Comic Books in the Humanities: Who Cares and Why?

Most of the responses we’ve received in writing this blog come from the Reddit community. A few comments consider, somewhat dismissively, that we’re writing about comic books that aren’t based in reality while we discuss real-world issues. For example, on the post about Daredevil and using his lie-detection in the courtroom, some commenters shared sentiments that applying the law and science of lie-detection to Daredevil, “is pretty ridiculous due to the fact this is a comic book with superheroes and many things that [sic] are dubious to the scientific community” and that, “…it’s a comic book. If [Daredevil] can see by hearing.. he can hear lies too.”

These comments suggest that we’re pulling comic books from their pulp-fiction roots and attempting to transplant them into an area they were never meant live. Academic David Sweeney comments on this issue where he states, “I am not saying that comic books aren’t worthy of academic enquiry – everything is – but they should be taken on their own terms and not those of established literary criticism. They require no elevation.” His concern of “elevation” is that comic books should be addressed on their own terms and not be shoehorned into other forms of literature, such the novel. This “shoehorning” can be understood when we consider the term “graphic novel.”

The elevation of the comic book is starkly contrasted by the previous backlash comic books faced from academia. The rise of New Criticism paralleled the rise of comic books in the early 20th century. The New Critics were not impressed with the new form of popular literature, where the term comic book, “became an adjective to describe not only the lowest of the lowbrow but also the threat to individual thought and expression posed by mass culture in general.” Of course, academia’s attitude shift towards comic books from lowbrow brainwashing material to la-di-da graphic novels resulted in comic book classes at Harvard.

But what’s the point? Even if comic books are worthy of un-elevated academic inquiry, why do it in the first place? Aren’t other mediums just as or better suited for critical examination? These questions remind me of a larger discussion of pursuing the humanities in general.

When I was in graduate school in 2008, literary critic Stanley Fish caused a ruckus when he discussed how to justify funding arts and humanities departments at universities. Funding these departments cannot be justified, according to Fish, where the departments aren’t self-supporting through grants or donations, there isn’t an overall economic benefit from funding the departments, and department graduates aren’t terribly attractive to employers, except in very esoteric fields with limited job prospects. Fish goes on to assert that even the social-capital gained from the arts and humanities does not mean much where, “Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.”

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Photo with Stanley Fish (I’m on the far left) and two grad school chums.

For Fish, reading works of literature or philosophy doesn’t mean you become a better person. Anecdotally, Fish notes that in his 45 years in academia people immersed in literature and philosophy “don’t learn how to be good and wise,” rather they learn competency in the subject matter. Ultimately, Fish concludes that the humanities do not ennoble us nor do they save us. They have no use whatsoever where they don’t “bring about effects in the world.” For Fish, the humanities are a good unto themselves, and that is their value.

This discussion on justifying the humanities and their value hasn’t gone away. A recent article in Forbes engages this discussion, with the author noting, “They may not have ‘value’ according to strict economic rules, but the liberal arts do have a leavening value that helps make every student more than just a future drone, narrowly confined to his or her job without an awareness, let’s say, of cultural context or an appreciation for art and literature.”

Fish’s post on the valuelessness of the arts and humanities came during a critical economic moment: The Great Recession. Although humanities departments, notably English departments, had been in decline since the 1970s due to a myriad of factors including economic reasons, the recession underscored the bleak prospects of a career in the humanities. Like many students at that time, I reconsidered the economic viability of my English degree. I finished my masters in creative writing, but I jumped shipped to law school instead of getting a PhD. Law school applications surged in response to the recession, and I assume students like me saw the abysmal job prospects in relation to the time and financial investment an advanced humanities degree required.

In addition to the lackluster financial aspect of studying the humanities, Fish’s inflammatory comment that the humanities have no effect on the world reverberated in my graduate school experience. I was in a graduate program that was split between craft and theory. I was an aspiring poet, not a great one at that, and I was also fascinated with theory. I latched onto theorists like Michel Foucault. I was inspired by his scholarly work and his activism. Images of Foucault on a bullhorn pushed the heady classroom reading into the world, into praxis.

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Foucault with a megaphone blasting Sartre in the ear at a protest.

I enjoyed reading poetry, reading theory, and having a go at it myself. I, however, didn’t feel more connected to the world through these exercises. Rather, I felt compelled to interact with the world; to “do” something. I joined AmeriCorps at this time, and felt a sense of connectedness that I didn’t get from poetry readings or seminar discussions on James Joyce. The idea of “doing” or “having an effect” resonated with me, which was another reason why I decided to go to law school rather than try to stake a claim in academia’s ivory tower.

Although I left creative writing for less sexy legal studies, my experience with literature was a springboard into my current public interest career. English studies shaped my worldview, and I’ve put that worldview into praxis. For me, the humanities were valuable in accessing a world that seemed quite distant from the Iowa farm where I grew up, and exploring literature is something I still enjoy.

But who cares about comic books in the humanities?

One comment on the Daredevil lie-detection post mentioned above reads, “I often appreciate these articles for what they are. Thanks for the interesting thought.” I think this comments goes back to the point Fish makes, that the enterprise itself has value. Like this commenter, I enjoy thinking about comic books and their content through different lenses. I enjoy the sort of gamesmanship that theory affords when reviewing a text. There is a pleasure value to engaging comic books as something more than pulp-fiction to be read and discarded without much thought.

Comic books also allow people to discuss issues or access issues in a palatable way that really engages the pulp-fiction aspect. We can take time to read To Kill a Mockingbird to explore legal concepts like the presumption of innocence, or we can more quickly read an issue of Ms. Marvel to swiftly jump into the discussion as we’ve done in this blog. Comic books as comic books, and nothing more, have merit in exploring the world around us, and may give readers or fans a better entry point into issues that would be unbearably obtuse with other literary forms. This isn’t to say that most people reading this blog aren’t up to the intellectual muster of reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, but many people would prefer not to.

So there it is. We do this because it is fun and it helps start conversations. There may be no economic value in it, and there may be no effect on the world itself. Perhaps it makes the world more accessible and fun to access. Or maybe its just a way to justify the time and money I spent on a masters degree in creative writing. Either way, I’m curious what you think. Comment below or shoot us an email at comiccritter@gmail.com.

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