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Just don’t call it Mickey Mouse

Comics have become much more sophisticated since the advent of Archie or Superman and are now a legitimate area of scholarship


What comes to mind most readily when you hear the word “comics?” Incredulity over the fact that a simple pair of glasses keeps the Daily Planet’s seasoned reporters from guessing that their colleague Clark Kent is secretly Superman? Bewilderment over Betty and Veronica’s helpless attraction to a nondescript redhead like Archie? Chances are the first thoughts that enter your brain aren’t “suitable subject for serious academic inquiry.”

Still, across the country an increasing number of universities are offering courses on comics, and a growing band of scholars are coming to the conclusion that the medium provides fertile territory for all kinds of research projects.

Jeff McLaughlin, a professor of philosophy at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., believes he knows why: “A lot of younger professors were reading comics at a time when comics became really interesting.”

In the 1980s, graphic novels like Maus, a wrenching, Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of the Holocaust, and titles like Watchmen, a radical reinterpretation of the notion of super- heroes, made it plain that comics could aspire to be much more than Caspar the Friendly Ghost. “Comics weren’t just Superman, Batman and Spiderman,” says Dr. McLaughlin. “There could be a whole range of genres [and] themes.”

Some of those themes are examined in a new book that he edited, Comics as Philosophy. The collection of essays by several scholars uses comics as a prism to look at race, heroism, environmentalism and other subjects. In Dr. McLaughlin’s own chapter, he discusses how the DC Comics miniseries, Crisis on Infinite Earths, can help shed light on 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s musings about how our existing world is the best of all the possible worlds that could have been.

According to Dr. McLaughlin, using comics to touch on complex philosophical themes pays dividends in the classroom. “Students know their comics. Here’s a way to get them to think a little about philosophy.”

Bart Beaty, a professor in the University of Calgary’s faculty of communication and culture, says that comics scholarship is still largely in its infancy, which offers definite advantages for scholars. “One of the appealing things is that there isn’t a huge body of work that already exists. You could write about almost anything and be the first one to do it. For an academic, that’s exhilarating.”

Dr. Beaty’s new book, Unpopular Culture, looks at some of the avant-garde work done by comics creators in Europe in the ’90s. Another of his research projects focuses on how museums, galleries and art journals are beginning to treat comics as a serious art form.

His previous book, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, probed the most vilified figure in comics history. Dr. Wertham, a psychiatrist, famously attacked comics in the ’50s as an immoral medium, questioning, for instance, homoerotic undercurrents in the relationship between Batman and his underage sidekick Robin. Dr. Wertham’s writings and his testimony before a U.S. Congressional committee examining comics played a large role in pressuring the comic-book industry to adopt a code that effectively killed off the horror and crime comics genres. The comics industry was very nearly obliterated by the bad publicity that Dr. Wertham had helped to generate.

“I went into [that project] expecting to castigate him,” says Dr. Beaty. Instead, he discovered a surprisingly complex man. Fredric Wertham volunteered at a free psychiatry clinic in Harlem and his research helped pave the way for the desegregation of schools in the U.S. He treated the doomed Ethel Rosenberg, in prison for supplying the Soviet Union with information about atomic weapons, when most of his colleagues preferred to steer clear of such a notorious patient.

Meanwhile, a forthcoming book by Dr. McLaughlin deals with another important historical figure, Stan Lee. Collaborating with such gifted artists as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, Lee co- created a dizzying number of characters, including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk and Daredevil, all of them featured in recent big-budget films.

According to Dr. McLaughlin, Stan Lee’s approach to superheroes was radical for his era. Until he came along, superheroes were typically lantern-jawed, bland and always in the right. Lee introduced the notion of imperfect heroes who wrestled with self-doubt and self-loathing when they weren’t busy wrestling with villains like Dr. Doom.

“Lee’s heroes had real-world problems. Peter Parker’s love life [Spiderman’s secret identity] was always a mess and he had trouble keeping a job. The stories took place in New York, a real city, not some imaginary place like Gotham City or Metropolis.”

