Julian Chambliss Discusses MSU’s Comics Forum and Commitment to Pop Culture Studies

Leaving the peninsula of Florida for the peninsula of Michigan, Dr. Julian Chambliss is now a professor in Michigan State University’s Department of English. As a scholar of comic books and popular culture, Chambliss will be contributing to the Department of English’s minor in Comic Art and Graphic Novels and benefit from MSU’s amazing comic book collection. Moreover, Chambliss will be participating in MSU’s upcoming Comics Forum. Wanting to learn more about his new role at MSU, the school’s commitment to comics studies, and MSU’s Comics Forum, I was able to interview Chambliss for Sequart.

To learn more about Chambliss, you should visit his homepage and follow him on Twitter at @JulianChambliss.

Nicholas Yanes: You have just moved to Michigan from Florida. How are you adapting to life without Publix? Have you found life to be better without having to deal with tourists on a daily basis?

Julian Chambliss: Having grown up in Florida, I see the great desire for people to visit the state as one of the things that makes it unique. My immediate impression is that Michigan is cooler, and people are nice.  Soon, very soon, I fear the cool will turn to cold and I will need those nice people to help me survive.

Yanes: You have an amazing position at Michigan State University. Could you take a moment to describe the work you will be doing and the community you will be part of?

Chambliss: My new job is in the Department of English at Michigan State University (MSU). My position is centered around teaching and research linked to comic studies and digital humanities. In this position, I am joining a collaborative group of scholars in the Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age (CEDAR). The goal for CEDAR is grounded in an intersectional approach to exploring human difference. For me, this is an opportunity to engage more deeply with questions of community, identity, and power that animates a lot of what I do. So, my concerns about the real and imagined will be filtered through interdisciplinary projects exploring comics, race, and community.

Yanes: It has recently been announced that MSU’s next Comics Forum will be held on February 22nd and 23rd in 2019. What are you personally looking forward to at this event?

Chambliss: This will be a great opportunity to be exposed to scholarship about comics and interact with comics creators from around the country. This will be my first year and I’m looking forward to seeing how such a unique experience comes together at MSU. As a large land grant institution, there is a big emphasis on engaging the public. In many ways, The Comic Forum is the perfect vehicle to bring comic scholarship to the public. I expect to see unique interactions between scholars, fans, and artists in space dedicated to the comic form.

Yanes: The MSU Comic Forum is held annually, how does the MSUCF distinguish itself from the rest?

Chambliss: The MSUCF is a direct outgrowth of the MSU’s strength in popular culture studies. The Comic Forum grew out of the leadership of scholars in the Department of English such as Ann Larabee and Gary Hoppenstand. They were early and active scholars engaged with popular culture as an academic field.

The Comics Forum began as a much needed space to discuss the comics medium in a serious way. In the decade since its founding, it has only grown. In the decade since its founding year, MSUCF’s Director, Ryan Claytor, has grown the Forum into a multi-day, internationally-recognized, annual event where scholars, creators, and readers of comics engage in unique and collaborative conversations with one another. With graduate students deeply engaged in comic scholarship, such as Zack Kruse (http://www.english.msu.edu/people/gas/zack-kruse/ ), who organizes academic panels, the Forum is an event that supports innovative discussion about comic scholarship. Of course, the fact that the Michigan State University Library has the largest comics collection in the world adds to the weight of the activities at the Forum. The collection has fueled comic scholarship for years and this annual meeting is an opportunity for that community to come together. If you get the chance, take an opportunity to listen to the MSUCF Podcast’s conversation with Randy Scott, the librarian that built the collection. His knowledge and passion for comics is a gift.

Yanes: The MSU Comics Forum does an amazing job of bringing professional creators and scholars together. Why do you think this type of networking is important?

Chambliss: I think we tend to separate the “serious and academic” in comics from the “commercial and popular” and at some level, this division creates a chasm around the benefit that comes from recognizing how those spheres interact. MSUCF allows fans, artists, and scholars to interact with love of comics as an artform, serious consideration of the cultural impact of comics and retrospective on artistic practice finding an equity of expression. We benefit from this dialogue as researchers to develop new pathways for inquiry and to grow public awareness of comics studies at Michigan State University.

