1. Comics and Academics

Have comics been overlooked in academia? Why do you think this might be?

1. Yes, comics definitely have been overlooked by many academics. This is in part because, by their very nature, they don’t fit easily into the disciplinary structures that we have today. For example, are they art? Of course, they certainly are, but because they’re usually collected together in strip or book form, circulated in newspapers or sold in bookshops, rather than hung in museums or galleries, it means they’ve often don’t get the attention of art historians and art theorists. 

2. Conversely, are they literature? Many comics look like books, and there are lots of self-labelled comics short stories and ‘graphic novels’. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, and most of them contain text that drives the narrative forward. But they are, also, fundamentally, groupings of sequential images as well as words. The field of literary studies might have the tools to deconstruct comics’ narrative dimensions, but how can literary academics presume to analyse their visual materials? This is one reason that, in its early incarnations at least, comics studies has mostly been located in media studies departments, sometimes even film studies departments.

3. However, probably the real reason for the slow uptake of comics by academia is that comics have traditionally been seen as a ‘low’ cultural form, one that is filled with coarse language, silly jokes and subversive sentiments and thus not worthy of critical attention. This is especially the case when they are contrasted with the notion of literature, say, as a ‘high’ cultural form with moral worth. This division still haunts comics, even as they have been embraced by academics in recent years, and causes much self-reflexive debate.

4. So why then are comics now being embraced by more and more universities?

—Universities are paying more and more attention to popular culture: film studies, television, popular music

 —Graphic novels—as opposed to comics—have become more serious, more political and more philosophical 

For example, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour, or Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which move away from conventional superhero stories and tackle complex and serious issues (Spiegelman’s comic is about his father’s time in Auschwitz, for example) that academia started to take them seriously. So these longer, more obviously ‘serious’ comics, have gained the form recognition in academic circles, and even today academics still tend to focus on them.

—Universities are also spending more and more time embracing and promoting “interdisciplinary studies” which bridges the gaps, for example, between art and literature.

—Accordingly, comics and graphic novels are being seen less and less as a distraction and more and more as a medium to encourage reading and study. A quick search reveals that courses in comics are being taught in a number of universites in the UK, and in the U.S., the University of Oregon, Yale University, the University of Georgia

© Hank Edmondson 2012