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Review of The Secret Origins of Comics Studies

By Jeremy Carnes

Smith, Matthew J. and Randy Duncan. The Secret Origins of Comics Studies. Routledge, 2017.

In his preface to The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan, Charles Hatfield writes, “Comics Studies can occupy a special place in the ecology of knowledge—a place that is no place, if you like, or many, many places” (xix).1 Hatfield focuses on the “heterogeneous nature of comics,” which requires thinking across academic disciplines and programs. In their effort to document the development of comics studies, Smith and Duncan, along with all the contributors in this collection, show that such a space of interdisciplinarity has been central to the birth and growth of comics studies since at least the mid-twentieth century. Comics cannot be contained within any one discipline, thus making it an “anti-discipline” in Hatfield’s words, precisely because it “slip[s] between the universes, academically speaking” (xi).

The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, while simultaneously displaying the versatility of comics throughout the past seventy years, is the first text that ventures a narrativization of the development of the academic study of comics. The collection is organized in four parts: The Educators, The Historians, The Theorists, and The Institutions. Within these four sections, the chapters masterfully intertwine discussions about the individuals, books, approaches, and historical moments important to comics studies, as well as the places where comics studies thrives. As such, Smith and Duncan have helped to create an accessible and invaluable introduction to the field as it currently stands.

In the first section, “The Educators,” Carol L. Tilley and Robert G. Weiner both explore the ways comics have related to education. Tilley specifically examines the ways comics have been used in classrooms, which she argues is not a new development. In fact, she opens her piece by claiming, “Comics have been part of classrooms for at least a century” (3). Throughout her chapter, she outlines the different ways comics have been used in classrooms across this historical period, from tools promoting literacy to cultural instructional aids. Weiner takes a different approach, thinking about the history of teaching about comics. Thus, Weiner outlines the important names in the teaching of comics, including M. Thomas Inge, Jack Nachbar, Roger Sabin, Gene Kannenberg, among many others. Winer’s approach emphasizes the multitude of disciplinary backgrounds from which each of these teachers came, providing a clear view of interdisciplinarity in the teaching of comics from the earliest days.

The second section, focusing on historians, is primarily a who’s who of people tied to historical work in comics studies. Brad Ricca focuses on both scholars and fan writers who have written about the creators of comics, while Julie Davis and Robert Westerfelhaus highlight important historians of the industry, focusing on industry insiders and fan historians, primarily. Taking a slightly different approach, and offering one of the first extended looks at the importance of internationalism in comics studies, is Ian Hortons chapter, “The Historians of the Art Form.” In this chapter, Horton explores the various ways we might think about the birth of comics as an art form by examining both francophone and anglophone scholarship on the matter. Horton particularly focuses on the organizations in France—principally the Club des Bandes Dessinées (CBD) and La société civile d’études et de recherches des littératures dessinée (SOCER LID)—and British art historian David Kunzle. Jenny Robb, writer of the final chapter in this section, broadens the collection’s discussion of historians by outlining the individuals who played a significant part in building comics collections in libraries and archives. Central to Robb’s chapter are the collections championed by Bill Blackbeard (San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, now housed at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum), Randall Scott (Michigan State University), and Lucy Caswell (Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University). Robb also highlights libraries and archives on an international level, looking at major collections in England, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, and Canada.

The third (and largest) section features various approaches to comics studies that have grown in prominence in the past forty years. Beginning with Barbara Postema’s “Literary Theory/Narrative Theory” and continuing through to Nicholas A. Theisen’s “Manga Studies, A History,” contributors explore the theorists, both practitioner and critical, that have made comics studies the rigorous work that it is today. It is also in this section that the inherent interdisciplinarity of comics becomes clearest. The contributor’s show the ways individuals in literary studies (Postema), Linguistics (Meesters), Religious Studies (Davies-Stofka and McConeghy), Sociology (Gordon), Psychology (Langley), and Gender and Queer Studies (Anderson) have approached comics. However, what is most successful about these contributions is that each continually interweaves approaches that cross disciplinary boundaries themselves, showing that, while specific disciplines have taken up comics in their own precise ways, the backbone of the field is always already “anti-disciplin[arian].”

Further, Henry Jenkins and Ann Miller’s respective chapters underscore another central convergence in comics studies, both with the primary title “Formalist Theory.” While Jenkins focuses on approaches by “The Cartoonists,” including Mort Walker, Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, and Lynda Barry, Miller focuses on “The Academics,” which she separates not by theorists’ names, but by the various formal qualities often explored in comics: “Code vs. Code (Word vs. Image),” “Narrative Sequence and Page Surface,” “Single Image and Image in Series,” and “Text as Experience vs. Text as Object.” Giving these two chapters the same title with two different subtitles emphasizes that comics studies did not develop simply because of interdisciplinary work, but also because of work produced beyond the academy. Just as disciplines have helped to inform each other in comics studies, individuals beyond the academy have pushed comics studies in new directions and with new approaches, continually encouraging the development of the field.

