News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.
Friday, April 19, 2019
Pioneers of Comic Art Scholarship Series - Donald Ault
Professor Don Ault passed away on April 13, 2019. The following is a memoir he wrote for IJOCA sixteen years ago. We plan to have a remembrance of him in the next issue.
Pioneers of Comic Art Scholarship Series
In the Trenches, Taking the Heat: Confessions of a Comics Professor
originally published in International Journal of Comic Art 5:2, Fall 2003: 241-260
(figure numbers refer to the original article)
In 1968 it was unthinkable to me that as a beginning literature professor, I could incorporate comic books -- especially Donald Duck comics (1) which I had admired since I was a child -- into upper division and graduate courses at a major research institution. 1968 was the year I started my first teaching job as assistant professor of English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, after completing my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago (published in 1974 as Visionary Physics: Blake's Response to Newton and later characterized as "the single most difficult book ever published on Blake").(2) For the previous three years I had been totally consumed with negotiating the high-speed Ph.D. program at Chicago, one of the most intellectually rigorous universities in the United States. During 1967- 1968 I had buried myself in the John Crerar science library, ferreting out obscure pathways through which "Newtonianism" had traversed the 18th century. My mentors cautioned me against introducing the study of comic books into my professional profile for university teaching because, as Arthur Asa Berger has noted,(3) popular culture studies were looked down upon at that time by "serious" scholars at research institutions. Drawing attention to my interest in Donald Duck, they said, would surely jeopardize my chances of getting (and keeping) a high-powered teaching job. Consequently, though I had been reading and collecting comics for over twenty years, my academic studies had sequestered me from comic "fandom" and the intellectual movements, especially in Europe, that had made great strides in legitimizing comics and raising their cultural profile through exhibitions such as those organized by Maurice Horn and others.(4) I knew nothing of the various comics "clubs" formed at private universities including Harvard,(5) and I was unaware that Terry Zwigoff (later the director of "Crumb" and "Ghost World") had already been teaching non-credit courses that focused on Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics at the University of Wisconsin in 1966-1967.(6) At that time it would have been inconceivable to me to learn, as Wolfgang Fuchs has remarked, that Donald Duck comics were already one of the "darlings of [European] intellectuals."(7) Even though I was just across the Bay from San Francisco State, I didn't know that Arthur Asa Berger was teaching courses in comic strips using diverse analytical tools such as semiotics. (8) In 1968 I did not yet know Carl Barks 's name, and I feared the anonymous author, who I was sure had both written and drawn his own stories, had died, or certainly retired, since the steady flow of his comic book work had suddenly stopped in mid-1967, replaced at first by reprints and later by pale imitations.
1968 was dominated by so much sufficiently well-known cultural turmoil that it requires only the barest rehearsal here: the May-June student strikes in France, which spread throughout the working classes and shook the world, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the subsequent violent upheavals in the USA, and the massive demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. In late August 1968, my wife Lynda and I drove across the country from Chicago (where the violent police brutality toward antiwar protestors at the Democratic National Convention was being televised to the chant, "the whole world is watching") to Berkeley (where we learned upon our arrival that the Bank of America had just been blown up). Every academic term during my first two years at Berkeley was marked by major disruptive events -- the Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis academic debacles, reactions to the Cambodian invasion, the shootings at Kent State (where I happened to have done my Bachelors and Masters work), and the potentially catastrophic "reconstitution" of Berkeley's academic structure itself under the massive pressures of student and faculty protests. During those years the faculty parking lots were filled with National Guard vehicles, and campus tear-gassing was a regular occurrence. Voluntary "teach-ins" by faculty had become a staple of campus life, and there was a great demand for me to lead sessions on William Blake, who was predictably seen as a prophet of radical political activism, mystical vision, and psychedelic consciousness (rumor had it that Blake's body automatically produced LSD). It was in the context of this social turbulence when normal academic activities began to break down that I seized the opportunity and began to incorporate Donald Duck comics (which I considered to be every bit as radical as Blake's works) into my teach-ins.
In addition, students in "regular" classes in those days at Berkeley were a heady bunch. I found they could move seamlessly between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, astrology, Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, contemporary poetry, and quantum mechanics, and they were intensely committed to discussions rather than lectures. As teach-ins and the extraordinarily imaginative and eclectic students that populated the classes at Berkeley liberated me from what I had myself experienced as a student at Kent State and Chicago, it dawned on me that this was a unique historical moment and academic site where I might actually fulfill the dream I'd had in the back of my mind since I was a child reading (and explaining) Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories to neighborhood kids back in Ohio. In 1969 I began tentatively incorporating comics -- not only Disney comics but Marvel comics and underground comix as well -- into my two-term freshman composition course.
Despite my ignorance of Carl Barks's name and of all that was going on in comics scholarship at the time, the convergence of several fortuitous events strengthened my confidence that comics could indeed be objects of "legitimate" critical activity. One of my early students at Berkeley was a gifted young writer named Geoffrey Blum, who already had an intense interest in Barks's work, and my willingness to validate academically Blum's already detailed knowledge of Barks's work apparently contributed to his professional career -- he later became one of the most prolific writers on Barks's work and is currently penning scripts for Egmont, the Disney publishing giant in Denmark. Blum was, I guess, the first potential "comics scholar" I taught at the university. At this same time, my immensely talented office mate at Berkeley also revealed an enthusiasm for the duck stories. One night when he and his wife came over for dinner, I pulled out a stack of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and Uncle Scrooge; we pored through the comics, and he kept repeating, "I remember that one ... and that one ... and that one ....” What struck me about this event was that he and I had come from the opposite ends of the social spectrum. He was the product of the most elite schools in the USA -- Deerfield Academy, Princeton, and Harvard –while I had come from a working-class environment and attended a vocational high school, majoring in mechanical and architectural drafting. I had worked my way through college as a junior draftsman at the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company, as an assistant project engineer for torpedo tube development at the E.W. Bliss Company, and as an equipment designer at General Tire. Despite the divergences between our economic and academic backgrounds, we both had sustained a passion for the duck comics over a long span of time. I sensed there was an iceberg there whose tip I had barely glimpsed.
In 1969 and 1970 I was haunting the Alameda Flea Market near Berkeley where I went to find, and occasionally try to sell, comics. There I met Allen Dodge, who first told me Carl Barks's name and address. In short order I'd written Barks, and Al Dodge and I went to visit him in late August 1970. The moment I met Barks in person -- he had not died as I had feared, and I'd never seen such an ebullient and productive "retired" person in my life (9) -- something snapped inside of me. I knew I had something like a "mission" to carry out, no longer limited to incorporating comics surreptitiously into my courses. I decided to create entire courses with a central focus on comics (and animation, which I had also devoured with intensity as a child and which I learned Barks had worked in from 1935- 1942). I knew, however, that I couldn't propose a course in "Carl Barks" (after all, who in the American academy had ever heard his name?), nor could I propose a course in "Donald Duck," because everybody thought they knew what that character stood for, and it definitely was not academic respectability. So I realized that I had to teach myself the history of comics and animation in order to create a course that would contextualize Barks's work and be approved by the English Department. (I was still unaware of much of the work that had been done in these areas -- even the work of Barks expert Michael Barrier, whose Funny World was a breakthrough resource of information about both fields.) I knew I had to emphasize the "literary" aspects of comics and animation (as indeed I wanted to), which I accomplished by focusing on a conceptual framework of "narrative" in my course proposals. I also knew that it was essential to embed the study of comics and animation in rigorous methodological contexts, both to satisfy my own addiction to theoretical complexity and to convince the powers that be that the course would be intellectually respectable. I used texts ranging in complexity from those of John Cawelti, John Fell, Northrop Frye, and Stanley Fish to those of Norwood Russell Hansen, Edmund Husserl, Alfred North Whitehead, Roland Barthes, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fredrick Jameson, Michael Polanyi, and many others.
I first received permission to sneak in a "Special Topics" course that would emphasize comics during the 1972 summer session at Berkeley, primarily due to the amazing openness of Professor Tom Parkinson who was acting chair for the summer and who took my proposal seriously. The general topic for the course was "Literature and Popular Culture," but it focused on the narrative parameters of comics and on Barks and other comics artists as literary figures -- as far as I know, the first upper division course at a major university on comics (and Barks) with such an emphasis. One of the most notorious events surrounding this first incarnation of the course (memorialized in E.B. Boatner's Harvard Magazine essay): "[A] Berkeley professor brought $2,000 worth of his comics to teach a class, only to find the next morning that an overachiever had jimmied two locked doors to steal them from his office. (10)
In the spring of 1973 I co-taught an evening University Extension course with Thomas Andrae, who was then a graduate student in political science and philosophy. The topic was "American Popular Culture from Dracula to Donald Duck," and it was well received. In the summer of that year I also taught another "Special Topics" course with comics and animation at its center. 1973 was also the year that I first published anything on comics. Although I didn't feel (conceptually and methodologically) ready to write about comics yet, I wrote these two pieces in response to requests, because the venues I was offered were too good (in the sense of being "subversive of canonical academic propriety) to pass up. I felt it was important to keep my work on comics somewhat under cover until I had developed a theoretical framework and a student following sufficient to justify proposing a "standing course" to the English Department (i.e., one that would be offered over and over again with the same "legitimizing" course number). When I was asked to write a piece on Carl Barks for the Berkeley Con Program (for the 1973 underground commix convention in Berkeley), I accepted. When novelist and Professor Leonard Michaels asked me to do a piece on R. Crumb (11) for the newly resurrected literary magazine Occident (second series), I again jumped at the chance –with the proviso that I could write on both Crumb and Barks. These were publications at the opposite ends of the comics/literary spectrum -- the Con Program being almost exclusively for fans and collectors, while Occident was exclusively a "literary" magazine. The editors provided titles for these two essays. The straightforward title "On Carl Barks" suited the non-academic atmosphere of the Con Program, where the editors could assume the audience knew who Carl Barks was. The title of the essay for Occident, however, was conjured up by Michaels to sound as academic as possible and as a kind of inside academic joke that potentially disguised the subject matter of the essay except to the initiated: "Librorum Comicorum Explicatio" (Latin for "Explication of Comic Books").
The covers and layouts for the two publications likewise reflected this radical difference (Figs.1-5). Unlike the Con Program cover, the cover of Occident is void of any images, sporting only a list of the literary figures featured in the magazine. The name "R. Crumb" is listed as if there were no distance between his cultural status and that of Hugh Kenner, Ezra Pound, Raymond Carver, Thom Gunn, and (translations from) Horace. Another revealing difference between my experience with the two publications was that the Con Program essay appeared almost exactly as I had I written it while the Occident essay -- as befits a literary magazine -- was edited almost beyond recognition, incorporating a rather defensive opening I cringed at. Also -- and this is something I thought at the time was very important –I managed in these two essays to get previously unpublished Barks art into print for the first time. Occident contained the originally censored opening panel from "Trick or Treat" (with the "Donald Duck" logo deleted per request of George Shennan at the Disney Studio as a condition of allowing it to be published). The Con Program contained Barks's concept drawings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which he sent to the Disney Studio when he applied for his job, as well as examples of the risque drawings he had done for the Calgary Eye-Opener in the early 1930s. My determination to get unpublished Barks art into print reached its apex with the centerfold of the January/February 1976 issue of California Monthly devoted to "Pop Culture in the University," where I was able to get Barks's previously censored "barroom brawl" splash panel from "Back to the Klondike" published for the first time at the center of the large two-page spread (Fig. 6).(12) Disney's was unaware that the panel had previously been censored as "too violent," and their only concern was with what I had to say about it. Since I was contrasting Barks 's technique of "symbolic simultaneity" with the more "filmic" techniques of Foster and Raymond, no one at the Disney Studio objected to the "brawl's" publication, and in fact they didn't charge a penny for its use -- unlike King Features, which demanded a hefty payment for inclusion of "their" images.
After teaching the course as a "Special Topic" a couple more times, I decided in 1974 to bring it before the English Department for approval as an ongoing course. I had recently presented a paper at the three-day seminar in San Francisco on "The Contemporary American Comic Book," where artist Barb Brown in the audience drew a not-so-flattering but conceptually accurate and insightful caricature of me giving my lecture in which I discussed the "non-Euclidean" nature of Barks's ducks (Fig. 7). She presented it to me after my lecture and then disappeared. The positive responses I got at that time to my complex (some thought outrageously convoluted) theoretical approach to comics gave me a brainstorm: the comics course (to be called, I had decided, simply "Literature and Popular Culture") would more likely be approved if I brought it before the department along with a proposal for an equally innovative, but much more academically respectable, course in "Literature and Philosophy." It's difficult to believe now, but at that time, there was considerable resistance to both courses. Even at UC Berkeley, "cultural studies" was not a central defining aspect of the English Department, and "literary theory" had not yet significantly "invaded" literary studies (as many conservative faculty members saw the emergence of theoretical developments initiated by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and many others). After considerable debate, the faculty approved both courses, and both went on the books in fall of 1975. The Daily Californian carried a piece on the course (Fig. 8) and, as noted above, my brief essay on Barks, Foster, and Raymond occupied a central place in the California Monthly special issue on "Pop Culture in the University." Again the editors supplied the title for my essay, "Comic Art and How to Read It," a very pretentious title for a short essay on three comics panels. In the summer session of 1976, I simultaneously taught both courses I had created -- "Literature and Popular Culture: Comics, Film, and Animation from Chaplin to Donald Duck" (ENG 176) and "Literature and Philosophy: The Phenomenology of the Contemporary Novel and Film" (ENG 177) -- before I bade farewell to Berkeley and headed for Vanderbilt (Figs. 9 and 10). (13)
I need to note here that the practical and technical problems involved in teaching courses in comics, animation, and film during my years at Berkeley were formidable. At first the English Department didn't even have its own movie projector, so I had to lug my own from home for screenings in my classes, and many faculty members were suspicious of my wasting valuable class time showing movies and cartoons. Filmed material was not available on videotape -- indeed the convenience of home video equipment had not yet been invented, and the Berkeley media center had only inch and half-inch reel to reel black and white video machines -- so films had to be rented (paid for out of my own pocket). Back issues of comics were not yet readily available in quality reprints (with the exception of the groundbreaking Smithsonian reprint collections of newspaper strips and comic book stories), so I had to put my own copies on reserve in the library. When these were stolen, I had to resort to putting photocopies on reserve. When the photocopies were stolen, I realized some more secure framework, along the lines of special collections or rare books had to be devised if the courses were to be practical at all. (14)
My letter of appointment to Vanderbilt acknowledged that I would be teaching courses on comics, animation, and film there on a regular basis. The resistance to converting such subject matter into a repeatable course as an official part of the English Department curriculum was much greater at Vanderbilt than at Berkeley, however. It took 11 long years of teaching the course as a "Special Topic" and submitting proposal after proposal until in 1987 when ENG 277 ("Popular Narrative") was approved.(15) Ironically, by this time Joseph (Rusty) Witek had served as my teaching assistant in several versions of the comics and animation course, and I was already directing his dissertation on Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, and Jack Jackson, which in short order became Comic Books as History, one of the best books ever published on the analysis of comics. (16)
Moving to Vanderbilt exposed more clearly the deeply entrenched ideological opposition to making comics a central focus of academic study and alerted me to the fact that much more was at stake than I had been aware of at Berkeley. Vanderbilt was perceived by the American culture at large as a conservative, elitist institution -- hence the prolonged resistance to acquiring approval of a course focusing on comics as a standard fixture in the English Department.(17) The daily Vanderbilt student newspaper (The Hustler) carried a story about my course as soon as it was taught (Fig. 11), and a few years later, the Vanderbilt literary magazine Versus ran a very accurate essay on the relation between my work in Blake and in comics ("The Four-Color Zoas: Donald Ault on Popular Narrative" by Steve Freitag [Fig. 12)). (18) It became progressively clear, however, that teaching courses in comics at Berkeley was one thing, but teaching them at Vanderbilt was a different story entirely. Comics were the "whacko" kinds of things that the news media expected would be taught at a "radical" institution like Berkeley, where I had acquired what I considered to be a badge of honor when Stephen Greenblatt proleptically dubbed me "the Departmental trash man." Very few of my colleagues at Vanderbilt were initially so imaginatively engaged with what I was trying to do. (19)
I had felt all along that there were subversive dimensions to challenging the academic literary canon by treating comics with respect and intellectual rigor, but I got the chance -- quite by accident -- to find out just how the public might respond to my unconventional take on academic appropriateness, now that I was at an institution where propriety was the presumptive norm. In 1982 I was in California for the "Blake & Criticism" conference at Santa Cruz when Al Dodge (who, as noted above, was the person who initiated my personal relationships with Barks and Crumb) invited me to Dixon, California, to participate in an interview for the LA Times that was the founding moment for the public emergence of the "Couch Potato" movement. (20) Also present at this historic occasion were Kim Deitch (whose recent Boulevard of Broken Dreams comic book has garnered high praise from all comers of the literary world), Bob Armstrong (creator of the underground comic character Mickey Rat and ultimately one of the prime movers behind the spread of"Couch Potatoism" in the early 1980s), and Jack Mingo, who was instrumental in producing the Couch Potato Handbook, a text I used in my comics course as soon as it was published. The LA Times article (Fig.13) spread through the country and alerted me to the publicity value of juxtaposing the name of Vanderbilt University with a potentially radical, if ironic, social vision. (21) After the story broke, I was bombarded with requests for interviews, but the derisive nature of the questions ("Are you really fat and lazy?" "Are all Couch Potatoes fat and lazy?") began to bum me out, and I lost interest in trying to explain to them the Zen theory of "bathing in the blue light," "transcendental vegetation," and "the recline of Western Civilization,"(22) and I simply began to decline them all.
Then in 1985 the publication of a volume of The Carl Barks Library, to which I had been regularly contributing essays, coincided with an interview I did with the Associated Press about teaching a course in comics at Vanderbilt (which in the press release became simply "a course about Donald Duck") led to a massive publicity blitz (l 5 minutes of fame if there ever was one). News stories that derived from two different interviews I gave got edited, riddled with errors, and circulated under the most outrageously contradictory headlines imaginable (Figs. 14-15). (23 )Most of the articles treated teaching comics as a symptom of the final deterioration of the American academy. Several television news anchors attacked the idea of the course, and one specifically pointed out that it was more of a travesty because it was being taught at Vanderbilt (Fig. 16). The tone of most of these pieces ranged from ridicule and scorn to disrespect and contempt. One particularly hostile review referred to me as a "quack," and another either accidentally or intentionally contained so many typographical errors (including grotesque misspellings of "absurd," my name and Barks's) and insults (I was fixated on the duck because I had the same first name as he did), that it was either a satiric piece or an insult to the readers (Fig. 17). A few journalists took the issue seriously, however, and actually confronted the possibility that there might be something to what I was saying about comics opening up new regions of the human imagination.
The hubbub was sufficiently intense to bring about my appearance on the weekend edition of Entertainment Tonight (broadcast October 5 and 6 in 1985). The actual interview process was very positive, but what was made of it on ET was not. Dick Heard and the ET news team followed me around for an entire day at Vanderbilt, shooting footage of me in the classroom exhibiting full-size originals of Barks pages, walking on the campus, and talking in my office. After 12 hours before the cameras -- during which time I believe I at least partially "converted" Dick Heard to the possibilities of comic art -- I had sprouted beard stubble and was so extremely exhausted that I couldn't remember anything of the last few hours of the interview. The ET piece itself was presented by Dick Shoemaker, who obviously had no sympathy for the idea at all, and his "commentary," often lifted from things I'd actually said, was delivered in such ironic cadences that any intellectual claims I might make would be seen as overblown and ridiculous. At the end of the 1:15 residue that was broadcast of the day-long interview, Shoemaker asked the audience, "But what, then, does Donald Duck mean to you and me in the long run? Well that" -- interrupted by a clip of a manically infuriated animated Donald Duck smashing things -- "is a Duck of a different color." In essence Shoemaker attempted to negate all I'd tried to convey in the interview about how the comic book duck differed from and exceeded the possibilities of the animated duck. Bad publicity is often better than no publicity, and the media blitz did have some salutary effects. One of the things my notoriety with Donald Duck brought me was the opportunity to serve as editorial reviewer for the manuscript of Vol. 2 of David Kunzle's magisterial history of the comic strip, which was then being considered for publication by the University of California Press.(24) I felt privileged to have given the manuscript an unequivocal recommendation and thereby had some small part in the book's publication.
When I moved to the University of Florida in 1988, the atmosphere was so entirely different from Vanderbilt that I realized I probably had found my academic home. A graduate course in "Communication and Popular Culture" was already on the books, and the undergraduate course in "Forms of Narrative" made my tracing of characters and plots through comics, film, and animation seem quite the "normal" thing to do. The Freshman Composition program contained ENG 1145 ("Writing About [different topics]"), and I initiated a version entitled "Writing About Comics." A significant number of graduate students subsequently taught the course under that rubric. During my years in the Graduate Coordinator's office at the University of Florida ( 1991-1997), I helped in the development of new courses in theory and cultural studies and in the initiation of a "track" model for graduate study in which students can construct their own intellectual trajectories.
In the past two years, with the unrelenting financial and moral support of John P. Leavey, Jr., chair of the English Department, Neil Sullivan, dean of Humanities, and the "nascent Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere," my exemplary graduate student John F. Ronan and I have succeeded in organizing the first two "Conferences on Comics and Graphic Novels," which have become an annual event here at Florida. The inaugural conference was an homage to Will Eisner, featuring, along with Eisner, Joe Sacco, Eddie Campbell, Terry Zwigoff, and Dan Clowes, and a host of young (and seasoned) comics scholars from universities all over the world -- an event that Eisner referred to as the "Manhattan Project of comics scholarship." The second focused on "Underground(s)" with Robert Williams, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, and Diane Noomin (Art Spiegelman, who was scheduled to come, got snowed in at the airport in New York and was unable to make it). Again an unusually fine array of comics scholars contributed papers on a wide variety of aspects of underground comix worldwide. From 1972 until today, I've taught a course devoted centrally to comics at least once every year and sometimes four times a year as I've integrated my work in Blake, Romanticism, and comics through the analysis of visual narrative. During those years I've been regularly presenting papers on comics at a wide variety of conferences (25) and publishing essays on various aspects of comics, especially problems of temporality and spatiality of comics narratives, the ontology and phenomenology of characters, and the theoretical problems of visual texts. (26) Despite the upsurge in recognition of the legitimacy of comics scholarship in certain academic circles, however, there still remain vast pockets of resistance to treating most comics as canonical literary texts. When he gave his keynote speech at the first annual conference on Comics and Graphic Novels at Florida, even Will Eisner himself shied away from using the term "comic book" to describe his work, preferring "graphic novel." Dan Clowes, on the other hand, fought long and hard to have the term "comic book" appear in the credits to the film "Ghost World," whose Oscar-nominated screenplay he co-wrote,(27) indicating the extent to which the term "comic book" has come to designate an inferior form of narrative and character construction. Film critics often use the term as a shortcut for flat, cardboard, stereotypical aspects of movies.(28) There is still a deep suspicion and at best an intellectual ambivalence attaching to comics that make it all too easy for cultural critics to dismiss them en masse.(29) Only the most "prestigious" forms of visual narrative expression –specifically work by artists such as Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco, or Chris Ware -- are accorded serious attention by the media. All of these artists work (or are perceived to work) outside the mainstream of comic book production. (30)
In the face of the waxing (and more often waning) fate of comics in public consciousness, I have remained blithely optimistic. Because I was able to carve out a career in comics scholarship, often against considerable odds and before it was technologically feasible and intellectually respectable, I have seen generations of students transformed by thinking through the implications of the narrative possibilities of the comics format. A comment by a student in my most recent comics and animation course perhaps says it better than I can:
Delving deeper into the world of what lies between the panels, I feel as if my mind is either radically expanding or drastically drawing in on itself. I have never experienced the effects of a mind-altering drug, but I believe studying your work while attempting to include my own thoughts is as close as I have come.
Consequently, it's incumbent upon comics scholars to stay in the trenches and take the heat whenever and however it might come. Heat is evidence of energy flow. Abandoning the task of opening the minds of academics to the narrative riches of comics entails too great a risk. The value of using comics in the academy returns unexpected rewards, often many years down the line. If enough academics remain true to their beliefs in the intrinsic value of comics scholarship, the day will come when "Comics Studies" will carry the same kind of cultural capital that "Film Studies" has built for itself over the past 40 years. I'm as confident that such a day will come as I was when as a child I pondered the mysterious power of comics to alter my consciousness and shape my vision of the future.
1 At that time I did not know the name of Carl Barks, the artist writer who had single-handedly produced over 500 comic book stories between 1942 and 1966.
2 Stuart Curran, "Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century," Studies in English Literature, 14, 1974:639-70. It was my penchant toward conceptual and syntactic complexity that complicated my writing about comics.
3 Berger, "Is This the Kind of Thing That Serious Academics Do?" IJOCA, 4:1 (Spring 2002):41-47.
4 Hom, "How It All Began, Or Present at the Creation," IJOCA, 4: 1 (Spring 2002):7-22.
5 E.B. Boatner, Comix 10lb (half term): Why a Duck: Homage to the Works of Carl Barks," Harvard Magazine 77:9 (May 1975):40.
6 Zwigoff, personal telephone conversation, June 14, 2003.
7 Wolfgang Fuchs, "The Story of an 'Anatomy' That Gave Recognition to
Comics as a Mass Medium," IJOCA 4: 1 (Spring 2002):51.
8 Berger, 45.
9 For 30 years after I met him, Barks continued producing artwork related to the Disney ducks -- including two series of oil paintings licensed by Disney that were commanding prices in the six figures by the time of his death in 2000.
10 Boatner, 40. I never knew who stole them, but it must have been one of the students -- who else would have known they were there? It was not a happy thought. This theft Jed to Carl Barks stamping the covers of all of his comic books with this message; "This is the personal file copy of Carl Barks. Anyone else possessing the book has stolen it." (Published in Michael Barrier, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book (New York: M. Lilien, 1981):111.
11 I had met Crumb at Al Dodge's house in 1970.
12 These drawings have now become commonplace knowledge among Barks scholars and fans by virtue of their circulation in The Carl Barks Library, but when my essays were first published, this material was new to most audiences.
