Throughout our book we keep coming back to a central question: How do process of canonization and legitimation operate in a popular field like comic books that seems to lack many of the powerful institutional actors found in other, older and more legitimate fields? Comic books, we argue, lack the kind of make-or-break reviewing vehicles that can be found in contemporary literature (like The New York Times), which seems to be one of the reasons that certain works (Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home) can take on such disproportionate significance so quickly. The lack of institutional heft within the field makes it volatile.
A piece on fivethirtyeight.com last week puts this nicely into perspective. In the field of opera, particularly in the United States, there is no more powerful actor than the Metropolitan Opera, who set the agenda - and the standard - for operatic performance and appreciation. Brian Wise notes that on an annualized basis since 1900, the Met's schedule has been absolutely dominated by four operas, which are performed over and over and over again: Aida, La Bohème, Carmen, and La Traviata. This chart illustrates how commonly these works are performed:
We lack the institutional data to determine how frequently the top four comic books are taught (which might be the equivalent that we are looking for), but Wise's piece is well worth reading as an example of precisely the type of art world that comic books currently is not. Although, it is interesting to note how quickly Puccini's La Bohème (first performed in 1896) entered the opera canon. This is suggestive of the way that opera, at the turn of the twentieth-century was only in the process of developing its most powerful agencies of prestige (perhaps the best work on this topic is by Paul Dimaggio, who has written about the development of "high art" institutions in Boston during this period).
Whether comics would be better or worse off if more closely resembled opera is, of course, a much larger topic of debate.