Using Comics in Our Research
During my time as a PGT student last year I was given the opportunity to write a term paper about how comics for, by, and about girls/women had evolved over the past 50 years. I chose to focus my research over the evolution of Wonder Woman alongside American feminism. I’d never written an academic paper over comic books before, but it was easily my favourite paper to research for and to write. I hadn’t realized that the comic books I grew up loving, often thought of as just campy entertainment, could be filled with so much societal and historical reflection.
The most obvious forms of social commentary in comic books can be seen in the very creations of superhero storylines such as those in Marvel’s Black Panther and DC’s Wonder Woman. Black Panther’s character was created in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States as a commentary on the injustice being done to the black population as well as on the future African countries could have seen had they not been invaded by European colonizers. Similarly, Wonder Woman’s character, created in 1942 just before the end of World War II, became a beacon for both anti-fascism and gender equality. Hailing from a peaceful all-female race and island, Wonder Woman spoke to the power women could hold on their own and reflected the feminist beliefs of creator William Marston.
Because of the mass cinema popularity of comic book stories such as these, comics today seem to be considered by most as synonymous with superheroes. But comic history stretches far past the creation of Superman in 1939 and encompasses themes even more similar to those which we, as researchers, look for in sources and inspiration. My fascination with the possibility of using comic books as research evolved from this and led me to explore new avenues in relation to my academic future. I began to wonder what comics could add to academic research and what researchers could stand to gain from them outside of basic entertainment.
More specifically, how did comic artists choose to represent their societies in a time when slavery was not yet outlawed, women’s suffrage (for some) was just under a century away and class labels were still forming? And what, in turn, did those choices reflect about society? All of these questions helped me form the basis for my PhD research, which revolves around the world’s first example of a modern comic: the Glasgow Looking Glass, published in 1825. I’m only at the beginning stages of my research, but the more connections to history, literature and other forms of art I see in the comics of the past already have me excited to reflect on how those connections continue to evolve in the comics of today.
Acknowledging that comics have a place in areas such as social analysis, popular representation and history (war, social, gender, etc.) is not a new idea. In my own field I’ve met several researchers studying comic books from various directions. From representations of minorities and minority culture to the early, medieval foundations of artistic narratives, the possibilities for academic comics studies reach far and wide. In fact, University of Glasgow’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures has the Stirling Maxwell Centre for Text and Images, which oversees projects and seminars that often discuss the importance of comics in our lives and our research.
Comics were meant to reflect. On society, its people and its downfalls as well as its possibilities. They are a part of culture, and as such are just as important to history and research as the novels and paintings academia has long held in high esteem. Stan Lee, the recently departed true hero of the comic book world, said it best:
‘Just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains while we read it!’
If you’re interested in learning more about how comics have reflected society (and still do!), especially in Scotland, check out the Comics Night at the Museum, which will take place on 1 December at the Hunterian Museum. The event will showcase nearly 200 years worth of comics, from the Glasgow Looking Glass to Spider-Man, and will include cosplay competitions alongside presentations and discussions from UofG comic expert Professor Laurence Grove and comic creator Frank Quietly.