As a result, Lee deserves credit for paving the way for the edgier and more mature comics that creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller would later produce. But he faced a rocky road at the start in trying to convince a skeptical public that comics didn’t have to be just for kids. “I was watching Lee during an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in the ’60s,” says Dr. McLaughlin, “and all the other guests were making fun of him. He had to put up with a lot of that.”

As interest grows in comics as a subject of academic study, so too does the demand for the kind of expertise that librarian Oliver Charbonneau can provide. Mr. Charbonneau, a reference librarian for Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, is an expert on copyright, but he is quickly building a reputation for his knowledge of comics as well. Many of the articles he writes for academic journals deal with how libraries should contend with the growing demand for graphic novels, bandes dessinées (French-language comics), mangas (Japanese comics) and other examples of what he terms “narrative art.”

When the Montreal-based Grande Bibliothèque du Québec decided to expand its collection of English graphic novels, it approached Mr. Charbonneau to come up with a shopping list of 1,000 titles – “the Oscars of bandes dessinées.” In what he calls a “dream assignment,” the librarian (and collector) put together a list of award-winners and seminal works (including a collection of the very first appearances of Superman). “Part of the reason I began to think seriously about libraries and comics was that I was running out of money and running out of storage space!”

Graphic novels can be very useful to libraries, he says, “if you want to get more young people coming in through the door.” He cites the case of a Florida library that added 500 graphic novels to its collections, and doubled its number of visitors. Graphic novels can also be educational, piquing young readers’ interests in a wide range of topics and genres. Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s award-winning series about Louis Riel, for instance, might create an appetite for more works of history, while Joe Sacco’s unique form of cartoon journalism (he writes and illustrates stories about his trips to troubled regions like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), could prompt interested readers to seek out other works of personal journalism.

In Jonathan Warren’s case, it was the other way around. A professor of English at York University, Dr. Warren was captivated by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel that recounts the tale of a pair of Jewish comic book creators during the industry’s golden age in the 1940s. “I was teaching American cultural history and when I read Chabon, I realized that comics could be an interesting way to explore a lot of the themes that I was interested in, things like outsider culture or high art versus low art,” says Dr. Warren.

His department chair sensed such a course would be a winner in terms of student enrolment, and he was right – Dr. Warren’s comics classes tend to be jam-packed. He now teaches three courses on comics: a graduate course on graphic novels and two undergraduate courses tracing the historical development of comics and cartoons in the context of their milieu. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, for instance, featured an unusually sombre tone for a comic strip when it debuted in the ’50s, reflecting the Cold War angst of the period. George Herriman’s dreamy comic strip Krazy Kat, which debuted in 1913, mirrored the increasingly influential Dada art movement.

Students who take the courses are fairly up-to-date on current comics, but often have little appreciation for how the medium developed, he says. Dr. Warren hopes they leave his class developing a taste “for some of the more experimental stuff,” be it for Chris Ware’s prize-winning Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or for Winsor McCay’s early-20th-century comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland, a surreal masterwork.

Dr. Warren’s York University colleague, Wendy Siuyi Wong, chairs the department of design. She examines the history of Chinese visual culture and finds that comics have played a surprisingly influential role, particularly in recent years. “Comics are a good starting point for understanding aspects of visual design in Asia,” says Dr. Wong. For instance, visual elements from Hong Kong’s popular kung fu-style comics often crop up in advertising and graphic design.

While a North American comic is considered quite successful if it sells 50,000 copies, some of Japan’s most popular mangas sell in the millions. “In Asia, everyone from the ages of five to 55 will find something that they like to read,” she says, adding that Asian comics tend to be more down-to-earth than the superhero fare that still dominates in North America.

Dr. Wong, who wrote Hong Kong Comics: A History of Manhua, served as conference chair last May when York played host to the International Conference on Asian Comics, Animation and Gaming, an event that featured presentations from researchers from numerous countries. She believes scholarly interest in comics is on the rise internationally. The University of Calgary’s Dr. Beaty is quick to agree: “I hear from graduate students almost daily who are seeking me out to sit on their external review committees.”

