The Nimble Scholar: An Interview with Chris Murray by Ian Hague

20 Mar

Dr Chris Murray teaches English and Film Studies at the University of Dundee. He researches comics and organises two annual conferences: the Scottish Word and Image Group conference and the Annual Dundee Comics Day. He is also the co-editor of the journal Studies in Comics. In 2011, Chris was responsible for launching the UK’s first MLitt in Comics Studies, based in Dundee’s humanities department.

In this interview, conducted on the 29th of October 2011 at the University of Dundee, we discuss the value of studying comics, the place of Comics Studies in the universities, and where the discipline might be headed.

* * *

I thought we’d start with a basic question: why study comics in universities? What is the philosophy behind the MLitt in particular, but university courses on comics in general as well?

There’s an inherent reason for looking at comics in universities. Part of that is because a lot of talk in universities for the last ten or fifteen years has been about interdisciplinarity. Often when that’s talked about no-one really knows what that means. It’s something that they think they’re supposed to be doing and they say that they’re doing, and often it just means certain contrivances of relationships between different subject areas or departments for the sake of funding or to satisfy short-term economic imperatives. The sense of having a real dialogue between disciplines gets lost much of the time. I think comics studies brings in a real, genuine element of interdisciplinarity to university study, largely because comics studies haven’t, historically at least, an institutional home or base within a discipline that determines a certain approach or methodology. Comics scholars tend to come from lots of different subject areas; some from languages, some from Film, History, English and so on. For this reason, when comics scholars get together in conferences the kinds of interactions that emerge really are interdisciplinary in all kinds of various ways. We are required to think across different methodologies, and accommodate different ways of doing things, and this isn’t a mere contrivance. It is something that emerges from the grass roots of comics scholarship, rather than being imposed arbitrarily from above. That isn’t to say that comics studies doesn’t have to try to establish a rigorous approach, just that an openness to other points of view has long been a part of comics studies, borne out of necessity, as much as anything else. There is some virtue in that fact.

That said, there are other obvious reasons for studying comics at university, not least because it is a fantastically diverse medium capable of artistic and literary expression, and because the texts are interesting as historical documents, and are of sociological interest. Practically any methodology you can apply to comics reveals rich and interesting information and insights, not only into the comics medium but into other mediums. Comics belong in university study just like any human form of communication, art or literature. Any form of human activity is worthy of study. And it’s often not the subject of study that’s quite as important as the kind of questions that you ask about it.

I know when the MLitt was announced there was a little bit of controversy, and I wonder how you respond to the critiques that were offered there.

Yeah, when the MLitt was first announced there was a Glasgow based politician who had a bit of a go at it, and that was rather farcical in some ways because what he thought the module was about was based on a very short story that he’d read in the Daily Record. We’d released a press release where we explained exactly what the module was going to be about but the Daily Record seized upon it as “a degree in The Beano” because it’s obviously based in Dundee [which is where DC Thomson, the publisher of The Beano, is based]. That’s a very cheap kind of story, but not an uncommon strategy adopted by the press in dealing with anything related to comics. This particular politician read that story, seems to have believed it, and started tweeting all about it. It was ridiculous and ill-informed. Not that there would actually be any problem with studying The Beano at university but that just wasn’t what our modules were about. They were about autobiographical comics, and the relationships between various comics cultures worldwide. The modules contain texts like Maus, Barefoot Gen and Fun Home. I wouldn’t start defending the MLitt based on “well, we’re studying these kind of comics, which are appropriate to university and we’re not studying these others” because we will look at The Beano and The Dandy and other British comics on one of the modules on the course, but what this twitter-storm threw up was a kind of ignorance generally about how you might go about studying comics at university. In relation to that particular politician it revealed a kind of incredulous belief in whatever he’d read in the tabloids, so in some ways what he had to say was rather inconsequential because it was just not based on an intelligent understanding of what was really happening. Most likely he was just being opportunistic and thought this would get him some attention.

