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.