Note: Paul Buhle's "The New Scholarship of Comics," as published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2003), prompted much discussion on the Comics Scholars Discussion List.  

I felt that the article's title was misleading, as the piece did not provide a representative overview of what I see as the central aspects of scholarship, in any discipline: Publications (including monographs, essay collections, and journals; teaching; and communities of scholars, which often build themselves via conferences, colloquia, and other meetings where research and ideas are shared.  The article mentioned only a few monographs, implying that there was little published work in the field; it mentioned teaching more hypothetically than it currently exists in practice; and there was no sense that a community of scholars exists in North America - to say nothing of the fact that comics scholarship also has thrived in other countries for decades.

I wrote a letter to the editor in which I tried, briefly (but not briefly enough, it appears), to provide a broader academic context for the work that comics scholars in the United Stated are already performing, across multiple disciplines.  My letter was printed in the June 27, 2003 edition of
The Chronicle of HIgher Education, in a much-truncated form.  Most of the specific scholarly examples I included were edited out of the letter, regrettably leaving a still-diminished view of comics scholarship for Chronicle readers.  To that end -- and in case anyone might be interested -- I am reproducing below my original letter, which (I hope) serves as a somewhat more representative overview of "The New Scholarship of Comics" than did the earlier article.   --Gene Kannenberg, Jr.

To the Editor:

As an assistant professor of English who last year defended a Ph.D. dissertation on the interplay of text and image in comics, I was delighted to see The Chronicle publish "The New Scholarship of Comics" (The Review, May 16) by Paul Buhle, a writer whose work I have usually found insightful and thought-provoking.  However, this article seems to speak less about comics scholarship as a field than it does about Buhle's  immediate circumstances and considerations; it reveals little of the current state of comics scholarship, as its title would lead one to believe.

In the short space the article actually devotes to scholarship, Buhle's article mentions only that there have been "relatively few" university press monographs on comics, naming only one.  Glancing at my own bookshelf, I see approximately two dozen academic monographs published in the last decade or so; UP Mississippi alone has a line of publications on comics, and presses including Duke, Indiana, Routledge,  Penn State, Johns Hopkins, and Smithsonian have published monographs.  This number may pale in comparison to other, more established fields, perhaps; but the number grows nearly exponentially every year, even if it still falls well below the number of academic studies of comics published with regularity in Europe and elsewhere, where comics scholarship has taken root more firmly.  American scholars are working to catch up to our international forerunners, and are making good headway, I like to think.

But monographs alone do not do justice to a field of scholarship.  I would suggest that a more representative view of comics scholarship would include references to the many actual -- not just theoretical -- university courses taught each year on comics, from a wide range of disciplines: literature, art history, communications, and philosophy, to present only a few examples.  

Readers of an article purporting to discuss an academic field also would be interested to know that there have been two journals dedicated to comics scholarship in the last decade, including the sadly defunct Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, edited by Lucy Shelton Caswell of Ohio State University's Cartoon Research Library (1994-1997), and the thriving International Journal of Comic Art, edited by John A Lent of Temple University (1999-present).  Articles on comics have, of course, appeared in journals ranging from Journal of Popular Culture to Word & Image for decades.  And essays regularly have been published in collections, both comics-specific (such as The Language of Comics: Word & Image, edited by Robin Varnum and Christina Gibbons [UP Mississippi, 2002], or Forging a New Medium: The Comic Strip in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Charles Dierick and Pascal Lefèvre [Amsterdam: VUB UP, 1999]) and other academic collections too numerous to mention.

Buhle's article also might create the impression that those scholars who study comics do so in isolation; the essay made no reference to the community of scholars which has been developing for some time now.  The U.S.A. alone hosts four annual conferences on comics scholarship, including The International Comic Arts Festival, the Comic Arts Conference, the University of Florida's Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, and the Comic Art & Comics section of the Popular Culture Association, which regularly hosts between 30-50 papers per year.  Attendance at conferences is generally a mixture of graduate students and faculty, some of whom are have devoted their careers to the study of comics.  This fact can be attested to by examining the growing number of M.A. theses and Ph.D. dissertations on comics in the last decade.

Scholars like M. Thomas Inge, Donald Ault, and John Lent (to name only a few) have been writing about comics for decades, and none of their work might be characterized by the nostalgic ache with which Buhle seems to peg comic scholars. And of course, academic writing about comics has been around, in one form or another, as long as have comic books and comic strips themselves.

The Comics Scholars' Discussion List has, for the past six years, served as a virtual meeting place for hundreds of scholars from the world over.  The Directory for the list includes information about the research, teaching, conference participation, and publications of approximately 150 scholars.

As to Buhle's hypothesis that the study of comics may somehow bring us closer to the experiences of our students, I can safely say that  most of my students have had almost no exposure to comics reading (apart from occasional comic strips) in their lives.  Comic books have not played a major role in popular culture for decades; film and television versions of some comics characters have had a much greater impact on the popular consciousness than has the actual source material.  Indeed, getting students to read comics in the classroom can at times take more effort, not less, than can more traditional forms of discourse.  Carefully chosen comics texts can help overcome this resistance, of course; but I think it an error to imagine that our classrooms are filled with comics-savvy students.  (This trend may be close to reversing, as the popularity of Japanese manga and anime continues to grow; but manga readers, like comics readers in general, still do not constitute a majority of young readers.)

While I applaud The Chronicle's decision to devote such a prominent space to a discussion of comics scholarship, I only wish the article itself had presented a more comprehensive and contemporary portrait of this dynamic and interdisciplinary field.  

Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Assistant Professor of English
University of Houston-Downtown

The published, heavily truncated version of this letter was printed in the
Chronicle of Higher Education, Letters to the Editor, "The Role of Comics in Life and Academe," June 27, 2003, p. B18.

Page last updated 27 July 2004