Comic Books and Graphic Novels have increasingly drawn the attention of academia. Whether through individual schools or programs devoted to teaching the skills needed to create and publish one's own comics and graphic novels, the inclusion of graphic novels in literature and social studies courses, or academic conferences focused on the study of comics as a medium and cultural force, it is clear that this is a rich and varied subject, worthy of even greater study. Comics scholars Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith have recently published The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, a textbook designed for introductory level comics art studies courses. Focusing on various aspects of comics culture, including formal analysis of the medium itself, as well as its history and impact on popular culture, this book also serves as an excellent primer for those just diving in to the world of comics. We spoke to the authors about their book and the rise of comics studies programs.
BookShelf: What are your backgrounds in comics and Comics Studies?
Randy Duncan: I discovered my first comic book – a coverless copy of Adventure Comics being sold for only five cents – in the summer of 1966 at a Time Saver in my hometown of New Orleans. Soon I discovered new comic books in the big blue vending machines at the Schwegmann’s grocery store, and not a month has gone by since that I haven’t purchased comics. I wrote one of the first doctoral dissertations on comics – “Panel Analysis: The Rhetoric of Comic Book Form” – at Louisiana State University in 1990. In 1992, Peter M. Coogan and I founded the Comics Arts Conference, the first U.S. academic conference devoted to comic books and graphic novels. I also serve on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Comic Art. I have been an active member of the Comics & Comic Art area of the Popular Culture Association for two decades, and I am that organization’s 2009 co-winner of the Inge Award for Comics Scholarship. I have made presentations on comics at academic conferences throughout the U.S. as well as in Scotland, Greece, and France. For the past sixteen years, I have taught a Comics as Communication course at Henderson State University.
Matthew J. Smith: I’ve been a life-long reader of comics (beginning with Justice League of America #134 in Sept. 1976) and wrote my master's essay - "The Legacy of the X-Men: Audience Reaction to an AIDS Metaphor" – at Ohio University in 1995. Thereafter, I have published articles in The Journal of Popular Culture and the book Comics & Ideology, and have made numerous presentations at research conferences, delivered public lectures on comics, and offered commentary to numerous newspapers on the topic. For the last four years, I have taught a stand-alone course called "Comic Books as Culture" at Wittenberg University and led a separate field study program to Comic-Con International for students across the country each summer (see www.powerofcomics.com/fieldstudy for details).
BookShelf: You have written an introductory textbook for comic art studies courses. What is the value in studying comics at the academic level?
Matthew J. Smith: Although comics are like any other medium in that they can teach us about how people make meaning, the unique combination of words and pictures distinguish comics. There are techniques of communication in the comics form that cannot be successfully translated into any other medium.
Randy Duncan: But, there are also communication techniques that began in comics that are increasingly finding their way into other aspects of our increasingly visual culture. Especially online.
BookShelf: Who is your intended audience for this book?
Matthew J. Smith: Our objective was to create a text that is immediately accessible to undergraduate students and imminently useful for their instructors. We were conscious of the fact that many of the students picking up our textbook haven't read comics before (or in a substantial period of time) and aren't necessarily steeped in comics lore. We've tried to open the expanse of the medium to them in a reader-friendly fashion (for example, we have a glossary as one of our appendices to the book).
However, we respect that they and their instructors are smart readers, so we've introduced historical, sociological, and artistic concepts that allow them to begin exploring the complex issues which the medium presents. For example, we not only identify that women have had a role in comics, but we introduce the larger concept of representation and examine how it has been manifest in the industry in terms of both gender and race.
Randy Duncan: We hope we have achieved a balance between making the book very accessible to undergraduate students, and also introducing some material that, depending on how the instructor approaches it, can be challenging enough for a graduate course. I am particularly fond of the two chapters on formal analysis of the art form. In those chapters and in other areas we make some substantial contributions to the comics theory dialogue, thus making the book of interest even to those comics and visual communication scholars who do not teach a course.
Outside of academia, any comics fan who read and enjoyed Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art should find our book to be a thought-provoking and worthwhile read. In general, comics fans are an intelligent lot. If you look at all the blogs out there you’ll find they spend a lot of time exploring the history of the medium and even debating the mechanics of how this art form communicates. The Power of Comics will be right up their alley.
BookShelf: Each chapter ends with discussion questions and activities. What was your process for determining these? Were these assignments tested with students?
Matthew J. Smith: Nearly all of these come from one--if not both--of our classrooms. Randy has been teaching his version of the course for almost two decades, so he's had time to experiment with a lot of these. We think features like the discussion questions and activities are tools that really set our book apart. This book is meant to be a resource for both the student and the instructor to help shape a course in the study of comics.
Randy Duncan: We’ll have a section on the powerofcomics.com site where users of the text can share ways in which they have modified our teaching tools or the totally new ideas they have developed.
BookShelf: This book approaches comics from several angles – there is plenty of discussion of the creation of comics and how they work as a medium, but you also discuss the medium in terms of its history, as well as the industry and culture that supports it. Why did you take this approach? How does an understanding of comics’ readers and fans inform an understanding of the medium itself?
Randy Duncan: You cannot understand the comic book medium without understanding comic book fandom. For the past forty years this medium has been shaped by fandom, and mainstream comics have become almost totally dependent on fandom for their economic survival. Even those cartoonists who are producing alternative comics or graphic novels outside the mainstream are often creating work that is a reflection of, or sometimes a rejection of, their own immersion in comic book culture.
Matthew J. Smith: Communication studies has a tradition of looking at individual mediums from a variety of perspectives. We've applied a formula that is familiar in film studies, for example, to examine the medium from historical, functional, industrial, and sociological angles. We may have broken a little bit of ground in our history sections by looking at comics through a different schema other than the familiar "Golden/Silver/Bronze Age" lens. Where we are broadening the conversation is by saying that one can learn about comics through their history AND through their industry AND through their fans AND through their impact on society. It's really about creating multiple perspectives to help readers see just how rich with meaning this medium is.
BookShelf: It seems that the serious study of comics is growing, and this book is an excellent example of that. What do you hope to see in the future of comics scholarship?
Randy Duncan: Comics Studies seem to be about where Film Studies was in the 1950s when the first textbooks began appearing and the first college courses were offered. The Internet is helping us speed up the process of growing an academic field. However, I am still discovering professors who have been teaching comics for years without knowing about the Comics Scholars Discussion List, the Comics Arts Conference, the growing number of academic journals devoted to comics, and all the other resources. I think our book is a wonderful gateway into the world of comics scholarship for the uninitiated.
Matthew J. Smith: There probably aren't many people teaching a comics course today who wouldn't want to be involved with the development of an entire comics curriculum (e.g., certificate, minor, or major). We hope that by equipping people with a text that shows how multi-faceted the medium is, we've contributed some small step in the direction towards Universities offering not just one--but multiple--courses in comic studies.
The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture