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View of Comics of the New Europe

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111 IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE Vol. 22, No.1 (2021)

Comics of the New Europe

Jan Baetens

Martha Kuhlman and José Alaniz, eds. Comics of the New Europe

Leuven: Leuven University Press, Studies in European Comics and Graphic Novels series, 2020, 290 p.

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112 IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE Vol. 22, No.1 (2021)

Comics are not only everywhere, they have also become an object of “global studies”. They are entering the field of “world literature” and are being examined in light of new tends in “transnational criticism”. Yet, the type of comics and graphic novels that are at the center, no pun intended, of this new, definitely less parochial approach, has hardly changed. The corpus of global, world, or transnational comics reading and analysis continues to reflect and thus to reinforce what it already was one or two generations ago. Granted, we can now learn about the transmedial appropriations of Disney in Korean fan culture, the multiple interactions between manga and superhero comics or the various ways in which Seth is making allusions to Tintin while transferring him to the world of Southern Ontario, but it is still US comics, Franco-Belgian “bande dessinée”, Japanese manga and anime. And, granted again, it is now possible to discover works, authors, and traditions from outside these three reference productions, but times are changing only very slowly and the gaps that remain are huge. Besides, these gaps become even more painful than they already were in the pre-global era, since we may fall prey to the illusion that, thanks to the going global of comics studies, there are no more blank spots left on the map.

Carefully edited by two specialists of comics culture and Slavic culture with a longtime interest in the margins of Western culture, this collection on the comics culture of Central and Eastern Europe (that is the countries that have progressively joined the EU after the fall of the Berlin Wall) is much more than an eye-opener. The book does not only disclose a wide range of a virtually “unknown” production (and why not confess that I felt ashamed of my own ignorance as a European scholar after reading Comics of the New Europe?), it also offers a new insight of the very meaning of making and reading comics in cultural, economic, political and ideological contexts that are sometimes very different from what we take for granted.

For instance, we may be familiar with the use of comics as a form of cultural resistance, but the use of comics as overt and state-guided propaganda in the former German Democratic Republic is really not the same as the nationalist turn of superhero comics during World War Two. In a similar vein, we all know the constraints defining and perhaps crippling – but also fostering in many paradoxical ways – the creativity of artists working in a capitalist studio system, but thanks to this collection we can now start making comparisons with the way in which state-controlled creators proved capable of somewhat exceeding the limits of their professional and ideological assignments, as shown here in a smart comparison of GDR “Western” (that is: cowboy and Indian) comics and spy stories, the former internally challenged by the tension between lust for adventure and a strong anti-capitalist agenda, the latter incapable of finding a viable balance between both. Each chapter of the book offers this kind of small and big surprises, helping us to reframe our own ways of reading through the questions raised by a corpus that will be for most readers of source of endless discoveries (many works are also presented in their original language, which allows for a more unbiased access to this both Western and non-Western hidden archive).

As already hinted at, the interest and qualities of this book are also due to the strong editorial hand of Kuhlman and Alaniz. On the one hand, they cosign a very useful introduction addressing the main theoretical issues involved by the study of globalization and the confrontation of comics studies with a corpus that permanently resist dominating interpretive frames, while sensibly discussing issues of “center” and “periphery”. On the other hand, the editors have added extremely valuable contextualizing analyses to each of the four sections of the book, respectively on 1) the former Yugoslav States (an author such as the Belgrade-based Aleksandar

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113 IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE Vol. 22, No.1 (2021)

Zograf is well known to Western readers, but his case is quite exceptional), 2) Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic (perhaps the closest to the West-European production, but this similarity can be deceiving), 3) Germany (that is the former GDR), and 4) a rest section with Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary (geographically speaking, these four countries may seem close to each other, but culturally and linguistically speaking they really belong to different universes).

As far as this last section is concerned, the editors admit that each of these countries could or should have benefitted from a section of its own. However, the objective of the collection was not to be exhaustive (the three other sections don’t have that claim either), but to open windows and make room for new questions. Key in this regard is for instance the emphasis on the diversity of the materiality of comics, whose channel is not only or not necessarily the book (in the New Europe, many other forms of circulation, online and off-line, complement the circulation of comics in traditional print form), or the dialogue with other art forms (the comics works and traditions studied in this book display a very different relationship toward avant-garde art than in Western culture, where these relationships are less central to the production of comics in general).

Jan Baetens is Professor of Literary Theory and Cultural Studies at KU Leuven.

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