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.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Memories of Tom Inge, part 2 - Remembering Tom Inge by Joseph Witek


Remembering Tom Inge

Joseph Witek

Dept. of Creative Arts

Stetson University


Many of the deserved tributes to my friend, mentor, and role model Tom Inge[1] will call him a “pioneer,” most of them meaning simply that Tom was among the earliest academics to study popular culture generally and comics specifically. And that he surely was. But Tom was much more literally a pioneer—one who goes ahead, who explores and maps the previously unknown ground, and, most especially for me personally, one who blazes the trail to show the way to those who come afterward.

As Tom had been two decades before me, in the 1980s I was a graduate student in English at Vanderbilt University, where the English department, like many such in academia, was a changing place.  A rising cohort of faculty were variously engaging with the myriad strains of literary and cultural theory while a deeply traditionalist senior faculty, many of them the heirs of Vanderbilt’s conservative and indeed politically reactionary heritage of the literary Fugitives and Agrarians, looked on skeptically.

Under the tutelage of one of those younger professors, Don Ault, a literary theorist and scholar of William Blake and of Carl Barks, I had become increasingly enthralled with the study of comics, and eventually began to research a dissertation on the contemporary comics (not quite yet canonized as “graphic novels”) of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. In those days it was just possible to find and read close to the entire published canon of substantive critical literature on comics in English.  Much, and in fact most, of that criticism had been generated outside of academia by literary and cultural critics, by public intellectuals, and by comics historians and fans.  Within the academy, discussion of comics in publishing venues recognizable to English department dissertation committees was extremely limited, and among the small handful of brave voices willing to broach the topic of comics in the pages of academic journals and edited collections, by far the most vigorous and ubiquitous was that of Tom Inge. Every bibliography, every OCLC database search, every set of footnotes to one of the rare academic articles on comics featured the name of Tom Inge. And Tom not only carried the message of comics to academia, he brought scholarship to the comics-fan community as well—a researcher like me looking for a timeline of the development of U.S. comics books would find one in that bible of the comics collector, the annual Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, a timeline compiled and regularly updated by M. Thomas Inge.

Having formed the backbone of my dissertation proposal’s bibliography, Tom Inge likewise had, unbeknownst to me, already smoothed my path within the Vanderbilt graduate program at large.  When senior faculty would ask about my pending dissertation topic, even the most hidebound traditionalists responded with a gleam of recognition: “Ah, comics—like Tom Inge!” (In fact, the hoariest of those elders, a deep-dyed Southern Literature specialist, told me the story of the very first doctoral dissertation he had ever directed—one on American humor, written by Tom Inge.)

So when, with a preliminary draft of my dissertation in hand, I spotted an ad in the back of an issue of PMLA announcing a new book series on popular culture by the University Press of Mississippi, the tipping point that enabled me to screw up my meagre grad-student courage to send off a query letter to the press was the name of the series editor, the single person in academia who I knew for a fact would look on a book about comics knowledgably and sympathetically: M. Thomas Inge.  A return letter from Tom was one of those countless acts of encouragement that he gave so freely to me and to other junior colleagues; it turned out that he did want to see my manuscript, and before very long he made the dream of every aspiring scholar come true by publishing Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. And in a characteristically generous move, he made a book by a brand-new Ph.D. the initial entry in the UP Miss Studies in Popular Culture series, which became one of the cornerstones of the field of comics studies, reserving his own already completed work, the seminal Comics as Culture, for the second volume of the series.

I soon met Tom in person at a meeting of the American Studies Association in 1990, and his genial figure, always impeccably dressed and coiffed, was a fixture at comics conferences and popular culture professional meetings all over North America.  For decades previously Tom had carried the flag of academic comics studies nearly alone, and he welcomed newcomers to comics studies with open arms; his delight at watching the growth of the field over the decades was palpable.  Tom Inge was tireless in encouraging and supporting his expanding cohort of junior colleagues, and many of us in the field have received out of the blue a letter enclosing a comics-related news clipping or article or bibliographical citation with a handwritten note saying something like, “Saw this and thought you might find it useful—Tom.”

I last saw Tom at the inaugural conference of the Comics Studies Society at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 2018.  After the papers had been presented, the CSS held a reception at a local restaurant, and as the energetic young organizers were presenting various awards, Tom and I found ourselves in the back of the room, perhaps inevitably reflecting back on the long and winding path to the establishment of a learned society for academic comics studies. In his typically generous and inclusive way, Tom said with some satisfaction, “Well, it looks like we did it.” I answered with the truth: “No, Tom—you did it.”  Tom Inge will be deeply missed, but the good he has done as an exemplary scholar and mentor lives on.

So it’s one last time to say what I have had so many occasions to say before:

“Thanks, Tom.”

[1] His professional name was “M. Thomas Inge,” but I never knew what the “M.” stood for, nor do I want to know now—he was always and forever “Tom” to those who knew him.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Memories of Tom Inge, part 1

When I began as the new editor at University Press of Mississippi, I did not really know a lot about comics. Fortunately for me, I could confer with Tom Inge. What a pioneer in the field of comics studies! 

