Trail Blazers in the World of Academia

I was recently talking to Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith, professors affiliated with the Comics Art Conference, about their book, The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (2009), while at San Diego Con this year. While discussing the history of academic interest (or lack thereof) in the medium in previous decades, the authors, whose work is a textbook that can be used for the ever-increasing amount of comic related classes that are emerging on college campuses across the country, mentioned that they had thought about adding a chapter on why comicbooks should be seen as a worthy topic of study, but they ultimately decided that these days such a disclaimer was unnecessary.

While as recently as just as just a few years ago comics suffered from a marginalized status that created a type of academic anxiety in which historians and intellectuals working in the field often felt that they needed to justify their topic of study, it seems that a threshold has been passed and that need is no longer felt as strongly. Looking back at the historiography of comic books since the 1950’s there are wonderful works on the subject that spend portions of their introductions or prefaces defending the expected slights of critics who would challenge the academic legitimacy of their subject matter.

Who can blame these scholars? For decades the medium suffered a similar dismissal by the academic community that fans suffered from in a more social context. While the pseudo-psychological criticisms of the social crusaders like Fredric Wertham faded away over the subsequent decades, the more subtle attacks on the medium that claimed that comics were for kids and that adults who read them were social misfits, endured.

Tracing the thread of this type of alienation, one sees it manifested in many of the histories and monographs published on the subject. Despite the excellent contributions of writers from both within and outside the industry, their works were often dismissed as coffee table books or labeled, “popular history” – a term which might not have much significance for the most people but one that I have heard typically drenched in sarcasm and derision from professors at various conferences.

Yet despite these hurdles, scholarship and critical analysis of comic books persisted. While it would take an essay longer than that available to me at this time to name all the risk-takers and trail-blazers who nourished this maligned area of study, one work in particular always struck me as being representative of the type that modern critics and historians owe a debt of gratitude to: The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media (1991). The collection of essays, edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, is a wonderful anthology that offers a serious and nuanced examination of the Dark Knight and his impact on society and culture.

There are a multitude of excellent essays in this book using the methodological approaches from a variety of different disciplines including History, Communication, English, and Sociology. While the various writers involved in the project approach their topics with professionalism, there is also an embedded sense when reading the book that the writers also care greatly about Batman specifically and comics in general.

That ubiquitous nature of the negative predisposition from their peers is made explicitly clear in the opening lines of the book’s introduction. The editor’s write:

“Batman?” said many of our fellow academics incredulously upon hearing of this collection.

True, it seemed a timely (and perhaps opportunistic) enterprise but couldn’t we find more worthy topics of inquiry? Though many seemed willing to grant, albeit grudgingly, the legitimacy of studying music videos, romance novels and sixties television, lingering doubts remained about a comic book hero who dresses up in a funny costume to fight crime. Discussion of Detective Comics and toy batmobiles still seemed to elicit more snickers than serious reflection.

Shock and Aura: Fred Wertham relied on qualifications as psychologist to hype the zeitgeist with anti-comics sentiment in the ’50s. This would eventually lead to McCarthy-style hearings for the industry.

It is in this face of this academic disregard that The Many Faces of Batman can be seen as a truly significant work. The scholarly merit of the essays collected notwithstanding, the book is also an example of the academics who risked the disdain of their peers in order to bring attention to comics as a legitimate topic. In a world where reputations can be destroyed with one bad review in an academic journal and the politics (as one of my grad school professors explained to the class during one particularly frank seminar) can sometimes be as petty as those of High School, it took a type of relative professional courage to create this book. Building off those that had come before they figuratively opened the door a little further for the subsequent generations of writers and scholars that exist today.

The impact of The Many Faces of Batman can be seen in the works of Will Brooker. Brooker, author of the excellent book Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, lists Pearson in his Acknowledgements section, thanking her the support and the “example.” He himself a victim of the academic stigma associated with comicbooks cites the work of Pearson and Uricchio frequently in his fascinating critical examination of the character.

In His Element: Marshall McLuhan argued for comics as a necessary measure of societal attitudes to media in his Understanding Media

Ultimately, the risks taken by Pearson, Uricchio and other authors of The Many Faces of Batman, may be relatively small in grand history of academics who stood up bravely against prevailing opinions and the entrenched elites of the intellectual world, but they are due their place.

As we continue to enter this new era in which comics become more integrated into both the larger popular culture and the resulting professional areas that examine it, it is important to remember that until very recently it wasn’t always so. We now have ImageTexT, a online academic journal dedicated to interdisciplinary study of the medium, Conferences, countless grad students writing their theses on Wonder Woman and Maus, Fantagraphics recently released a collection called the Best American Comics Criticism – all things that may not have been as common in previous decades.

Trecherous Road Ahead: Indeed, as Magritte’s famous slogan reads, this is not a pipe.

While it will be for future scholars to try pinpoint exactly when we transitioned into this new period of acceptance, they will invariably owe a debt of gratitude to the scholars, writers, and historians of which the contributors to The Many Faces of Batman are but one example, who through skill and fortitude helped open the door so that others could follow in their footsteps with greater ease; a legacy ultimately worthy of the medium that they helped shed a little more light upon.

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