Thinking about comics scholarship by James Chapman

18 Apr

I would like to use the opportunity of this blog post to offer a few thoughts on the current state of comics research. One thing I don’t feel I have to do on this forum is to explain why comics matter or justify spending time researching them. (That’s not always the case. More than once, while I was writing my book British Comics, I was asked questions like “You mean you’re being paid to read comics?” “Well, no, not as such …” I would start to reply, but the interculotor was usually no longer listening, having already turned to someone else to say “Hey, this professor is paid to read comics, how cool is that!”) But there are points to raise, and issues to discuss, about how we go about researching comics, and in particular whether ‘comics studies’ can be said to be a subject and a discipline in its own right in the way that, say, film studies and television studies are.

I should explain that I came to comics scholarship as a non-specialist. I’d read comics as a boy, like most of my generation. Victor was my comic of choice, which I later rationalised in terms of its more progressive social politics, though at the time I’m sure it was just the war and adventure stories that appealed. But I wasn’t that interested in comics from the perspective of adult nostalgia (not that there’s anything wrong with nostalgia!). I am a cultural historian, mostly specialising in the history of British cinema and television, and I became interested in comics initially because there were so many parallels with my other research interests. The emergence of British Second World War comics in the 1950s, for example, coincided with the golden age of the British war movie, while it has been well documented that the new wave of ‘violent’ boys’ comics in the 1970s, such as Battle, Action and 2000AD, turned to popular films and television series for inspiration.

Comics research is a smaller field than film, or even television (sometimes seen as the poor relation of film), and its contours and intellectual history are less well defined. This can be both a positive and a negative. It’s positive in the sense that a great deal of comics research is interdisciplinary in its methods and approaches, which can create the right conditions for constructive and meaningful dialogue. But the downside is that the questions that scholars sometimes then ask are drawn from their own subjects and aren’t always directly about comics themselves.

For example, much of the pioneering academic research into comics came from a sociological perspective. What came to be known as the “media effects” debate was really part of a wider dialogue on the problem (both real and perceived) of juvenile delinquency and how much of the blame could be laid at the door of popular culture. In this sense comics became just another object of intellectual disdain and moral panic – following on from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls and gangster films in the 1930s, anticipating video nasties, gangsta rap and violent video games – and much of the debate was little more than polemic. There are exceptions, of course, and Martin Barker’s book A Haunt of Fears (1985) remains a landmark in this regard, a pioneering study of the discourses and rhetorical strategies employed by the campaigners against so-called “horror comics” in the 1950s, and, I would suggest, the foundational text of comics research in the UK.

Otherwise it seems to me that there are, broadly speaking, two main academic approaches to comics studies. One, evidenced by much of the work on French bande dessinée and by some of the work starting to emerge on important comic creators such as Alan Moore, is what I shall term the cultural theory approach. The language here is that of semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism and postmodernism. I have to confess that I find myself out of sympathy with much of this work, not because I am necessarily allergic to theory, but more on the grounds that the emphasis on signifying codes and structural processes too often seems to deny space either for any creative agency on the part of the writer or artist, or any sense that the readers of comics are individuals rather than an undifferentiated mass. Barthes wrote about the death of the author, but none of his poststructuralist brethren seem to have had any interest in doing the empirical legwork necessary to investigate the responses of actual as opposed to theoretically constructed readers of the text. (I know that in writing this paragraph I have probably offended many of the readers of this forum and shall brace myself for the backlash!)

The other main approach – which, I should emphasise, in view of the previous paragraph, is also not without its intellectual problems – is what I call the cultural history approach. The emphasis here is on understanding comics as products of the culture in which they are published and consumed. This is an approach that informs much of the work on American comics, such as Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation (2001), and which provided my own methodology for British Comics. I said this approach is not without its problems. One of the most fundamental is that unlike, say, film history, where methodologies have been developed for investigating the composition and even cultural tastes of cinema audiences of the past, there is as yet no easy way of discovering what readers actually thought of their comics. The letters pages, yes, and these can be revealing of the actual views of actual readers, rather than theoretical readers ‘constructed’ by the text, though we cannot assume that the small sample of letters published in comics are representative of the editors’ postbags, that they have not been significantly abridged, or even that they have not been fabricated in the publishers’ office. (An exception here are adult comics such as Warrior, which regularly published three pages of small-type comments from readers: Dez Skinn seems to have taken a perverse delight in providing space for readers to state exactly what was wrong with the comic!). But we haven’t yet had any equivalent for comics of Annette Kuhn’s research into the memories of cinema-goers in the 1930s (An Everyday Magic, 2002) or the ‘Going to the Show’ project into early cinema-going undertaken by the University of North Carolina. In the case of British comics, moreover, even such basic information as sales and circulation figures are elusive: there are few reliable sources before the 1970s and those that exist have to be interpreted with caution.

