The following is by guest Balloonist and longtime colleague Joseph (Rusty) Witek, in response to our previous post on The state of comics studies, and what to do about it. Thanks, Rusty, for furthering the dialogue!
Like Charles and Craig, I’m an academic who focuses on the study of comics, and I’d first like to thank them both for inviting me to join this important discussion. Also like them, I’ve been looking for new ways to strengthen the long-term professional infrastructure for the study of comics in academia. I’m hoping that the present discussion of how to go forward in comics studies in the US will benefit from some consideration of where it’s been in the past, and that a sketch of some historical context will clarify just where an academic learned society, and its associated peer-reviewed journal and conference, could fit into the larger world of comics studies as a whole.
I published my first article on comics in 1984, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of book and periodical publishers and other academic institutions as a reader and evaluator for submitted articles, book manuscripts, and proposals for edited collections of essays on comics for, well, a pretty long time now. What I’ve seen certainly bears out Charles’s idea that recent developments in comics studies “are the hard-won dividends of more than fifteen years of accumulating work in the field.”
In the lively comments to Charles’s characteristically thoughtful post and its carefully worded manifesto, I was particularly struck by this statement from Ben Towle: “I think that my comments are based largely on a (probably unrealistic) idealized thought that perhaps the developing world of comics academia might present an opportunity for a field of academic study that's not quite as insular as many.” I found the idea that such a thought would be idealistic or unrealistic quite startling, because in my view that’s where the field has always been. Arguably the single most distinctive characteristic of contemporary academic comics studies in the US is that the field was born out of and has long been nurtured by an explicitly anti-elitist intellectual ideology, and a great deal of our comics scholarship has been produced without the conventional gatekeeping mechanisms of nearly all other academic fields.
When I first started working on comics, literally the only place in academia with a dedicated space for the study of comics was the venerable Popular Culture Association, founded by Ray Browne and others in 1967 and housed at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The PCA arose as a renegade offshoot of the American Studies Association, itself a notable early example of interdisciplinary study, but in the eyes of the PCA founders the ASA was still far too elitist and thoughtlessly dismissive of popular culture as an object of study. The scholarly vehicles of the PCA — what became its massive annual national conference and several regional subsidiaries; the book publishing program of the Popular Press; the longtime flagship periodical for popular culture studies, The Journal of Popular Culture — along with the parallel products of the PCA’s answer to the American Studies Association, the American Culture Association, all shared a fundamental element: they rejected peer review as elitist and exclusionary, and they encouraged a discourse that would be accessible to general readers outside of academia. The PCA’s take on the traditional ivory tower could hardly be more explicit: Ray Browne’s own history of the organization is entitled Against Academia: The History of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Movement 1967-1988.
That oppositional PCA ideology has profoundly shaped the current position of comics studies. For decades the Comic Art & Comics subject area of the PCA has been perhaps the most important safe haven for comics-specific scholarship in academia. Many of the field’s pioneers like Tom Inge and John Lent, founder and editor of the International Journal of Comic Art, were stalwarts of the PCA, and the more recent Comic Arts Conference is organized very much in the spirit of the PCA’s guiding principles. There’s a great deal—far too much for this post—to say about the many different ways that the egalitarian approach has affected comics studies, so I’ll list only a few:
- It enabled junior faculty, graduate students, and beginning students of comics to participate fully in the development of a discrete field of comics studies.
- It allowed academics to connect with a crucial cadre of experienced comics researchers and critics from beyond academia, a group whose efforts made the field possible in the first place. I won’t try to name them all here, but if you look at the bibliography of any book on comics published before around 1990, there they are.
- It provided a dedicated intellectual space for like-minded scholars from various disciplines to work out what comics studies meant and what it could be.
Within the vast hive of the PCA’s specific subject areas, little distinction was made between “scholars” and “enthusiasts,” and the affinities between scholarly production and fan culture were fully acknowledged and even celebrated. If US academic comics study has not been considerably “less insular” than other academic fields, it certainly hasn’t been for lack of trying.
Right now I’d like mostly to address what I see as some of the long-term effects of that PCA-derived ideology on the development of the intellectual discourse on comics in conference papers and in print. The theory behind the “no peer review,” open-submission policy goes like this: the small groups of presumably elite and insular gatekeepers of traditional academia are replaced by all the members of the field at large, acting as a committee of the whole. Any submitted work that meets a basic standard of coherence and apparent due diligence in research is presumed to be acceptable for presentation or publication, and then positive or negative feedback from knowledgeable audiences and readers will serve as open-source quality control as the field of inquiry develops.
