Comics studies (also comic(s) art studies, sequential art studies or graphic narrative studies) is an academic field that focuses on comics and sequential art. Although comics and graphic novels have been generally dismissed as less relevant pop culture texts, scholars in fields such as semiotics, aesthetics, sociology, composition studies and cultural studies are now re-considering comics and graphic novels as complex texts deserving of serious scholarly study.
Not to be confused with the technical aspects of comics creation, comics studies exists only with the creation of comics theory—which approaches comics critically as an art—and the writing of comics historiography (the study of the history of comics). Comics theory has significant overlap with the philosophy of comics, i.e., the study of the ontology, epistemology and aesthetics of comics, the relationship between comics and other art forms, and the relationship between text and image in comics.
Comics studies is also interrelated with comics criticism, the analysis and evaluation of comics and the comics medium.
Although there has been the occasional investigation of comics as a valid art form, specifically in Gilbert Seldes' The 7 Lively Arts (1924), Martin Sheridan's Comics and Their Creators (1942), and David Kunzle's The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825 (1973), contemporary Anglophone comics studies in North America can be said to have burst onto the academic scene with both Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art in 1985 and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in 1993. Continental comics studies can trace its roots back to the pioneering work of semioticians such as Roland Barthes (particularly his 1964 essay "Rhetoric of the Image", published in English in the anthology Image—Music—Text) and Umberto Eco (particularly his 1964 book Apocalittici e integrati). These works were the first attempts at a general system of comics semiotics.
More recently, analysis of comics have begun to be undertaken by cognitive scientists, the most prominent being Neil Cohn, who has used tools from linguistics to detail the theoretical structure of comics' underlying "visual language", and has also used psychological experimentation from cognitive neuroscience to test these theories in actual comprehension. This work has suggested similarities between the way that the brain processes language and the way it processes sequential images. Cohn's theories are not universally accepted, with other scholars like Thierry Groensteen, Hannah Miodrag, and Barbara Postema offering alternative understandings.
Similar to the problems of defining literature and film, no consensus has been reached on a definition of the comics medium, and attempted definitions and descriptions have fallen prey to numerous exceptions. Theorists such as Töpffer, R. C. Harvey, Will Eisner, David Carrier, Alain Rey, and Lawrence Grove emphasize the combination of text and images, though there are prominent examples of pantomime comics throughout its history. Other critics, such as Thierry Groensteen and Scott McCloud, have emphasized the primacy of sequences of images. Towards the close of the 20th century, different cultures' discoveries of each other's comics traditions, the rediscovery of forgotten early comics forms, and the rise of new forms made defining comics a more complicated task.
In the field of composition studies, an interest in comics and graphic novels is growing, partially due to the work of comics theorists but also due to composition studies' growing focus on multimodality and visual rhetoric. Composition studies theorists are looking at comics as sophisticated texts, and sites of complex literacy.
Gunther Kress defines multimodality as "the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these mode are combined" or, more simply as "any text whose meanings are realized through more than one semiotic code".
Kristie S. Fleckenstein sees the relationship between image and text as "mutually constitutive, mutually infused"—a relationship she names "imageword". Fleckenstein sees "imageword" as offering "a double vision of writing-reading based on [the] fusion of image and word, a double vision of literacy".
Dale Jacobs sees the reading of comics as a form of "multimodal literacy or multiliteracy, rather than as a debased form of print literacy". According to Jacobs, comics can help educators to move "toward attending to multimodal literacies" that "shift our focus from print only to multiple modalities". He encourages educators to embrace a pedagogy that will give students skills to effectively negotiate these multiple modalities.
Comics historiography (the study of the history of comics) studies the historical process through which comics became an autonomous art medium and an integral part of culture. An area of study is premodern sequential art; some scholars such as Scott McCloud consider Egyptian paintings and pre-Columbian American picture manuscripts to be the very first form of comics and sequential art. Another area of study is the 20th-century emergence of the subculture of comics readers and comicphilia, the passionate interest in comic books. (A person with a passionate interest in comics is informally called a comicphile or comics buff.)
The first attempts at comics historiography began in the United States in the 1940s with the work of Thomas Craven, Martin Sheridan, and Coulton Waugh. It was not until the mid-1960s, with the publication of Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes, that the field began to take root. Historiography became an accepted practice in the 1970s with the work of Maurice Horn, Jim Steranko, Ron Goulart, Bill Blackbeard, and Martin Williams. The late 1990s saw a wave of books celebrating American comics' centennial. Other notable writers on these topics include Will Jacobs, Gerard Jones, Rick Marschall, and R. C. Harvey.
Comics studies is becoming increasingly more common at academic institutions across the world. Some notable examples include: University of Florida, University of Toronto at Mississauga, and University of California Santa Cruz, among others. West Liberty University is currently the only university offering a four-year undergraduate literature degree in comics studies. In Britain, growing interest in comics has led to the establishment of a center for comics studies, the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS) at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Beside formal programs and degrees, it is common to see individual courses dedicated to comics and graphic novels in many educational institutions.
Sol M. Davidson's New York University thesis, Culture and the Comic Strips, earned him the first PhD in comics in 1959, while in France, Jean-Christophe Menu was awarded a Doctorate in Art and Art Sciences in 2011 from Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne after defending his thesis The Comics and its Double: Language and Frontiers of Comics: Practical, Theoretical and Editorial Prospects.
Teesside University began offering a BA in Comics and Graphic Novels in 2014, as well as an MA in Comics from 2018. They have since appointed a team of renowned comics practitioners including Fionnuala Doran, Julian Lawrence, Con Chrisoulis, Nigel Kitching and Tara McInerney.
The University of Lancaster started offering a PhD degree in comics studies in 2015. The same year French comics studies scholar Benoît Peeters (a student of Roland Barthes) was appointed as the UK's first ever comics professor at Lancaster University.
Since 2000 many new scholarly journals have appeared dedicated to comics studies. Three of the most important peer refereed journals in English are: Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, and European Comic Art. Other notable journals include: ImageTexT (a peer reviewed, open access journal that began in the spring of 2004 and is based at the University of Florida), Image and Narrative (stylized as Image [&] Narrative, a peer-reviewed e-journal on visual narratology), SANE: Sequential Art Narrative in Education (based at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln), Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society (published by the Ohio State University Press), The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, and the International Journal of Comic Art.
Although presentations dedicated to comics are commonplace at conferences in many fields, entire conferences dedicated to this subject are becoming more common. There have been conferences at SAIC (International Comic Arts Forum, 2009), MMU (The International Bande Dessinée Society Conference), UTS (Sequential Art Studies Conference), Georgetown, Ohio State (Festival of Cartoon Art), and Bowling Green (Comics in Popular Culture conference), and there is a yearly conference at University of Florida (Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels). Additionally, there is an annual Michigan State University Comics Forum, which brings together academics and professionals working in the industry. Notable regularly held movable conferences include the Comic Art and Comics Area of the Popular Culture Association of America and the conference of the International Society for Humor Studies.
The International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), begun in 1995 at Georgetown University, has been described as one of the earliest academic initiatives for the study of comics. The German Gesellschaft für Comicforschung (ComFor, Society for Comics Studies) has organized yearly academic conferences since 2006. The Comics Arts Conference has met regularly since 1992 in conjunction with San Diego Comic-Con International and WonderCon. Another important conference is the annual International Graphic Novels and Comics Conference held since 2010 organized by British academics. This conference has been held in conjunction with the longer running International Bande Dessinée Society conference. Comics Forum, a UK-based community of international comics scholars, also holds an annual conference at Leeds Central Library; the first was held in 2009.
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