Sunday, April 22, 2012

Duncan & Smith on Critical Approaches to Comics

I recently caught up with Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith, editors of the Eisner nominated book Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, a work that collects together writings by a who's who of comics scholars and their deep thoughts regarding all sorts of critical analysis.

KM: Congratulations on your Eisner Award nomination. I understand that this is a new category for academic writing?
RD/MS: Yes, the Eisner Awards administrators and judges, particularly Ben Saunders, an English professor and comics scholar, recognized that academic work on comics was substantially different from the work usually nominated in the Best Comics-Related Book category.  Books with few pictures and words like “critical,” “theories,” and “methods” in the title are not likely to fair well against beautifully produced coffee table books about the history of DC Comics or the art of Alex Toth.

Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith signing at San Diego Comic-Con
KM: You've got a stellar cast of scholars contributing to this book. When I saw your panel San Diego Comic-Con last year, I remember being impressed by the people you brought together. How did you decide who to include?

RD/MS: Reputation had a lot to do with the selections. Nearly all of these scholars had written a book that we had read or made a presentation at a conference we attended in the past.  David Berona is the leading scholar on wordless comics, Molotiu edited the Eisner-nominated Abstract Comics anthology, Peter Coogan wrote the definitive book on the superhero genre, and Amy Nyberg is currently working on the definitive book on comics journalism.  We knew we were aiming our sites high with the list of contributors, but to our delight, nearly everyone we invited agreed to contribute. And we agree: They are stellar!

KM: How does this book build on (or compliment) your previous book Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture?
RD/MS: Power of Comics is really about introducing novice students to the field. And as its subtitle suggests, it covers the breadth of the field, covering what previous scholarship tells us about the history, form, and culture of comics. And so if the Power of Comics is an introduction to the field, then Critical Approaches is emersion into the field.  It articulates ways to generate new comics scholarship by explaining the various intellectual tools that comics scholars use and modeling how they would be employed in order to identify new insights into the medium and the cultures surrounding it.

KM: Can you talk about the structure of the book and the different sections you've included? This is intended as a teaching text, right?

Book Cover
RD/MS: Absolutely! We hope that Critical Approaches will equip the next generation of comics scholars with a variety of methods they can use to generate new insights about comics. With that in mind, we surveyed the field and attempted to identify five areas where we saw critical work clustering. First, there are a considerable number of approaches that address the formal qualities of comic book storytelling. These include tools for interpreting elements like shape, color, and form. Second, there are approaches that focus on the content of the stories and the meanings that result from them. Third is the means of production and how comics are made. This includes consideration of the creators and the industry. Fourth, we identify methods that examine context issues that draw in broader social issues manifest in comics, such as ideology and feminism. Finally, we look at audience reception and how readers make sense and build culture out of the comics experience. In all, we have 21 separate methods under these five section heads. Of course, there was not room to include all scholarly approaches, but Critical Approaches provides a solid representation of methods students and scholars can apply, modify, and build upon to advance the field of comics studies.

KM: What else are you looking forward to at Comic-Con, aside from (hopefully) winning an Eisner?

RD/MS: Ha, ha. It’s just an honor to be nominated . . . and to get to sit at the big kids’ table this year. In addition to the Eisner ceremony, another highlight will be commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Comics Arts Conference. Randy will be moderating a Pioneers of Comics Scholarship panel featuring some of the scholars whose work is the foundation of comics studies.  Matt will also be offering his “Experience at Comic-Con” course for undergraduates who want to study the intersection of fandom and marketing cultures (seats are still available—see for details).

Critical Approaches includes contributions from Henry Jenkins,  David Berona, Joseph Witek, Randy Duncan, Marc Singer, Pascal Lefevre,  Andrei Molotiu, Jeff McLaughlin, Amy Nyberg, Christopher Murray, Mark Rogers, Ian Gordon, Stanford Carpenter, Matthew J. Smith, Brad J. Ricca, Peter Coogan, Leonard Rifas,  Jennifer K. Stuller, Ana Merino, Mel Gibson, Jeffrey A. Brown and Brian Swafford. Congratulations on the nomination, and good luck!