- It Ain't Easy Studying Comics
After having moderated a Cinema Journal conversation about the state of published research on comics in this issue, I find myself thinking more than ever about the challenges of doing good academic work on comics. One challenge may be particularly endemic to SCMS. Members who are interested in comics often approach them through their highly visible cross-media presence. Comics are "hot" now, which doesn't mean that sales of physical comics are up (they aren't, except for translations of Japanese comics), but that comics are increasingly used as a research-and-development source for mainstream films and television programs. One important (and entirely reasonable) way for a trained film or television scholar to explore this historical moment is to create conference presentations of the "Comics and . . ." variety. I am a veteran of such conferences. I get invitations to be on "Comics and Film" panels, an essay of mine appears in a "Comics and the City" anthology, and at the 2010 [End Page 110] SCMS conference I cochaired a panel on "Comics and Television." At times this presentation format can feel like an attempt to justify the study of comics by linking them to more "important" media. Good scholarship on adaptation can certainly provide a vista onto both the original and the adapted form, and we need to lend our particular expertise to our increasingly transmedia world. But I worry that the "Comics and . . ." approach encourages us to neglect the actual comics themselves and to favor the elements (characters, iconography, storylines) that readily transfer across media. I grow tired of the impulse to tie comics to another medium. Dealing with comics alone is hard enough without compounding the difficulty by studying two different objects.
Outside of Film and Media Studies, some academics pair comics with a more established discipline as a fun way to sugarcoat difficult material, and thus we get "philosophy through comics" or "comics as history," using comics as a popular hook. This practice is not that different from the "(Insert Film Title) and Philosophy" books or "History Through Film" courses created by those without Cinema Studies training. Such approaches usually rely on the notion of the low-culture object (popular film, comics) as an illustration of more important principles. While such works do provide some academic recognition of popular objects such as comics, they also reiterate comics' position as the "less serious" member of the pair.
Film and television have "arrived" on the academic scene as objects that may be studied without justification, but comics have not yet achieved that status. Given the widespread sense of needing to justify our own activity, what is the way forward for comics scholars? I think that as long as you feel you have to argue overtly for a place at the scholarly table, your place will never be assured. For Comics Studies to mature as a field, academics need to assert they can study comics (as complex texts, as industrially produced objects, as culture in circulation) without making excuses for their devalued status. My suggestion would be to do solid, complex scholarly work on comics without apology, work that undisputedly provides insight. If we act as if we don't need to justify our place, then the work itself will be its most powerful justification.
Studying comics is challenging not only because of their current cultural location but also because of their distinctive qualities as texts. One specific reason comics are hard to study is that they are tough to paraphrase. The obvious answer here is to use illustrations, but Comics Studies is coming of age at a time when publishers are restricting the reproduction of images, partly because of expense, partly because of a stronger attention to obtaining image permissions and an apparent unwillingness to test and to take advantage of fair-use principles. I've had conversations with book publishers in which the first question they ask me about a new book project is "How many images do you think the book will need?" In this climate, how do you publish work on comics? Historical work using materials obtained from archives can make things easier, since archives...