"The History and Appreciation of an Art Form":Talking Comics Studies with M. Thomas Inge
M. Thomas Inge is the Robert Emory Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia and was a founder of both the Popular Culture Association and the American Humor Studies Association. He has authored or edited over sixty books, including Comics as Culture, which remains a foundational work in the field of comics studies. He is the editor of the "Conversations with Comic Book Artists" series published by the University Press of Mississippi, which features collections of groundbreaking interviews with comic book writers, artists and editors. This interview explores the development of comics studies and his career in mapping the history of comics as an art form.
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Tell me about the "Conversations" series from the University Press of Mississippi. How did it come to be, and how did you come to be the editor of the line?
I was one of the founders of the Popular Culture Association in the late Sixties, and as we laid out our areas of responsibility, I decided I would devote myself to developing the basic tools of research in this brand new area of scholarship—bibliographies, research guides, reference works, biographies, etc. Thus I edited the Handbook of American Popular Culture, a multivolume work that won awards and has gone through three editions to become a standard in the field. I initiated a series of single volume reference guides to specific areas of popular culture, as well as a series of what I called "bio-bibliographies," volumes devoted to single people of importance. The publisher, Greenwood Press, found that these books sold well to the trade and academic markets, and soon popular culture became a major concern of the entire press list.
The pump was primed by now, and Greenwood no longer needed me to guide or solicit contributors in the new field. I struck up a friendship with Seetha Srinivasan, then Director of the University Press of Mississippi, and we were of a like mind that more general historical and critical studies were needed. So we began the "Studies in Popular Culture" series at the Press. But my main love had always been the comics, and the popular culture material was coming along quite well without me. We were approaching what many people considered the centennial of the comic strip, so we decided to help encourage the development of serious study of comic art in the academy by publishing in 1990 almost simultaneously Rusty Witek's Comic Books as History and my Comics as Culture, his originating as a doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt University, and mine collecting a series of essays published in the 1980s. Soon lots of other beginning scholars in comics were presenting proposals, and we channeled them into two new series, "Conversations with Comic Artists" and "Great Comic Artists." The first was based on two highly successful series long underway at Mississippi which collected interviews with writers and with filmmakers. Ours fit in nicely. The second was based on the need for full-scale biographies and critical studies of major comic artists. We witnessed a veritable boom in comics scholarship at Mississippi which continues to this day, a collection that one critic has called the "gold standard" in the field. Highly instrumental in these developments were acquisition editors Walter Biggins and later Vijay Shah, both keenly knowledgeable in the history of comics.
What value do you think the "Conversations" series have for comics scholars and, more broadly, for comics studies?
Of course, they are fun to read. You can watch the development of your favorite artist, writer, or editor over their careers and at different times in their lives. But [End Page 206] more importantly, as a scholar they are invaluable to me as a source of information and a body of self-commentary reflecting on the subject's work. Each book is like a master class with a proven master. But finally we are preserving in one place on a library shelf a veritable archive of the best that has been said about comic art by some of the most talented people in our cultural history. People will be consulting them long after the rest of us are gone.
What's the promise of talk, of conversations, in relation to the field of comics studies, and what elements make for good interviews, in your view?
Providing a good interview is an artistic challenge with its own difficulties. A primary quality for a good interviewer is a thorough acquaintance with the life and importance of the subject being interviewed. Another is a skill in maintaining steady conversation. A trust and sometimes friendship can develop ideally. If the interviewer can become more than a questioner, and engage in the full context of the conversation, expressing her or his own opinions and disagreeing with the subject, that can make for highly readable and engaging interviews. Interviews form a major portion of the full body of comics scholarship.
Where were your Comics as Culture essays originally published?
I grew up with the comics and am quite sure that was where I learned to read. I also wanted to be a cartoonist but soon learned that I was not going to make a Will Eisner or a Walt Kelly. I often say that I was a failed cartoonist who became a university professor because I could not do any better. My first nationally published article was a letter of mine that appeared in one of the EC horror titles (my favorite series), or it may have been an article in Bhob Stewart's EC Fan Club Bulletin. The content of both was highly naïve. Then followed articles in The Comics Buyers Guide, a column in the Menomonee Falls Gazette, and contributions to such fan publications as Cartoonist ProFiles, Inklings (from Mort Walker), Crimmer's Journal of the Narrative Arts (formerly the Harvard Journal of Pictorial Fiction until the University closed them down), Questar, and Nemo: The Classic Comics Library. I contributed for twenty-five years an annually updated "Chronology of the American Comic Book" to Bob Overstreet's Comic Book Price Guide beginning in 1975. Fairly soon many of the established scholarly journals began to open their pages to the subject, and I published essays in the Appalachian Journal, Choice, Journal of Popular Culture, American Book Collector, Studies in American Humor, Journal of American Culture, and Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition I contributed essays to book collections, reference works, biographical encyclopedias, museum catalogs, conference proceedings, bibliographies, and research guides. It was from [End Page 207] this body of commentary and criticism that I was able to draw together the material for a book, all revised and supplemented with a few unpublished pieces.