One consequence of the absence of many archival sources for comics is that the cultural historian has to fall back on analysis of the comics themselves. This is no bad thing, you may think, as surely it’s the comics that matter, right? But even here there are methodological issues to address. How should we ‘read’ comics historically? How far should we assume, for example, that the Cold War allegory that to modern adult eyes seems so patently obvious in the Eagle‘s flagship strip ‘Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future’ was understood by a ten-year-old reader in the 1950s? I feel justified in identifying and discussing ‘Dan Dare’ as a Cold War narrative, but I hesitate to claim that it was widely understood that way at the time. (I did find evidence that adults understood Eagle in this way: and the fact that adults read Eagle is interesting in itself for all sorts of reasons.) Another methodological problem is whether we should read comic strips in the same way as prose fiction or as visual texts more akin to films. This question is particularly significant for British comics, as so many comics, including School Friend, Hotspur and Wizard, started out as prose story papers before transforming into picture-strip papers. There is no straightforward answer to this question and I cannot claim to have solved it. What I found was that, rather like films, some strips seem to be more driven by narrative, whereas others create meaning through pictures as well as words. Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’ strips, for example, often employed a device similar to deep-focus cinematography, where there is all sort of incidental detail in the foreground but the real action in the frame takes place in the background.

So where does comics scholarship stand today? There are good, largely authoritative studies of major comic-producing nations – the United States, France, Japan, Britain – and informative studies of genres such as the superhero comic and manga. And there is evidence that key writers and artists (though mostly, interestingly enough, writers) are being taken seriously as creative auteurs. I look forward to the day when there as many critical and scholarly studies of Alan Moore as there are of Orson Welles, and when Garth Ennis’s War Stories are afforded the same currency as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan when it comes to the realisation of war in popular culture.

Overall, though, comics scholarship is still in its infancy. There are still many gaps in our historical knowledge: most histories, including my own, are sketched in broad brush strokes, with the contours remaining to be shaded and filled in. Some genres, including science fiction and the superhero mythos, have been the subject of meaningful analysis, but where are the corresponding studies of, say, the sports story or the school story? (There is a body of critical literature on the school story in prose fiction, but hardly anything on its picture-strip equivalent.) My own book exhibits a bias (of which I was very much aware) towards boys’ comics over girls’ comics – partly because I lack the cultural competence to decode them, and partly because Mel Gibson’s work in this field is pre-eminent. Above all, however, I feel that the major challenge for the next generation of comics researchers will be to get to grips with the questions of readership and reception. Who read comics, how did they respond to them, and what were the cultural and aesthetic decisions they made in doing so? My own research, for example, suggested to me that British children made qualitative decisions in their comic reading based on genre and nationality. British children in the 1960s and 1970s were avid readers of superhero comics, but they preferred American titles whereas British imitations such as Captain Britain did not last the course. Conclusion: that British readers associated superheroes with America and chose their comics on that basis. But when it came to war comics, British boys showed little interest in Sergeant Rock or GI Joe: war, especially the Second World War, was to them a British genre, hence the preference for Commando, Warlord and Battle. If nothing else, that’s one in the eye for the old Frankfurt School notion that the consumers of popular culture are passive and undiscriminating. Quite the contrary, in fact: children are often among the most discerning of consumers.

No researcher ever gets the last word on a subject. Occasionally – very occasionally – someone gets to have the first word. Comics scholarship is still a field up for grabs. I can’t claim to have been there at the beginning, but I am proud that I have been able to make a small contribution to the infancy of the subject. Soon comics scholarship will start to experience its growing pains as genuine and important methodological and intellectual debates turn into theoretical and ideological rifts (well, at least that’s what happened to film studies in the 1970s!) But after that the field will mature into adulthood, and being a comics historian will no longer be regarded as an eccentric indulgence. I think the process is going to be fun to watch.

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and is the author of British Comics: A Cultural History (Reaktion, 2011) as well as books on the James Bond films (Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, I. B. Tauris, 1999, 2nd edn 2007) and Doctor Who (Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who – A Cultural History, I. B. Tauris, 2006, 2nd edn forthcoming September 2013).


1 Comment

Posted by on 2013/04/18 in Guest Writers


One response to “Thinking about comics scholarship by James Chapman

  1. Shaun Huston

    2013/04/25 at 15:34

    Thanks for this critical summary. I wanted to draw your attention to comics scholarship being produced by geographers, particularly within cultural, political and economic geography.

    One aspect of this research agenda falls between cultural theory and cultural history, with an emphasis on comics and national identity and geopolitics. Jason Dittmer’s recently published book on Captain America, Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics (Temple University Press, 2013) is one example of this kind of work. Klaus Dodds is another political geographer who has presented and published work in this area. This kind of work is part of a broader interest in popular and everyday geopolitics.

    Another aspect addresses the changing geography of comics production. A key article here is by Norcliffe and Rendance, “New Geographies of Comic Book Production:
    The New Artisan, Distancing, and the Periodic Social Economy”. Economic Geography 79
    (3), 241-263. My own recent work has focused on the attraction that Portland, Oregon has for many comics creators in North America. This research is at the intersection between cultural and economic geography.

    Finally, there is thinking on the spatial form of comics. Again, Jason Dittmer has work in this vein, notably his article, “Comic book visualities: a methodological manifesto on geography, montage and narration”. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35(2), 222-236. In making a documentary about the comics community in Portland, I also experiment in media form, playing with the idea of “panels” in the editing and visual design of the film.

    As in your own case, many of the geographers doing work on comics also do work on other forms of popular media, including film and television. Work in comics is part of a larger, still emerging, agenda of research in media geographies.



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