Comics Studies: An Emerging Academic Field

Recently I have started to question what I understand of the term ‘Comics Studies.’ By this, I don’t mean that I am looking for a definition of what a Comic is or what makes a product, drawing, text, specifically a ‘Comic’ over something like an illustrated book. That is a separate conversation that begins with Scott McCloud and ends with warring factions fighting it out like the Cat People of Red Dwarf and their belief system based on what color hats should be worn in the Temple of Food. Instead, I refer to what is meant by the term ‘Comics Studies,’ with a capital c and capital s. What exactly are we studying, and where does the study sit within the world of Academia?

Image representing Academia (Stock photo)

The easy answer is ‘Literary Studies.’ Easy, yes, but also problematic because the term is woefully inadequate to cover all aspects of the Comic (with a capital c).

You could extend it to take in the best of Film Studies mixed with the best of literary studies, but this still leaves gaps in our understanding and examinations. Film Studies can give us terms to use, names to apply to aspects of a comic but can it explain how an image is composed within a panel and across a page, taking into account the sweeping page layouts?

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Literature can give us the mechanisms for breaking down narrative structure and the meanings behind the semiotics used on the page, but can it explain the intricacies of publication, printing, and the large history of continuity that holds precedent, especially in North America where a Collectors mentality has a huge influence on the industry?

If you look at the writing across the Monkeys Fighting Robots website, you will find several different approaches to looking at Comics. Narrative and character development play a big role in the reviews of monthly floppies, which lends itself to Literary Studies. However, draughtsmanship and illustrative styles are also important, which is a craft-based skill. The composition, not only of images but the page and even the entire comic layout, lends itself to a greater tradition of Fine Art and Graphic Design. But the construction of the images and the flow of the narrative storytelling is very much associated with Film Studies, especially in how we, as critics, discuss the processes used.

I’ve yet to mention the historical and sociological aspects of Comics, taking into account the production and distribution of the format, which plays a massive part in understanding the medium.

And what of Theatre? The staging and audience manipulation of a comic have more in common with theatrical studies than it does with Film or the Novel.

Cover to Comics Studies: A Guidebook

A number of great books, such as Mise en Scene, Acting, And Space in Comics by Geraint D’Arcy and Comics Studies: A Guidebook edited by Charles Hatfield and Bart Beaty, are changing the way we think about Comics. They are also making an impact on the academic study of Comics, bringing together isolated scholars who have been working in different fields but with Comics as a feature of their studies. As the discipline grows, that is to say, that more academic voices become heard, the very notion of Comics Studies changes. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to fit Comic Studies into an established discipline’s pigeon hole and create a new area of study and discourse, merging theories from elsewhere and producing new, Comic specific terminology and ideals.

Whatever your view on Comics is, whether you read for pure entertainment, are interested in the history of the narrative, become absorbed in the Visual Art, or, like me, are fascinated by the very function of comics in Society, one thing is true for us all: it is an exciting time to be a part of the Comics World.

What do you think about ‘Comics Studies’ as an idea and a subject? Or do you think we shouldn’t study comics at all and leave it as simply pure entertainment? Let us know in the comments below.

Darryll Robson
Darryll Robson
Comic book reader, reviewer and critic. A student of Comics Studies and still patiently waiting for the day they announce 'Doctor Who on The Planet of the Apes'.