What sort of feedback have you received since the book was first published?
At first folk were incredulous that a well-educated academic would find comics to be of more than casual interest. Comics as Culture may have been the first university press publication entirely devoted to the study of both American comic strips and comic books. I was ridiculed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, but the New York Times and other journals were more kindly disposed. I had already become used to being known as the English professor who reads comic books, and my colleagues would say, trying to be thoughtful, "It is nice that you have a hobby, Tom." Some have noted that it lacks a theoretical base, but it was not my intention to get into critical theory, which was about to become the darling of English departments everywhere. I consider myself a literary or cultural historian rather than a critic, or what Mark Twain liked to call a "cricket." Although it remains in print, the book isn't cited much anymore, and I am sure much of it is out of date. That is what happens when you try to be a pioneer, I guess.
The field of comics studies is fundamentally interdisciplinary, yet much scholarship has originated from within English departments—
I think it has to do with the nature of the discipline. Literary types are more open minded when it comes to writing and criticism and less inclined to stick to one firm and hard-bound approach to the appreciation of their subject. Whatever the critical approach, most of the same questions about plot, narrative voice, symbolism, theme, characterization, etc., also apply to the comics. So this provides a head start. It leaves out the pictures, of course, but it is only a start, until Bob Harvey, Scott McCloud, Smolderen, and friends come along to establish our own modes of criticism and appreciation. It is not insignificant that film studies, ethnic studies, popular culture studies, regional studies, and gender studies all originated in English departments.
What drew you to comics studies?
I was reading the comic strips in the newspapers and comic books in middle school and all the while drawing editorial and sports cartoons for the school papers. Then one day I saw a book in a sale bin at the department store for one dollar called The Comics by Coulton Waugh, whose name I recognized as the artist who drew Dickie Dare. This book, published in 1947, opened up an entire new world for me, a world populated by artists, writers, letterers, background artists, editors, and syndicates. And it had a rich history as a part of American culture going back [End Page 208] to Colonial times. I was fascinated by all of it and wanted desperately to be a part of it. I saw too that there was a history to be documented and written about, and the book I held was the only one of its kind. I wanted to draw primarily, but I also saw The Comics, to use your phrase, as "a map of possibilities." At the time (age 11), I had no idea that I would fulfill those aspirations one day, nor that I would pursue a PhD and become a professor of literature. I find it almost incredible now that so many scholars are able and even being encouraged to pursue dissertations, journal articles, and university press books on the comics, and that publishers are finding it profitable to reprint the classic comic strips.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about comics studies? And to what extent have these played into the field's reception and evolution?
The major misconception about comics studies is the notion that this is some passing fancy of the academic world that will cease one day. The comics in some form (comic strips, cartoons, comic books, animation, and graphic novels) have become ingrained in our culture. Their form and influence will wax and wane, but whether or not people in general believe it, what we have witnessed in our time is the birth of a new art form. Let me qualify that. In the case of the graphic novel, all of these other streams have fed into a new thing. It is comparable with having been in London at the time of the birth of the novel.
Please tell me about The M. Thomas Inge Papers collection at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond.
When I came to the university in 1969 in its second year of operation, and would later become chair of the English department, I was just beginning my serious scholarly writing about the comics. One day I got a phone call from the new director of the VCU Library who told me that we had just been offered the personal library of the late cartoonist Billy DeBeck by his retired secretary. Did we want the books, he asked? As you can imagine, I said yes very promptly and especially welcomed DeBeck's New York apartment door that came with the books with hand-painted portraits of Barney Google and his horse Sparkplug. That gift initiated the comics collection and gave me the material for one of the chapters in Comics as Culture.
Since the school had been very supportive of my early work on the comics, and I had amassed by the time that I left VCU a large collection of research materials, I decided it was only proper that I bequeath it to the university. I began to make regular donations to the collection from then to the present. As it grew in size, it attracted the attention of other collectors and fans who have provided incredible supplements to my material. It is one of the richest archives of comic art in the country, outside Ohio State, Michigan State, and the Library of Congress. [End Page 209] In time too I decided that it only made sense that all of my personal papers and manuscripts should also be at VCU, since I have done extensive work in American humor, Southern literature and culture, Asian literature, popular culture, animation, Walt Disney, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. The one exception is the Faulkner collection which was requested by the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The collection is by no means complete. Less than half has been transferred to the VCU Library with many more items to come. This includes fanzines, catalogs, convention programs, posters, art prints, comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation cels, advertisements, character drinking glasses, buttons, records, and all sorts of comic ephemera including Superman peanut butter, Batman sheets, and a box of Comic Strip brand cereal with cereal intact. I have tried to include an example of original art by all major cartoonists, as well as several complete comic book stories, four of them from the respected EC titles. I have tried to collect nearly all histories of the comics and most of the reprint anthologies. I have correspondence with several of the major figures, such as Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Watterson. Most of my own manuscripts and those of other writers are there, along with my editorial correspondence.
