MK Czerwiec is a nurse and comics artist. Ian Williams is a visual artist and illustrator, a medical doctor, and an independent humanities scholar. Iwan James. Michael J. My earliest reading memories are of comics. As I grew up in the rural Midwest during the s and s, comics were available to me in limited and often unpredictable ways.
The local drugstore carried some mainstream comics, as did the local grocery along with a few edgier black-and-white magazines like Cracked or The Savage Sword of Conan , but there was no bookstore and certainly no specialty comics shop in our small town of people.
But there were yard sales.
Long before the days of the collector market and eBay, people were quite happy to sell off their old comics for next to nothing. One of my uncles might stop by our house and drop off a few grocery bags of old comics he had picked up on the cheap at an estate auction, or I might manage to hit the annual yard sale of a local collector before the other kids got wise, hauling home a pile of four-color treasures with giddy joy.
In such ways, I accumulated a makeshift collection of comics, which, when combined with the substantial holdings my friend Eric had inherited from his older brother and sisters, made up a scattershot archive of mainstream comics that reached back into the s.
These classic newspaper comics amazed me with their scale and ambition—all this material together made me think that comics could do anything, be about anything.
What strikes me now about this patchwork archive is how utterly random it was.
I read what I could find locally, much of it older comics, supplemented by whatever occasional new titles I might pick up at a nearby store or through an occasional mail subscription. And aside from a very few collections in book form, I read comics as individual issues. These reading experiences gave me an abiding appreciation of comics as a popular medium with a long and rich history.
At the same time, I was completely unaware of underground and alternative comics—there were simply no venues for their distribution in rural Missouri or at least none that I was aware of at the time. My interest in comics took a turn after , though, when I was old enough to drive to a recently opened comic shop about forty miles from my hometown. These comics were all doing something new, and they all felt groundbreaking in some way. Suddenly the medium looked very different.
After I went to college a few years later, my interest in comics began to wane, largely due to fatigue with the superhero genre.
By my junior year, I had pretty much given up on comics and taken up with the literary fiction fashionable among earnest English majors. My interest in comics was reignited when I was working through a rigorous English doctoral program with a focus on Anglo-Saxon language and literature.
My return to comics coincided with my return to the university, and this convergence has undoubtedly shaped my thinking on the medium and its scholarship.
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At that time, I also found a public library with a substantial collection of comics and graphic novels as well as two local comic shops that carried more mainstream fare. For the first time I had easy access to a wide variety of comics new and old, alternative and mainstream. Comics at first provided an anodyne for the grind of graduate school, but I soon began to think about the possibilities of comics criticism within an academic environment.
I read whatever scholarship I could find on comics, even as I went through blogs and other online forums on a regular basis. I was struck by two things. This was in stark contrast to my experience with other areas of literary study, especially medieval literature, which had generated a vast field of secondary scholarship and resources. Two, much of what I read by nonacademics was more insightful, informed, and rhetorically effective than what I was reading in university press publications and professional journals.
It seemed to me at the time that the academy was running behind. Things have certainly changed over the last decade, as comics studies has become charged with an energy and open potential that seem entirely uncommon in academic disciplines.
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This past life in the public sphere, prior to and largely outside of academic discourse, makes comics studies especially exciting as a field that has the capacity to include and speak to diverse communities. Comics studies has the real potential to produce a public and open criticism that is responsive and accessible to both specialists and nonspecialists, to creators and critics, to casual readers and aficionados, to academics and nonacademics alike.
Currently, comics criticism is quite strong outside the academy, as a number of writers and creators regularly produce quality work across a number of venues. Academic writing on comics stands to benefit from the contributions of those outside the university by engaging in an open conversation that welcomes and values many voices and perspectives.
Academic writing on comics has itself gained steady momentum and mass since the early s. The last decade, especially, witnessed a flurry of academic publishing and activity interested in or featuring comics. Indeed, comics studies looks very much like a genuine growth area in academic scholarship. A number of online and print journals are now dedicated to or include work on comics, for example, while both university and popular presses have issued new and reprint titles in a competitive rush.
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Comics have likewise gained more presence in university classrooms and libraries, a development that demonstrates a growing level of institutional interest and support among teachers, librarians, and administrators. At the same time, comics scholarship remains an emerging field currently engaged in the ongoing and occasionally tortuous process of its own self-definition and delineation. Academic comics study, not exactly a new but certainly a newly self-conscious field, has been particularly notable for this sort of anxious throat-clearing.
The time and need for this defensive reflex, though, has largely passed—comics studies no longer needs to apologize for its subject matter.
In Greg M. My suggestion would be to do solid, complex scholarly work on comics without apology, work that undisputedly provides insight. This essay aims first to assess the current state and status of comics studies, with a particular focus on English-language comics and scholarship, followed by some suggestions on how the field might move forward in productive ways, especially as a discipline that is not primarily confined to or claimed by academic departments of literature.
What follows is an overview of general trends in English-language comics scholarship since the s. This thumbnail sketch is not comprehensive, but instead aims to chart a number of important developments and turns in academic writing on comics. One preliminary point is that much pioneering criticism was written not by academics, but by journalists, practitioners, fans, and enthusiasts.
In the long view, the academy came late to comics studies. Since it has been taken up by academics, comics scholarship has generally followed familiar paths of development and traditional models of academic criticism in terms of its content and interests.
