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Remembering Don Ault

By Anastasia Ulanowicz

On 13 April, 2019, the field of comics studies — and indeed, the humanities more generally — lost Donald Ault, a dynamic and visionary scholar. Don was, among other things, an internationally-renowned Romanticist, a brilliant reader of Blake and Newton, a Carl Barks aficionado, a pioneer in the field of comics studies, an inspired and inspiring teacher and advisor, and the founder of this journal.

As the current editor of ImageTexT, I am profoundly saddened by Don’s passing, not least because he so generously mentored me — a very green assistant professor recently out of graduate school — as I established myself in the fields of children’s literature and visual rhetoric and in turn navigated the gauntlet that is the tenure process. More crucially, however, he taught me what it means to be an intellectual: namely, a person whose thinking crosses, and challenges, narrow disciplinary boundaries in a way that engages actively with the world. I find it humbling indeed now to be in an editorial position — one, in fact, that Don founded and occupied for nearly a decade — that calls me to pay tribute to his memory and legacy. I am mindful, however, that Don — consummate anti-authoritarian that he was — never laid jealous claim to his leadership of the journal, but rather shared it with a collective of junior faculty and graduate students. It is in this spirit of creative collaboration, then, that I offer a testimony featuring the voices of former and present members of the ImageTexT collective who, like me, were inspired by both his visionary thinking and his extraordinary kindness.

Don was born in 1942 in Canton, Ohio, where, at an early age, he taught himself to read by poring over Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comic books. After graduating from a local trade school, he supported his night-school enrollment at Kent State University by working as a draftsman. During his undergraduate work at Kent State, he discovered the poetry of William Blake and eventually completed a degree in English literature with minors in math and physics. He then went on to obtain a Master’s degree in English from Kent State and a PhD in literature from the University of Chicago. It is not insignificant that Don completed his doctoral work at Chicago and subsequently began his first academic position at the University of California, Berkeley during the heady year of 1968. Indeed, it was during this moment of global revolution that Don posited that Blake’s poetry was as much indebted to the Scientific Revolution spearheaded by Sir Isaac Newton as it was to world-turning political events in post-1789-era France. It was also during this era of radical experimentation that Don began to introduce comics — particularly, the works of his beloved author-illustrator, Carl Barks — into university courses on English literature.

Don’s ground-breaking book, Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton (U of Chicago P, 1974), led to his tenured appointment in the English department at Vanderbilt University, where he introduced graduate courses on comics and films to an otherwise conservative curriculum. Following his publication of his second book, Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas (Station Hill P, 1987), he was recruited by the University of Florida’s English department in 1997. Although Don continued to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in Blake and Romantic studies at UF until his retirement in 2014, his most notable achievement was his founding of one of the first graduate programs in comics studies in the United States. In 2004, with the assistance of his graduate students, Trina Houp, Stephanie Kartalopoulous, Cathlena Martin, John Ronan, Michael Sansone, Laurie Taylor, Zach Whalen, and Roger Whitson — and with the support of such colleagues as Frederic Jameson, Jerome McGann, and W.J.T. Mitchell — he founded ImageTexT in an effort to promote the scholarly study of comics and visual rhetoric. He also founded an annual international comics conference, now co-sponsored by ImageTexT and UF’s Graduate Comics Organization, which has hosted participants from six continents and featured such speakers as José Alaniz, Molly Bang, Leelah Corman, David Clowes, Will Eisner, Phoebe Gloekner, Bill Griffith, Tom Hart, John Lent, Joe Sacco, Trina Robbins, Gail Simone, Carol Tyler, Joseph Witek, and Terry Zwigoff.

Certainly, Don was responsible for introducing comics to academia long before comics studies became an established discipline in the United States — and just as surely, he ensured that the University of Florida would become a central location for the scholarly study of visual rhetoric. Significantly, however, his students do not so much note his professional coups as they fondly recall his example of intellectual experimentation. For example, Roger Whitson (Associate Professor, Washington State University—Pullman) observes that, for Don, the “Person from Porlock” episode of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” was “always a joke Coleridge played to critique the Romantic notion of immediacy — as if poetry (like Don) were a puzzle that could only be understood when the pieces didn’t fit together and something else happened.” Likewise, Tof Eklund (Lecturer, University of Auckland) states that Don’s often abstruse writing led to “productive confusion, a stumble that turns into a dance.” Eklund says, moreover, that they learned from Don that “meaning is something that grows and mutates faster than you can bundle it up, that the closer you look the more there is to see, and there are stopping points but no endings.”

