Comics have long played a role in my life. My first memories of comics include Tales of Suspense 39 and Silver Surfer 1. The image of the grey Iron Man is one that I remember seeing as a kid, and I still have an affinity for that old costume. The Silver Surfer, too, remains one of my favorite characters. I also remember reading an old Legion of Superheroes story in which one of the characters, Chemical King, dies. I remember re-reading that issue several times just to make sure he did indeed die. It really affected me (I must have been about 10 or so). Other comics I read include Black Panther, Human Fly, Moon Knight, the Kirby and Simon Sandman reboot. I loved them (and still do). I remember going to 7-11 every week to see what new comics the store might have.
When I became a librarian nearly 20 years ago, I was always looking for ways to collect new and interesting materials. While I was working at the Mahon Public Library in Lubbock, it occurred to me that perhaps books on Spider-Man and Batman would circulate and be popular with patrons. I helped put together one of the most extensive collections of graphic novels in the country. At one time, Lubbock Public Library system had one of the biggest collections of over 4,000 unique titles. Graphic novels circulated like crazy, and we invested a lot into building a quality collection. I also designed a unique shelving/cataloging system for the books. I know that since I left the public library, they are still collecting graphic novels.
At Texas Tech University, we have a modest collection. Students often come to me to ask for help on projects ranging from studying Watchmen to Thor as a mythological character. I love lists, and one of my goals was to get Eric Werthmann’s suggested list for the Association of Research Libraries. He put together a standard core collection that I think all academic libraries should have. I feel lucky that at Texas Tech we can at least have the suggested ARL list. More and more classes are being taught using sequential art in universities across the country, so academic libraries cannot ignore making graphic novels a part of their collections. As a librarian, I am still always searching for unique materials to collect whether digital or physical.
This spring, I’ve been teaching a class for Texas Tech’s Honors College on the superhero in film and popular culture. We look at the history of the superhero and the various ways in which superheroes have been portrayed in film and popular culture. We examine the feature films, serials, television shows, animations, and fan films. I have a set of academic readings for students, and I use Peter Coogan’s superhero definitions — mission, powers, and identity, from his groundbreaking book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre — as a theoretical basis. I even had one student in their paper argue for the concept of the “Coogian Superhero,” which I thought was nice. I also ask students to read two graphic novels: X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga and Marvels. So many classes use the Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns that I wanted to try something a little different. Students have to write several papers based upon their viewings of a superhero-related movie, television program, and animated feature, plus a final project. In addition, I have students read Grant Morrison’s Supergods.
It is an exciting time to be an academic studying comics. There is so much good work from scholars in the form of articles, books, documentaries, etc. that it is impossible to keep up with it all. We have excellent journals like the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Sane Journal: Sequential Art Narrative in Education, The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, Studies in Comics, ImageText, and the International Journal of Comic Art. I know theses and dissertations are being written about everything from Watchmen and The Sandman to the X-Men and the study of manga, etc. My fear, however, is that comics will be reduced to “just another text” and that all the life will be squeezed out of it. Academics sometimes have a tendency to analyze things to death. Even as academics, we should never lose sight of the “fun-lover” within, something the 1966 Batman movie reminds us of). I am trained as a historian, so for me comics are a form of social history in the same way that novels, film, fashion, and video games are. Popular culture tells us a lot about who we are and were. The comic format is a universal form, and I think it is thrilling that comics from around the world are getting noticed. I also think it’s great that so many movies are being made using superheroes or based on other graphic narratives. I know not all of them are good, but they do seem to be getting better.
As scholars we should be grateful that the stigma against studying comics is slowly disappearing and that as a legitimate field of academic study comics scholarship is finally gaining some respect. It is hard to believe that it hasn’t always been this way, but at one time scholars like Thomas Inge and John Lent (and librarians like Randy Scott) had to fight the good fight to get sequential art scholarship any respect. One text that looks at historical evolution of comics is Paul Lopes’ book Demanding Respect.
Primary source publications like Alter Ego, Back Issue, Comics Journal, and all those old fanzines like Rocket Blast Special that have articles and interviews (with writers and artists) are a goldmine for scholars to study and use for their work. I am so glad that these “fan” publications are finally used more and more as scholars begin to realize their value. There are so many perspectives from which one can study comics (sociological, historical, philosophical, psychological, medical, media influence, theological, etc.). The sky is the limit! It truly is a wonderful time for someone to be studying comics.
Some of my most recent and forthcoming projects include the December 2011 issue of Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, which I co-edited with Dr Mel Gibson, on audiences and readership. Other projects include a volume on Spider-Man co-edited with Dr Robert Moses Peaslee from Texas Tech’s Department of Electronic Media and Communications. (He is one of the most brilliant and articulate scholars I know.) The book is called Web Spinning Heroics and is coming out soon. Dr Peaslee and I are also working on an edited scholarly book on the Joker (the academic literature on supervillains is sparse at best).
I am also in the process of co-editing a book on comics, graphic novels, and education with my excellent library colleague, associate social sciences librarian Carrye Syma, also from Texas Tech. And I have several articles coming out in Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan’s Icons of the American Comic Book.
My advice to scholars studying comics is to keep doing it. Comics scholarship is really in its infancy, and we have a chance to be creative, thoughtful, and make a difference in the way the rest of the world understands sequential art.
Eric Werthmann. “Graphic Novel Holdings in Academic Libraries.” In Graphic Novels in Libraries and Archives. Edited by Robert G. Weiner. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co: 242-259.
Semple, Lorenzo (dir), Adam West, Burt Ward et al., Batman: The Movie. Beverly Hills, CA : 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008. (DVD) originally released in 1966.
Robert G. Weiner is an associate humanities librarian at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He is the author of Marvel Graphic Novels: An Annotated Guide, editor of Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero and Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives, as well as the author of a number of comics-related articles in books like the Routledge History of the Holocaust, Gotham City 14 Miles, and The Gospel According to Superheroes. He is the co-editor of In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater (with librarian Shelley Barba). He has also published on film- and music-related topics.