Learning from Film Studies: Analogies and Challenges by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith

15 Jul

The most recent issue of Cinema Journal (50:3) features a special section edited by Bart Beaty and devoted to “Comics Studies: Fifty Years after Film Studies.” Therein Beaty notes “the current state of the scholarly study of comics is strikingly akin to that of film in the 1960s” (106). That article punctuated ruminations that the two of us have had since we began collaborating with one another, first in authoring a textbook for the comics studies classroom and now in producing an anthology presenting a host of critical methods utilized in the field.

As the Cinema Journal contributors point out, we in American Comics Studies seem to be making up for lost time. Of course, comics studies have marched on apace elsewhere, particularly in Europe. High profile events like the Angoulême International Comics Festival and a healthy slate of regular publications contribute to a profile of legitimacy that those of us practicing American comics scholarship long for. Meanwhile, our colleagues in Film Studies have enjoyed a largely recombinant international relationship, with American and European scholars regularly and vigorously exchanging ideas with one another, offering a model of dialogue for America’s comics studies to emulate. And yet a major stumbling block to our own development is, alas, a lack of multilingual scholars on this side of the pond, which leaves us largely ignorant of the fields progress abroad and “reinventing” concepts that have already been expressed in French or German. The situation is improving. Recent translations by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen have already enlivened the scholarly dialogue at American comics conferences with the ideas of Thierry Groensteen and Jean-Paul Gabilliet.

Indeed, we could look at the international development of Film Studies as a model to emulate, writ large. The history of comics scholarship in America may already have many of the touchstones that international Film Studies claims as a part of its proud tradition. It would be an intriguing diversion to equate the roles of significant figures in comics studies with the major contributors to film theory. For instance, is Will Eisner, a master practitioner who articulated some of the first formalist theory about the art form, the Sergei Eisenstein of comics studies? Could one say that Robert C. Harvey’s 1979 essay “The Aesthetics of the Comic Strip” is analogous to Vachel Lindsey’s 1915 essay “The Art of the Moving Picture”? Did John Lent’s 1986 Comic Art, an International Bibliography have an impact equal to the 1941 Film Index by the MOMA Film Library? While such analogies can be entertaining, we would like to move beyond such mental calisthenics to consider what we can learn from the development of Film Studies even while embracing what enriches comics studies and makes it a distinctive field for intellectual inquiry. Thus, while we might learn from our predecessors in Film Studies, the lessons must be adapted to the distinct challenges faced by Comics Studies.

Challenges to Consider


The study of comics has been thus far much as Dana Polan characterized the first thirty years of film studies – “sketchy and somewhat random” (94). Case in point, the establishment of the first comics-specific academic conferences followed the model of the first comic book conventions – they were created by the force of will of a handful of enthusiastic young academics who loved the comics medium. The Festival of Cartoon Art will turn thirty in 2013 and the Comics Arts Conference will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2012, but either might not survive if a driving force loses interest or a professor leaves an institution. Our most seasoned journals have perpetuated due to the Herculean efforts of a few individuals. Granted, the spate of new journals issuing forth from established publishers is encouraging, but if they don’t prove profitable they might not last long.

One of the most notable shortfalls in Comics Studies is the presence of self-sustaining organizations that repopulate the human capital that drive a field forward. While ICAF and the Institute for Comics Studies represent steps in those directions, they do not yet have the same broad reach as the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), which, according to its own website “represents nearly 3000 scholars in over 500 institutions located in 38 nations.” While we may not have 3000 potential members, surely there are hundreds currently unaffiliated with any formal professional association. And without the ability to pass along the lessons learned about organization and advocacy from one generation to the next, the field is locked into a situation where the proverbial wheel must be continually reinvented.

Even if comics studies never becomes a stand-alone discipline per se, once there are a sufficient number of journals, conferences, and professors identifying themselves as comics scholars–and especially once degrees are offered–we will have to be concerned with criterion-referenced measures of student learning outcomes in the comics studies curriculum. Ugh. And while a good deal of our critical discourse may resist canon-building, deans and provosts, who have to answer to accrediting agencies, are not going to care about our resistance to master narratives and are going to demand we produce a list of measurable objectives for comics studies. It seems that if common goals are to be achieved, establishing solidarity is a key challenge still unmet by us.