The response to the debate was really interesting. In fact, I didn’t really need to do very much in terms of defending myself against him it seemed like the whole of the internet came in and started giving him a bit of a seeing to, and various comics professionals like David Lloyd got in contact with him and were rather disappointed at his attitude. Specifically because he was a Labour politician and David Lloyd’s attitude was, quite rightly, that if he’d got behind popular culture and comics he could have said something that was interesting and connected with the electorate, but he chose to do something more cynical than that.

Some of the attitudes that lay behind it were revealing in terms of the scaremongering. He would say in his defence “well this is a ridiculous waste of public money”, as if there was some other job that I could be doing that was very valuable but wasn’t doing because my time was taken up with all this. I still teach English and Film Studies. The Comics Studies is an addition to it. It’s a postgraduate degree. The next outcry is about employability: “what are people gonna do with these silly Mickey Mouse degrees?” Before long someone starts talking about degrees in David Beckham studies; all those kinds of silly things that are in the media. These statements reveal a failure or unwillingness to understand what these courses are really about. They’re about studying popular culture, about studying the medium, seeing how it works, and what it communicates about society and culture. There are many transferrable skills that are inherent in that kind of humanities approach. More to the point, such programmes of study are designed with employability in mind, putting those taking the course in touch with industry professionals, and giving them experience they can take into the workplace. Those issues of employability were right to the fore when we were designing the module and it’s revealing of what people think about what happens (or doesn’t) in a university that their automatic assumption is that no thought had gone into this. It’s impossible to get a module, undergraduate or postgraduate degree approved these days, and they go through very rigorous approval processes, without having those things in mind.

How did the course come about within the university; did you find any of the same kind of resistance within the institution itself?

Not really. I guess people expect me to have horror stories about fighting tooth and nail to get a course like this approved. The reality was that I did my PhD here in Dundee, so I’ve been a fixture here for a long time. I started the film course and have taught a lot of English classes, so I wasn’t just turning up out of the blue. I think there was a degree of trust that I knew what I was doing! But I’ve been studying this for a long time and we’ve organised conferences on comics, brought many comics scholars and writers and artists to Dundee over the years, so I’d laid the groundwork. I wouldn’t say that was an easy process but it felt like a very natural progression to do this. When I was appointed to a full time position the first thing I wanted to do was have my own course, as all full time lecturers usually have a module at fourth year which was on their own specialised research interests. So, I think it was natural and expected that I would do that and it passed through all the approval procedures with not too much problem. The only thing I had to do was order a few new books in for the library, but because I’d already been ordering books for a while the library stock was pretty good, so the only real question I was faced with was whether there was going to be enough secondary material to support research and studying into comics. Once I’d assured the Board that there was, and that comics scholarship had been growing over the last ten years, it was reasonably simple to get final approval on the undergraduate course. That module ran for a couple of years and recruited well, and it came to the point where I started to think taking things to the next level. Universities want their postgraduate courses to be as distinctive as they can, and I thought I could do something that would be a bit different and that would be appropriate for Dundee given its history with comics. I’ve long wanted to make Dundee a home of comics research and study and utilise DC Thomson’s archives and exhibitions and so on, so the MLitt course just seemed like the next natural progression from the undergraduate course.

Around about the same time that I was starting to design this course I met Phil Vaughn, who works up at the art college. There are lots of other people around university that have related interests but comics aren’t their core interest, but when I met Phil, who is a lecturer in animation and graphic design, we quickly realised our common interest. The fact that there was already an undergraduate module on comics, and a postgraduate course in the planning stages allowed him to argue for an undergraduate course on creating comics at the art college. I think things just worked out nicely and added a bit of momentum to things. I wouldn’t say I’ve found particular prejudice or had to particularly go through the wringer to get my courses through but I would say that having someone else working at your institution, or at a nearby institution, who can do things that are related to but different from what you’re doing, is a massive help. Phil does very creative stuff and gets the students to create comics. I’m doing the cultural, historical and theoretical side; so it’s very complementary.

The practical elements were something that I wanted to ask you about. Why is it important to include that practicality? I suppose part of that is the way in which that course in particular was set up but it does seem to be a recurring theme with the course in Glyndŵr for example being based around production. I wonder if you see production and practical elements as inherently built into teaching comics.