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Early studies from the s and s often worked to combat stubborn discrimination as they endeavored to establish the comics medium as a coherent and viable field of academic interest.
These were important books, to be sure, especially as they presented older comics to new readers in a way that recognized and valued the history of the medium, but they were not what we would today typically recognize as scholarship or criticism.
As a representative group, these books exemplify a set of disciplinary approaches that have remained active in comics studies to the present day: historical and archival scholarship that charts a long prehistory and history for the medium; a cultural studies approach that considers how comics acquire significance through social use and exchange; and literary interpretation that balances formal analysis with a consideration of the medium as an ongoing and self-aware tradition.
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These books also show the great potential of interdisciplinary work in comics studies; such approaches can acknowledge and value the unique history and form of the medium in productive ways. And concurrent with these pioneering academic works, The Comics Journal , edited by Gary Groth, has long offered a lively forum—first in print and then online—for insightful coverage of comics.
At its advent in the s, The Comics Journal provided an important popular venue where writers, creators, and readers could discuss comics in an engaged and critical way. By the end of the s, serious criticism of comics had become a visible and viable enterprise.
Comics were suddenly on the academic map. The idea seems to have been that comics had finally evolved into a higher art form, one fitting for older, more serious readers. This often-repeated but reductive account of a sudden ascendancy—which designates a decisive historical turn coupled with the cachet of a new label—has proven quite resilient in both popular and academic writing on comics. Despite its potentially misleading title, Adult Comics provided an important early intervention in comics criticism.
The book offered a useful overview of the medium that aimed both to expand general knowledge and to challenge assumptions new and old. Also in , cartoonist Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art , which remains perhaps the most widely read and cited book on comics to date.
Like Kunzle and Sabin, McCloud proposes a long history of comics, which for him goes all the way back to cave paintings. Understanding Comics importantly draws attention to the formal aspects and visual grammar of comics, offering useful definitions, categories, and rubrics for thinking about comics in a more systematic and precise way. Other notable publications from the s include a number of essay collections by individual authors. This particular challenge still occupies comics studies today.
How can the field draw productively from other disciplines and critical vocabularies without losing a sense of its own particularity? How can comics studies both inform and be informed by other areas of intellectual and social interest?
Other significant essay collections from the s include those of Robert C. All of these writers set out to educate a general audience about the comics medium—its history, its accomplishments, and its possibilities.
In this sense, their writing functions as both criticism and advocacy. And while Inge has worked as an English professor, both McCloud and Harvey are writers and cartoonists, while Sabin was a journalist when he was invited to write Adult Comics. A significant amount of this emergent scholarship on comics, then, was written not by academics but by practitioners and enthusiasts whose considerable learning and experience laid crucial groundwork, both historical and theoretical, for the continuing formation and development of comics studies.
This diversity of backgrounds, vocations, and interests—and the range of expertise and the discourses that came along with it—made it possible for comics studies to move forward in productive ways. The rising quality and quantity of comics scholarship in the s and s increased the status of the medium within the academic world. Indeed, beginning in the late s and rapidly accelerating throughout the s, something of a frontier spirit manifested as academic writers and publishers realized that a vast territory lay open before them, ready to be explored and exploited by enterprising spirits.
Indeed, the above passage presents a miniature case study of uninformed academic writing on comics. As we can see, the increased availability of comics to academic scholarship can yield unfortunate consequences when that scholarship is careless.
While such egregious missteps are generally rare, it is still not uncommon to encounter errors that have escaped the vetting process of peer review and editing. By the end of the s, many academics had become interested in comics, but not all of them possessed the expertise and diligence necessary to create scholarship of lasting value. The s then ushered in a flood of titles on comics from both popular and academic presses—guides, anthologies, readers, textbooks, reprints, and more.
Aimed at various audiences fans, new and prospective readers, librarians, teachers, and scholars , the sheer number of such titles testifies to the explosive interest in comics in recent years. Still, this mass of texts has generally remained dedicated to introducing comics to new readerships, to creating a corpus of notable content and creators, and to establishing comics as a legitimate area of intellectual interest.
This current state of affairs indicates that comics studies is still very much occupied with announcing itself to the general public and defining and justifying itself as an academic field.
Within this prolonged start-up period, academic books dedicated to comics have tended to align themselves with established specializations and fields. This subscription to familiar paradigms has allowed easy recognition and dissemination across established disciplines, but it has also meant that the academic study of comics has largely been articulated through older critical movements and discourses. A number of scholars have been critical of this reflex.
Rather, it continues to rely on terminologies and theories handed down from other disciplines. Beginning in the late s, many books on comics began to fall in line with established and comfortably familiar at least to academics fields in order to achieve quick legitimacy.
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While the earlier work from the s through the s had established the groundwork for later scholarship, it had also tended to imagine a tradition marked by designations of periodization, generic categories and hierarchies, and major creators. This work of classification and definition formed a lasting catalogue of touchstones, transformations, and turning points that continues to define comics for academic consumption and use.
Such a process clearly resembles traditional disciplinary formation. Comics scholarship, for example, has assembled a short list of master texts think Maus , Persepolis , and Fun Home and creators think Will Eisner, R. Crumb, and Chris Ware that constitutes a makeshift canon, despite the fact that the very notion of canonicity has fallen under scrutiny over the last several decades in literary studies.
Canon formation traditionally favors certain genres and creators at the expense of others, an exclusionary process that risks producing an encoded elitism that can obscure or deny the multiplicity of comics.