The Future of Comics Scholarship at the SWTX PCA Conference, 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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9 thoughts on “The Future of Comics Scholarship at the SWTX PCA Conference, 2013

  1. Hannah, Great piece and it’s encouraging to know that there is a conscious attempt to keep to a middle ground with comics scholarship. Having a foot in both camps of comics scholarship and comics fans I can agree with the importance of that middle ground. And as you noted keeps the interest in the art form lively. Thanks for keeping us in the loop!

  2. …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.

    With respect, I don’t think “pressure” to establish a theoretical framework is inappropriate for academic studies. In fact bringing our theoretical frameworks to the fore, i.e. to awareness, is IMO one of the prerequisites of strong academic work.

    Of course not all comics scholarship, nor all of the best comics scholarship, is academic in nature. Nor is academic work on comics totally dominated by theory at the expense of other perspectives (historiography, aesthetics, etc.). But the really solid, really useful academic work on comics that I’ve seen is conscious of its theoretical framing, conscious of the disciplinary questions it is trying to answer, and conscious of where the work fits within larger professional dialogues. That’s what academic work does. There are other venues/platforms for scholars who don’t choose to work within (or exclusively within) academia, and those are important and interesting in their own ways, but academics, I believe, have to bring conscious theoretical/methodological framing to the forefront. That’s what academics do.

    It’s a false choice to say “either theory or spotlighting the art form that we love.” Spotlighting the latter doesn’t have to mean neglecting the former. Nor does theorizing mean succumbing to peer pressure only, or being “ossified” in your approach. A free-minded approach to comics studies, in my view, will use theory freshly and nimbly, without fear of offending comics fans or fear of not measuring up to some draconian standard. There’s plenty of love behind a lot of theoretical work, anyway.

    I’m reminded of a conversation I’ve had more than once with students in my department’s Creative Writing option, who have found themselves momentarily puzzled or alienated by the emphasis on theory that they’ve encountered in some of their writing courses (I should note that I myself do not teaching Creative Writing, but I’m an enthusiastic supporter of our excellent Creative Writing teaching cohort!). I have tried to explain that working with theory in a course is provisional, that of course no one can take your creative “style” or approach away from you, that no one can tell you what to love or what to do with your creativity, but that being creative in the context of an academic degree program entails working in different ways than you probably would if you were going it alone. Otherwise, there’s no point in enrolling in such a program. Doing academic work means trying on ways of thinking that go beyond (or in different directions from) your own untrammeled creativity and that challenge your affections and commitments. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    In my view, academic comics study will not genuinely progress until it outgrows this hesitation or self-doubt regarding its academic nature. That has nothing to do with putting love or pleasure aside. It has to do with placing that love and pleasure within wider contexts, beyond or in addition to fandom (though there is no requirement that we leave fandom behind). Me, I don’t want comics studies to be perceived as a backwater that is aloof to the most pressing theoretical and professional questions in my discipline; rather, I want it to be seen for what it is: a serious challenge to disciplinary habits, and a field that addresses issues that are central, not peripheral, to the way academia organizes knowledge. Comics, theory, and comics theory have a lot to give to academia, but the full value of that gift, IMO, can only be realized by meeting theoretical questions head on.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Charles! In this short blog, I didn’t really get into all the issues involved, but may be preparing a larger discussion on these themes.
    I agree that academic scholarship is based on theory, and that there are other types of scholarship that require less theory. I write with plenty of theory myself, and agree that one can love ones subject and apply theory in that vein.
    What concerned me more were discussions that were 3/4 theory and only brought in the slightest discussion of comics. Unfortunately about 2/3 of the talks I heard at my recent conference did this. In my opinion, this cannot really serve comics. A 1 part theory to 3 parts comics or even a 50-50 split is more reasonable. These imbalanced approaches were all from younger scholars, and I could hear little enthusiasm for comics in their discussions. It seemed like they were too concerned about approval from the academy and were just using comics as a tool to achieve this.
    I come from a rigorous academic background and I know the value of theory, and I’ve also heard many presentations in the past that had more of a theory/text balance. This rise disturbs me and that’s why I felt the need to talk about it. Scholars who use theory but don’t make it the main focus of a whole discussion shouldn’t feel like they have to abandon academia to write in more popular formats, but I’m concerned that it might happen.
    I do feel that there is an unhelpful peer pressure to cause this imbalance, rather than scholars setting good examples of a healthy balance and mix of theory and text in writing.

