Pretty Cool

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes, but I submitted my dissertation prospectus in December of 2005, during my fourth year as a graduate student in the Department of English at Stanford University. At the time — having recently read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with his argument in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” — I formed a suspicion that irony might be an interesting subject to investigate, that the anxieties irony aroused, the love it elicited, the confusion it promoted might reward sustained study.

Ten years later, that prospectus, and the investigation it initiated, have become a book. I recently submitted the corrected PDF proofs of Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, the final textual outcome of my vague doctoral dissatisfaction. The book now has a cover and is available for preorder on Amazon and elsewhere. I can’t quite bring myself to believe that the project is finished — and in the months leading up to its publication by Harvard University Press in March 2016 I have no doubt that I will imagine myriad ways I might revise or rewrite my arguments.

But the book really is done and it’s coming out pretty soon and as the publication date approaches I’ll try to post some informal thoughts on the argument of the book on this blog. Here go the cover (I love the cover, by the way) and official description:



Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present, showing how irony migrated from the countercultural margins of the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of the 1980s. Along the way, irony was absorbed into postmodern theory and ultimately become a target of recent writers who have sought to create a practice of “postirony” that might move beyond its limitations.

As a concept, irony has been theorized from countless angles, but Cool Characters argues that it is best understood as an ethos: an attitude or orientation toward the world, embodied in different character types, articulated via literary style. Lee Konstantinou traces five such types—the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier—in new interpretations of works by authors including Ralph Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers, William Gibson, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

For earlier generations of writers, irony was something vital to be embraced, but beginning most dramatically with David Foster Wallace, dissatisfaction with irony, especially with its alleged tendency to promote cynicism and political passivity, gained force. Postirony—the endpoint in an arc that begins with naive belief, passes through irony, and arrives at a new form of contingent conviction—illuminates the literary environment that has flourished in the United States since the 1990s.

Abstract: Art Spiegelman’s Children’s Cartoons and the History of Comics Literacy

This is the abstract of a paper I hope to deliver at ACLA in 2016 (on a stream I am co-sponsoring called “Institutions of Reading“). The paper represents some of my preliminary work for a projected Spiegelman/Mouly chapter of my current book project, “Rise of the Graphic Novel.” It is also a talk-version of my anticipated contribution to the collection “The Comics of Art Spiegelman,” which I’m co-editing with Georgiana Banita.


Since the completion of MAUS, Art Spiegelman has advocated and created children’s comics. With Françoise Mouly, he has edited three Little Lit anthologies (2000-2003), which showcase comics for children by major cartoonists and illustrators; edited The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (2009); created two book-length comics for children, Open Me . . . I’m a Dog (1997) as well as Jack and the Box (2008); and founded Toon Books in 2008.

This paper argues that Spiegelman’s surprising turn to children’s comics represents the necessary corollary to his advocacy for comics as an “adult” medium. In order to secure recognition for comics, Spiegelman has constructed a concept of “comics literacy” that counters historical efforts to stigmatize comics as sub-literate or (at best) as a form that facilitates full or true literacy. By contrast, Spiegelman has cannily imagined comics not as a supplement or threat to literacy but rather as embodying an alternative to text-based literacies. Therefore, Spiegelman’s comics for children do not prepare children to become adult readers of grapheme-based texts but prepare children to become adult readers of comics.

After illustrating the specific characteristics of “comics literacy” through a close analysis of Jack and the Box, I show how the project of imagining a medium-specific comics literacy participates in the broader critical discourse of “multiple literacies” and “alternative literacies.”

McGuire’s “Here” at “The Account”


I wrote an essay called “A Theory of Here” for The Account, which is now available online.

It’s a preliminary analysis of Richard McGuire’s great new book Here (based on a six-pager he did for RAW back in 1989). The essay will, I think, find its way into “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” specifically into a hypothetical chapter on digital comics and efforts by contemporary cartoonists to develop a concept/practice of “comics materiality.” In the fantasy version of the chapter, I’ll come up with something interesting to say about Chip Kidd’s important work as comics editor at Pantheon.

And while you’re at The Account, don’t miss the rest of the issue, which features among other cool things a novel-in-GIFs called “Zac’s Haunted House” by Dennis Cooper and a great “Forum on Compromise Aesthetics” responding to Rachel Greenwald Smith’s “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” (from the previous issue).