The final section is comprised of five chapters outlining the various institutions within comics studies. Jeremy Larance discusses the various organizations that have prioritized the reading, discussion, and study of comics, from the French organization “Le Club des Bandes Dessinées,” which was later renamed the “Centre d’études des littératures d’expression graphique” (CELEG, or CBD), through SOCER LID and America’s fan organization “Academy of Comic Book Arts and Sciences” (ACBA), up to the more contemporary International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF) and the recently established Comics Studies Society (CSS). Larance also notes the academic programs now providing some focus in comics studies—including the University of Florida, the University of Dundee, the University of Oregon—and art schools—including the School of Visual Arts and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, among others. Kim Munson’s chapter outlines the history of comics in gallery spaces like Le Louvre and the New York Cultural Center. Munson’s exploration provides an opportunity for her to discuss popular attitudes about comics in the 1960s and 1970s given the extreme disapproval of the medium pushed by psychologist Frederic Wertham, among others, beginning in 1954.

Julia Round and Chris Murray highlight central conferences in the field internationally, from the British Consortium of Comics Scholars (BCCS) to the International Association of Word and Images Studies (IAWIS) to the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), among many others. Round and Murray also give ample space to discussing some of the largest conventions around the word, further drawing attention to the roots of comics studies within both fan culture and academia. Finally, Alec R. Hosterman and Joseph Michael Sommers, in their respective chapters, constellate the world of academic publishing relating to comics studies. Hosterman draws attention to the plethora of journals, whether print or digital, comics studies focused or comics studies adjacent, or simply journals that have shown an interest in articles about comics. Similarly, Sommers outlines the presses that have published comics studies-related work, giving particular attention to the University of Mississippi Press, but also highlighting central trade, independent, and comics presses. As such, this section provides a unique view into the professional realm of comics studies in and around academia, which will remain invaluable for young scholars looking for a community in comics studies and a home for their work.

While the primary chapters in this collection offer vital views into the fascinating history of comics studies, what sets this collection apart are the shorter essays written by early pioneers in the field, aptly titled “A Pioneer’s Perspective,” as well as brief essays that explore smaller, though no less important, ideas titled “Sidebar.” The individuals who write for the “A Pioneer’s Perspective” asides include such central names to comics studies as James “Bucky” Carter, Maurice Horn, David Kunzle, John A. Lent, and M. Thomas Inge, among others. These pieces often tell some personal stories of these comics studies forebears, including Kunzle’s experience being attacked because his work on comics was considered “anti-intellectual” and Waldomiro Vergueiro’s experience bringing comics into the public eye in Brazil. Similarly, the “Sidebar” portions range from Christina Blanch’s exploration of Trina Robbins as a comics herstorian, A. David Lewis’s discussion of the relationship between comics and “the sacred,” and José Alaniz’s snapshot of the interrelations between comics studies and trauma and disability studies. These short essays enhance the work done in this collection through their expert examinations of specific questions or topics central to the study of comics.

As one can see from the above, this collection is packed with references, which ends up being one of the most vital benefits offered. As more and more young scholars join the field of comics studies, this collection will offer directions in terms of reading and research. Further, The Secret Origins of Comics Studies is notable given the current place of comics studies in academia. While much of academia is beginning to open to the world of comics and programs in comics studies are starting to grow, there are still many programs across disciplinary boundaries that do not have faculty that are particularly well-versed in comics studies scholarship. Now, with this book as a primer, graduate students facing this hurdle will have another source in their toolkit as they begin their work in comics, whether in course work, through preliminary or comprehensive examinations, and even into their dissertations.

Because this collection covers so much, it is hard to fathom that anything has been omitted. Yet, a central chapter that I expected to find in “The Theorists” section, on critical race and ethnic studies, was markedly absent. While questions of race and ethnicity surface in a few of the other contributions, the study of both in comics has been central to the field since its nascence. The absence of an extended consideration of these questions seems particularly problematic given the push in the field to think about how comics are important spaces for a variety of minoritized populations around the world, combatting the negative stereotypes that often pervaded early comics.

Beyond the absence of critical race and ethnic studies, if the collection has another weakness, it lies within the strengths themselves. Because so much of this collection is about narrating the history of comics studies broadly writ, the multitude of names and citations can often become overwhelming within some of the chapters. While this is to be expected in a collection like this one, these moments occasionally left my head spinning. Yet, it also left me feeling heartened as I realized that comics studies has always been composed of scholars, practitioners, and fans whose love, care, and deep knowledge of the work they do shows.

While current scholars may be more familiar with some of this material, this resource will continually encourage all of us, no matter the stage in our career, to make sure we know our field as best we can. As Ian Gordon notes in his chapter, “If the origins of comics scholarship are ‘secret’ it is perhaps because not enough of this work has been read, a complaint of scholars like Bart Beaty, who often bemoans younger comics scholars’ inattention to earlier work in the field” (129). And while, as I have noted above, some of the issue here lies in the limited reach of faculty members to mentor these young scholars, it is important to note that the release of The Secret Origins of Comics Studies has filled a noticeable gap in a field that continues to grow. We must know and understand that work if we are to take the field boldly into the future. Thanks to the work of Smith, Duncan, and the various contributors, now there’s no excuse.


[1] Hatfield’s preface was originally published as “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies.” Transatlantica 1 (2010).

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