An Introduction to Comic Studies

Mon, October 3rd, 2011 at 2:58pm PDT | Updated: October 3rd, 2011 at 4:17pm

Comic Books
Laura Sneddon, Contributing Writer
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University of Dundee's brochure for its Comic Studies course

Land of the free, home of the brave and the country with one of the longest running comics in history; of where do I speak? Scotland may not be the first place to come to mind when considering the key players in the world of comics, but this diminutive and somewhat soggy land has had an astonishing influence on both the British and American comic scene. Over the years, we've given the world Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, Judge Dredd and Alan Grant, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant.

Yes, half our population is called Grant and yes, we do all, in fact, know Morrison. Maybe.

So what better place, then, to launch one of the world's first mainstream university degrees in the study of comics than the small Scottish city of Dundee. The University of Dundee has just started a new one year postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In my new column for CBR, I'll be covering the course from a student's perspective and looking at what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

Why Dundee, you might ask? The city has given the world many things, from the X-Men movies' William Stryker (Brian Cox) to Mickey Mouse (Jimmy MacDonald was his voice!) but it is most famous for being the home of DC Thomson, publisher of UK newspapers, magazines and comics. In fact "The Dandy," a popular children's comic, is the third longest running comic in the world and there is a mighty fine statue of Desperate Dan, a lead character in the comics, in the centre of the city. Dundee has an annual Comics Day that has attracted big names like Warren Ellis and Bryan Talbot, in no small part due to the hugely respected Dr. Chris Murray: resident comics scholar and the big man in charge of the fledgling Comic Studies course.

The UK still strongly associates comics with children's entertainment and the new degree was given some rather predictable press attention, with one MP in particular tweeting about the dumbing down of degrees and likening Comic Studies to a degree in forks, or a Bachelor of Science in Battlestar Galactica. Though, I have to admit, a science degree in Battlestar Galactica technology would be quite the coup.

Of course there's nothing surprising about comics not being taken seriously as literature and art. That prejudice was, in fact, one of the many subjects covered in the introductory lecture I attended this week. Before the course was announced in June, I had absolutely no intention of ever returning to university. My days of exams, essays and beans on toast were quite happily a distant memory. As a freelance writer who specializes in comics theory and history, however, it was difficult to argue against applying for a postgraduate degree in that exact field. Particularly when your mum is prodding you to write about something sensible for once.

As you have no doubt guessed, I am not here to read children's comics. The course is made up of three modules, the first focusing on autobiographical comics, the second on international comics culture and the third a choice of creating comics, scriptwriting or publishing writing. I selected the first option as I'd quite like to try my hand at comics creation and it should provide me with a better understanding of the medium.

Dr Murray is well known in academic circles for his many contributions to the comic studies field and I had the surreal experience of being introduced to him in July by Grant Morrison. I was interviewing the "Action Comics" writer in Edinburgh for a national paper in the UK before being invited to hang around to meet some people, Dr Murray amongst them. It's a small country sure, but not that small!

Before getting our teeth stuck into autobiographical comics, we were treated to the introductory lecture, laying out the concept of comic studies as a whole and a brief overview of comics theory and history as it is currently understood. Historically, the study of comics has been somewhat patchy when compared with other forms of entertainment and literature. Even film, another medium with its own history of struggling against instant dismissal as an art form, has a far richer source of academic and critical works to choose from. Comics have usually been studied from a historical point of view, detailing the rise of the superhero and fall of supply.

"The Comics Journal" has been around for decades, focusing on criticism and Scott McCloud, Thierry Groensteen and Trina Robbins are just a few of the names deserving of a place on any comic scholars bookshelf. Yet the actual academic theorization of comics remains in its infancy and is seen to be undeserving as the focus of a degree in literature. Given that comics are two well respected art forms combined -- illustration and literature -- where does this umbrage take root?

