Mary Churchill discovered our re-vamped website early on and has been an enthusiastic RT-er and #FF-er on Twitter. Here she shares some observations about comics as a field of study in academe. She is already threatening to write another post that delves into some notions about the process of comics-reading from her upcoming book. I can’t wait to see more.
Years ago, when I was a PhD student trying to figure out the perfect dissertation topic, I landed in the realm of comic books. I was not what I would have called a comic book reader and neither were most of the professors on my dissertation committee.
When we thought “comic book reader,” we had something specific in mind: a member of some sort of subculture. I had read comic books and I had even tried teaching with graphic novels, but I was still not what I considered a “real” comic book reader, whatever that might have been.
My dissertation and subsequent book have focused on the process of reading comic books, rather than on the readers. When I started down the path of focusing on reading, I encountered the false assumption that “anyone can read comic books.” Even people who did not consider themselves comic book readers thought they knew how to read comics – namely, my students and the members of my dissertation committee.
This assumption led to a very interesting discussion in the oral defense of my dissertation. We compared newspaper reading to comic book reading. If one read a newspaper, was one a “newspaper reader”? And if the answer was in the affirmative, why wasn’t this the case with comic books and their readers? This led to – do you have to know how to read a newspaper? What if you placed as much emphasis on the ads as on the articles? What if you didn’t realize that you had to follow an article from the front page to A4? What if you didn’t know that newspapers were divided into sections A, B, C, and so on?
Eventually, I made the argument that if we are all newspaper readers then we are also all comic book readers. However, to draw attention to the amount of work that goes into comic book reading, I distinguished novice comic book readers from expert comic book readers. I defined expert comic book readers as those readers who have a sustained history of reading comic books and who have, through practice, learned how to read comic books. This meant having read at least two comic books per month for the last two years. While most expert comic readers have been reading many more issues per week for periods of up to thirty years (or fifty or sixty), this minimum threshold seemed to work and helped me draw the line between experts and non-experts.
I decided to draw this line for three reasons:
* I have found that inexperienced comic book readers try to focus exclusively on the words and try to ignore the images (they don’t really get it),
* So many comic books reference other comic book story lines and characters; and
* Comic book reading requires that we know how to decode the meanings of different lettering styles, shapes of word balloons, panel styles, etc. (something most novice comic book readers are completely oblivious to).
The expert comic book readers I know are readers in all senses of the word. Much of their time is spent sharing their reading experiences, imagining other readers, discussing and making sense of what they are reading as they do it. Like the newspaper article that we read over morning coffee and then discuss throughout the day with the various people we encounter, expert comic book readers read in anticipation of discussion. Message boards, chat rooms, and websites on the internet and in the letters columns found in the back pages of comic books provide further sites for conversations about comic books. Discussion might be with people who work at a local comic book shop, with friends and coworkers who read comics, or with an online community of comic book readers. This reading is social!
In teaching with comic books and graphic novels, I have found that I have had to teach many of my students the ins and outs of how to read comics. As I mentioned earlier, novice comic book readers make the false assumption that they already know how to read comics. Telling a class of college undergraduate students that they don’t know how to read a comic book is a delicate topic for conversation but one that I highly recommend.
When you teach with comics, make sure you build in time for teaching your students how to read. It also helps if you plant a few expert comic book readers in your class: they make great impromptu assistants.
Mary Churchill is a sociologist, a comics scholar, a blogger, a mother, and a college administrator. She blogs at University of Venus on Inside Higher Ed and is currently writing her first book – Fantastic Reading: Comic Books and Popular Culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.