Comics and Culture: UI scholars take a new look at ‘sequential art’
From the September 2011 issue of Spectator
By Lin Larson
Corey Creekmur sometimes opens his comics class with a text that might seem odd even to comics aficionados: Nancy newspaper strips.
“Early Peanuts and Nancy strips seem so simple,” he says. “But read carefully, they are more subtle than they look—they demonstrate how comics work.”
Creekmur, associate professor of English, and other UI scholars like Ana Merino and Rachel Williams are introducing students and colleagues alike to the study of comics. Together they’re charting comics’ storytelling language, political and cultural rhetoric, and creative potential—and they have joined forces to put the University on the comics studies map. (Learn more about the comics symposium)
Learning the language
The comics universe encompasses comic books, newspaper strips, and graphic novels in genres that stretch across superhero stories, Japanese manga, memoir, journalism, and beyond.
Uniting them all: combinations or words and pictures that unspool in what pioneering comics creator Will Eisner dubbed “sequential art.”
Creekmur met no skepticism when he proposed his first comics course in 2005. By then, Art Spiegelman’s Maus—a Holocaust story that casts cartoon mice as Jews and cats as Nazis—had won a Pulitzer Prize, and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth had received a First Book Award from England’s Guardian newspaper.
“We don’t have an established formal vocabulary like we have for film. What do you call sweat beads that indicate a character is worrying, or the little lines that show surprise?”
But even today, comics scholars sometimes feel they’re exploring the last pop-culture medium to earn critical and aesthetic examination.
“We don’t have an established formal vocabulary like we have for film,” says Creekmur, who holds a joint appointment in cinema and comparative literature. “What do you call sweat beads that indicate a character is worrying, or the little lines that show surprise?”
For students already steeped in comics, academic study exposes the mechanics of the medium—how page layouts manipulate space and time, for example. For students who’ve never read a comic book, courses like Creekmur’s introduce new worlds (starting with good-old Nancy).
The sense of discovery enhances the field’s appeal. Creekmur is editing a new Comics Culture book series from Rutgers University Press. Each title will focus on an iconic character, creator, title, or genre.
“We’re collapsing a lot of overdue critical work into a very short time,” Creekmur says. “For students and scholars, it’s wide-open territory.”
Probing the politics
Growing up in Madrid, Spain, Ana Merino read widely from her father’s library of literature, art books, and comics.
“They were part of the cultural landscape for my family,” she recalls. But only years later did she consider how they colored the cultural landscapes of entire nations.
“Wherever you look, you find comics reflecting cultural and political crises in ways no other art can.”
Today a scholar, poet, and an associate professor in the UI Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Merino surprised her graduate school advisers when she shared her plan to study the comics of Argentina, Cuba, and Mexico, particularly their role in political discourse.
“Wherever you look, you find comics reflecting cultural and political crises in ways no other art can,” she says.
In Cuba, for example, comics of the 1950s adopted Mad magazine–like aesthetics to critique the Batista dictatorship. After the revolution, artists jettisoned American influences to create a more distinctly Cuban voice.
Merino published her study in Spain, where she also organized the 2001 International Comics Art Forum. European scholars—especially in France and Belgium—had acknowledged the artistic merit and linguistic intrigue of comics, but Merino’s cultural studies perspective and historical emphasis were relatively new.
“I was lucky to be in the right moment—now there is much more recognition,” she says. “But we still have a lot of work to do to remember, archive, and respect comics’ past.”
Cultivating the creators
Unlike Merino, Rachel Williams grew up a virtual stranger to comics, save for a few Snuffy Smith books she found in a neighbor’s backyard. Her epiphany came when she saw the film adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical series American Splendor.
“The best comics are sort of like watching a movie with subtitles— the words become voice, and your brain fills the gaps between images.”
“I sort of went overboard—I bought every kind of comics I could get my hands on,” she says. A visual artist and scholar fascinated by personal narratives, she saw vast opportunity in merging pictures and words.
Williams, associate professor of women’s studies and art, teaches students to create their own comics. Her class draws a mix of artists, writers, and others who have stories to tell.
“Some people just seem wired to picture their stories in comic form,” she says, “as if the images they imagine are too important to set aside.”
Williams creates her own comics, too, recounting her work with prison inmates, the history of juvenile justice in Illinois, race riots in Detroit and North Carolina, and more [see samples of her work at redmagpie.org]. Like her students, she finds a sort of magic in the medium.
“The best comics are sort of like watching a movie with subtitles—the words become voice, and your brain fills the gaps between images,” she says. “It’s a totally different experience of reading.”
By organizing a campus symposium on comics, Creekmur, Merino, and Williams are uniting different scholarly perspectives, different areas of focus, and different personal histories with comics. It’s the kind of collaboration that should ring especially familiar for comics fans, says Merino.
“It’s like the superhero teams where each character brings a unique ability,” she says. “Comics scholars do fantastic work together—we accomplish so much more than any of us could alone."