesting. After demonstrating the power and merit of comics, he goes on to make detailed comparisons of comics with so-called ‘legitimate’ types of literature: prose memoir, Holocaust memoir, new journalism, war films, and the literary ‘classics’. Each chapter takes one of these forms and examines it closely, with careful attention to historical context, details of stylistic conventions, and the possibilities and limitations therein. Versaci then draws parallels with the comic book equivalent, looking at such matters as layout, pacing and intertextual allusions.

What makes the book even more appealing is that Versaci never falls into the trap of overcompensating by writing about comics in dense, theory-driven, jargon-filled academic prose. On the contrary, his arguments are crystal clear, well formed, and substantiated with reference to 100 black-and-white panels and strips from well known comic artists like Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Joe Sacco, Lynda Barry, and Sue Coe. Even the footnotes are interesting and relevant. The only drawback to this lucid, thoughtful book is the absence of color in the illustrations, something Versaci makes up for by his vivid and compelling descriptions of comics he clearly knows like the back of his hand.

Interview with Rocco Versaci

Do you get much resistance to your comics course and to your research in general? If so, do you think this is because you’re working in an English department?

I’m very lucky to work at an institution where my faculty colleagues — and especially those in my department — value innovation. The majority of faculty members in my department have Ph.D.s, which is unusual at a community college. I don’t mention this to be snobbish, but I think that it’s relevant insofar as their academic background makes them much more tolerant of specialized research. Much of their own work involves the “decentering” of narrative and truth, and there’s been a lot of excitement about my teaching and book.

The other part is that my colleagues are brilliant teachers, and one of our shared values is to engage our students. So, when they see how popular my comics as literature class is, they encourage it.

Does the resistance come from older generations, in general?

This is probably true. I think that there are a couple of veteran teachers that look askance at the comics. They also lament the old days, when our transfer-level composition required twelve essays a semester. They like me, though, so the resistance is always couched in friendly jibes.

I should point out that when I first proposed the course, it needed departmental approval first, and the department supported it unanimously. Also, when we schedule classes and I choose

this course, there’s no groaning or eye-rolling (though I do sit in the back, so I might miss some of the eye-rolling).

Do you think there’s something of a superstition about the importance of “literature”?

I’m not sure what you mean by “superstition.” I kind of wince when I hear terms like “the classics” or “traditional literature” (though I use these terms, mainly to dissemble them, in my book). Coming into my classes, my students tend to have pretty rigid ideas about literature; they describe it as written work that has been deemed important, but they never really examine the passive construction of that definition (i.e., WHO has deemed?).

A big part of what I try to do in my teaching and in the book is to expand our ideas of what constitutes “literature.” I think that the canon is the most obvious manifestation of “the importance of literature,” and unfortunately, the canon has been used too often as a tool of exclusion by all sides of the political spectrum.

Is the wider acceptance of comics a good thing, or can you see people coming to take their subtle complexities for granted?

“Wider acceptance” takes a lot of different forms. To me, one of the biggest examples of such acceptance came when Time magazine picked Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (graphic novel memoir) as the best book of 2006, rather than create a separate “graphic novel” category. However, when I mention this to people who consider themselves well-read, it’s news to them.

The point I’m making is that while it’s obvious that these books are getting a lot more attention in the popular media, I’m not sure that a lot more people are reading them. I was signing books in a Borders last week, and I talked with several people who had never heard of Persepolis or Maus. So I’m not even sure we’re at the stage where people can take their artistry for granted.

In another sense, one of the points I try to make in my book is that comics and graphic novels have the potential to be politically subversive because they do lie on the margins of respectability. I do believe that there’s something about the form, its history, and its dominant genres that will prevent comics from ever being taken completely seriously. For whatever reason, we can accept that the medium of film (or prose, for that matter) is artistic even though there are some really shitty films, but the same understanding is not extended to the medium of comics. I think that’s both good news and bad news. I want more people to read and appreciate this form, on the other hand, I like their “outsider” status. It’s that status, I believe, that problematizes “literature” and the “canon.”