CFP: The Comics of Art Spiegelman [edited volume]

Georgiana Banita (University of Bamberg, Germany)

Lee Konstantinou (University of Maryland, College Park)

The importance of Art Spiegelman as a pioneer and theorist of comics is hard to overstate. His work has not only pushed the boundaries of comics (both in terms of form and subject matter) but also convinced many readers and critics of this art form’s inherent aesthetic value. Indeed, the development of the term “graphic novel” in part signaled a burgeoning critical appreciation of the power of comics, an appreciation that Spiegelman’s pen — from his underground comix to his Pulitzer Prize-winning MAUS to his tireless critical advocacy of comics and cartooning — helped foster.

The Comics of Art Spiegelman will assess the fundamental contribution of Spiegelman’s work to the development of graphic literature from the 1970s to the present. It will survey and synthesize his versatile projects not only as a cartoonist but also as a magazine founder, editor, comics critic and historian, and mentor to multiple generations of cartoonists. To do justice to the vast range of Spiegelman’s career, this volume proposes to examine it from many perspectives: to demonstrate the centrality of his work to the rise of the graphic novel; to document how he has self-consciously dealt with his own success and engaged in a process of auto-canonization following the publication of his groundbreaking MAUS; to analyze how he has drawn on, worked through, and defied familiar poetic categories of comics art; and to investigate his inventive (sometimes silent) dialogues with other genres and media, such as music, film, theatre, dance, and installation art.

The book has garnered serious interest from the editor of the new series, Critical Approaches to Comics Artists, at the University Press of Mississippi. Accepted abstracts will be used in a formal book proposal to be submitted to the press. The deadline for full-length essays will be negotiated shortly thereafter. Essays on a variety of issues related to Spiegelman’s formative involvement in the rise of graphic literature are welcome. The collection is especially interested in exploring how we might contend with Spiegelman in the twenty-first century, acknowledging but also moving beyond the existing scholarship’s understandable focus on the achievement of MAUS. We are therefore planning to collect essays that discuss Spiegelman’s underground works; that offer new and unexpected readings of MAUS; that study his later illustrations and books (such as In the Shadow of No Towers); and that scrutinize Spiegelman’s public persona. Chapters that address the following questions are particularly welcome:

  • What can Spiegelman’s collaborative work in the underground comix scene (at Arcade and later at RAW) teach us about how Spiegelman and his collaborators conceived of comics art, and how did these early collaborations inform his subsequent experimentation?
  • What interdisciplinary dialogues does MAUS inaugurate between comics and political history; comics and Jewish history and culture; comics and trauma; comics and narrative theory; comics and memory architectures; as well as comics and autographics or life writing?
  • How is the evolution of comics — both as form and as a set of cultural institutions — entwined with Spiegelman’s own biographical trajectory, from his MAD-obsessed childhood to his poignant examination of his parents’ memories of the Holocaust and his mother’s suicide? What larger trends in the history of comics and popular culture do Spiegelman’s life and art participate in?
  • How do Spiegelman’s works incorporate early comic strips, newspapers, photography, television, and electronic communication technologies? What might such aesthetic experiments in hybridity reveal more generally about the arts of the present?
  • How have Spiegelman’s practices of masking, dual identities, impersonation, ventriloquism, and voice/voiceover devised new forms of performance in comics and cultivated new languages for articulating emergent or conflicted identities (disability, queerness), especially in the comic memoir?
  • Though comics has gained legitimacy in the art world, literary culture, and the wider public arena, a sense of shame productively persists among cartoonists and raises important questions about the price of mainstream success. How does Spiegelman walk the tightrope between the growing popularity of the comics medium and the possibility of a more subversive, politically potent grassroots comics-practice designed to serve and speak to the disenfranchised?
  • How does Spiegelman’s work negotiate the modernist influence of wordless woodcut novels by Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel on his visual style, and how do these early sources of inspiration, including the historical avant-garde, explain his recent wordless engagement with the comics form?
  • Aesthetic and political appreciation for Spiegelman’s work around the world is evidenced by countless accolades garnered over the years. How does his international success help buttress the global appeal and historical validity of comics? How do Spiegelman’s achievements intersect with other graphic art traditions — from Franco-Belgian comics to manga and beyond? And how does this new global respectability of the medium affect national discourses, for instance through the role of MAUS in reshaping Germany’s contemporary struggle with the echoes of the Holocaust?
  • How have Spiegelman’s memorable covers for The New Yorker intervened in controversies around racial profiling and police brutality (March 8, 1999), the aftermath of September 11 (the black-on-black collaboration with Françoise Mouly of September 14, 2001), and expanded the role of the political cartoon as a protest vehicle? Moreover, how might Spiegelman’s political cartoons be understood in relation to — or help us understand — debates about socially charged iconoclastic cartoons in Denmark, France, North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere?
  • What is Spiegelman’s relationship to what may be called the archival turn in academic and exhibition culture, as evidenced by MetaMaus and Co-Mix, and in what ways does this archival impulse align itself with the completist, multilayered, navigational experiments of other cartoonists (such as Chris Ware in Building Stories or Joe Sacco in The Great War)? How do these material regimes and nonlinear reading experiences engender a new haptic quality in comics (fascinated with B-sides, squiggles, and ephemera)?
  • What specific critical and theoretical problems does comics — and Spiegelman’s work in particular — pose for academic inquiry today? How is comics itself a knowledge-producing medium? What sorts of knowledge — historiographic, psychological, political, or economic — might comics in general and Spiegelman’s comics in particular be well-suited to fuse, construct, or dispute?