The back cover of the Comics Studies brochure gives a good indication of the books to be studied during the course of the program

Mass-produced comics were born around the same time as film; early cinema and early "funnies" were made possible due to the invention of the mechanical reproduction of images. Before this industrial evolution, all art was unique and all performances were seen in person. To gain access to a work of art or enjoy an evening at the theatre required status, money and class. Suddenly, within the space of a few years, art and performance were both available cheaply and on demand. The wretched poor were given access to mass culture, an intolerable turn of events for society's elite.

The hierarchy of the arts soon kicked in once again, with opera at the top, cinema at the bottom and comics somewhere even lower. When it comes to literature, the rule of "words good, pictures bad" is firmly entrenched. Comics possess the ability to convey complex ideas with a (deceptively) simple style. This power, often put to political use through caricatures and parodies, was incredibly frightening to those further up the pecking order. Beforehand such ideas were kept out of the hands of the public at large, discussed only by those with the privilege of education. Comics were subsequently downplayed as juvenile, created for children and not to be taken seriously.

The success of the superhero genre and its alluring profitability ensured that comics remained stuck with those labels regardless of their content for decades. The next time someone mocks you for reading comics, I suggest informing them that their elitist hatred for the working class is most unbecoming.

Amongst regular comic readers, of course, it is well known that there is far more to the medium than capes and crusaders. The first module of the Comic Studies course, Autobiographix, covers a number of comics, from the award winning "Maus" by Art Spiegelman and "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi, to the less mainstream titles with Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" and David B's "Epileptic." Next, we'll be looking at Comics as Confession, featuring "American Splendor," the acclaimed and long lived autobiographical series by Harvey Pekar. His comics are unglamorous and mundane, with no sense of excitement or drive, and yet they are gripping, addictive, even, and completely fascinating. Pekar documented his life as it unfolded, from fixing the toilet to worrying about his comic work and facing down his health demons. Every detail committed to paper.

Each week, we will have a recommended text to examine and comment on before the next lecture, snippets of which are uploaded online ahead of time. Tonight, I'm looking at chapter seven of "Our Cancer Year" and wondering how soon I can afford to buy up some trade paperbacks. The experiences Pekar goes through are portrayed so realistically, in all their prosaic glory, that they simply wouldn't bear the same weight as text alone. My next lecture should help me understand in more detail exactly why "American Splendor" has such an impact.

In week three, I'll hopefully be giving the first class presentation on "Persepolis," a comic close to my heart. I mentioned earlier that although I am an all-around geek, my speciality lies in comics theory and history; narrowing that focus even further, my pet topic is women in comics and it was a series of articles on that subject first accidentally launched my writing career. Some combination of the ramblings from my brain and my background knowledge of the publishing industry drew the attention of eye-wateringly big names, from Jim Lee to Greg Rucka. And when Warren Ellis retweets your articles, you know your life is about to get very strange.

Guest speakers are certainly on the agenda, as Dundee has a long and proud history of getting some of the greats to come and visit. Handily, about half of them live in Glasgow, just a couple of hours away. I can also promise esteemed visitors my famous chocolate brownies and just a smidge of adoration.

Finally, to answer the question I have been asked the most about my return to student life -- who studies comics? Am I surrounded by a nightmarish crowd of forum-dwelling trolls? Or by academics looking down their noses at me for my time away from university? Am I the only woman? Does everyone else have a beard? Am I the oldest in the class? (Admittedly, that last one was my own question, a ridiculous worry at the best of times for someone in their late-twenties.)

Fortunately the answer to all of the above is no; the class is in fact made up of an eclectic mix of people, from the sciences and arts alike, along with those changing career, others who just enjoy comics and even a couple of gentlemen from DC Thomson. Maybe a couple of beards. And myself, of course, the purple haired writer ("journalist dammit!" screams the Spider Jerusalem that lives in my head), still slightly astonished to be back in the classroom.

Comic Studies isn't hugely different from other postgraduate English degrees -- nobody enters the course under any illusions that it will guarantee them employment with Comic Studies Inc. But it is fantastic to see this much maligned medium finally getting the attention it deserves.

And yes, my mum does now agree that comics are worthwhile after all.

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

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