Comics studied at UI?!

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This fall, numerous interrelated events at the University of Iowa and in Iowa City will be devoted to creative and critical encounters with “comics,” the somewhat awkward term encompassing newspaper strips, comic books and what are now rather pretentiously (and often erroneously) called graphic novels.

What?!? Comic books at a major research university, amid the serious fiction and poetry that defines this town? Is there any greater evidence for the ongoing decline of academic and cultural standards!?! (Even subdued punctuation now seems at risk.)

Guests opinion by Corey Creekmur for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

This fall, numerous interrelated events at the University of Iowa and in Iowa City will be devoted to creative and critical encounters with “comics,” the somewhat awkward term encompassing newspaper strips, comic books and what are now rather pretentiously (and often erroneously) called graphic novels.

What?!? Comic books at a major research university, amid the serious fiction and poetry that defines this town? Is there any greater evidence for the ongoing decline of academic and cultural standards!?! (Even subdued punctuation now seems at risk.)

If that’s your response, you probably haven’t read many comics lately. After all, it has been almost 20 years since Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize, and over a decade since Chris Ware’s graphic novel “Jimmy Corrigan” won the Guardian First Book Award (not a “first comic book” award). More recently, Joe Sacco’s historical inquiry “Footnotes in Gaza” won the Ridenhour Book Prize for works promoting social justice.

These diverse works have little in common other than their recognized excellence and the fact that they are all “comic books.”

“The scholarly field of ‘comics studies’ is expanding faster than the angered Incredible Hulk.”

Contemporary comics offer a wide a range of options for readers of equally diverse interests. Autobiography and memoir, history and journalism and, of course, superhero stories all can be found in recent comics. Moreover, comics are a significantly international form, as American kids who devour Japanese manga already know, even if other Americans persist in the outdated view of most comics as a semi-literate form of children’s popular culture. In fact, the scholarly field of “comics studies” is expanding faster than the angered Incredible Hulk, offering a sophisticated approach to comics as a legitimate art form and important cultural artifact. This fall, the University of Iowa will prominently contribute to that development.

The local celebration of comics will begin with a live WorldCanvass radio and television show sponsored by International Programs at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber.

Two days later, the University of Iowa Museum of Art will unveil “Graphic Language,” a major exhibition offering visitors a rare glimpse at the original work of artists ranging from early comics pioneer Winsor McCay to rising star Craig Thompson, who is visiting Prairie Lights with his new book “Habibi” on Sunday.

The UI will next host a symposium, “Comics, Creativity, and Culture,” sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and International Programs (among others) from Oct. 5 to 8. This event will gather prominent artists, editors and publishers as well as scholars of comics. Keynote speakers include major cartoonists Phoebe Gloeckner, Joe Sacco and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez brothers, the latter three with the generous support of the UI Lecture Committee.

An earlier daylong workshop on creating comics, organized by the museum’s educational outreach program, will address almost 600 local students. For a full schedule of these and other events, go to http://international.uiowa.edu/comics.

It’s not so surprising that these events are taking place here: UI is a pioneer in the study of popular culture as a historical and social phenomenon, and previous bold professors have considered the aesthetic and cultural qualities of works produced (and dismissed) as commercial entertainment. Since Iowa professors already have led the way in the study of science fiction and Hollywood musicals, equal attention to comics just follows a solid local tradition.

If the serious study of comics has been slow to take hold at UI, that changes this fall, as everyone is encouraged to participate in the events celebrating and exploring the global significance of comics.

You may never look at the Sunday funnies the same way again.

Corey K. Creekmur teaches English and film studies at the University of Iowa. Along with Ana Merino and Rachel Williams, he is an organizer of many of the upcoming comics events and a curator of the upcoming exhibit of original comics art.

 

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