As Film Studies developed as an academic discipline it consciously separated itself from both journalism and fandom. David Bordwell recounts that when he began taking graduate film courses in the 1970s he was startled that his fellow students disdained his essays for Film Comment as mere “film buffery” (n.p.). While this may have served to distinguish academic discourse from other dialogues, following a similar path may not be the desired course for Comics Studies.

In the introduction to our forthcoming anthology, Critical Approaches to Comics, Henry Jenkins considers this to be a misstep taken by most media studies, and worries the same sort of separation is being advocated by “young turks” who become enamored of academic theorizing and denigrate the analytical practices of comics fans. Jenkins wants the study of comics to be “radically un-disciplined” and “inclusive in who it allows to participate and in the sites where critical conversations occur” (6). He believes “academics have a significant role to play in this process but only if they do not try to monopolize the conversation or try to hold the party captive to their own disciplinary preoccupations” (6).

The temptation to exclude can extend beyond fans and journalists to fellow scholars who are not using “approved methods.” Such a tendency to privilege the perspectives in which we were trained can lead to a generational divide among scholars. For instance, classical film theory and contemporary film theory are not simply alternative approaches to understanding film, but enemy camps!

Serious study of comics within the academy emerged in the last few decades of the twentieth century when cultural studies was already the dominant perspective and postmodern critical theory was the preferred method of studying media. Because cultural studies is by its nature ideological and (though it seems incongruous with a postmodern perspective) ideologies invariably create distinctions of good (what conforms to the ideology) and bad (what does not conform) there can be a tendency to marginalize pre-Frankfurt School approaches that do not consider comics as cultural manifestations. Yet, some fields of study, such as rhetoric (not the study of composition, but the Communication discipline’s take on that term), probably have more than their share of “throwbacks” for whom the rhetor is not “dead,” intention still exists, and strategy is a central focus of study. It is only natural that each academic journal develops its own personality and that often means championing methodologies. However, we still have so few comics studies journals that, while it will elevate the field for editors to set high standards for acceptance, it is important for promoting the intellectual independence of our field that they not be exclusionary based on ideology.

Objects of Study

In 2003 the Society for Cinema became the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. The change acknowledged television and video as closely related moving image forms, and anticipated the disappearance of the celluloid object of study as film, television, and video converge into a digital format. The field of Film Studies is morphing into Screen Studies. Considering the allure of the iPad and DC Comics’ increased commitment to digital distribution (and can Marvel be far behind?), Comics Studies is faced with similar decisions about how to define just what is it that we study.

Beyond mere distribution of print comics in digital form, there are more and more comics created specifically for the digital medium. Of course, creating comics for the iPad and other digital readers inevitably results in changes in layout, coloring, and the nature of the line work. And more than changes in these fundamental aesthetics, the addition of hypertext and interactive features results in a very different reader experience. For instance, reading Josh Neufeld’s A.D. on the Smith magazine site, with the accompanying blog, reader’s responses, photo galleries, audio and video interviews, etc., is a radically different experience than reading the graphic novel. Do we man the barricades and revive the essentialist debate about the definition of comics? Certainly the motion aspect of some online comics raises the issue of the distinction between comics and animation. Do we extend the boundaries of what we consider to be comics? Those lines of demarcation might well be drawn in different places for comics as a medium and comics as an art form.

Accepting comics in a new medium should not be difficult for comics scholars. The art form we broadly term “comics” has never had media-specificity, existing, even by the most constrained of definitions, as newspaper sections, pamphlets, and books, each with different means of distribution and intended for different audiences. Just as our colleagues in the Society for Cinema and Media Studies have positioned themselves for the evolving media landscape, we should be poised to include new media. Moreover, because Comics Studies is developing analytical tools that can be applied to other forms of communication that blend the visual and the verbal, we should be at the vanguard of those offering exploration and interpretation of these new forms.

