While much has been made about the rise of comics over the past while, there’s also been a parallel increase in comic scholarship. It’s not just the likes of Will Eisner and Scott McCloud who deconstruct the medium, but also academics such as Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield and Danny Fingeroth.
Just as Canada has produced its fair share of comic creators, it also has a number of quality scholars. For instance, Bart Beaty, Jeet Heer and Andre Molotiu have all contributed to or written several comic-related books recently.
Perhaps sensing this growing body of scholarship in Canada, Sylvain Rheault of the University of Regina has taken the initiative to form a society of Canadian comic scholars in order to better grasp what people are working on and facilitate the exchange of ideas.
I exchanged some e-mails with Rheault about his initiative and comic scholarship:
(Full disclosure: I signed up to be part of the society)
David Hains: What’s the motivation behind the push in forming a Canadian comic scholar federation? What role do you hope this federation can serve?
Sylvain Rheault: Let’s call it a Society. The Society might eventually be part of the Federation of Social Science and Humanities and benefits from grants.
The main motivation to create a Society is to gather peers. I have heard of colleagues doing research about comics at other universities, but the opportunities to meet them are few.
A Society, with an annual conference, will be the perfect occasion to gather minds and exchange ideas.
DH: That’s interesting you mention that sentiment of pursuing ideas in isolation, as it mirrors what lots of creators say about making comics.
SR: I would say that the context of creation is different from the context of scholarly reading. Creation could require isolation, but criticism is a social activity. I am sure each scholar knows a few colleagues with whom to exchange about comics. The advantage of a society is to have an opportunity to gather all scholars with a passion for comics once a year.
DH: To you, what does comic scholarship do for the medium?
SR: The same as it does for classic literature:

  • To help students read comics. Now that comics have been around for more than four generations, new readers want to learn where the medium comes from.
  • To give the medium of comics scholarly recognition. This helps serious authors to emerge through the more popular series.
  • To use the medium for learning and deeper thinking.

DH: In recent years, comics have gained more credibility in the scholarly community as seen in high enrolment for graphic novel classes and an increasing number of comic scholarly journals. What changes have you noticed about the reception comics get from colleagues and students over the past 5 years or decade?
SR: There are many things to take into consideration.
In western societies, in the last few years, there were lots of comics adapted into movies, and not only superheroes. I’m thinking of Ghost World, V for Vendetta, Immortal (Enki Bilal), etc. This has increased comics credibility as a medium worth studying.
Also, in the last few years, a new generation of Ph.D.s have joined the ranks of university professors. They grew up with video games and the Internet and are bringing new fields of interest, like comics, to the University.
DH: Aside from the increase in interest, how has this new generation of comic scholars with different perspectives shaped the scholarly comic discourse in new ways (eg interest in webcomics, manga, challenging established narratives of comic history)?
SR: I can’t talk about a new generation of scholars as a whole. Maybe I would be able to do so after the Society has been established for a few years.
But I know that comics are used by new scholars in many different and innovative ways:

  • As a new field to apply established literary or art theories. (That is what I do, although I might not qualify as a new scholar :- (.)
  • As new exemplary material for established disciplines. (Kevin Bond, professor of religious studies at the University of Regina, illustrates religious traditions with examples from anime and manga when teaching about Japanese religions.)
  • As a new discipline of its own, i.e. as a source for theory, history, etc.  (This is I think the real potential of comics studies for the future.)

DH: It was just recently that you sent out an e-mail announcing the Society. What kind of response have you received so far and what is your reaction to it?
SR: In 12 days, 29 members have been recruited.
The subscribers are enthusiastic about the idea of a Society.
It is an exciting moment for me.
However, there is so much to be done before the Society can officially function.
I’m ready to make things move forward.
DH: Thanks for your time and best of luck with the society.