Please send a 500-1000 word abstract, CV, and contact information to Georgiana Banita and Lee Konstantinou at by June 15.

Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction”

For my first real post on “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” I’m going to share the abstract I submitted for the forthcoming ASAP/7 conference at Clemson University in Greenville, SC.


Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction,” or, How U.S. Comics Emerged from the Underground


In the 1970s, underground comix began transforming into what many critics have described as the graphic novel. Though cartoonists often deride the term “graphic novel,” this talk treats the graphic novel as a distinct and coherent comics practice that emerged in the 1970s. I argue that the term should describe, on the one hand, the increased prestige comics began to garner and, on the other hand, a self-conscious repression by cartoonists of the formal experimentation associated with the underground. The history of the graphic novel, I suggest, must be told in both social and formal terms.

In order to make my case, I analyze Justin Green’s fictionalized comics memoir Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Originally published by Last Gasp in 1972, Binky Brown was an early example of graphic memoir, telling the story of Green’s tortured relationship to Catholicism. Aline Kominsky-Crumb has called Green “the great grandfather” of autobiographical comics, and Art Spiegelman has written that “without [Green’s] work there would have been no MAUS.” In 2009, McSweeney’s Books reissued Binky Brown, recognizing the memoir’s canonical status among American comics.

Binky Brown is worth analyzing carefully not only because it helped pioneer a significant new comics genre but also because it illustrates how cartoonists reengineered comics form. In the late 1960s, cartoonists began figuring themselves as unified artists (on the model of the literary author) and began constructing novel accounts of the revolutionary power that supposedly inhered in comics. These rhetorical shifts are legible (and visible) throughout Binky Brown. Green’s memoir figures comics as both a pictorial cure for Catholic taboos as well as a substitute formal stricture, a self-imposed, endless artistic penance. These figurations helped establish the fraught terms by which comics would win the war for public respect over the next forty years.

On the Rise of the Graphic Novel

A few years ago, when I was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at Princeton, I taught an undergraduate lecture course called “Rise of the Graphic Novel.” The title was meant, in part, to be a joking allusion to Ian Watt’s classic book, The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding, but it was also meant to recognize the phenomenal efflorescence of amazing comics in recent decades.

There have been (I hope it is obvious) great comics, both in the U.S. and around the world, for as long as comics have existed, but there seemed to me to be a notable uptick in the number of comics masterpieces being published — you could say an increase the rate of masterpiece production — starting in the 1980s. Lots of cartoonists abhor the term “graphic novel,” and I’m not a big fan of it myself, but I have increasingly come to think the term usefully designates an important shift in the history of U.S. comics. So the joking title has, quite unexpectedly, come to seem less joking to me, and I find myself in the early stages of researching what I am now convinced will become my second academic book project, tentatively called (you guessed it!) “Rise of the Graphic Novel.”

