Five Reasons Why Comics Scholarship is Important

Before getting into comics, I had no idea where to start, or how to approach comics as a body of work. Over the course of several decades comics have diversified into a multi-headed beast. There are a variety of traditions, each with their own history. Web comics, comic-books, graphic novels, art comics, underground comics, French comics, news strips, and political cartoons each share a part in the legacy and demonstrate sequential narrative in action. But where to start? Sequart Organization, among many other literacy groups and international academics, studies comics. As a community we desire to better understand sequential art, its origins, and what culls it from the crowd of human expression in popular culture. From lofty dissertations to pedestrian comic shop dialogues, many within the culture are apt to discuss why comics are important. Sadly, comics are still niche and esoteric, despite cinematic salience in popular culture. Therefore, in no particular order, I desired to give my top five reasons why comics scholarship is important, and why it is worth investing in.

1. Comics articulate culture; Comic Scholarship studies culture.

Like all narratives, art, sculpture, film, and genres, comics were formulated in response to a particular movement within popular culture. How we understand these translations from writer to paper helps us connect with popular movements going on around us. Comics today articulate minority voices, but in the 40s they were entertainment for GIs at war in Europe, and dramatized the struggle of the Allied forces against the aggression of the Axis powers. Clothing, fashion, mannerisms, and period slang are preserved in comics, which depict interactions between humans, as conceived by the author. Comics are vehicles for culture in the same manner fiction and non-fiction prose capture the attitudes of their contemporaries. Just as George Orwell’s Animal Farm captured the cynical outlook of Soviet communism, X-Men promoted the awareness of racism and segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Without comics scholarship these studies would be marginalized by the academy.

2. Comics communicate internationally; Comics Scholarship interprets communication.

Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics postulates that comic dialogue communicates not only language and information but also time. The implication is that however long it takes to read a panel also determines how much time passes during the action of speech (which, of course, is dependent upon the reader). This suggests that panels without speech or dialogue are belabored moments, speaking eternal messages. This makes comics effectively timeless in their ability to communicate information, and also capable of communicating without a language barrier. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, artists around the world protested against radical Islam. Via illustration, people of any nation were able to understand the gravity of what had happened, and it’s all because of comics and sequential narrative. Therefore it behooves us to study graphic narrative techniques, the art of “still motion” as I like to call it, to further understand the communicative principals that support comics.

3. Comics engender philosophical meditation; Comics Scholarship engenders discovery.

Philosophy of the Mind continues to seek answers about the inner workings of human cognition, though it is not common to find popular culture meditating on the human condition and the quality of being human. However, DC comics still retains characters that deal in absolutes. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, among others, are representations of greater principals and ideals. Their strengths and limitations are discussed in the comic medium, feeding philosophical inquiry. Authors such as Alan Moore write comics that are, in essence, graphic thought experiments. Watchmen entertains a world where comic books do not exist, but failed superheroes do. Watchmen is post-comic, post-idealism. Therefore, the development of comics steers clear of superhero comics, and shows a world founded on horror comics drawn in the style of Joe Orlando and the EC comics staff. Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, and other Vertigo/DC authors took high-concept philosophy and gave it to the layman, like Prometheus bringing fire to the humans. Only now are academics coming out of the comic-closet to discuss comics openly, but it is because of sequential art criticism by fans and comic scholars that this has begun to happen.

4. Comics are subject to the Invisible Hand and Comic Scholarship makes us “responsible consumers.”

At the risk of sounding elitist, intelligence matters when we consume content. After all we don’t go to school for nothing. Education helps citizens in a democracy become well educated and capable of thinking for themselves. Smart people mobilize and get things done. They are passionate about candidates and organize to launch them into public office. Better informed citizens, generally, are better informed consumers and are more prone to spend their money conservatively. The same goes for comics. It’s no secret that DC and Marvel editorial push stories that are more likely to sell, but if all the consumers like are flashy substance-less material, we are in trouble. Some of the most beloved stories in comic book culture are the experimental, well written narratives of wild authors. We cherish the stories of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Neil Gaiman, et al, because they inspire new authors to push the limits of the storytelling. To simply acquiesce the banal narrative rhythms of comic books isn’t enough! It’s just more of the same. Comics will simply die if the genre doesn’t experience innovation, and it’s the consumers that regulate innovation by their purchases. Conservative consumers are also scrupulous about their support of Kickstarter campaigns, but they are passionate about them. Passionate people give more, praise more, and rep more, the things they love because they want the whole world to appreciate and see why they like something. Comics scholarship educates, informs, and supports the comic book industry, but it also encourages the consumer to proactively consume.

5. Scholarship raises awareness for the medium in academia.

Whether or not colleges will admit it, comics are becoming more mainstream than ever, but aren’t recognized as legitimate areas of study at major universities around the world. Though a case can be made for their inclusion in the list of courses a professor teaches, students going to college do not see a Graphic Narratives 101A, B, and C in their course catalogues. This is because the bulk of the comics produced that people are generally aware of are superhero comics, which bear a stigma for being childish and simple. However, the reality that there are many genres, movements, and narrative tropes of comics that have influenced popular culture cannot be overstated. Comics Scholarship aims to push comics out into the academy that they can get their due alongside other forms of serialized fiction, including Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Also, Comics Scholarship aims to inform the student of their voice and the power it possesses. Students can ask for comics to be included in the curriculum! They only need believe that comics are worth teaching and that their own children can read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in college one day as well.

If you enjoyed reading this article please consider supporting us on Patreon. We strive to do what we do because comics are worthy of the world’s attention. Tell your teachers about your favorite comics. Bring comics to school. Show everyone why they matter, because they are worth it. You are not alone!

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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