Judging from the office piled high with books of fantasy, science fiction and comics, Chris Couch, a popular lecturer in the Comparative Literature department is the obvious choice to teach such classes as Introduction to Science Fiction and Comic Art in North America. Here, he discusses his new book, "Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics" and the surprising insights he has gained about comics and their origins.
Where did you grow up and what brought you to western Massachusetts?
St. Louis. I came here (to western Massachusetts) to teach at one of the five colleges and after I’d been teaching for a few years, Kitchen Sink Press moved here. I haven’t learned much in life but one thing I have learned is that if someone asks you to become a comic book editor, the only answer to that question that is correct is yes. In comics, everybody knows everybody. Denis Kitchen’s company moved here so I went to see Denis and said, "I’d love to do some freelance work for you." and he said, "Would you like to be an editor?" So I became a senior editor at Kitchen Sink Press; I was there for 5 years, 1994 to 1999 until the company went bankrupt because of the horrible condition of the comics industry at that time, for various reasons. It was my pleasure and honor to work with Will Eisner for 5 years at the company and then for another 5 years on a number of freelance projects including his final graphic novel, The Plot. I worked with Mark Schultz who did Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and Prince Valiant. I was the editor for the Crow comic books and got to work with James O’Barr and many other wonderful people to learn about the comics industry. I’d always cared deeply about comics and had taught myself about them and planned to teach them as a scholar someday so when I got a chance to work within the industry, I said yes.
You earned a Ph.D. in Art History. What led you to Comparative Literature?
I had always intended to teach comics in some context. I met the chair of Comparative Literature, Bill Moebius at an event, a meeting in Northampton. He said, "I’m the chair of Comp. Lit, I’ve been looking for someone to teach comics because I teach children’s literature." And I said, "Well, I would love to teach comics; I’ll be happy to give you a syllabus." See, I’m in an unusual position because most people who teach comics are in English. I like teaching through a comp lit lens because comics are international; they must be taught comparatively. Actually, I'm a Latin Americanist. I learned a lot about Mexican comics when I was doing my dissertation research on Aztec manuscripts. In fact, a lot of my friends in Mexico are comic artists and editors. So for me, comp lit was a natural fit. I can study words and images here in a cross-cultural, international context.
You recently came out with a book about Jerry Robinson. How was that process?
Jerry created the Joker but people don’t really know his name. He’s worked in comic for 20 years and the way I like to introduce what I’m writing about in that book is “I’m doing a book about Jerry Robinson, he was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News for thirty years. He founded the first international cartoon syndicate, ever, to circulate cartoons from all over the world to all over the world.” No one had ever done that before. He negotiated a settlement with Warner Brothers studios for Jerry Segal and Joe Schuster who created Superman, (originally, they had) sold all the rights for $130. When the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve was coming out and they paid Mario Puzo three million dollars to write a script, Jerry and Joe had nothing. Jerry Segal was a $9,000 a year clerk who couldn’t even afford a car. Joe Schuster was unemployed and living in his brother’s apartment in Brooklyn. Jerry negotiated a settlement with Warner Bros. to give them pensions, health insurance, and most importantly of all, their names back on the property. Whenever you see “Superman created by Jerry Segal and Joe Schuster” on a Superman movie, a book about Superman, a Superman comic book or if you have the misfortune to watch Smallville, that’s Jerry Robinson’s work. So he did all those things and he created the Joker. Of course, he’ll always be known only for creating the Joker but he contributed so much to comics. I didn’t come up with the title of the book, “Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics,” but I was so thrilled when the publisher said, “Look, we’ve got a title.” It’s absolutely the perfect title. He really combined comics and international understanding and artists’ rights and created the Joker.
The other great thing about working with Jerry is that I was able to bring an art historian’s eye to his work, so that there’s a new understanding of his editorial cartoons which are incredibly aesthetically sophisticated. People have talked in a general way about how German expressionist film played some role in the creation of Batman. Well, Jerry and Bill Finger (Bill Finger was a co-creator of Batman, along with Bob Kane) went to a ton of German expressionist films and they injected German expressionist film’s ideas and psychological tropes directly into Batman. That’s why Batman has all those great villains. While working on a talk on expressionists in comics, I realized that it’s not just the kind of surface expressionism that they brought, it’s not just the twisted psychology but the understanding of Freudian psychological processes that is part of German Expressionist films that Bill Finger and Jerry brought to the villains in Batman; that’s what makes them so resonant. That was one of the great things about working on that book and thinking about it since then. There’s a really deep literate and psychologically insightful transference of German expressionism to comics in Batman because of Jerry and Bill Finger and I was able to talk about that in a very specific way in this book. I was also able discuss the role of the great illustrator, N.C. Wyeth and his work in the creation of Robin. It was a journey of revelation and I’m happy to continue to share those insights with my classes and everyone else.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your research about graphic novels and their authors?