Indeed, Don’s commitment to poetry, philosophy, critical theory, and comics as pieces in an ever-shifting puzzle with “no endings” influenced his teaching. “Discussing comics or Blake or cartoons gave [Don] a sense of wonder,” says Eisner Award nominee Aaron Kashtan (Lecturer, University of North Carolina). “He encouraged this same attitude in his students. When he taught, it was as if he said, ‘This thing may be simple to you, but let me show you how weird it really is.’” Often, Don’s unconventional approach to teaching permitted this perception of and appreciation for the “weirdness” of apparently simple and straight-forward texts. For instance, Emily Brooks — now a PhD candidate in UF’s English department and a former production editor of ImageTexT — recalls how, as a UF undergraduate enrolled in her first upper-division English class, she was “utterly baffled” by Don’s pedagogical stylings. According to Emily, Don began the first session of his course, “Blake, Newton, and Disney,” by projecting his RateMyProfessor reviews, “including one that enigmatically ended with, ‘Over time, I believe he will turn into Donald Duck…’” If this unorthodox and characteristically self-deprecatory introduction prompted skeptical undergraduates to drop Don’s class, it also invigorated the imaginations of students like Emily, who professes that Don “introduced me to the beautiful, mysterious works of poet-printmaker William Blake, surprised me with the occult and Biblical prophecy studies by Sir Isaac Newton, and thoroughly ruined my childhood by teaching me the true history of Walt Disney.”

Roger Whitson, for his part, testifies to the associative process by which Don conducted a graduate seminar on Romanticism by citing a 2005 email that “somehow references and riffs off of Coleridge’s ‘Person from Porlock’ episode from ‘Kubla Kahn,’ in which Coleridge says he forgot the original poem he imagined due to being interrupted during its composition.” Surely, Don’s colleagues and former students will recognize his inimitable voice and winking allusions in this email:

“I had just finished writing a long and complicated note to all of you about what we’re doing tomorrow, and suddenly my entire email program crashed, so I’m just going to send you this note saying that I assume I wasn’t supposed to send you such a note. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, when I hope I’ll be able to tell you basically what I was trying to say in the note that disappeared, as if by magic or demonic possession, or something.”

Given Don’s reputation as heterodox — if not eccentric — scholar and teacher, it is not surprising that he soon attracted applicants from throughout the globe to UF’s English department. Students who were admitted to the program were pleasantly surprised by his immediate admiration of their own work. This was certainly the case for Mel Loucks (Assistant Professor, New Mexico Military Institute). “The first time I met Don,” Mel states, “he said he was looking forward to working with me. This was absurd, of course — I was a new PhD student with no publication record or scholarly presence — but as I would come to learn over the next few years, Don meant it. He looked forward to working with me because he took pleasure in working with every student, scholar, or fan who showed an interest in comics studies.” Ultimately, Mel reflects, “I sometimes wonder whether I am more inspired by Don’s passion for the field or by his devotion to its devotees. I think that when he told someone, ‘I look forward to working with you,’ he meant to emphasize ‘work’ and ‘you’ equally.”

Ultimately, it is that ethical imperative — that crucial recognition of the “you” that informs and inspires each and every “work” of scholarship — that most distinguishes Don’s contribution to comics studies and the humanities more generally. As Laurie Taylor (Digital Scholarship Librarian, University of Florida) so eloquently puts it, “for Don, there was never a question of some people being in or out of academia.” Rather, “the questions were about our collective endeavors on needed work — scholarly, creative, and community building and sustaining. Don’s life and work brought us — students, colleagues, friends — into the joy of working collectively, in solidarity, and for the greater good.”

Don’s commitment to creating and sustaining community may ultimately be the hallmark of his legacy. As it happens, Don passed away during the seventeenth annual UF comics conference. The concluding memorial session that the GCO organizers swiftly appended to the conference schedule was attended by scholars from the U.K., Asia, and Eastern Europe and various corners of North America — each of whom had traveled to the provincial town of Gainesville, Florida precisely because Don had established it as a veritable hub for comics scholarship. Even in the wake of his passing, then, traces of Don’s dynamic presence remained within a community he had founded.

Without a doubt, Don’s visionary thinking and teaching will continue to influence generations of scholars and students within the growing and developing field of comics and visual rhetoric studies. And certainly, his memory will continue to be celebrated. Indeed, this spring’s annual GCO/ImageTexT conference — whose theme will be, most appropriately, “Comics and Community” — will feature panels on Don’s enduring legacy. Likewise, the ImageTexT collective is planning a special issue dedicated to Don’s interdisciplinary scholarship. In the meantime, however, readers who wish to see evidence of Don’s indelible mark on comics scholarship should look no further than the essays and reviews published within this issue.

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