I wouldn’t say they’re inherently built into the teaching of comics. I taught an undergraduate comics module from a cultural, historical and theoretical point of view without the creative element being part of the assessment. However, I would say that often the people who come to study comics have those kinds of creative aspirations, and some would like to work in the comics industry. If you advertise something like an MLitt course on comics maybe a third of the applicants will be very keen to use it as a way to focus their creative interests, skills and talents. That being the case it’s best to have thought about that in advance and to know how you’re going to address that. I’ve been involved in setting up the creative writing modules in Dundee. I’m not a creative writer, I don’t work in that way, but I’ve been very involved in shepherding through the documentation so I know what those modules look like and what they require. We also have the art college, which is part of our institution, so it was clear to me that we must have a creative element to satisfy the expectations of some of the applicants, and to respond their particular needs in terms of employability, however, I don’t think that a creative dimension is absolutely required to teach comics. The evidence shows from the people who applied that there would have been enough interest and uptake to proceed without such a dimension, but I think if you can include a creative element then you’re certainly going to interest more people.

I’ve found the combination of students taking the course to be very interesting. Some are artists, others are writers, and some are more interested in going into comics academia or doing Cultural Studies. This makes for a nice mix in the class. You’ve got all these very different perspectives. I think that in the same way [as] when you walk into a comics conference you’re going to see lots of different methodologies, you’re going to see lots of different approaches to comics studies in the classroom. In order to stay on top of this you need to be pretty nimble. If you’re going to teach or research comics you have to be a little bit nimble in how you address all the various ways of approaching the medium.

That brings me onto the sorts of backgrounds are you finding in your students. Where are they coming from? What is drawing them to the course?

We’ve got a couple who are artists, and they certainly want to hone their skills. Some talk about wanting to break into the comics industry and they may have aspirations to work in commercial comics, but some of them want to hone their skills so they can do small press and independent things. Not everybody is out there looking to be the next Jack Kirby or Frank Miller or Dave Gibbons; some of them really want to refine their knowledge of how the medium works. Certainly some of them have aspirations to being comics scholars. The interface between academia and the creative industries is always one that is interesting. What you have to say applicants is that if they have creative aspirations a module like this will focus your talent, it’ll give you a certain knowledge and background that you might otherwise be lacking, but if you want to make it in the creative industries what you need is talent. And you can’t teach somebody that, so you can’t really advertise your module on the basis that if you come and do a one-year postgraduate degree in comics with us then six months from now you’ll be drawing Superman. It doesn’t really work like that, but I don’t think anybody’s really come with those expectations; that this is going to get them a top job in Marvel or DC overnight.

We’ve also got a couple of people on the MLitt module who actually worked in the comics industry. One of them retired but spent thirty-seven years working in the comics industry and wants to use it to expand and further their knowledge beyond what they gained in their career. There’s somebody else on the module is an editor in comics. We’ve got somebody who is a freelance journalist and very much wants to pursue a career in academia.

For all these students, with their various aspirations, the course offers different things, one of the things that everyone finds extremely valuable is the contact with industry professionals that has come through the course.

Do you find you have to teach what you might call the basics: how to read comics, what are the relevant features for analysis, or have people come in with enough familiarity that that is out of the way already?

I designed it so that I was going to have to be quite responsive to a different range of talents and a different range of abilities, because I don’t think there’ll be anybody turning up at the module, at least in the near future, with an undergraduate degree in Comics Studies. So every year we’re going to have to assume that you may be getting people that need a bit more support in the basics than others. This first year [2011-2012] I haven’t really found that; everybody’s come with a foreknowledge of the medium, not just in terms of liking the medium and being very well read in terms of comics but also having a kind of passing familiarity with Scott McCloud and the key debates in comics studies, which helps. But I was prepared to have to go into the basics, and the first week of the course was really about that: getting a sense of where everybody stood in terms of those basic mechanics of comics analysis. In class there’s a lot of discussion of the context and the background of the comics, and the form of the comics. Often students will be asked to pick a page and they’ll go through it discussing what’s interesting in terms of the narrative or the visuals or the composition. So we do that kind of close analysis every week and I’ve found that the students are very responsive to this, and are very switched on and good at this already. It may be that next year we’ll have a few people who it’s all new to. But you get a sense for that before the module starts from the application process. People put in their applications and they put their personal statements and you know from that whether they have a familiarity with the medium and the basics of comics scholarship.

