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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.

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