Graphic novels and comics are oftentimes overlooked by the academic community. Why do you think this is? Is there a “right” way, or even a “wrong” way to approach them?
I think that the reason graphic novels and comic books are overlooked by the academic community is fairly obvious. There seems to be a general belief that the only graphic literature worth looking at is Maus or Persepolis. All other comics are viewed as children’s entertainment. It is easy for academics to dismiss graphic literature as being lesser when little to no effort is given to understand the genre. Comic books and graphic novels are a relatively new genre when compared to the novel and, often times, new genres are ignored. Since their pages are full of pictures, many academics do not consider them true literature.
I actually think that the separation of graphic literature and more traditional literature is the most important issue when approaching comics and graphic novels. The wrong way to approach graphic literature is to separate it from all other literature. The idea that it falls into a category all its own is inaccurate. Graphic literature should be assessed and analyzed the same exact way as other forms. All differences are purely superficial and when academia discovers this fact, graphic literature should be embraced.
What are the most common misconceptions your students have about comic books and graphic literature?
The biggest misconceptions students have about comic books and graphic literature is the belief that they are all the same. What I mean by this is many students think that all comics contain superheroes doing spectacular things in tight costumes while the words BANG! POW! THUD! accompany every movement. The reality is not remotely close to this misconception. Comic books and graphic literature are as varied as the people of the world. The idea of a standard is horribly wrong and there is a constant urge for students to generalize. I frequently receive work with phrases like “in most comics,” or “this is different from all other comics because…” These phrases come from the same students who have only read comic books for my class. They have absolutely no concept of what other comics exist in the world and are simply making assumptions.
When did you start reading comics? Was there a particular book or comic that helped you start seeing the genre in a more academic context? Or was the process more gradual?
I started reading comic books in the third grade when I was nine. My first full length comic book was an issue of X-Men. I have been an X-Men fan ever since. It was X-Men which made me begin to think about the stories contained within comics in a different way. There was no lightning bolt moment with me concerning the use of comic books in academia. I loved comics so much that I always attempted to tie all of my work to them. I suppose that means the process was gradual. Unfortunately for the premise of this question, I do not really remember a time when I didn’t analyze comics and use them in my academic work.
The required reading list for your class is extremely diverse. How do you go about the daunting task of choosing which graphic novels to assign as required reading?
The reading list is a big problem for me. I spend a lot of time re-reading some of my favorite works and ending up with a stack of books I need to cut down. It is fun, but it can also be frustrating at times. I could do an entire semester on superheroes without a second thought. When it comes down to making final selections, my basic approach is to make sure that there is variation in the style of the work being presented. As for books which haven’t made the cut, I have often wanted to assign From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell but it’s simply too long. The other thing that I have wanted to do is assign an entire series to be read over the length of the semester, such as The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra, or Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. The problem with this is that the book list is already expensive and to require students to read a full length series on top of their regular reading is a bit too much.
Have you written about comic books and/or graphic novels in any other academic (journals, publications, academic papers) or non-academic (websites, blogs, etc.) contexts?
I have written about comic books and graphic novels as a professional off and on. For many years, I was a freelance journalist for Wizard Magazine. I also worked the past three San Diego Comic-Cons as a contributing writer for Comic Book Resources. One of my duties as a freelance writer for Quirk Books is to tackle comic book based blog posts. It is almost impossibility for me to avoid writing about comics.
How does the concept of entropy tie in to the study of graphic literature? (In what way[s] can the study of graphic literature push the study of literature as a whole in a different direction?)
The study of graphic literature is all about pushing the boundaries of preconceived concepts. The commonly held idea that literature simply consists of the written words is a misconception. Comic books and graphic novels are often not considered literature because a large part of the storytelling technique is picture based. At the same time, if academia determines literature to be made up of written words, then it must include comic books. The stories held within the pages of the comic books and graphic novels must be read and not just viewed to make sense. There is also a faction of our society which claims that to be deemed literature, a piece must be of incredible merit and quality. The question then is, how is merit determined? I have seen book stores where Dracula is in the literature section but The Shining is in the horror section. I find it hard to believe that there is such a great gulf between these two books as to title one literature and the other horror. In 2005, Time magazine released a list of the top 100 novels of the last century. On that list was Watchmen, the only comic book/graphic novel to be included. Does this distinction not define Watchmen as a piece of literature? According to book stores across the United States, it doesn’t, as it cannot be found in any literature section. The fact that Moby Dick is defined as literature while The Dark Knight Returns is defined as graphic literature is a perfect example of the issue being posed by the term “literature.” The study of comic books and graphic novels brings to light the issue of “literature” and forces the academic world to take this subgenre more seriously. The study of comic books and graphic novels punches small holes in the wall that academia has put up around literature. So many of the comics and graphic novels draw from “literature” that it is impossible to deny they are part of the same tradition. That is, of course, if you are a comic book fan. Comic fans know that The Starjammers fly around in the Pequod, that The Morlocks are mutants who live beneath New York City and that Beast can quote Shakespeare like no one else. The problem comes from academic resistance. The view of literature and comic books is a through a one-way mirror and only the comic fans see everything clearly.