Charles Hatfield’s KinderComics


The Comics Studies Society’s founding president just finished his term in office, somehow finding time in his final months in office to also start a new review site, KinderComics, devoted to “the intersection of comics studies, childhood studies, and children’s publishing.” We sat down for a (virtual) chat about his new project…

What inspired you to create a blog dedicated to comics for kids and young adults?

Several things! I’ve had the idea of KinderComics for a long time, and even tried to make a go of it as a columnist under that title at The Comics Journal between about 2011 and 2013. But I wasn’t prolific enough to make the column work as a column—it had no momentum, and so it quietly petered out. I wanted to revive the idea, but in such a way that I would be editorially accountable only to myself, without stringing along hapless editors at the Journal or anywhere else. For the past dozen years or so, I’ve had a chance to make a difference at the intersection of children’s literature and comics studies, and I’ve written articles and chapters and co-organized panels and print symposia to that end—but lately my publications at that intersection have been fewer than I’d like, and I think of KinderComics as another way of staking out some territory there.

Also, in the summer of 2016, Joe Sutliff Sanders and I co-delivered a comics and picture book-themed keynote (the Francelia Butler Lecture, named for UConn’s pioneering children’s literature scholar) at the Children’s Literature Association conference in Columbus, and that has just seen print in the Winter 2017 issue (42.4) of the ChLA Quarterly. Researching TOON Books for that piece and thinking about recent scholarship, including Sanders’s, on the picture book/comics connection (or distinction) recharged my batteries for examining children’s comics—that and the fact that ChLA spotlighted comics in 2016, complete with a children’s comics exhibition at the Billy Ireland curated by Sanders and Michelle Ann Abate (who basically are the ones who arranged for me to co-deliver that keynote). This for me was a big burst of children’s comics activity.

The particular timing of KinderComics’s launch has to do with, first, my longing to review comics more, thus to keep my hand in as a public intellectual, and second, a desire to think like a teacher in a public space, that is, to have an online venue to help brainstorm for my first-ever course devoted to children’s comics, an Honors seminar that I’ll be teaching this fall. Also, a very local thing that has inspired me is the hiring at CSUN of a terrific children’s lit and comics scholar, Krystal Howard, with whom I took part in a Comics Alternative podcast discussion last summer (with hosts Paul Lai and Gwen Athene Tarbox). That’s been another boost. So, all those things came together.

After years of justified complaints that comics had devoted itself to chasing after adult readers, it seems to me that we are in something of a golden age for smart, literate comics for and about kids and teens. If you agree (and please correct me if I’m wrong) do you have a sense of what has changed? Has it all been for the good, or are there more negative trends you have noticed as well?

We are indeed in a Golden Age for young readers’ comics, prompted by enthusiasm for the graphic novel as a children’s publishing category. It’s as if comics have been newly (re)discovered by children’s culture advocates—ironic, given the historic importance of comics for and about children. This dovetails with a growing official concern for visual and multimodal literacy, and with trends in public and school librarianship. In fact librarians have been the great champions of the graphic novel! Also, many book-length comics have taken up childhood, coming of age, and the struggle for identity as core themes. So it’s perhaps no surprise (though this too is ironic) that the “graphic novel,” which was at first a term of hype meant to justify comics to adults, has become the royal road to recognizing comics as a legitimate, i.e. sanctioned, medium for children.

All that may sound cynical, but I don’t see a negative here—it’s all to the good. Though I will add that there have been some, uh, bemusing trends, such as opportunistic touting of the educational benefits of comics by people who are not, in fact, educators; or the rush to brand comics literacy programs with superhero imagery that speaks to the popularity of the genre across mass culture but seems perilously narrow ground for advocating comics reading. Also, in this age of market-driven graphic novels for the young, there are some frankly ugly and desperate books out there, books whose envisioned audience is hard for me to see—but that’s just a side effect of what is overall a very encouraging trend IMO.

An underlying problem, perhaps, is that the current rage for graphic novels is linked to a politics of respectability and a disavowal of comics’ past—but I’ll get to that in a sec!

If I remember correctly, you were first hired in children’s literature, and even as you have had a career as a scholar that has been instrumental to the development of comics studies you have continued to participate in the children’s lit scholarly community.  What are the areas where you see children’s lit and comics studies intersecting and what opportunities for collaboration and cooperation remain under-explored?

These days there’s so much activity happening where comics and children’s culture studies meet, I can’t keep up with it all. I so wanted to be part of the anthology that Michelle Abate and Gwen Tarbox put together last year, Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults but my schedule wouldn’t allow. I’m anxious to see how these two historically marginalized, often misunderstood fields will interact with and complicate (complexify?) each other.

My hope is that the two fields will each correct for the blind spots or exclusions of the other. Childhood studies’ robust historicism could be a corrective for the presentism, or short historical memory, that marks so much current comics scholarship. Also, childhood studies, with its emphasis on the social construction of childhood as an ideal, could help comics studies think about how comics imagine children and how child readers in turn are encouraged to become the sort of children we imagine. That is, comics studies has a lot to learn about the representation of childhood. (Lara Saguisagis doing some fascinating work on comic strip kids of the Progressive Era that takes this social constructionist perspective and historicizes it in a way that may prove crucial for future scholarship.)