I’ll post more about the ambitions of this project later, but for now it will suffice to say that my motivating research question is simple. I take it for granted that comics have won their public fight for respectability in the U.S. We no longer need to expend significant effort justifying comics. Our critical horizons should broaden. But a lingering mystery remains about the mainstreaming of comics. What I want to figure out is how comics won the fight (socially, historically, and formally) — and at what price.

When I started writing my dissertation back in 2005, I found it helpful to blog about my early research, to riff on my evolving obsessions, to share abstracts, to publish unfinished pieces of writing, and to try to articulate various half-formed ideas. I’m going to do the same thing for the new book project on this blog. I want to make as many of my mistakes as possible in public, with the hope of ensuring that the book that eventually emerges from this line of research is as good as I can make it.

So I’d like to invite critical responses to everything I post here. Feel free to email me or contact me via Twitter.

In Praise of Zombies

We need to talk about zombies.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Education about the precipitous decline in the number of English majors at my institution, the University of Maryland, College Park, the undead rear their charred and mutilated heads. Our zombie friends, we are informed, promise (or threaten) to help lure resistant students back into the English major:

Cartwright said there’s a demonstrated interest in updated versions of Great Books courses, but also in what he said some have called “zombie courses” — pejoratively, not descriptively. Those include courses on such popular genres as science fiction, fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein, regional literature or children’s literature.

Cartwright said there’s some feeling among his colleagues that such offerings equate to “dumbing down” the curriculum.

Zombies might increase enrollments, but it seems that there are fears that more majors might come at a terrible price: a “dumbing down” of the curriculum.

As someone who has taught a variety of zombie courses, both at UMD and elsewhere, as someone who will undoubtedly teach more, and who will enthusiastically help spread the zombie plague across College Park, I’m always alert to possible misunderstandings about what such courses look like, what their justification for existing is, and what kind of intellectual demands they make on students. The common presupposition is that courses on popular genres and forms — such as comics, science fiction, and television — eat the brains of students. They represent a zombification of the curriculum, a submission to inexorable market pressures, which might be understood as part of a broader corporate takeover of the university. We used to trade in rigorous knowledge; now we deliver edu-tainment to the slovenly, capricious undergraduate masses, who punish us in our teaching evaluations if we don’t pander to them.

There are two sorts of degradation involved in letting curricular zombies eat our brains. On the one hand, we’re allegedly abandoning Great Books or culturally serious texts in favor of lousy popular works. On the other hand, we’re hollowing out the methodological core of literary studies. That is, we used to trade in aesthetically sensitive close analysis of difficult or historically important texts. Now, we’re allegedly doing little more than teaching cultural history or adopting cultural studies methodologies (methods that can be applied to anything, from cereal boxes to Shakespeare). We’re all becoming less intelligent versions of Murray Siskind from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

These are serious concerns and deserve a careful reply. If zombie courses were only about putting butts in seats, we should not teach them at the university level. If such courses were little more than examples of cultural studies or cultural history, we might need to have a discussion about the proper disciplinary boundaries of literary study. (Although, I should say I am in favor of accepting the broadest possible conception of literary study, and see nothing wrong with having cultural studies be integrated into literature departments. Frankly, I thought these questions of disciplinary boundaries were settled in the eighties. In any event, actually existing literature departments, including the department at Maryland, teach much more than Great Books: we teach film, linguistics, rhetoric, digital humanities, among other dynamic subfields.)

Over the last few years, I’ve taught comics at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as a range of science fiction classes. I’ve also taught courses on canonical twentieth-century fiction and courses on various avant-garde and experimental literatures. So I feel as if I have something to say about the way zombie courses tend to go, and how zombie courses compare to more traditional literature classes. My experience has been that, while they do — fortunately — get butts in seats, courses on popular genres and art forms can sometimes be much harder for students to adjust to. Many students have a harder time learning (for example) how to read comics critically than they do canonical works. They know how they’re supposed to talk about Virginia Woolf; they initially have no idea — or only a very shallow idea — about how to respond to Alison Bechdel. Indeed, many students come into the classroom assuming that we’ll be reading what they regard as canonical within a popular art form, or that we’ll be reading for plot, or that every week will be pure fun. As my students quickly learn, the reality of the zombie classroom is very different.

