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  • Introduction
  • Bart Beaty, editor (bio)

It is hard not to arrive at a reductive, teleological argument when comparing the evolution of Comics Studies with the intellectual history of Film Studies. In most respects, Comics Studies lags about a half century behind the academic study of fi lm. While the scholarly study of cinema dates to the work of Arnheim, Balázs, Bazin, and Kracauer, it was only later, in the 1960s and 1970s, that Film Studies was institutionalized in academe by the creation of departments, peer-reviewed journals, and learned associations.1 One of the important steps toward institutional legitimacy was the push to create a specifi c grammar for writing about fi lm. By outlining the particular language used by cinema, scholars were able to move past the naive claim that the form could be understood analytically through the parallel use of terms and techniques developed for the study of literature, theater, or art history. Theories explaining the aesthetic and psychological impact of montage, for example, helped to lead the study of fi lm out of departments of English Literature, by revealing it as a distinct and highly specialized art form. Subsequent critical and theoretical developments accelerated exponentially as the discipline consolidated and fi lm became an object of study alongside, not subservient to, literature and art history.

The current state of the scholarly study of comics is strikingly akin to that of fi lm in the 1960s. Important and infl uential theoretical works, often by practitioners, like Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, have been published, and the number of critical works is clearly growing quickly. A host of university presses are now developing series dedicated to the study of comics. In the past two years, three new journals dedicated to the study of comics and graphic novels have been launched, and [End Page 106] the number of conferences is steadily growing. SCMS has offered panels on comics since the London conference in 2005, and the MLA voted last year to create a comics research area. It is likely that more than one hundred courses on comics will be offered at universities this year (the vast majority, like the earliest film courses, through literature departments), and degree programs catering to aspiring comics practitioners are flourishing at the School for Visual Arts in New York City, the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, there are no signs on the horizon that departments of Comics Studies are soon to be created, and tenure-track jobs for comics specialists are extremely scarce. Despite the fact that comics are significantly older than cinema, consecration as a legitimate art form has not come easily, and the academic study of the form is still marginal. Moreover, with each passing year it seems less likely—not more—that comics scholars could attain the victories that film scholars have won. Ironically, Comics Studies lives in the shadows not only of literature and art but also, increasingly, of Film Studies.

The curious status of the scholarly study of comics owes a great deal to the unusual evolution of the medium itself. The rapid rise of the American comic book format in the 1940s, and the targeting of a juvenile audience, cemented the association of comics and children in the public mind. Although cinema has a similarly degraded origin, for many years comics had very few practitioners who were akin to the cinematic modernists exploring the formal boundaries of the medium. While cinema moved hand in hand with the important conceptual developments in literature and art throughout the course of the twentieth century, the comics field focused resolutely on the rapidly growing youth market, only to be cast aside by that audience with the growth of television after the Second World War. In the postwar period, the academic study of film was tied to the development of self-consciously art-driven cinemas, particularly across Western Europe, which could convincingly be compared with the best of contemporary literature. Only much later did the study of popular cinema become commonplace. By contrast, what studies of comics did exist at that time were clustered around socio-psychological media-effects studies concerned with the potentially degrading influence...


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pp. 106-110
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