13 ENG 176 is still on the books at Berkeley, but ENG 177 has disappeared from the curriculum.
14 Around 1972 I had written to George Sherman about the possibility of getting permission to publish collections of Disney comics ( especially by Barks and Gottfredson), as well as getting permission to use Disney images in a videotape project I was planning on Disney comic artists, but I never got any response back. It would be ten years before Bruce Hamilton would negotiate the production of the Carl Barks Library.
15 ENG 277 no longer refers to "Popular Narrative" but to "Asian American Literature." The word "popular" no longer appears in the title of any course in the Vanderbilt English Department catalogue.
16 Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Harvey Pekar. and Art Spiegelman. (Jackson: Univ Pr of Mississippi, 1989). Rusty Witek recently insisted that he himself met little opposition when he told faculty members that he planned to write his dissertation on comics ( email, June 16, 2003).
17 Indeed, many faculty in Vanderbilt's English Department themselves saw the inclusion of a regular course on popular culture as relinquishing their authority to the barbarians. At the meeting where my course was finally approved, more than one faculty member uttered this kind of decree: "I will never vote for admitting a course into the English Department curriculum where Krazy Kat and Mickey Mouse are being taught." (This is a direct quotation as I can best remember it.)
18 I was working on my seemingly interminable study of Blake's manuscript poem "The Four Zoas," which was published in a 500+ page book (Narrative Unbound) in 1987.
19 Notable exceptions were Roy Gottfried, Vereen Bell, Rupert Palmer, Elizabeth Langland, and others I may have forgotten.
20 Most people today are unaware that there ever was a founding moment of the "Couch Potatoes" because the term has infiltrated the American vernacular to such an extent that it seems to have "always been there."
21 TV Guide later ran an article by Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr. entitled "The Invasion of the Couch Potatoes" (October 22, 1985:20-22).
22 The first two phrases are from the Couch Potatoes themselves; the third is from Will Tomlinson, a former student and life-long friend of mine, who made brilliant contributions to a piece we wrote for The Tuber's Voice ( or TV) the official Couch Potato journal ("The Tuber Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology ofTele-Leisure" TV 1:2 : 8).
23 In looking back over these headlines, it seems as though it might be possible to do a demographic analysis of cultural differences in different parts of the country based on the particular spin that local newspapers gave to the story.
24 Kunzle himself was, of course, deeply associated with Donald Duck in an entirely different cultural venue as translator of and commentator on Dorfman and Mattelart's How to Read Donald Duck, perhaps the single most widely-known and influential cultural analysis of comics. I was given to understand by the Press that my expertise in Donald Duck had qualified me as a knowledgeable reviewer of Kunzle's manuscript.
25 Including conferences sponsored by the International Society for Narrative, the Center for the Psychological Study of the Arts, the Society for Utopian Studies, the Society for Literature and Science, and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, as well as annual conferences on Jacques Lacan on Marxist theory at the University of Florida, and special conferences such as the Copenhagen Conference on Comics and Culture, the "Re-Thinking Disney" conference, and the seminar on Disney and Carl Barks at the Lahti School of Design in Finland.
26 This year my first book on comics appeared -- Carl Barks: Conversations (Jackson: Univ Pr of Mississippi, 2003), a collection of previously published and unpublished interviews from around the world, with a long introductory commentary.
27 Conversation with Clowes, Feb. 2002.
28 It's unclear whether the proliferation of films actually based on comic book characters and plots will do much to reverse this popular conception of the term's meaning.
29 The day that the Eisner Symposium opened here at the University of Florida, NPR carried a story about comic book superheroes and video game geeks that was, to say the least, not flattering to comics. I had failed to get any kind of hearing for the symposium in time to counterbalance such a report.
30 Presumably because they are auteurs who seem to be uncontaminated by the mark of commodity associated with the large comics publishing factories.
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