Dr. Beaty believes comics scholarship still has some growing up to do.

“I would say that the academic study of comics right now is where the academic study of film was in the ’60s,” he says. “Scholarship on film in the ’60s tended to focus on certain things like genre and character, largely to the exclusion of visual elements.” The arrival of acclaimed directors like Fellini, Bergman and Godard sparked more appreciation for film’s more visual aspects, such as cinematography.

“With comics, a lot of the work that’s going on takes place in literature departments,” notes Dr. Beaty. Yet comics are usually produced by a writer and an artist working as a team. The best comics writers, creators like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, he notes, are respected in academic circles, “but we don’t hear about the artists.”

And while comics might be garnering more attention from academe, the same isn’t always true for society at large. Dr. Beaty has written books on both television and comics, but at a party, “no one wants to talk to me about comic books,” he says. “People are happy to get my take on Oprah or The Apprentice. That gets more respect than comics do.”

Telling their stories

While quite a few universities in North America now offer courses about comic books, there are very few that offer instruction on how to actually put them together. One of those is Université du Québec en Outaouais.

Students in the comics strip design program at UQO “are all passionate about comics,” says visual arts professor Sylvain Lemay. In fact, the program is largely the result of student demand. Professor Lemay says UQO’s visual arts professors noticed in the 1990s that an increasing number of their students were turning in work with a distinctively comic strip sensibility. They investigated further and discovered that, indeed, there were plenty of students clamouring for a formal program that specialized in comics. Professor Lemay, an expert on Quebec comics, was recruited to head up the program, launched in 1999.

While the program’s students spend plenty of time honing their drawing skills, they also gain an appreciation for the history of comics and a sense of how the medium is evolving. Most of all, says Professor Lemay, they learn to craft a story. “For me, the comic strip is a unique method for storytelling. We try to encourage our students to find their own voices and techniques for telling the stories they want to tell.”

Courses in the program tackle everything from mastering anatomy to structuring narratives, and its teaching staff is composed of both academics (like Lemay) and comics professionals (like Réal Godbout, creator of the humorous series, Red Ketchup).

The advantages of offering such a program in Quebec, says Professor Lemay, is that UQO’s instructors are well-versed in both European and American trends. “We have the opportunity to be a meeting ground for those influences and that benefits our students.”

A few for your collection

In recent years, comics have supplied Hollywood with source material for summer blockbusters (Batman Begins, Superman Returns) and Oscar contenders (A History of Violence, American Splendor). Interested in exploring the medium for yourself? Here is some recommended reading from experts in the field.

Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka. Picked by Wendy Siuyi Wong

The creator of this series about an unorthodox and shadowy surgeon was himself a physician who became known as the Walt Disney of Japan for his prolific work in mangas, TV and film.

Epileptic by David B. Picked by Bart Beaty

A moving, autobiographical work by a French artist about his brother’s struggles with a severe form of epilepsy and its impact on their family.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. Picked by Jonathan Warren

“A mythic work with very high aims that pays back all the attention it demands of its readers. I love it because it’s so unrelentingly bleak.”

Maus by Art Speigelman. Picked by Jeff McLaughlin

“It needs to be on anyone’s must-read list. It changed the way people saw (comics).”

Paul a un travail d’été by Michel Rabagliati. Picked by Sylvain Lemay

Available in English as Paul Has a Summer Job, this graphic novel is part of a series of semi-autobiographical works crafted with warmth and wit by Rabagliati, a Montrealer.

SPX Anthology. Picked by Olivier Charbonneau

This anthology series, put together by the Small Press Expo, North America’s premiere festival for independent comics, features the work of top cartoonists and revolves around a different theme in each edition.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Picked by Jeff McLaughlin

“People who read superhero comics as kids might be wowed by where Moore and Gibbons take them.”

Daniel Mccabe
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  1. Francine L'Amour / February 2, 2009 at 13:17

    It seems there are no University courses utilizing online graphic novels, which leads one to question whether the commercial publishing industry has cut deals with certain educators

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