For quite a long time, that’s basically how it worked in comics studies. In the very early days of the Comic Art and Comics area of the PCA, the intellectual substance of the conference presentations was, to put it kindly, highly inconsistent. Scholars would routinely assume that no published work on comics existed at all, and the panels saw a great many papers of the notorious “quote-and-gush” school, where the presenter simply describes something and says, more or less, “Isn’t that cool?!” Sometimes the subject matter was cool, but nobody in the audience learned very much about it except that it existed. Another sort of problematic entry was the “slumming expert,” as when a specialist in, say, medieval literature would simply present a list of appearances by knights in armor in comics and conclude, more or less, “Comics about knights in armor—pretty cool, huh?” Over the years, the regular members and the officers of the comics area worked hard and steadily to urge presenters to raise the level of argumentation and depth of research, and the annual M. Thomas Inge award for the best paper on comics at the conference was established to acknowledge high-quality work. As a result, the truly egregious examples of academic gormlessness mostly dropped away, and the average PCA presentation on comics became increasingly thesis-driven, conceptually grounded, and more thoroughly informed than ever before.
Obviously, much subsequent work on comics has appeared beyond the specific rubric of the PCA, but that ethos continues to exert a palpable influence on contemporary comics studies, on the International Journal of Comic Art, and on other institutions in the field. So, an outlook that invites scholars of all disciplines to connect over a common topic, that makes few distinctions by rank and status, that allows a field to develop on its own terms, in general an ethos that anticipated by decades the current impulse in academia toward the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries and hierarchical power structures—what’s not to like? Well, there has been much to like, and I’m continually tempted to lengthen this post with repetitive paeans to the generosity of my mentors and grateful descriptions of the myriad specific ways the field of comics studies flourished and began to mature.
But that would only delay my main point: while the open-submission model did allow comics studies to cohere initially and to achieve a general level of competence, judging from a lot of the manuscripts I’ve been evaluating and published work I’ve been reading over roughly the last five years, that upward movement in the quality of comics scholarship has stalled out and in some ways has even begun to slip backwards. Certainly not across the board, of course; much better—far more informed, more nuanced, more, in Charles’s term, serious—scholarship on comics is being produced than ever before. But time has demonstrated, for example, that it’s very possible to make an academic career publishing and presenting comics scholarship over the long term without ever defining a coherent overall intellectual project and without ever doing more than ad hoc tactical research.
Here’s what I mean by “tactical research” (a.k.a. “supporting one’s own ideas with outside sources”). A scholar gets an idea, finds basic factual information on the subject, collects any obvious previously published work that deals directly with that specific topic, and casts around for enough theoretical/conceptual material to construct a plausible argument elucidating the initial idea. I’d call that “advanced undergraduate” performance, and, truth be told, when it’s done with enough skill and polish it would pass muster for most of the graduate seminars I’ve ever seen as well.
Professional-level research, I was taught, is something else again, and looks more like the process for writing a masters thesis or a doctoral dissertation, albeit often on a smaller scale. There the guiding ambition, at least, is to collect and consider everything previously written on the topic ever, and find out where, if anywhere, one’s own specific ideas fit in to that discourse. In practice that’s really much more a notional goal than an actual requirement, of course. It’s quite obviously impractical in the case of comics studies, where the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of the field means that no matter how learned you may be in one or even several areas, eventually you’ll brush against some significant aspect of the topic about which you know almost nothing and which you’ll almost certainly not have the time to even begin to grapple with anyway. The only solution then is to lay out the parameters of the project so as to deal conscientiously with what you do know while not glossing over or fudging what you don’t. But the principle that a scholar needs to have a general knowledge of an entire field and as near a complete knowledge of the specific topic as is humanly possible is fundamental to the notion of “creating new knowledge” in an academic field.
I don’t mean to be highfalutin’ about all this. I know that time is short and human energy is limited and deans are relentless and that the store of human knowledge is functionally infinite. It’s an improbably lofty standard, and I’d never claim to have fully achieved it in any of my own work. But it’s crucial to at least be aware that such a standard can exist as an aspirational goal. I’ve had conversations with colleagues where I’ve asked, for example, how they might re-shape their argument for a specific disciplinary audience when they transformed their conference paper into an journal article, and it soon became clear that the thought hadn’t really occurred to them, the implication being that if the paper didn’t omit any obvious sources and the writing was smooth enough and the argument fairly tight in its own terms, their work was done.
