Why comics and media studies?

The Spring 2011 issue of Cinema Journal (50.3) featured a series of essays pondering the place of comics in media studies. While there’s no shortage of “why comics?” pieces in other places, these articles are aimed at film and media studies, and attempt to make the case directly in one of the field’s most prominent journals. Each of the contributors has at least one foot in the “traditional” purview of film and media studies, but has also researches, written and taught extensively on comics. Collectively, they make a compelling case for including comics in film and media studies, but also recognize the unique qualities of the medium that keep it in a permanent liminal state between various disciplines and modes of analysis. However, as with film, television, video and digital media, this uncertain state should be regarded as even more justification for its study as a form of “media.”

Each piece situates particular questions about comics at these practical and formal junctures, and they’re all well worth a read. Greg Smith’s search for pragmatic comics pedagogy and scholarship is especially resonant for any television scholar, where similar issues of the parameters of the text have long been debated. The most important thing is that we keep doing”comics studies,” regardless of field or approach. Comics have always been a poorly understood and relatively fragile medium (particularly and somewhat peculiarly in the Anglophone world), and the least we could do is expand the former so that we bolster the latter. While I agree with Bart Beaty, that it may be too tempting to make a direct analogy between comics studies now and film studies in the 1960s, at least film, and other media, offer models of not only scholarship but discipline-building that comics scholars can and should examine (while certainly not expecting to copy).

There’s never a bad time to start reading and studying comics. UK comedian/TV host/writer/comics superfan Jonathan Ross has a particularly nice justification along these very lines. That said, right now is particularly great moment to start. Finding a “jumping-on” point has never been easier, with decades of work from dozens of publishers in print and increasingly available on digital platforms. As DVD distribution has opened up exposure to decades of film and television, the last decade has seen a similar explosion of older works (especially newspaper strips) being restored and reprinted. Moreover, comics criticism is plentiful as well these days. Aside from the copious news from The Beat, Bleeding Cool, CBR and Newsarama, great commentary and reviews can be found at CBR (here and here), The AV Club, and at Douglas Wolk’s weekly round-up. If you like your comics criticism a bit tweedier and crunchier (leaning more R. Crumb than J. Kirby), try the Comics Journal.

In addition, at least one publisher has boldly proclaimed “START HERE” with its entire line-up, as DC Comics “new 52” reboot kicks into gear this week. Last week saw the pivot point between the old and new continuities (in one two-page splash panel in Flashpoint 5, below), and the launch of the new Justice League. I’m going all in on all 52 titles for at least their debuts, and I’ll report back here each week with some thoughts about them, and what the whole endeavor augurs for comics, and for its place in media studies.

Flashpoint 5 splash pages

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