Lately, I’ve been exploring the connection between comics and academic literature. Not that this is all that different from my normal life but I’ve actually had the opportunity to present on the subject in the past few weeks as well as host a guest speaker on our campus who spoke about Comics and Religious Iconography. What I’d like to do with this article is give you a list of some of the things that combine these two worlds and my interpretation of how it’s being done. We’re going to take a quick look at both sides of the coin; one from the academic standpoint and one from the creator standpoint. This isn’t an argument that every comic has, or should have, academic merit. There are plenty of stories that exist simply as comics. However, this mixed field is growing and I think it merits some explanation here at Crafting Comics.
From the Academic POV…
Comics are finding their way into both classrooms and independent studies. This mixture is generating discussion on any number of topics. Recently I’ve sat in on a presentation teaching logic problems using comics and had a chance to meet with the Georgia State Professor Dr. Jonathon Gayles who is currently working on a documentary about black masculinity and comics. Like many mediums, comics have the ability to form basic literary interest in young readers and to raise concern for social issues affecting some or all of us on differing levels. Comics are garnering academic attention for their status in our society as popular art and literature but, beyond all of this, comics and graphic novels (however you choose to define them) have some particular abilities unique to the medium when it comes to audience participation.
If you’ve read Scott McCloud’s work, Understanding Comics, you know about the abstraction line in cartooning that he uses to explain how comics can allow readers to identify with characters and their situations in ways that other mediums can’t. While plenty of mediums have a connection with their audience and are used in the classroom comics just happen to not be an exception to this rule as we have thought before. I should also state that there are plenty of ways to approach comics for academic purposes but this is where I’m currently focusing my studies.
Take for instance Dr. Gayles’s documentary which explores the representations of black/African-American men in comics. Looking at stereotypes, inspirations, and downright wrong portrayals of this group of people Dr. Gayles has provided plenty of discussion for academia on the medium of comics. If we are to combine the studies of racial and gender identification in comics with the theory of abstracted relationships between readers and characters, we end up with some interesting juxtapositions. In other words, can a “cartoonized” character be symbolic enough to transcend racial profiling or is a mythological hero so tainted by the misrepresentations of a group of people that a transcendence cannot be reached?
These are great questions and ones that have no simple answers. They spark debate. They create a desire in an academic to see more than what is merely on the page, to look past the cartoon and ask questions that develop into doctoral theses. In short, it’s a good time to be a comics geek and a scholar.
From the Creative POV…
Most of you know that I’m writing my own comic/graphic novel, and you should also know that I haven’t been published yet. So, take this next part for what it’s worth to you and how you define a creative writer.
There are a lot of questions as to how a creative writer can generate a story that is considered academic. The truth and the trick of it is, don’t worry about it. If your goal as a thinking person (not that academics are the only thinkers) is to write a story that engages what you’re interested in, do it. If your story is just a way for you to have fun and write about people in capes or chainsaw wielding maniacs, do it. There’s no way to determine if your work will ever be a part of someone’s academic pursuits. Academia is so wide spread in its disciplines and subsidiary theories and ideas that anything is up for grabs.
This isn’t to say that academia is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It’s just to say that academia can sometimes look like a chicken running around with its head cut off. However, there are plenty of good reasons academics follow their ideas with passion and fervor. Just don’t worry about being a part of an idea because there’s always one that fits what you write. That being said, what do we do about the mixture as creators?
It’s simple; we write, we draw, we paint, we tell our stories. If we’re inclined to express, explain, or engage with an academic theory or idea, it’s completely up to us. The river of creation has many streams flowing into it. (Pretty poetic huh?) But the creative process, with all of its influences, is unique to each person who is undertaking it. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you know, or what you want to know. Don’t be afraid to look at a philosophical idea and try to argue with it in the pages of your comic. It’s been going on for a while now and there’s no reason to stop. In short; be creative and the rest will take care of itself. If you want to mix your work with academics then go and start a conversation with a local professor or send copies of your work to your school library. Take what’s being said by others in the mixture and engage it. Present your work at a comics conference on the academic track.
Just don’t be afraid, don’t be intimidated, and don’t not write the thing that’s in your head. It will find its audience one way or the other.