Conclusion: Here’s the Upside

If there is one thing we can learn from our colleagues in Film Studies, it is that the challenges of sustainability, territoriality, and objects of study are not insurmountable.

In terms of sustainability, hope is on the horizon. While Beaty is correct that “there are no signs on the horizon that departments of Comics Studies are soon to be created,” we are not so ready to accept his assessment that “with each passing year it seems less likely – not more – that comics scholars could attain the victories that film scholars have won” (107). Each year we see more of the apparatus necessary to sustain a field of study. A number of annual and triennial comics conferences are well established, there are peer-reviewed journals, comics courses are listed in college catalogs, more and more texts seem specifically tailored for comics courses, and each year academic presses publish more books about comics than one can possibly afford on a professor’s salary. But, perhaps the most powerful sustaining force is the joy comics scholars take in their work. We love what we’re studying and feel lucky to be able to study it. The third generation of comics scholars are just beginning their academic careers, and from what we have seen the enthusiasm for studying comics is stronger than ever.

The issue of territoriality can also confronted head on. Comics scholars are not, and hopefully never will be, divided into enemy camps. There are occasional attempts to exclude some voices or establish hierarchies of approaches, but these issues are always debated and, so far, the prevailing attitude is inclusive and egalitarian. Perhaps more telling than how these issues play out in conferences and journals is the daily give and take on the Comix-Scholars Discussion List. There can be testiness and bruised egos now and then, but this largely is an incredibly encouraging and helpful community. New approaches to studying comics are generally viewed as exciting rather than threatening. We agree with Charles Hatfield’s desire to see Comics Studies unfettered by the shackles of disciplinarity. He sees the strength of the field in its very multi and interdisciplinary nature: “[C]omics studies has been simply the sum total of ‘links’ between the various disciplines interested in comics” (n. p.). Our own associations with scholars from a host of academic disciplines ranging from literature, communication, and theater to psychology, biology, and physics demonstrates the value in keeping the conversation open and interactive.

And we should continue to be open to consideration about objects of study. The comics form, visual and verbal elements presented in a sequence of panels, has proven to be a powerful instrument for telling stories and conveying information. The comics form will persevere across media platforms and through technology revolutions. And because comics scholars, on the whole, refuse to constrain the concept of comics within any narrow or precise definition, we should remain receptive to consuming and critiquing comics be they on the page, on the tiny screens of our smart phones, on the massive screens of our HD smart TVs, or in the form of room-filling holograms.

Our objective is one shared by many of our readers: to aid in the development of Comics Studies. Certainly, we can look to the development of film as an example of how another group of media scholars found their bearings and grew their avocation into a thriving enterprise. But we cannot merely admire the parallels; we must do the work that will make Comic Studies the field we know it can be and will be.


Beaty, Bart. “Introduction” to “In Focus: Comics Studies Fifty Years after Film Studies.” Cinema Journal 50.3 (2011): 106 – 110. Print.

Bordwell, David. “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?” Filmcomment (2011): n. pag. Web. 7 June 2011.


Hatfield, Charles. “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies.” Transatlantica (2010) : n. pag. Web. 5 June 2011.


Jenkins, Henry. “Introduction : Should We Discipline the Reading of Comics ?” Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Eds. Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012. 1-14. Print.

Polan, Dana. “Young Art, Old Colleges: Early Episodes in the American Study of Film.” Inventing Film Studies. Eds. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 93-117. Print.

Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith are co-editors of the forthcoming Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods (Routledge, 2011) and co-authors of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum, 2009). Duncan is a professor of Communication at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and is a co-founder of the Comics Arts Conference held each year in conjunction with Comic-Con International since 1992. Smith is a professor of Communication at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and is the past president of the Ohio Communication Association.

1 Comment

Posted by on 2011/07/15 in Guest Writers


Tags: , ,

One response to “Learning from Film Studies: Analogies and Challenges by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: