Saturday, July 14, 2007


Every now and then I come across people who really resist the sort of work I'm doing. They dislike the idea of academic investigation of "comics," as if it somehow degrades the value of the works that are produced.

I'm also confused at the general meme that claims academics are so enveloped in their work that they have "lost touch with the real world." I've often found that people in academia are more in touch with the issues going on in the world (or at least try to be), and often are committed to making it a better place, not holing up and ignoring everyone in their study in their non-existant "Ivory Tower."

What I find even more amazing is the vitriol that some people enamoured with McCloud's work sometimes have against mine. I've heard that I'm "overanalyzing" or "missing the obvious" etc. The funny thing is that McCloud's work was accused of exactly the same thing when it came out. Many people did (and still do) hate it for trying to open a dialogue about this stuff. Now McCloud's work has such a dogmatic following that people have once again closed off their minds to that "debate" that he so willingly opened to everyone.

At this point, I've spent as many years out of academia doing this work as I have in it. And, I'll say that doing it within academia sure beats out, because of the availability of resources to use, people to discuss with, time you can allot to the work, etc. It's great to be on the outside changing the system, but sometimes being on the inside is a good thing. (and sometimes you'll always be on the outside, no matter how inside you are).

It baffles me, what sort of rational thinker would believe that any type of scientific or scholarly investigation is a bad thing?

It is the nature of discovery and exploration that help define being human... Even exploration into the cognition of the "comic" medium.


The William G said...

My assumptions for the reasons behind this problem:

1- Jealousy of people smarter than them.

2- If any jerk with a slide-rule can come in and figure out how it works, it ruins the "artist mystique".

3- It's a culture that celebrates idiocy. This runs counter to that.


4- People are just assholes and do it because they can get away with it.

Anonymous said...

In part, I think it routinely boils down to: "Comics are supposed to be FUN, right? Why spoil my fun with something that looks like SCHOOL?"

There's also a "don't look behind the curtain and see how the magician's trick works" mentality that I can actually appreciate in people who are content simply to be audience members. Something of the magic can be lost when you reflect on "the process" even when something arguably more valuable is gained. (But I'd still rather be an "active" reader.)

The dilemma, I think, is how to deal with the negativity. Rather than insulting the other person's intelligence and saying "you're ignorant and unenlightened" (which just fans the flames of enmity), it might be better (or at least more mature) to try to find some middle ground and say, "I'm all for fun in comics -- it's what brought me to them in the first place just like you -- but analyzing, testing, pondering, this makes comics even more fun for me."

It's hard to argue with fun, after all.

--Steven Withrow

BVS said...

Bad college experiences.
it's because there is a long history of comic book blowhards in academia, and people are naturally suspicious. that and comics academics have in my experience often shown a tendency to glaze over details like the artist who created the comics and instead present them as some sort of self producing product of American pop culture, it's much easier to teach a class that way because there is already a 20 year history of college classes studying pop culture and you just follow the form and read the lectures. if your teaching about comics in the 60's you just have to reproduce some lecture about 60's rock and roll and replace the world "Beatles and rolling stones" with "Jack Kirby and Spiderman". I once had a college professor that in her history of comics class she would just rattle off a list for about 45 minutes of all these golden age characters and when they were published, we didn't even get to see what these characters looked like, and the professor didn't know either. this list contained characters like doll man, bullet man, and the like. we didn't discuss the creation of "doll man", who made him, why he's significantly important to comics, what the stories were like, were they bad or god, in what ways? what came before or after,what effect did he have on the marketplace at the time, what did his creator go on to do later, why it's important to know who he is ect.ect.ect.
instead it was doll man appeared in blah blah blah comics in April of 1942. and then we were quizzed on this stuff later. the whole time, me and the rest of the class are all scratching our heads wondering why we are paying so much money to go to school and hear some one just kind of bullshit their way though a class. I do think good Academic studies of comics is probably the way to fix that problem, my teacher was only able to teach a class mostly on bullshit because comics are supposedly a new and undefined world with no standards. so any wind bag with tons of obscure knowledge about comics can get a job teaching about them as long as they have a masters degree and can convince the university that's mostly unaware and uninformed about comic book academic studies that they are some Lester Bangs type genius of comic books and that comics don't really have any academic history.

Neil said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Steven, while I certainly try to never stoop to negativity in reaction, I especially like placing the emphasis on the "fun." You're right, comics are fun! And personally I think that science is pretty fun too. The goal is now to make them both seem fun... at the same time!

Matt said...

I've been studying comics for almost twenty years. I've been teaching about comics for ten years. And I've been teaching about comics to cartooning students for seven years. I used to do "academic" papers at academic conferences, but in recent years I've been doing more informal presentations, though often in an academic context. I've presented at symposia, conferences, and often just as a guest lecturer for a class. But I doubt that most academics, on hearing me give these presentations (and I would never do them without plenty of visual aids; what would be the point?), would call my presentations "academic," and neither would I, frankly. The work I do these days, both spoken and written, is chock full of ideas and analysis, and is based on serious, hands-on research, but it isn't "academic" for at least one big reason: I almost never refer to "the literature", which is to say the academic literature. And the reason I don't is because I rarely find any academic literature that is directly relevant or even terribly interesting.

This is my own complaint about academic work in most of the social sciences (the less "hard" ones) and all of the humanities: you have to fit your work--your ideas-- into "the literature" or no one will acknowledge it. You have to drop names, and the names that are "droppable" are largely predetermined, though they change at a glacial pace over time. To tell you about my fieldwork studying the place of comics in the lives of Japanese girls and women, do I have to tell you that it either supports or contradicts the theories of Bourdieu or Benjamin or Gramsci or Raymond Williams or anybody else, for that matter? Apparently, I do. I don't see a big free-wheeling conversation in academia: I see people struggling to make something new and different using an absurdly small Lego set. So you end up with enormous amounts of "scholarship" that, rather than expanding our understanding of the material in question, demonstrate (or don't) the writer's command of the currently accepted Lego set of "Theory". The work is riddled with jargon and references that are not in fact essential to conveying the writer's idea (which is often pretty simple), and which, quite understandably, turn off the average intelligent-but-not-academic reader.

It's not about "spoiling the fun" and it's not even about whether or not scholars are "in touch with reality." It's about expressing interesting ideas in an interesting and comprehensible manner, and in this sense, much--probably most--academic writing fails.

In my humble opinion.

Neil said...

You're absolutely right Matt.

This all adds to the impenetrability of academic writing. I certainly have tried to make my writing clear and accessible — including the academic writing, though sometimes that's a very subjective determination.

Accessing the "literature" can be both good and bad. It's good because sometimes you can cull other people's thoughts and situate yourself into a broader discourse. Yet it's bad because those outside the discourse might get shut out unless you're careful.

I've always been wary of the "citation dump" that a lot of academics do, throwing in references simply because they're out there, no matter the relevance. For instance, nearly every comic paper I read has a section defining "comics" — citing McCloud's definition and the debates surrounding it. Yet, most of the time that issue is completely irrelevant to the overall scope of their paper. Unless there's a good reason for it being in there, why put it in?