The Southwest Texas Pop Culture/American Culture Association hosts a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico every year, and three years ago, it’s where I presented my first foray into comics scholarship. I was pretty terrified to do so, having only returned to reading comics less than a year before, but I was talking about (still) one of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s PROMETHEA, which I consider a game-changer in the presentation not only of female heroes in comics, but in the comics presentation of esoteric concepts. My first paper went much better than expected, despite the fact that my panel was at 8AM, and the altitude was making me feel high. It led to my first publication in a comics studies journal (the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics), but in retrospect, I think it was more significant because I met one of the greats of current comics scholarship, Rob Weiner.
He’s the area chair for Graphic Novels and Comics at the SWTX PCA, and aside from his varied pop culture scholarship and media involvement, he’s produced quite a few excellent books and collections of essays on comics scholarship and comics in libraries that have paved the way for younger scholars to feel grounded in this new field (most recently WEB SPINNING HEROICS, a collection of essays on Spider-Man) . Not only is he an invaluable resource, but he represents the inclusive attitude so vital in comics scholarship right now, seeing the potential in new ideas and giving comics primacy in study, rather than letting theory (so prevalent in “the academy”) dominate. He’ll be embarrassed by all my praise, but let’s be clear: I wouldn’t even be writing about comics without Rob, and writing about comics has changed my life, so I’m very grateful.
I’ve been back every year to the SWTX PCA, and followed them to the national conference occasionally (all lovely people there too). I’ve been very impressed by the way a substantial number of panels on comics scholarship have been run every year, and every year several of the panels have speakers claim to be “brand new” to talking about comics in a scholarly way. This year talks ranged from cultural understanding in TINTIN (bucking the trend in criticism of colonial ideas), to discussions of autobio comics I’d never even encountered (always good), as well as plenty of talks on X-Men, WATCHMEN, and more mainstream titles. The talks were all earnest, carefully researched and presented, and gave a little preview of where comics scholarship is headed, which is into increasing acceptance in academia as a “serious” subject.
When critiquing the current state of affairs with other scholars, we all agreed that we hope in the future scholars, regardless of their subject area backgrounds (from English Lit, to Film, Law, and Sociology) will really spread their wings and resist the ossification that adhering too strictly to theory-dominance creates. To explain that a little more, what we meant is that there’s a lot of pressure in all things academic to spend a lot of energy establishing theoretical framework, which becomes a form of peer pressure that can take away from an enthusiastic discussion of the subject being studied. It feels like putting the cart before the horse, and often takes the spotlight off the great art form that we love. There’s a place for theory, and it needs to be there for a detailed critique of what comics have accomplished as a “serious” art form, but it’s a fine line between using theory and theory using scholars. So much for our soap-box.
My own presentation this year was particularly exciting for me, creating the first ever academic discussion of Emmy-Award winning artist Dean Haspiel’s BILLY DOGMA comics. BILLY, featuring a bruiser hero with poetic prose and his fists of fury girlfriend Jane Legit, has been running for 15 years in various formats, and has increasingly challenged the way that relationships are presented in hero comics. My talk focused on the way that relationships can be handled seriously as part of the psychology of hero stories, rather than simply presenting miserable, failed relationships (typical in superhero comics focusing on a secret identity) or as a “happy ending” (like many folk tales involving heroes). There’s a strong middle ground where relationships can act as part of the heroic development of well-rounded individuals struggling with their own internal demons, but it doesn’t often find its way into hero comics. Long live BILLY!
I had plenty of great slides to use to illustrate my points, and this led to discussions with other scholars later about the increasing importance of using slides so the audience really experiences the comics being talked about. As surprising as it may sound, using visual slides in academic talks is a relatively recent thing. When I presented my first American academic paper on film studies back in 2007, there was no way to use Power Point in my conference room and using the DVD player to try to show clips of a film was a complete disaster. Things are slowly catching up- thankfully since comics scholarship needs these resources.
The feedback I hear every year at the SWTX PCA is that it’s a place to reconnect with like-minded people, who often become close friends over time (and I have made several there), and the “new” scholars in the panels I chaired also spoke about how the people they met made a big difference in inspiring them to continue in comics scholarship. It’s not the easiest road in the world, often facing scrutiny or stubborn lack of desire to understand from academic circles, but that’s changing, and the only way it’s going to really change is to keep on doing what we love.
One of the highlights of the conference, by the way, was a packed screening of the 1926 film THE BAT, a silent film whose talkie sequel was a big influence on the genesis of Batman as a character and a comic. Taking into account the various trends in pop culture that impact comics is very important, and keeping comics scholarship too narrow a field is a big way to miss out on gems like this.
I spent the last day and a half in New Mexico exploring some familiar haunts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, basking in the intense sunshine (through my dark sunglasses- intense!) ,and taking in some museums where I got the appreciate the tumultuous history and amazing Native cultures of the Southwest. Talking with Pueblo culture craftsmen, eating some of my favorite Southwest foods and just reminding myself what a big world it is always adds to my experience of the conference when I go. It was another great year at the SWTX PCA and, yeah, I hope I’m there for many years to come. I hope next year there will be even more comics panels, even more unique and original ideas I haven’t heard before, and an increasing flow of newbies who pave the way for future appreciation of comics.