UK’s first comics professor shows long road ahead for recognition of comics as art form

14 Dec
While many professors feature in comics, there are few comics professors in real life.

While many professors feature in comics, there are few comics professors in real life.

Could one imagine the Independent writing a news report under the headline “University offers doctorate in filmmaking”? Or the Telegraph writing: “Picasso expert becomes professor of painting”?

Probably not, I assume because the country already has such educational opportunities and professors available. It would most likely not qualify as news. However, many readers probably did not question the editorial choice by the papers to publish reports about Lancaster University’s appointment of Benoit Peeters as “the UK’s first visiting professor of graphic fiction and comic art”, last November.

Think about that. For the first time in the long history of a medium, which has produced many (also British) works of art, a UK university has decided that one academic should be hired to study the field and guide students. The newsworthiness itself of Britain’s first “comics professor” is illustrative of the uphill struggle for recognition that the comics medium is still facing.

professor bIt is 23 years since Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer prize, but there is still a serious underrepresentation of serious scholarship of the sequential art. Very few newspapers have comics critics. People generally do not realize comics can be art. The 2003 edition of the Thames and Hudson dictionary of art terms by Edward Lucie-Smith, for example, contained over 2,000 art terms. It did not include ‘comics’ or ‘graphic novels’, but not because Lucie-Smith took a stringent classical view of what is art. Among the lemma’s were references to novel things like ‘cyberspace’, ‘dvd’, ‘virtual reality’, and ‘software art’.

Initially, comics could only be found in museums when Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol took panels from the comics page and magnified them. As if the original works were not worthy until their parts were carefully taken out of context by Real Artists.

Fortunately, we are moving forward, albeit slowly. Last year I visited the British Library, which featured the exposition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. It showed the important role British artists have played in the development of the medium. Curator Adrian Edwards told the visitor in a video clip that comics “are so much more” than just for children. “We want to tell stories about public protest, about pushing boundaries, about being edgy, about challenging authority. And we can find all of those stories in the comics here in the library.”

It was at the same time encouraging and depressing to hear Edwards say this, because it showed how he still needed to convince the visitor that Really! Comics! Can! Be! Art!

professor zScott McCloud, another comics history researcher and artist, noted in his now-classic 1994 exploration of the medium – done in comics form, Understanding Comics – that the art form of comics is “perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media. The curse of being judged by the standards of the old”. Which is why it is not entirely satisfactory to see comics rebranded as graphic novels.

Yes, it is great that a general public now has the opportunity to stumble on original works from Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, or Warren Ellis in bookstores. But why is the same work which had been sold in a comics shop for ages, viewed differently once it is put on a shelf in Waterstones?

I fully support McCloud’s plea to stop viewing comics “as a genre of writing or a style of graphic art”, because it is a unique amalgamation of both.

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