In my SF and comics classes, the first couple weeks are invariably partly devoted to disabusing students of these ideas, to helping them learn to suspend other ways of reading, and to teaching them to read art forms they thought they understood with new eyes. My pedagogical aim is to re-channel the considerable passion students bring into such classes toward more critically focused ends.

Which isn’t in any way to disparage zombie courses, but to sing their praises. These courses can be the most intellectually rigorous and aesthetically transformative classes that college students take. And the nature of this transformation isn’t only about alienating them from their naive enjoyment of popular genres. I can’t speak for others, but my method of teaching these materials is practically old fashioned. (This isn’t, it should go without saying, the only valid way to teach popular art.) I insist that the reason we’re reading comics isn’t in order to learn something about the culture, but because many of the books I assign are masterpieces. And they’re masterpieces you can’t just read casually or unthinkingly. You need to learn to read, for example, Chris Ware’s Building Stories. To fully appreciate Ware’s brilliance, you need to become familiar with the history of comics and become comfortable reading a variety of comics styles and formats. At more advanced levels, you need to develop the capacity to assess critically sophisticated theories about the poetics of comics. None of this is, as many of my students will attest, easy to do.

Giving students access to an important, brilliant, historically significant corpus of art seems to be an entirely appropriate activity for the undergraduate classroom at a university. After you have taken a Zombie Course, you may discover you have actually just taken a Great Books (or in the case of Ware, a Great Box) course without realizing it, and you may also decide that any Great Books course worthy of its name cannot afford to ignore the recent surge of brilliant zombie art. If anything, we need more Zombie Courses than we have, and one hopes — in time — even full-blown Zombie Majors (or at the least Zombie Double-Majors).

A Delicious Breakfast Burrito at LARB

My review of William Gibson’s newest novel The Peripheral is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

NEAR THE END of The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, there is a short chapter dedicated to the problem one character faces in acquiring a breakfast burrito.

The burrito is for one of the novel’s two protagonists, Flynne Fisher, who is traveling to see her mother. Assassins have been pursuing Flynne ever since she witnessed a murder while she was playing what she thought was a video game. To protect her, her brother Burton, a former Marine who fought with a group called “Haptic Recon 1,” has ensconced Flynne in an armored truck that looks like a “Hummer limo,” which is itself protected by two manned SUVs as well as a small fleet of drones.

Getting a burrito into Flynne’s hands, through these layers of security, creates a logistical problem that Gibson relishes in describing.

Read the rest here.

Korzybski’s SF Legacy

Earlier this month, an essay I wrote about Alfred Korzybski appeared on io9. Korzybski’s the founder of General Semantics, which is  a sort of meta-science that tried to give an account of humanity’s relationship to language and abstract thought. I first learned about Korzybski through my research on William S. Burroughs (who was a big fan of Korzybski’s “non-Aristotelian” ideas). I quickly discovered that Korzybski influenced a wide range of disciplines and played a big role in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. You can read the essay here.

Utopian Foresight

Last week, I had a short essay published in Slate that discusses the failure of recent popular science fiction to imagine Socioeconomically Less Awful Futures. This failure is, in many ways, understandable, given how Socioeconomically Awful the present is, but I suggest that it might be interesting to conceive of science fiction as a genre with a special power to help us think rigorously about what kind of future we’d prefer to live in. There are a few examples of recent fiction in this vein, but I think we need more — and more ambitious — efforts at Utopian foresight.

I wrote the piece as part of a series of posts by Future Tense promoting the release of Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. It’s an anthology that tries to imagine such positive futures, though there are a variety of themes and political perspectives in the anthology (not all of which correspond to my own). I contributed a story called “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA.” The story’s not exactly about economic inequality, but it responds to the Pretty Awful socioeconomic world imagined in my first novel, Pop Apocalypse.

On the whole, the story’s a bit less dystopian, and a bit less satirical, than Pop Apocalypse, but it’s also a kind of mini-sequel in that the story imagines a possible tactic that might help overcome centralized control and surveillance of the Internet (what I call the mediasphere).