Toward a Comic Book Studies Division of the National Communications Association
This is a fine time for comic book fans. The big two publishing companies, Marvel and DC, are going through a renaissance of stories and creators, reaching out with new characters with a diverse set of backgrounds and circumstances while exploring new possibilities with decades-old characters.On television and computer screens, Supergirl, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones debuted to critical and viewer acclaim. Movies like Marvel's The Avengers sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets to propel comic book characters into a new audience's shared popular culture. And while few independent creators are getting rich or famous, the technology that lets unknown creators of comic book stories reach an audience continues to become more and more accessible.
This is a fine time for scholarly work on comic books, too. Comic books have a history of self-reflection, from comics legend Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art to the modern classic Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud through to others, but there is now a surge in materials about comic books coming from scholars who are not themselves professional comic book creators. These scholars approach comic books from other fields across all of academia. This essay discusses one panel from one conference from one field, but sectors of scholarship across all of academia are embracing comic books as legitimate locations of investigation.
The 101st Annual Convention of the National Communication Association, in Las Vegas NV in November, 2015, featured a panel we called “(Re)New(ed) Heroes: Marvel's Move Toward Diversity.” The conference's overall theme was “Embracing Opportunities,” and we framed our panel around how we perceived Marvel's attempt to take advantage of broader audiences by including characters that represented a wider range of races, genders, histories, and abilities. Our paper titles reveal our attempt to think about diversity from multiple angles:
"Disability and Impairment in Marvel's Daredevil" from Jason Kahler, Saginaw Valley State University.
"HULK SMASH IDEOLOGY! Post-racism and Xenophobia within Marvel’s The Avengers" from Gabriel A. Cruz, Bowling Green State University.
"Three out of Four Nick Furys Are Black: On Marvel, Diversity, and Synergy" from Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, Quinnipiac University.
“The All-New Captain America” and the Challenge of Racial Representation in Marvel Comics" from Matthew J. Smith, Wittenberg University.
With our respondent, Randy Duncan, we hoped to explore the nature of Marvel's characterization outreach and place the company's modern offerings within the historical context of comic books in general and Marvel, in particular. As our panel proposal stated, “With this renewed interest in the stories they (Marvel) can tell, writers and producers who work with superheroes have begun embracing the diversity in their potential audiences. This move toward a more inclusive roster of characters and stories helps shape how audiences perceive not just superheroes, but diverse populations in the real world, as well.”
The panel unfolded in front of a packed (though admittedly small) room of active and engaged conference-goers. Discussion highlighted race, and the challenge of depicting blindness in visual media like comic books and television. During the presentation about Captain America, Dr. Smith considered the role that Sam Wilson—previously the Falcon, now having assumed the role of Cap himself—has played through the book's history. Wilson's character's evolution, and in particular his emergence as the headlining character, can be read as a direct result of Marvel's dedication to a more diverse cast of characters as well as a more diverse cast of creators and editorial staff. Dr. Cunningham's paper highlighted the character Nick Fury. Once a Caucasian character, then portrayed by the African-American actor Samuel L. Jackson for the successful Marvel comic book film franchise, the comic book version has since changed in response to the Jackson-version's popularity. This shift addresses Marvel's needs for both diversity in its character base and synergy between the comic book and motion picture businesses.
Dr. Kahler explored the prominence of Daredevil, the company's primary visually impaired character. Since his introduction in 1964, Daredevil has portrayed blindness in ways that have adapted based upon our understanding of disability, impairment, and the shifting landscape of modern life. "HULK SMASH IDEOLOGY! Post-racism and Xenophobia within Marvel’s The Avengers", from Mr. Cruz, unpacked the figure of the Hulk as an “other” within the context of books and movies that present aliens, mutants, and the like as forces against which to fight.
At the panel's conclusion, we were all reminded of a brief organizational meeting scheduled for later in the conference to discuss the possible formation of a Comic Studies Division within NCA. This effort, spearheaded by Smith, Duncan, and Stephanie Webb from the University of Denver, hoped to lay the groundwork for navigating the Association's requirements for new division's formation. This meeting was even more well-attended than our panel, showing once again the broad appeal of a Comic Book Studies Division. This meeting highlighted the growth of comic studies as a field. Comic Studies now boasts four inter-disciplinary scholarly journals and seven book series, an impressive foundation for an emerging field. The Comic Book Studies Division within NCA would serve as a focal point for people working with comic books in a multitude of fields, either within higher education or as independent scholars. As of this writing, the nascent division is still looking for people who may have some interest in joining, especially those who are NCA members or would be willing to join NCA. Matthew Smith is serving as the point-person in these efforts, and can be contacted at email@example.com .
Comic Book Studies, and the groups of scholars who would work in them, continues to grow as a field, in NCA and other organizations across the disciplines. Though the publishing business is fraught with uncertainty, the vast back catalog of comic books and the billion-dollar comic book movie industry will provide fertile ground for investigation and discussion for years to come. Comic book scholars can look backwards, forwards, and into our TVs, NetFlix accounts, and local cinemaplexes to become an important part of these conversations.
Jason Kahler earned his PhD from Wayne State University, and he is now an Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, where he teaches Composition. His other interests include motion pictures, comic books, zombies, and Great Lakes lighthousekeepers.
The author acknowledges the special contributions of Gabriel A. Cruz, Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, Matthew J. Smith, and Randy Duncan. Graphic: cover of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.