    1. Hannah, thanks for your thoughts. Of course, “theory” is also a form of text, and there’s no reason why presentations and papers shouldn’t be primarily concerned with theoretical texts. I myself prefer to use theory to elucidate specific comics, but I can’t fault other scholars for making the theory primary. It all depends on the intellectual yield.

      It seemed like they were too concerned about approval from the academy and were just using comics as a tool to achieve this.

      If such pressures exist, they aren’t unique to comics study. There are a variety of factors, including the need to find something new to say and of course the pressures of professionalization, that may account for this, but I hardly find those factors unique to comics study. In fact my experience tells me that this is rather less a problem in comics study than in some other, longer-lived, more established critical fields. I wouldn’t worry about comics being used “as a tool” in this way, because the work that endures will be work with a big (again) intellectual yield, work that continues to inspire and influence long after the author has stopped worrying about her/his CV.

      Anyway, I don’t think what you’re talking about can be resisted by announcing a program or manifesto of resistance to theory—and frankly I worry about such a program lending credence to anti-intellectualism. Too often what I’ve seen when comics scholars talk this way is a return to circling the wagons of fandom—but there’s no turning back. Once a subject has been ushered into academic study, one has to expect all the excesses, difficulties, and challenges that go with that, as well as all the benefits.

      1. Charles- I appreciate the ideas here but I frankly disagree with some of their possible applications. It’s not appropriate for a paper or presentation that’s being presented in a Comics Studies panel or in a Comics Studies journal to focus entirely on theory with only a few sentences about a comic in question and still label itself comics scholarship. It is certainly scholarly, but it’s not comics scholarship unless comics form part of the discussion.
        And yes, this is certainly a wider problem in other fields of academic study, particularly literary scholarship and film scholarship, that scholars present work as film or literary scholarship and fail to talk about a film or a work of literature as part of their discussion. It’s not surprising that this bleeds over into Comics scholarship by any means. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed and we shouldn’t draw attention to the problem.
        Realizing problems and addressing them directly is the role of scholarship, too.
        One of the reasons people don’t talk about it is because they are afraid of being branded “anti-intellectual” despite their academic credentials and publication history. It’s not a move to “circle the wagons” on fandom- it’s a move for scholarship to assess its own methods and goals and make sure that we are on the right path. My blog post is not a campaign to shut down a use of theory when it comes to comics scholarship but a plea for a more moderate use of theory when it crowds out the potential for getting to grips with comics texts more fully.
        I’m not an extremist in this regard, and if it seems that way, you’ve misunderstood my points. I realize it can be a hot topic, and that people who feel threatened by theory and want it absent from comics scholarship can jump on this bandwagon. That’s not my position. I saw a regrettable imbalance in scholarship calling itself comics scholarship without really discussing comics and pointed out that this is a problem. This observation stands.It looks like we will just have to agree to disagree on this point.

      2. Hannah, I understand that you see the matter differently, and that our respective experiences make us see the issue in different ways. Of course. I would not gainsay your experience. I’ll simply say two things:

        1. In my own experience, the problem has more often been the opposite of what you’ve seen: that is, too many presentations based on exhaustive knowledge of the comics but sans self-awareness regarding theoretical positioning and critical agenda. I’ve seen far more papers that talked about comics to no clear end than papers that used comics as a mere pretext for theoretical pontificating.

        2. Are you sure there is such a thing as one “right path”?

  4. Charles- I’m amazed that your experience has been so different than mine, but that helps explain why you come from a perspective of arguing for the inclusion of theory rather than its moderation. In the conferences I’ve attended in the past 5 years, mainly iterations of the PCA/ACA, but a few others, it has been an increasing trend to give the stronger position to theory. So maybe that’s reassuring to you. I really haven’t had the experience of seeing scholars present on a more fandom approach with exhaustive knowledge of comics but little application of theory. My experience for some reason has been the complete opposite. If I had only heard presentations with no theory, no doubt I’d be arguing for the use of theory since I believe it’s crucial to critical study in any field.

    As for the “right path”, I would say that we, as scholars, are watchdogs within our own field and should help to guide its trajectory. I would simply define a “right path” in comics scholarship as one that continues to place comics themselves at its center rather than as an afterthought. I think without that, we have no comics scholarship, so that’s my position and one that I will keep arguing for and trying to preserve.

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