It was heartening to many people in the field of comics studies to see that, this week, the University of Oregon received a grant from a private donor to create a $200,000 endowment for their Comics and Cartoon Studies program. At this point, students there can take a minor in the discipline, as part of an English program that offers courses in comics and related subjects. While individual comics courses are fairly common in American universities, having been pioneered in the 1970s, actual degree programs are still a novelty. For example, my colleague and friend C.J. Stephens is now finishing his PhD in comics at Texas A&M. However, the degree will officially be in “literature” with an emphasis on comics and related disciplines (like contemporary American and British literature), but none of that will be reflected on the degree he receives.
The summary sketch one hears often about comics studies is that it’s about “fifty years behind film studies,” in terms of academic legitimacy. In the 1950s and early 1960s, film was just beginning to be taken seriously in American academia. (For the record, French and Russian theorists had been doing it since the 1910s.) There were technical film schools – just like these days there are places that can teach drawing, technique, inking, and all the technical skills of comics creation – but in terms of true, reflective academic study, fifty years ago that was left to journalists (such as the late Andrew Sarris) and creators themselves (such as Francois Truffaut). Comics studies was in that state until recently: in the 1990s, we had to depend on what Will Eisner and Scott McCloud were writing, as well as the notable creators who really did espouse the storytelling possibilities of the medium in the 1980s.
Today, there are plenty of people talking and writing about comics, and one can very easily find comics studies courses in colleges and universities. There are a few key texts, although to my knowledge, there isn’t a commonly accepted introductory undergraduate text along the lines of Bernard Dick’s Anatomy of Film, but such a text must be close to being available, if it isn’t already.
The missing piece is a degree program. The University of Oregon’s program is a true pioneer in this sense, and their minor is a wonderful step forward for comics studies. However, one need only glance at the way the story was reported by U of O’s press to see how far comics studies still needs to go to achieve academic legitimacy. The title of the press release is “Serious about the Funnies” (a title that makes me, and I suspect many of you, absolutely squirm), and of the six related courses offered in the winter term, two are about super-heroes and children’s stories, one is about manga, and one is a general introduction. The obvious courses on comix, pre-code comics (such as EC Comics), Bronze Age masterpieces, digital comics, and new voices in the increasingly diverse world of comics storytelling are missing. There is a course on “War in French Comics”, which is intriguing, but it’s part of the French program at the school and taught entirely in French. I would be curious to know how much time they spend on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s comics or the work of Enki Bilal.
The situation is more advanced in the UK, in my experience. For example, the University of Dundee offers an MLitt/PGDip (master’s in literature / postgraduate diploma) in comics studies that presents a wide variety of courses, including comics and film and autobiographical comics, and I know that the overall coordinator, my colleague Dr. Chris Murray, creates a good atmosphere for all concerned. But it does seem a bit of shame that comics are still considered largely a new field and not receptive of the attention given to other elements of popular culture, such as cinema and TV, particularly since comics pre-date cinema historically by a wide margin.
Well done to the University of Oregon and the University of Dundee for their efforts, and let’s see more.
One final thought: when I taught an introduction to comics module, the college was resistant and would only allow a short, three-day “community education” version, not for credit. As part of my preparation, I asked the question that others have asked: “Why are comics still in search of academic legitimacy?” I’m sure everyone reading this would agree that comics are as deserving of scholarly attention as any other field. Heck, just look at Sequart.org’s mission statement.