Consulting with Tom, sometimes I felt like I was at the moment of creation. 

In working on so many books together, Tom graciously made me feel like I was benefiting him. When of course, it was actually the other way around. 

This gift was one of his several qualities.

Vijay Shah
editor at University Press of Mississippi.  

I met Tom when I was in my first job out of graduate school, serving as a visiting assistant professor in a one-year capacity with no accomplishments to my name and no future secured beyond the end of the academic term. He was a guest of honor at an academic conference, the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, and I was part of a group of new scholars following Tom around with puppy-dog eyes. He treated us with patience and kindness, not a surprise to anyone who knew him, and asked us about our research. He helped us understand how the work we dreamed of doing might fit into the critical conversation as well as the economy of academic publishers. He never once urged us to read his own work to try to build our arguments: he was delighted to see the new directions of the field, even when they were not the directions he himself wanted to take. I stayed in touch with him over the years, and his demeanor was always the same. He treated me with kindness, a genuine curiosity, and a pragmatic mentorship that helped me understand the realities of being a professional academic. To me, he was a model mentor and set a standard I will always be pursuing.

Joe Sutliff Sanders
University Lecturer
University of Cambridge

Word is moving through the comics academic community that M. Thomas 'Tom' Inge passed away last week. I didn't know Tom deeply, but for a long time I sent him comics ephemera for his collection at VCU, and articles about Edgar Allen Poe in comics. He was a big fan of my friend, Richard Thompson too.

Tom and I probably met at an ICAF meeting, but we became better acquainted when I was called up from the minors to fill in for two Harvey Pekar interviews at SPX. I did them, and then transcribed them for John Lent's International Journal of Comic Art. Not wanting to miss a wider audience, I offered them to Tom for whomever might do a book in Tom's Conversations with Comics Artists intervew series at the University Press of Mississippi.

Tom instead wrote back, changing one direction of my life - "How about your doing the Pekar volume in the Conversations series?  I don't have anyone signed up for him, strange to say, and you already have two interviews I assume.  Have you resources to locate the previously published ones? " ( Jul 19, 2006)

Never having edited or compiled a book before, I wrote back that I'd think about it, and then a day later, "Tom,  I'm still mulling it over although I'm leaning towards doing it." (Jul 20, 2006)

So I did it, and Harvey Pekar: Conversations came out in 2008. Not learning from experience, I wrote to Tom about doing a collection of Herblock interviews. He responded favorably to me and the Press' editor -

"[Mike] raises the question of doing another volume for the series on the political cartoonist Herblock. I think that is an excellent idea.  It is a shame that we have had not titles yet on political cartoonists, and Herblock is a very good place to begin (we need them on Bill Mauldin, Jeff MacNelly, Pat Oliphant, and Doug Marlette, among lots of others as well)." (May 1, 2008)

Unfortunately the Herblock Foundation never really got behind the idea, and they controlled his rights, so the idea faded away. Tom didn't though and he continued to be a major force in comics studies. I saw him for the last time at the PCA meeting in DC in 2019, I think? I snuck into the meeting and just said hello in passing after watching his panel. One always assumes there's more time...

Tom was one of the best and most productive members of the first group of academics to study comics. He was an immense help to my second career, and to many others, and the field is much richer for his time spent cultivating it. He'll be missed by many.

Mike Rhode
IJOCA editor

Monday, May 17, 2021

Tribute to Tom Inge for next issue of IJOCA

We have space in the current issue, so John Lent would like anyone's tributes and photographs.

Let him know if you want to write one at "John A. Lent" <> ASAP. The deadline is June 1st for print. If you send them to both John and I, we'll also put them on the blog as they're received.

Also, we'd like for a volunteer to write Tom's obituary.


Mike Rhode

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book Review: Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex

Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex. Léo Grasset (scripter) and Colas Grasset (artist), translated from French by Kendra Boileau. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021. 192 pp. $24.95.

reviewed by Laura Sayre

Of zizis and zézettes: Teaching evolutionary biology through sex

Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex, by Léo and Colas Grasset (originally published as DirtyBiology: La grande aventure du sexe, Éditions Delcourt, 2017), is a full-length graphic novel that offers a detailed account, not just of the evolutionary history of animal copulation -- as might appear at first glance -- but rather of the various means by which genetic exchange and reproduction are accomplished by biological organisms, from bacteria to fish to elephants. The authors’ gamble is that the topic’s potential for crude humor, particularly in the graphic format, will contribute to, rather than detract from, its objective of delivering serious ideas about the workings of evolutionary biology. The extent to which that gamble pays off will depend on your sense of humor. Nevertheless, this is a smart book that successfully conveys its creators’ wide-ranging, iconoclastic appreciation for the unimaginable variety of life on earth. 

