Comics Studies Is Not a Busman’s Holiday

Several years ago, I was at a conference on comics where one of the other presenters was a senior faculty member whose specialty was in something else. He told me he was there on a “busman’s holiday” — that is, he was presenting at the conference as a break from his real academic work. The term “busman’s holiday” means a vacation in which one does the same thing that one does while at work (the reference is to a hypothetical bus driver who goes on vacation by taking a long drive).

This is an unfortunately common phenomenon. Thanks to its association with childhood and popular culture, comics has the reputation of being a “fun” area of study. Clearly it’s true that comics are a lot of fun to read and that comics studies is an entertaining area of study. But that doesn’t mean that comics, as an area of study, or comics studies, as a field, do not deserve to be taken seriously. Nor does it mean that comics are “easier ”texts to analyze than literary texts.

So I just want to point out one thing: Comics studies is not a busman’s holiday. Going to a conference on comics studies is not a vacation from your “real” work. Comics studies is an academic discipline, albeit a young and emerging one, and it has an established body of scholarship. Faculty from other fields who dip into comics studies need to apply the same degree of academic rigor to their work on comics as to their “real” field.

And I have frequently seen the opposite phenomenon. I’m obviously not calling out anyone in particular, but I’ve heard numerous conference papers about comics that were simply sympathetic close readings ofthe texts involved, and that failed to offer any non-obvious insights. I’ve heard other conference papers on comics where it was clear that the presenter did not do any research, and was just speaking on the basis of his or her personal impressions about the comics medium or the comics industry.

I’m sure that this same sort of thing happens in other fields– I mean, I’m sure we’ve all heard all sorts of bad conference papers – but I think that the phenomenon I describe here is particularly common in comics studies. And in an article on Charlie Hebdo, my colleague Mark McKinney suggests a possible reason why: “Commentators have probably felt free to string together arguments quickly about the meanings of Charlie Hebdo‘s work because the cartoons that have been circulating appear to be transparently, universally readable.” There is a common uninterrogated notion that comics and cartoons are “easier” texts than prose literature or film, because the meaning of a cartoon is simple and obvious – you understand a cartoon automatically, without having to think aboutit.

This mentality is why people condemn Charlie Hebdo as racist on the basis of the cartoon showing the Boko Haram victims as pregnant welfare queens, without looking into Charlie Hebdo’s history of anti-racist advocacy. I’m not saying here that Charlie Hebdo is not racist, only that judgments about Charlie Hebdo’s racism can be usefully nuanced by an awareness of the history behind these cartoons. (EDIT: See for a further explanation of this point.) This mentality – the belief that comics studies is easy– is also why people teach Maus, Persepolis or Fun Home in literature classes on the basis that these texts are “easier” or more “fun” than literary texts on the same subjects. Again, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing to do. Comics can certainly be an accessible way of introducing more visually oriented students to difficult topics – I obviously believe that or else I wouldn’t include comics in every course I teach. The error here is in believing that comics like Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home are easier to analyze or understand than prose-based Holocaust memoirs, LGBT autobiographies, etc., simply because they include pictures. In fact, comics’ inclusion of images creates additional interpretive difficulties that don’t exist with prose literature. A useful explanation of this point is Charles Hatfield’s chapter “The Otherness of Comics Reading” in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. And close analysis reveals that even the simplest and most seemingly transparent comics in fact use the formal resources of the comics medium in non-obvious ways. The classic demonstration of this point is Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s “How to Read Nancy,” which shows the depth of meaning present inNancy, the simplest and most banal of all comic strips.

So the first point I want to make here is that if you approach comics as a nonexpert in the field, you should not assume comics are “easy,” because they are not. You should apply the same level of interpretive rigor to comics as you would to prose texts or films. I don’t want to discourage people from studying or teaching comics – quite the opposite. I merely want to suggest that people should approach comics with the proper degree of respect for their difficulty, and that people who study or teach comics for the first time should develop a basic understanding of best practices for doing so. If you’re just getting into comics studies, I (and, I’m sure, other comics scholars as well) will be happy to help you figure out where to start.

And this leads to a larger point: the fact that comics are not easy is why comics studies matters. As the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrates, comics make people angry – they seem to have a way of bypassing the interpretive faculty and exerting an immediate effect on our primal emotions. In this and other ways, comics seem not to need interpretation. But as I’ve argued above, comics are as deep and as much in need of interpretation as any other genre of texts, and that is why we need comics studies, especially at a time when comics have suddenly taken on vast international importance. Comics studies is not a vacation from your “real” work; it’s as real as anything else.

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