For the purposes of producing a presentable product and filling lines on a vita, that work really was done. For moving the ball down the field of intellectual inquiry, maybe so and maybe not, but the nagging problem for me is that the larger issues hadn’t even come up before in the course of the project. My own mentors pounded into my often-reluctant head the premise that accumulated information and systematic familiarity with an area of inquiry was just the starting point for scholarship, which always entailed, in the simplest terms, pushing one’s specific ideas to answer the apparently rude but indispensable question, So what? So what if you’ve found a fascinating text and said new and insightful things about it? So what if you’ve discovered new factual information about a text or author? So what if you applied a set of theoretical concepts in ways they’ve never been applied before? Once that’s accomplished, can you show, or at least suggest, how those new insights or items of information or theoretical implications might be useful for redefining issues in the field or for grappling with old ones in new ways? Which scholarly conversation are you joining and in which direction does your work take that particular discourse? Once internalized, that nagging voice continually demanding “so what?” can be as infuriating as the little kid who just keeps saying “why?” For practical reasons, at some point “because I said so” may well have to do. But in both cases it’s necessary to at least try to find good-faith answers to the questions as fully as you possibly can.
I’ve been thinking lately about the very familiar tripartite schema of achievement in any number of fields and everyday activities: beginner > intermediate > advanced. Comics study has long been extraordinarily welcoming at that first level; any would-be comics scholar who hasn’t published or presented papers on comics isn’t submitting to the right—and most well-known—places. The positive modeling done by the solid scholarly work on comics already in print and the increasing presence of experienced scholars in the field have worked to help move people to the intermediate level fairly effectively. But beyond that, the focused collegial feedback that implicitly constitutes democratized quality control in the open-submission model really just doesn’t happen very much, for all the social and professional reasons you’d expect, and at present not much is pushing the entire field toward the advanced level, even though that’s the fundamental goal in most other areas of academia. The previous conversation here has described some reasons for that, but they’re worth examining a little more closely.
As the commenters have been discussing, universities in the US have very few established programs of comics-specific study at any curricular level. Relatively few institutions have even a single comics course permanently on the books. We’ve gone from maybe a dozen or so academics focused on studying comics twenty years ago to perhaps hundreds today, with more scholars looking toward comics all the time, but only a tiny fraction of those people have taken as much as a single college course on comics. That means that most aspiring scholars in comics inevitably need to undertake a self-generated course of study in the field. But where once it was at least theoretically possible to read all the existing academic work on comics in a relatively short time, today the comics scholar’s self-imposed independent study keeps piling on new homework all the time.
So consider what the intersection of:
- an expanding pool of scholars studying comics from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives,
- a burgeoning critical literature, and
- the paucity of comics-specific curricular programs
means in terms of the intellectual expectations in the field. I myself began graduate study with an interest in narrative generally and in modernist fiction—OK, James Joyce—specifically. I’ve taken over a dozen courses in fiction as an undergraduate and grad student, and I’ve taught courses in fiction and narrative for over twenty years, but all that experience still leaves me a very long way from being a publishing-level specialist. It might well take me a full year or more to work up even the most narrowly defined topic for submission to a leading journal on fiction or on narrative, not because all such journals are particularly rarified, but because making a real contribution to that field assumes a great deal of learning that I don’t yet have.
Certainly the current situation in comics studies isn’t nearly the same as in a long-established discipline like literary study, nor should it necessarily try to be. But I do think that we need—pretty urgently—to aspire to higher professional standards, which means developing mechanisms to allow us all to articulate and to meet such standards. Like Charles said, it can be quite distressing to read work that ignores much of our existing critical literature, or to encounter the eleventy-millionth introductory explanation about how it’s now OK to study comics in academia because comics aren’t stupid anymore. Worse yet for me is to see a highly sophisticated argument by an experienced scholar go totally off the rails because the author apparently has only researched monograph databases but somehow left out a periodical search or vice versa (I’ve seen examples of both), or to watch a senior scholar from another discipline deploy fascinating cutting-edge ideas from one specialty to make wildly uninformed generalizations about matters that have been extensively discussed by comics scholars.
I certainly don’t blame all under-researched work on the open-submissions policies of conferences and journals, and I recognize that all scholarship falls short of some Platonic ideal of exhaustive research and comprehensive study. But in recent years I’ve become convinced that comics study has been hindered from advancing in intellectual depth and cohesion, in fact has eroded to some extent, because there hasn’t been enough direct engagement with the ideas in the existing critical literature. It also seems that the situation is not likely to change unless the scholars in the field decide to do something about it.
My personal stake in all this is simply that I love to study comics, and I really, really like to sit at home in a comfortable chair reading the most interesting ideas about comics that I can find. Working to create the conditions for producing the best work possible is the basic function of an academic learned society, so I think comics scholars should have one.
If anyone has a better idea, I’d love to hear about it.
— Joseph Witek, Stetson University