What’s a graphic novel to you? What’s the paradigm of a graphic novel? It’s a book that’s the size and shape of a novel. And what color is it? Black and white. We’ve come to know that there’s something called a graphic novel that appears in a book store. It’s the size and shape of a novel, it’s a work of some length, it has some literary qualities, it’s often autobiographical. That’s not a graphic novel because there is no platonic ideal of a graphic novel. That’s the American graphic novel. And that’s something that was conceived by Will Eisner. There’s a lot of debate in comics about A Contract with God being the first graphic novel but it’s not about that, it’s about finding a way to put comics in a bookstore so that adults will read them and so that they will have literary credibility. And the way that American comic books have found a way to do that is to put a black and white work the length and complexity of a novel and the physical size of a novel, not the size of a comic book because comic books cause juvenile delinquency. That’s what people thought in the 1950s. Comics in the 1950s were branded as a children’s medium, something that no adult would read, something that corrupted children. And the only way the American comic artist had to find their way back from and beyond that was to create something that people would recognize as a literary work with a capital L. Mainly Will Eisner and some other people came to the conclusion, especially Will, that the way to do that was through the form of the book, the graphic novel. That’s the thing that gets reviewed in the NY Times. Maybe it has one color but it’s rectangular, it’s the size of a novel. It’s Persepolis, it’s Fun Home. It’s American Born Chinese. That’s it, that’s the American graphic novel. It’s not the European album, it’s not the Japanese tonkobon, it’s the American graphic novel. It’s a bid by comics for literary respectability. It is the American graphic novel as conceived by Will Eisner. It was carried out by Art Spiegelman, it was carried out by Howard Cruse, it was carried out by a lot of people but that’s the American graphic novel. I’ve come to learn is that the American graphic novel is an intentional object. The other thing I’ve learned is that comics are an American medium. And I’ve known that for years but the first time it was really brought home to me in a way that made me angry was when Ken Burns was interviewed about jazz and at the end, Ken Burns says, “Jazz is the only American medium.” Well, comics are an American medium, not sequential art, not words and pictures but comics as the world understands them is an American medium. The comic strip was invented in New York in the 1890s. And part of the way you have to understand this is to understand things that you already know. So what’s a comic strip? Where you do you find a comic strip? In the newspaper. There were no comic strips in newspapers until the 1890s in New York. They were invented here. What are the other characteristics of this comic strip that you can find in the newspaper? Color in the Sunday funnies. Didn’t exist till the 1890s. Continuing characters. Who reads the Sunday funnies? Everyone. All ages, adults and children. That’s a comic strip. That was invented in the United States, in New York, in the 1890s, between 1895 and 1900. It didn’t exist before, there were no comic strips before that, it is an American medium. Born in the newspaper wars of the city, born in the technological revolution of steam-powered, colored presses. Born in the same streets that gave us vaudeville and dime museums and nickelodeons and the comic strip is an American medium that spread around the world. Comic books are an American medium, they were invented in New York in the 1930s. They didn’t exist before. Comic books and all that comic books are is an American medium, created in New York. Superheroes were invented here. They didn’t exist before that. They’re a product of the Depression, they’re a product of the idealism that fought its way out of the Depression, embodied in Superman. They’re a product of the multiethnicity of the United States because Jewish creators contributed so much to the creation of the comic book. The golem is Superman, Superman is the golem, the protector of the community. They are enriched by the American creation of genre fiction. Modern science fiction as we understand it, also created in America, in the pulp magazines, fed directly into the comic books. Many of the same people worked on them. Comics are an American medium and the literary graphic novel that we just discussed, that’s the American graphic novel. Comics are American with an intimate relationship with our neighboring countries, with Canada which has contributed importantly to American comics and graphic novels and especially with Mexico. So that’s the most surprising thing I’ve learned.
Without the comic strip, there wouldn’t be all those other comics. There were lots of comics before that and a lot of things that looked like strips before that but the energy and the innovation and the popular appeal and the cross media potential of the American comic strip is what made comics part of human culture. The American comic strip forged in New York in the 1890s made comics an important part of culture. Without that, it wouldn’t matter. Comic books, forged in New York in the 1930s made superheroes and all the other things that come along with the comic book medium part of human culture throughout the world. It’s like jazz. It’s a contribution that American gave to the world and it’s part of our multiethnic heritage.