I’ve got two interrelated questions around the situation of the course within the university as an institution. Where does it sit departmentally? You’ve talked about interdisciplinarity; how is that manifested? Also, what’s the scope of the curriculum?

Well it’s based in the Humanities. I work in English but it’s not part of the English Studies MLitt; it sits within Humanities so it’s a Humanities MLitt which is delivered by me. I got an English degree, I teach in an English department. For many years I taught English but then I started teaching film, so I’m researching comics, teaching film and am head of the English Programme, so, as I say, you have to be nimble. In some ways there’s already quite a lot of interdisciplinarity within English. English also has a creative writing element within it. Also, there are portions of the course which are co-delivered by Phil Vaughn from Duncan of Jordanstone [the art college]. So interdisciplinarity is built into the course in that way.

In terms of the curriculum, there are three modules which the students have to take, and the final element is a dissertation. One module is Comics as Autobiography, and another is called International Comics Cultures. The latter looks at the development of the medium but also the connections between different comics cultures. The third module which students take is called Creating Comics and that’s a practical module. If the students really don’t want to do anything creative there are a couple of options there. They can do another module, an option module, that’s on one of the other MLitt courses (there’s a range of ones which are relevant or adjacent to the comics module). There’s also the option of a more traditionally academic route through the Creating Comics course; if you don’t really want to draw you can focus on a particular writer or artist and explore the issues of creativity through their work. So there’re lots of different options that are tailored to the student’s needs. I think you have to be quite flexible in that way when you’ve got a degree like this, where the students have very different backgrounds, aspirations and goals. Where it all comes together at the end is in a dissertation, which, again, can have a creative element to it, but even if it does it’s still going to largely have a traditional dissertation structure of analysis, historical discussion, and reflection on the use of secondary sources.

Finally, just looking forward a bit, where is Comics Studies going? And I mean here both in terms of Dundee and within the UK higher education sector more generally. Can we look forward to that undergraduate degree in Comics Studies anytime soon?

Well, I’m really hoping we’ll be able to put one on at some point in the future. What seems clear is that for a few years anyway there’s going to be a process of consolidation, and that’s a rather euphemistic word for it, consolidation in the higher education sector more generally, due to cuts and the economic environment. It seems like there’ll be more emphasis put on postgraduate modules because of course that’s where you can build and bring in money and resources, whereas the resources at an undergraduate level are set by government supported numbers. I don’t know if there’s going to be a great rush in the next couple of years to bring forth an undergraduate comics degree, but I hope there is and I think that will come in time. I would like to have it here in Dundee but I do very much hope that other places start with these kind of initiatives too, because I think in the long term that’s what’s going to be what makes Comics Studies grow. Postgraduate courses could be fed by more undergraduate courses and joint degrees in Comics Studies at undergraduate level so the more of them that can be brought forward, the more of a base we’re going to have for populating postgraduate degrees, which will only enrich the development of comics scholarship. It’s not something I see erupting in universities up and down the land, but I think we’re getting there and maybe in five or ten years those kinds of things won’t be uncommon; there may be four or five institutions across the country that are offering that and that’s all for the good. Perhaps the day will come when news of a comics course being opened won’t be a novelty story for the press, or ammunition for politicians. Let’s make it happen!

* * *

In addition to being the director of Comics Forum, Ian Hague is a PhD student and associate lecturer in the History department at the University of Chichester. His research focuses on how comics engage all of the reader’s senses to communicate information and meaning. His research interests include materiality, technology, and theoretical approaches to comics. He has articles forthcoming in Framing Film: Cinema and the Visual Arts and The Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art.


Posted by on 2012/03/20 in Guest Writers, Interviews


2 responses to “The Nimble Scholar: An Interview with Chris Murray by Ian Hague

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: