Comics Scholarship Finds Its Voice With ‘INKS’ and ‘Drawing the Line’

The scholarly study of comics and graphic novels in the US has long been without a journal of record. At some level, this seems fitting. Comics studies people are typically renegade non-conformists who recoil “authoritative” word on much of anything. These tendencies aside, the lack of a forum has also been a real problem. On one hand, anyone wanting to understand trends in comics studies has had to comb through a thicket of grassroots publications and blog-like online journals with widely variable quality. Even worse, the most influential articles in comics studies often end up appearing in traditional literary, art history, or cultural studies journals where authors must cater to the interests of other fields.

The newly revived INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society seems poised to change all of this. Dedicated solely to comics and published by the Ohio State University Press, INKS has the look and feel of an academic journal that can act as a standard bearer for the field. Editor Jared Gardner and his team have presented a satisfying and accessible mix of rigorous peer-refereed articles, reviews, and interviews that should prove indispensable for scholars and general audience readers looking to understand what the brightest thinkers in comics scholarship are working on.

This run of INKS is preceded by a version of the journal that ran from 1994-97. As part of the launch, Gardner has collaborated with original editor Lucy Shelton Caswell on an anthology entitled Drawing the Line: Comics Studies and INKS 1994-1997, which compiles the most important articles from that first run. The collection is an interesting snapshot of the field of comics scholarship at a time when the field itself was completely undefined. As a result, Drawing the Line does not really provide a record of particularly important “initiating statements” in the field of comics scholarship. This is not, in other words, a book that one would read for an introduction to the field of comics studies, as much as a record of the early evolution of the study of comics.

At times, Drawing the Line provides a window into how and why comics became a “serious” object of study in literary and cultural studies. To that end, it’s fascinating to read essays like Will Eisner, Joseph Witek and Charles Hatfield make a prescient case that comics are a narrative form that can be every bit as sophisticated and complex as novels or poetry. Other parts of the collection reveal just how different the interests of comics studies in the late ’90s were from today. INKS’ earliest issues had relatively few articles on the graphic novels, graphic memoirs, or superhero books that dominate comics studies today. Instead, we see topics that rarely get the type of attention they deserve. Essays such as Robert Harvey’s piece on newspaper circulation, David Berona’s article on woodcut novels, and Julia Andrews’ work on Chinese picture stories all feel fresh and new when viewed twenty years later.

As for the new version of INKS, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. This begins with the publishers and editors themselves. Ohio State University has become a mecca of sorts for comics scholars, creators, and fans. OSU boasts the most impressive comics-only archive with the Billy Ireland library and museum and regularly plays host to major artists and writers. In recent years, this activity has been punctuated by the Cartoon Crossroads Columbus Festival, which is fast becoming the comics equivalent to Austin’s South by Southwest. Additionally, the editorial board reflects the diverse mix of people involved in the study of comics. People overseeing the journal range from premiere university scholars like Hillary Chute and Ramzi Fawaz to important independent experts like Paul Gravett and Robert C. Harvey to the legendary artist Art Speigelman.

The first two issues are very promising. Gardner presents a nice balance of approaches and genres. The most recent issue, for example, features topics ranging from Gilded Age comics to critical race studies in superhero comics to newer genres such as webcomics and graphic medicine. The articles themselves are scholarly while avoiding the pretense and obscurity so common in academic prose. Even the headiest discussions are thoroughly accessible. For example, Kerry Soper’s “De/Reracialization in Walt Kelly’s Pogo” engages some very sophisticated uses of critical race theory in straightforward language, free of jargon or scholarly mystification.

In addition to top flight peer reviewed articles, INKS features several sections that provide readers a sense of the major happenings in the broad field of comics studies. Gardner also seems intent on offer articles that reflect on the state of the field in general with pieces like Caitlin McGurk’s excellent roundtable, “Comics Professionals” from issue 1 and Carl Beinecke’s, “On Comicity,” which reflects on the language scholars use to describe comics in issue 2.

Even the simple act of paging through the physical copy reveals how well the editors understand comics creators and readers. Illustrations have been presented in a way that meticulously reproduces the look, feel, and color of the original comics. Pages are thoughtfully laid out to create synergy between image and text. They even use different types of paper stock depending on whether the original comic appeared in glossy, matte, or newsprint formats. While attention to details like this may seem like a given for any comics scholar or reader, it’s something that scholars can rarely take for granted up to this point.

All of these elements — accessibility, consistently sharp work, breadth of topics, and attention to trends in the field — seem to suggest that Gardner and his team have put together precisely the kind of forum needed to reach the varied audiences for comics studies. Here’s hoping that this run of INKS persists for years to come.

RATING 8 / 10