It’s useful to know at the outset that the “Dirty Biology” moniker is intended to convey something broader than “the science of sex.” Léo Grasset, the book’s scripter, is a type of French Stephen Jay Gould for the YouTube era: with degrees in evolutionary biology and journalism, he is what the French call a vulgarisateur scientifique, a popularizer of scientific information, and he has been posting videos (in French) on YouTube under the “DirtyBiology” rubric since 2014. With 77 episodes (from 15 to 30 minutes in length) and 1.17 million subscribers to date, Grasset’s topics range from the psychology of fear to the role of fermentation in primate evolution to (inevitably) the characteristics of epidemic disease outbreaks. “Dirty,” in other words, means not just relating to sex, but any and all scientific phenomena that are in some way disturbing, weird, surprising, or inexplicable. Grasset has the evolutionary biologist’s trick of turning familiar concepts on their head by effecting a leap in scale (millions of years, millions of species) and recurring to the hard law of natural selection. How did these strange things come to be? Why is there sex?

One question that presents itself to the reviewer, then, is what Grasset gains and loses in moving from YouTube to the graphic novel as a medium of expression. (This is Léo Grasset’s first graphic novel but his second book; his first, translated into English by Barbara Mellor as How the Zebra Got Its Stripes: Darwinian Stories Told Through Evolutionary Biology [Pegasus, 2017], tells some of the same stories but without the comics.) Young, conventionally good-looking, and articulate, Grasset has clear strengths as a YouTuber that count for less in the comics format. But he also knows his material and is a skilled writer, structuring the story in a way that offers good pacing, variety, even suspense, and that makes use of graphic novel conventions to engage in an imagined dialogue with the reader. The book’s illustrations, by his brother Colas Grasset, appear to be pen-and-ink drawings, tinted in pastel hues and populated for the most part by gentle-looking, stylized creatures. The narrative is delivered by an androgynous humanoid with a large round head and simplified features, who addresses the reader directly, punctuating its scientific instruction with humorous or ironic asides (such as the recurring line, “I love animals!” delivered after the description of a particularly “dirty” biological tidbit, like the fact that one-fourth of baby lion deaths are caused by infanticide by rival male lions [p. 148].)

As a creative team, the Grasset brothers convey biological concepts in a way that is both engaging and original, if not always pleasant (there is a scene, for example, where the humanoid narrator suffers from pollen allergies, its features melting and pustulating). The lessons move from, what is sex? (the exchange of genetic material by two individuals to create a third, different individual, p. 7); to, why have sex? (when bacterial reproduction, by replication and division, is so much more efficient, p. 20); to, why these particular forms for animal genital organs? (the movement of life onto dry land required a new method for fertilization: the female womb as a kind of internal sea, p. 28). Two sexes vs. multiple sexes; isogamy vs. anisogamy; sequential hermaphroditism; the “gangbang” engaged in by the slipper shell mollusk Crepidula fornicata; it’s all here. One advantage of the graphic novel over YouTube is that its special effects, while in many ways analogous (the montage, the self-conscious digression, the “explosion” to emphasize a key point, the visual gags), move more slowly, allowing the reader to absorb at their leisure what can otherwise become a blur of successive ideas.

Kendra Boileau does an impressive job of walking this fine line between science and slapstick in her translation. Translating profanity poses special challenges of tone, for obvious reasons, including the fact that such words are used more often in speech than in written language, with connotations that may vary considerably over time and space. Boileau navigates these treacherous waters with panache. Imagine the number of possible translations for the French term bites (Boileau chooses peckers, doinkers, and dicks). For les zizis et les zézettes, in case you were wondering, Boileau goes with weenies and muffs. Other terms appear in the original as imports from English and thus come back unchanged: glory hole, badass. Meanwhile, Boileau renders the more strictly scientific content in a manner that is clear, concise, and in keeping with the tone of the original.

At the same time, this mixture of science and profanity raised questions for me as to the book’s intended audience. Much of the humor comes across as juvenile, and yet the content is sophisticated -- not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t want to let this book get into the hands of anyone under the age of 14. Presumably, the intended audience for the book includes current and future prospective viewers of Léo Grasset’s YouTube channel, and yet his videos are targeted exclusively at a French-speaking audience (automatically generated English subtitles are available for some of them, but don’t work very well). Given this double paradox, the best achievement of this book may be in pointing readers toward the richness and diversity of the contemporary non-fiction graphic novel, in France and elsewhere, as well as toward the multitudinous, creative, wacky, yet serious content available on YouTube that (at least in this case) is co-evolving with it.

We should note, finally, that Graphic Mundi is an imprint of Pennsylvania State University Press, where Boileau is also an editor. Comics scholars may know that PSU Press is likewise home to an important series on graphic medicine, a term coined by Ian Williams in 2007 to describe “the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” The Graphic Mundi list as a whole treads into adjacent territory, including an exploration of the history of prostheses told from the perspective of a young man who has lost an arm in a road accident, an autobiographical account of a young woman’s struggle with anorexia and bulimia, and an anthology of comics about life under COVID-19. Taken together, this work pushes the boundaries of the comic in new and provocative directions, and is proudly international in scope.

Laura Sayre is an independent translator from French to English. A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23:1.


“DirtyBiology” on YouTube


Graphic medicine, a term coined by Ian Williams