Review: Comics Studies: HOW TO STUDY COMICS

I think it is a safe bet to make that the majority of people who read comics do so for the entertainment factor. A small group, however, have an interest in studying the form, whether that’s professionally or purely as a hobby. Comics Studies still have to find a comfortable home in academia, but that hasn’t stopped it from growing as a field of study. These days, you can fill a shelf with books about comics history, meaning, form and reason. Year after year, the use of comics at every level of education is growing, and last week the Oxford Comics Network released an open access comic book about this very subject.

The book, How to Study Comics & Graphic Novels: A Graphic Introduction to Comics Studies, is published by TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and is available to read for free on the Issuu website (click here).

It was created by several lecturers from different fields of study, all of whom use comics in their educational courses. The creators’ work is presented in the form of a standard comic book that most people will instantly recognize. Unlike more challenging pieces of work, like Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (2015), that use the comics form in imaginative and often complex ways to discuss an academic theory, How to Study Comics is fairly straightforward with an emphasis on ‘easy to read’. In this respect, it owes a lot to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a work that is cited in this new book. The shape that the ‘narrative’ takes is educational and gives the impression that the reader is being led through a seminar on the subject of Comic Books and Graphic Novels. This easy, hand-holding approach suits the book that these writers have produced which is an introduction to comics and the potential of the medium for study.

How To Study Comics
How To Study Comics and Graphic Novels, Image Credit: Oxford Comics Network

Text and Study

After an initial introduction, the writer’s avatars, drawn by Josean Morlesin Mellado, lead the reader through a series of short chapters in an attempt to capture the breadth of study that is available. The book is aimed at University students, according to the Oxford Comics Network twitter feed, who may have no previous experience with the medium. This is obvious from the layout and subjects that the book covers. The simplistic style will be a massive bonus for the uninitiated but perhaps is a little too simplistic for people experienced with comics or who have read the likes of Thierry Groensteen and Hillary Chute. Even devoted fans of mainstream comics who have no interest in formal studies will find some of the book oversimplified, but that is unavoidable with an introductory title like this.

The topics on offer range from the language of comics to the production and on through to traditions of the medium. Some of the elements are quickly skirted over and if you blink you’ll miss them. But, again, this comes from attempting to fit such a varied subject into a 44 page book. Enrique del Rey Cabero, Michael Goodrum, and Josean Morlesin Mellado aim to open the readers’ eyes to the variety of disciplines involved with Comics Studies. The speed at which everything is covered stands as a testament to the complexities of the subject. To include everything would require a dense tome that would instantly put people off. How to Study Comics is a toe dip into the ocean of the subject; something which the preface makes clear.

How to Study Comics
How To Study Comics and Graphic Novels, Image Credit: Oxford Comics Network

Drawing the Subject

Mellado’s artwork is worthy of mention for a number of reasons. His reductive style, but attention to comic convention, really electrifies the argument put forward by the writers. With limited space, difficult explanations are presented in quick, easy to grasp visuals. Even though it’s presenting complex forms relating to comics and their history. The artwork is inspired by a range of material from British children’s anthologies to the seminal work of Chris Ware. Mellado’s art instantly attracts the reader with it’s soft edges, warm colors, and friendly shapes. From the opening page to the final panel, How to Study Comics is a safe and welcoming space.

While a greater experimentation around the artwork may help to represent the wider subject matter, in a production like this it would more likely confuse the argument. Brief attempts are made by Mellado to incorporate different, historical styles but the general aesthetic remains the same. This is similar in nature to IDW Publishing’s recent publication, The Comic Book History of Animation, where subtle nods to the original styles of animation are made but do not saturate the narrative.

The artwork in How to Study Comics is very clear and precise. The addition of color makes it appealing but actually challenges the tradition of black and white images for educational works. Some readers may find the style of this book off-putting and a distraction from the textual, educational element. However, the visual challenge the book sets reflects the greater inherent conflict within Comics Studies and arguments of acceptance. What is a comic and what makes it worthy of study? These questions lie at the heart of the subject and are raised, albeit subconsciously, through the visualization of the narrative.

How To Study Comics
How To Study Comics and Graphic Novels, Image Credit: Oxford Comics Network


How to Study Comics & Graphic Novels: A Graphic Introduction to Comics Studies is a fascinating, simple look at the growing field of Comics Studies. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in getting into the subject as it offers a rounded, quick guide to the potential fields of study. It is also worth reading if you are already a comic reader, as it may highlight an aspect of the subject that you had not thought of before.

While it does not have any in-depth discussions around any of the disciplines it features, the book does draw your attention and provide a handy ‘further reading’ list so that you can begin your own journey. It also includes an interview with Nick Souranis, regarding his work and processes. This addition gives the book something extra for those already familiar with Comics Studies and is definitely worth reading.

The presentation and simplification of the text is this book’s major selling point and this dictates the readership it is aimed at. It is an enjoyable read and will appeal to a large group of people. I found the pace of the book too fast, with large areas of study seemingly passed over in the gutters or, if they were lucky, in a single panel. It’s unfortunate but it’s to be expected from a book like this. Greater representation of cultures and readers could have been included. But if there is one thing that this book makes clear, it is that, with 44 pages, you can only scratch at the surface of the Comics Studies field

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'.