The entire collection is basically designed to support research into the biographical, historical, and cultural backgrounds of the comics, rather than collect original art and actual comic books, although both are represented. I follow a broad definition of "comics," which I see as embracing comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, panel cartoons, editorial cartoons, and animation—all hand-drawn in their origins. Already many scholars have used its resources, including most recently Michael Tisserand in his remarkable biography of George Herriman. My hope is to have made a major contribution to the history and appreciation of an art form that I and thousands of others have dearly loved.
How would you map the early origins of comics studies in relation to your own career? What are some of the most important signposts?
With my earliest writings on comics as culture and on the history of comics, a body of ideas began to form about the nature and value of comic art. In terms of the origins of comics studies and signposts within my professional career, the following dates seem significant; again, from my personal perspective.
1973: At the third annual meeting of the newly formed Popular Culture Association in Indianapolis, Indiana, in April, the first PCA panel devoted to comics was organized by me under the title "Comics as Culture" with presentations on comics as art, literature, and drama. Area chairs were not appointed until many years later. [End Page 210]
1978: I organized the first panel on the subject of comics to be held at a meeting of the Modern Language Association in New York in December. The main discussants were Will Eisner, who had just published A Contract with God, and Art Spiegelman, who was drawing the early chapters of Maus for Raw. Francoise Mouly came along for the discussion. Sorry to report that I took and kept no notes, but I am fairly sure the term "graphic novel" was not used.
1979: I edited the first special issue of a scholarly journal devoted to comics under the title "Comics as Culture," in the Journal of Popular Culture, 12 (Spring 1979). Among the essays included was Robert C. Harvey's influential and provocative "The Aesthetics of the Comic Strip."
1990: Under my editorial guidance, the University Press of Mississippi, with the invaluable cooperation of Director Seetha Srinivasan and Acquisitions Editor Walter Biggins, began to publish a series of scholarly and critical studies devoted to the comics. The first two volumes appeared almost simultaneously. The official publication date of Joseph "Rusty" Witek's Comic Books as History was December 1, 1989, and the official date for my Comics as Culture was February 1, 1990.
History will have to consider where in this chronology serious comics scholarship begins. It is all one long continuum to me. I have been "serious" about the comics all along.
In looking at the near and far away horizon of comics studies, what are you most heartened by? And what are you most looking forward to, excited about, in terms of the future?
I believe that the comics will always have a future, even though format and development will not remain the same. This may be true mainly because human-kind appears to have a predilection for the image. Scientists recently discovered evidence of the oldest drawing known, an abstract pattern much like a hashtag, in a seaside cave in South Africa. Archaeologists have determined that the drawing is around 73,000 years old, which is 30,000 years older than the Paleolithic animal drawings found in Europe and Indonesia. Thus the will to create and communicate through visual images runs deep in human nature and history. In a recent cartoon by Mick Stevens in the New Yorker, a Neanderthal couple have drawn on a cave wall two stick figures who seem to be arguing. The female says to the male, "Maybe it needs a caption." Here then is one theory about the beginnings of comics. They may have begun when the drawing itself began to mimic and satirize human actions and called for words to be complete.
The newspapers that have supported the comics for over a century are on the verge of collapsing entirely, and while the internet may subsidize them for a while, their true life blood has been a part of the daily paper. Panel cartoons sadly have [End Page 211] all but disappeared along with the magazines that contained them. Only the New Yorker remains to remind us what thoughtful and intelligent cartoons can be like. The only other source of panel cartoons, Playboy, strangely gave up both their cartoons and nude models. Comic books seem primarily supported by the film industry franchises, although some very good writing and art can still be found in their pages. The main strength of comics today are the graphic novels found on the shelves of bookstores or electronically, via the internet. The graphic novel is alive and well and is taking the comics format in new and exciting directions. Already we have an armful of classic works by major artists and writers, with new ones appearing almost weekly. It has been good to be alive as someone whose own life span has paralleled that of the comic book, and to witness the birth of a new art form out of those beginnings. As a lover of the comics and an educator, it has been especially exciting to carry them into the classroom and share my pleasure with such receptive students.