As I said a moment ago, the politics of respectability, in which the semi-consecrated graphic novel matters so much more than “comics,” threatens to occlude the larger history of the art form; this is becoming a necessary theme in the academic study of comics (I would point to your own Projectionsand Chris Pizzino’s Arresting Development [insert relevant links] as essential texts here). The larger tradition of comics studies, beyond the orbit of MLA and literary culture, has a history of populist, anti-elitist thinking, and that could prove to be a corrective to the elitism that inheres in the idea of “children’s literature.” OTOH, children’s literature studies has taken a strong archival turn that has helped unearth periodical and popular literatures, or paraliteratures, of the past—the field no longer clings to consecrated literature alone. The old elitism is falling. In that sense, it might be comics studies that stands to learn something from the exchange. Again, we need to combat presentism in comics studies and deepen our historical digging. But in the process, children’s literature studies has a lot to gain from paying attention to comics as a form of children’s reading in which adults’ presumptive role as guides, supervisors, or (to use Sanders’s term) chaperones is attenuated and children can form their own communities of interest.

On matters of aesthetics and form, comics studies and picture book studies have had a lot to say to each other, and I believe that that dialogue will continue to be productive. A lot of work on comics form has been influenced by Perry Nodelman’s groundbreaking workon picture books, but children’s literature scholars have been slower to take up the formalist and semiotic work that has come out of comics studies. Sometimes I see children’s literature criticism that seeks to take up the comics form in an almost colonizing way, as if there were no critical traditions concerning comics that they had to get to know first. And a lot of picture book scholarship has been logocentric. One thing happening, or perhaps I should say just starting to happen, in comics studies is a questioning of the primacy of the literary and the recognition of comics as a part of visual culture — and here picture book scholarship might be productively disturbed by the encounter with comics research.

But this relationship shouldn’t be construed in antagonist terms. The fact is that children have been very, very important to comics, on and off the page, and comics has been a vital part of cultures of childhood. Getting past the canard that children’s comics are necessarily less sophisticated or less important than adult comics—an obvious absurdity—could help comics studies claim what is distinctive about comics, apart from status anxiety about fitting into the literary; conversely, children’s literature study stands to benefit from acknowledging children’s comics, which are among the most popular and influential children’s texts ever. It’s potentially a huge win-win.

You have had run blog sites before, including Thought Balloonists with Craig Fischer and The Panelists with a bunch of folks, including me. What draws you to this kind of writing and publishing?

I remember those projects fondly, and still miss them! The thing is, I like review criticism—it’s one of my favorite forms of writing. I really enjoy setting down my encounters with art in textual form, reflecting publicly on what the art has meant to me, and sharpening, always, my skills when it comes to deep reading and analysis. There’s something about the open, inductive nature of reviewing, as opposed to thesis-driven academic argument, that satisfies me greatly. I admit that my passion for comics studies has a lot to do with aesthetics and form, and reviewing helps exercise that passion without necessarily requiring the self-conscious argumentative structuring that my academic work tends to require. Writing outside of a strictly academic forum, and in response to a book that’s open in front of me—I enjoy that. Plus, it’s all writing practice for me—and a chance to practice performing the role of a public intellectual. Whereas some of my colleagues prefer not to mix up the academic and the non-academic, or find the difference in audiences hard to manage, I like working the interstices between those spaces. Blogging’s good for that.

For all we imagine that everything on the internet is forever, both those earlier blogs are no longer available online. Unlike traditional publishing, there is a timeliness and fragility to a lot of this kind of public writing. Is this a positive or a negative for you as you start KinderComics?

I like the timeliness but dislike the fragility or ephemerality. So I keep hoping that parts of this work will live on as books, whether published professionally or self-published via POD or zine platforms. Again, it’s all practice, and I hope to turn the best of my blog writing toward something more lasting. There are passages from Thought Balloonists that are still part of an ongoing academic project I’m doing with Craig Fischer, and there are passages from The Panelists that I hope to repurpose. I should probably admit to myself that most of what ran on those blogs will never again see the light of day, but I do hope to get back to some of that stuff. In fact, I referenced Thought Balloonists in that Columbus keynote that Joe Sutliff Sanders and I gave—it proved useful (though I was quoting myself, awkwardly!). I hope that kind of long-delayed intellectual yield will happen again.

Honestly, I probably do too much minute wordsmithing for a blogger—I’m really about details as a writer, and I’ll work a piece of writing to death even if it’s only a 300-word comics review. Hopefully the resultant work doesn’t seem overbaked. Part of what KinderComics is about, for me, is making myself work faster as a blogger, and trying to get a rhythm going. So, again, I like the timeliness of blogging, and the quick feedback, though I’m too compulsive a writer to welcome the idea of everything fading away when the platforms change! I hope KinderComics will last a long, long time.

One advantage of reviewing children’s and young adult graphic novels at this cultural moment is that there is just so much fresh stuff coming out, so much to talk about. It’s a genre I feel excited to explore more fully, as opposed to say, superhero comics, which have been a big, big part of my literacy story but no longer seem fresh. Children’s and YA comics are happening right now, in a new way, and getting a handle on that is part of what KinderComics is about.