The academic discipline of comics studies has burgeoned in recent years. New journals and conferences supporting the subject area have emerged, a comics laureate has been appointed and the UK’s first ever master’s programme for the discipline has been established.
This is the culmination of many decades of work in comics scholarship. Many will know that the study and appreciation of comics has a long history – early appreciators of the medium include Goethe, Picasso, and Bunuel. But it is only now that this is being translated into courses and research that do not disguise themselves as something else, but rather lay proud claim to comics studies as a discipline.
There are several reasons for this rise in popularity. Comics have achieved a hard-fought-for degree of critical respectability since the “graphic novel” boom of the mid-1980s. Award-winning and innovative works such as Maus, Fun Home and Palestine have been recognised as accomplished works of art and literature. Over recent years they have crept into university reading lists worldwide, and across a range of disciplines, from literature courses to history and media studies.
At the other end of the scale, comics have provided the inspiration for many top-grossing films and acclaimed television series. After several shaky decades the comics industry is finally bouncing back with new business models that take advantage of online distribution, mitigating against the vulnerability that it, along with most traditional print media, had been exposed to with the onset of the digital age.
A new confidence is to be found in the industry, and in the wider world of comics, which includes hugely popular cross-over events like San Diego Comics Con, New York Comic Con, Thought Bubble in Leeds and many others like them worldwide.
It was these developments that led me to launch Dundee University’s master’s programme in comics studies. The course combines the academic study of comics with practical assessments, allowing students to create comics as well as research them. Of course, there were some predictable claims that universities are “dumbing down” in order to recruit more widely. Fortunately, such prejudices about comics being “just for kids” now seem hopelessly out of date.
Although attitudes are changing, there are still some myths about the discipline which scholars are working hard to dispel.
There’s a misconception that comics studies is just for the boys. Actually, just as comics conventions and comics shops are no longer no-go zones for girls and women, female students make up around 60% of our intake at Dundee.
Similarly, there are a great many prominent female comics scholars leading the development of the field. The issue of gender inequality remains a concern in the mainstream comics industry, where most creators are male, but the situation is very different in independent comics and web comics.
Another myth concerns funding. Some students fear that funding bodies will not take the subject seriously. However, several PhD students who have recently started at Dundee have received full AHRC funding support to undertake research into comics.
This is partly a recognition of the huge amount of work that has to be done in this under-developed area. It’s also down to the fact that students working in comics studies often employ innovative and genuinely interdisciplinary methodologies. There are few orthodoxies to fall back on in comics studies, so the field can be approached from a diverse range of perspectives. As the field expands it must grow, scholars must not seek to impose a canon and orthodoxy – instead they need to retain its interdisciplinary strengths.
For comics studies to thrive, what is really needed is a lot more fundamental than money: the appreciation of comics needs to start at school – and not in the playground, but in the classroom.
Comics have a lot to offer teachers and school pupils, as I have seen in the workshops I have organised for local schools. They can break down disciplinary divides and enable discussions that cross between literature, art, history, politics, media, religious studies, and so on. The value that universities now place on creative thinking across subjects could be embedded much earlier, and using a medium that reflects forms and influences from many cultures.
Comics are also a powerful educational tool for assisting readers with dyslexia or autism who may have difficulty processing text.
We do not yet take advantage of the power of comics to educate, inspire and challenge students. The ever-increasing number of comics scholars worldwide aim to change that.
New to comics and graphic novels? Here are five must reads
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s brilliant deconstruction of the superhero genre. The intricate narrative structure is matched by the clockwork precision of the artwork, redefining the potential of the medium.
Batman: Year One (1987)
Frank Miller, author of the equally monumental Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), joins forces with master stylist David Mazzucchelli to present an innovative revision of Batman’s origin. This was the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.
Fun Home (2006)
Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her relationship with her father, intertwined with her coming out story, and her discovery of his own secret life, draws on a range of literary allusions and showcases Bechdel’s exquisite control of the comics form.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s powerful manga inspired science fiction animal rights tale is an unforgettable mash up of Watership Down, The Fox and the Hound, The Matrix, and Mobile Suit Gundam. If you think your cat has a mean streak, wait till you read this.
The Arrival (2006)
Shaun Tan’s stunning parable of an immigrant finding his way in an exotic and threatening new world is an impressive blend of children’s illustrated book and graphic novel. Told without words with beautiful sepia coloured images, it evokes an old, long forgotten family album, but with elements of surrealism. A wonder for all ages.