Yanes: What are areas of comics scholarship you think more people need to research?

Chambliss: As an historian, I continue to think about the 1940s and 1950s as a period that we can learn more from. I’m excited about Qiana Whitted’s new book examining representation in this period, having her as the MSCUF scholar keynote in 2019 will give us a chance to hear about this work before the rest of the world!

Of course, as someone fascinated by the identity and security issues in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m interested in how they will evolve those films with the incorporation of Captain Marvel. Given the character’s origins and contemporary profile, I expect tremendous fan engagement with that film. If you look at comics in the MSU collection, the Bronze Age comics suggests a possible future for the cinematic universe. Like the print universe, I think the possibility of exploring genres and concerns that emerged in the 1970s will shape the MCU films. Characters such as Blade and titles such as Werewolf by Night can be the basis of engaging MCU stories. Given the controversy around not casting an Asian actor for Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix, I think Marvel must be considering how The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu can be adapted into the MCU.

I also think Native American characters are an obvious pathway given the activism around Native American rights in the 1970s and the emergence of character that reflected those concerns. In general, I think there are opportunities for characters rooted in the 1970s sociopolitical mileu to be revamped and rehabilitated for a new generation expecting greater diverse representation. Indeed, if we think about Marvel’s Black Panther through that framework, the film effectively capitalized on a recognition of African-American trauma and longing for legitimization of depth, complexity, and beauty in the African Diaspora that has always existed in Black America. This desired exploded in the 1970s and was reflected in Jungle Action featuring Black Panther stories written by Don McGregor and drawn by artists Gil Kane and Billy Graham. What lesson they take away from those 1970s stories will crucial for MCU’s evolution.

This leads to my final space of interest. The fan ecosystem around comic continues to offer great opportunities. The path from fan to professional in comics has been a defining part of the development of the medium. In the contemporary landscape, with the rise of social media, you can argue this has gotten more important. The empowered fandoms on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter have done things to champion diversity, but also bullied creators. Thus, the protest and commentary from these spaces are shaping content. Thinking about the historic fandom and the contemporary fandom are spaces that are really important.  Of course, I think there are amazing creator biographies, organizations histories, and exploration of transnational relationships in U.S. comics that would be interesting. This is not to say we have not seen people research these things, but I think new studies will add depth to what we know so well.

Yanes: On this note, are there any topics in comics scholarship you think have been over researched?

Chambliss: I would never say something is over researched. One of the natural processes in academia is reframing and revisiting what we know to gain greater understanding. I think that we get the comic scholarship that reflects the passion researchers have for the medium. Given the centrality of media based on superhero comic book characters, I think we can expect that scholars with a variety of theoretical tools are going to wade into our contemporary engagement with superheroes. I think we might need to broaden those examinations to get the most out of them. We have not written about First Comics, Milestone Media, or Valiant Comics as much as we might.

Yanes: I have found that the general public doesn’t understand the importance of comics studies. What do you think non-academics and non-professional could learn from the MSU Comics Forum?

Chambliss: I think the MSUCF is the perfect venue to see how comics fit in global popular culture. The community of scholars and artists that contribute to the event are accessible and dedicated to making the comic medium understood. Because we are housed at MSU, many costs for participants are eliminated or reduced This is an educational space and there is a celebration of the comic medium that brings everyone into this space.

Yanes: After the Comics Forum is over, what do you hope people take away from the experience?

Chambliss: When it comes to comics, there is so much more. More to know, more to experience, more to read and more to explore. We are in the midst of comic renaissance of a sort, with a greater variety of comics available for readers beyond superheroes. I think MSUCF is a space that showcases that diversity and celebrates this great art form.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Chambliss: I’m working on an essay about urban imaginary in Brotherman, a seminal independent comic from the 1990s for a forthcoming collection. I’m also developing Critical Fanscape, a digital project that will examine fanzines in the MSU Comic Collection. This is research project with student collaborators digging into our collection to create an archive that sheds light on fan engagement over time.

Remember, you can learn more about Chambliss by visiting his homepage and following him on Twitter at @JulianChambliss.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on Twitter @Sequart and on Facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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