Whither Comic Studies?: A Conversation with the Editors and Contributors of Critical Approaches to Comics (Part One)

Even as a child, I knew that reading comics demonstrated a thorough lack of discipline -- it was something I did in the summer or at home, sick in bed. In a world before comics shops and subscriptions, my generation would grab whatever was available to us on the spin-racks at the local drug store -- there was not yet a canon (fan or academic) to tell us what we were supposed to read. We read for no purpose other than pleasure -- there was no method to tell us how we were supposed to read. Indeed, many adults were there to remind us what a monumental waste of time all of this was -- there was nothing like Publish or Perish pushing us to read more comics. We read in secret -- under the covers by flashlight, hidden in a textbook in class -- with the knowledge that there was something vaguely oppositional about our practices. You didn't stand up in front of a classroom and do a book report on what you'd read, let alone frame a scholarly lecture or essay. Or at least this is the myth of what it meant to read comics as it has been constructed nostalgically by several generations of fans turned critics and intellectuals. Of course, like all of the other aging "boy wonders" constructing that mythical golden age, I should know because I was there.

Given this collective history, why should we discipline the reading of comics?

This is the opening from my essay, "Should We Discipline the Study of Comics?," which serves as the introduction of an exciting new anthology, Critical Approaches to Comics, edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan.

The appearance of such a collection marks a significant turning point in the emergence of comic studies as a field for academic investigation, bringing together more than twenty respected comics critics and analysts to describe their methodological and theoretical assumptions and apply them to specific works. The result is intended as a textbook for use in the expanding number of courses in comics and graphic storytelling, being offered in universities and colleges. Indeed, I plan to use the book as a key secondary texts running through my own comic studies class, which I am teaching this spring at USC.

The book's essays are organized into units structured around Style, Content, Production, Context, and Reception. These categories reflect the diversity of disciplinary perspectives which have been brought to bear on comics. I have gotten to know many of the contributors through our participation in the comic studies track at the San Diego ComicCon, but it says something that we are more likely to run into each other at a fan-run event than at any academic conference.

Critical Approaches to Comics is going to be an important book in terms of defining and organizing this field, which has been surprisingly late to coalesce, given the centrality of comics as a medium to any discussion of popular culture in the 20th and 21st century. As such, my introduction was intended as a reflection on what lessons comics studies might take from other closely related fields such as film, television, and game studies, and an outline of other potential moments when some form of comic studies might have emerged. Specifically, I suggest what the study of comics would have looked like if this collection had been pulled together in response to the writings of Gilbert Seldes in the early 20th century, Frederic Wertham at mid-century, or more recently, Scott McCloud and Art Spigelman, each of whom would have different thoughts about what texts should be studied and why, about who should be included in the conversation and what languages we should be using, and about the core issues which comic studies would most urgently address.

I've used the event of this book's release to collect thoughts from the editors and some of the contributors on some core issues surrounding the current state and future directions of the academic study of comics.

The publication of a methods case book represents a key step in the institutionalization of Comics Studies as an academic field. As I suggest in my introduction, I experience this process with some ambivalence having gone through the establishment of other academic fields studying popular culture, including television or game studies. How do you characterize the current state of comics studies? Should it remain a multidisciplinary field of investigation or should it take on the properties of a discipline?

Matthew J. Smith: Given the increasing numbers of books, academic conferences, and college-level courses focused on the study of comics, I think Comics Studies is already coalescing. However, I do not think our aim is to build another silo on our college campuses but to preserve the open commons we seem to be interacting with one another in. Right now the field's greatest strength--and the one we celebrate in Critical Approaches--is its multi-disciplinarity. Moving forward from this point in history should involve how to capitalize on that and still forge a more coherent identity that universities can acknowledge and appreciate.

Marc Singer: We don't have to equate institutionalization with the formation of a single discipline. Comics studies should be and probably always will be multidisciplinary because comics themselves fall across the intersections of multiple disciplines--art, literature, mass communications, economics, and so on. But building an academic field doesn't have to mean codifying a single critical approach. Institutionalization supports research and teaching by exposing new scholars to earlier work, preserving their work for future generations, and modeling standards of academic scholarship. The challenge for Comics Studies is to build the professional practices and institutional support of a mature academic field without narrowing the range of disciplines, methods, and approaches available to scholars.

David A. Beronä: Just as graphic novels are being taught more in college and universities, a new generation of readers is enthusiastically reading comics without any preconceptions from older generations. This growing readerships is evidenced in school libraries where graphic novels account for a large percentage of the circulation. There is also a cross over of graphic novels with picture books, which encourages a wider readership of young readers growing into adulthood who will look for more adult themes in comics to reflect their growing interests.

Art Spiegelman has been a major champion of the idea that graphic novels constitute a distinctive literary and artistic genre. What links do you see between what is happening around comics in the universities and this larger project to legitimize comics as an expressive medium? Will we ever reach a point where we do not need to, as the title of another book puts it, defend comics?

Randy Duncan: I think we are already at that point. Graphic novels are being read in book clubs and selected for university Common Book programs. Certainly comics scholars are tired of having to make the legitimacy argument and many of them are simply refusing to do so in their work. Of course, the argument will still have to be made within the institution when we have to convince a chair or dean to add a comics course or consider comics scholarship in tenure and promotion decisions.

At most comic shops I know, there is a physical separating out of independent/alternative and mainstream comics. How have you dealt with this cultural divide in the book and to what degree does it shape the field of Comics Studies?

Randy Duncan: We chose to ignore the divide. A lot of the scholars we admire are quite comfortable slipping back and forth across that divide as if did not exist - writing a book about alternative comics, presenting a paper about Kirby's Devil Dinosaur, posting about an early 20th century comic strip, teaching a course on superheroes, and so on.

David A. Beronä: A comic is a comic is a comic is a comic! From the serious tone of the woodcut novels by Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward to the edginess of the Vertigo line of comics; from manga to mini comics, this media provides a visual story which may be thought provoking or not but is forever entertaining.


David A. Beronä is a woodcut novel and wordless comics historian, author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (2008) and a 2009 Harvey Awards nominee. He is the Dean of the Library and Academic Support Services at Plymouth State University, New Hampshire, and a member of the visiting faculty at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Randy Duncan is a professor of communication at Henderson State University. He is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum, 2009) and co-founder of the Comics Arts Conference. Duncan serves on the boards of the International Journal of Comic Art and the Institute for Comics Studies.

Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California and the former Co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. His 14 published books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, and the forthcoming Spreadable Media: Tracing Value in a Networked Culture.

Leonard Rifas teaches about comics at Seattle Central Community College and the University of Washington, Bothell. He founded EduComics, an educational comic book company, in 1976.

Marc Singer is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He is the co-editor, with Nels Pearson, of Detective Fiction in a Postcolonial and Transnational World (Ashgate, 2009) and the author of a monograph on Grant Morrison, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi.

Matthew J. Smith is a professor of communication at Wittenberg University. He is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum, 2009) and former president of the Ohio Communication Association. In 2009, Wittenberg's Alumni Association recognized him with its Distinguished Teaching Award.