Interview: Dr Matthew Smith on the Power of Comics



It’s that time of year again — when I curse how far Australia is from the US and bemoan the fact that we will never have something as awesome as Comic Con here — yeah, it’s Comic Con time. July 26, to be precise.

But, to a few — like Dr Matthew J Smith and his students — Comic Con is more than just a time to fangirl stars and artists. His field study course held at Comic Con offers students a chance to earn academic credit while studying popular culture at the con. Students participate in the Con, attend panels and observe and interview fans to better understand popular culture and more than that, it’s bringing popular culture to the attention of universities and academia, a place I never thought I’d see it be welcome.

Along with Ben Bolling, their experiences at Comic Con have generated a collection of essays (above).

Dr Smith had some time inbetween engagements to talk to me about his experiences at Comic Con and his work.

Tell us how your interest in graphic novels and comics started?

My interest in comics started with a stack of comic books purchased at a discount department store by my parents for me as a child. (Ten comics for a dollar!) Comics motivated me to learn to read and equipped me with a powerful vocabulary. After all, how many second graders know what “geosynchronous orbit” means? (Just those of us reading about the satellite headquarters of the Justice League of America in the 1970s.) I later found myself gravitating to doing academic projects about comics and comics culture, including my undergraduate thesis and my first published article as a graduate student in the Journal of Popular Culture.

What or rather how did your interest in the phenomenon of comic cons begin?

Maturing as a reader and a fan, one hears of the mythic convention in San Diego, but as I was in West Virginia at the time, the idea of traveling to California to actually attend Comic-Con International (CCI) seemed wishful, at best. I had certainly attended smaller, regional events like Mid-Ohio Con as a part of my own fandom experience, but when I finally reached CCI in 2006, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. Many of the concepts that I taught in my Communication Studies courses about the functioning of media industries and audiences were laid out before me. It inspired me to bring students to the Con in subsequent years and probe more deeply into the meanings therein with them and for the sake of my own fascination with the spectacle.

Dr Matt SmithHow has your definition of a comic con changed since you began your study and your research? 

In Bart Beaty and Steven Weiner’s Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: History, Theme, and Technique, I note that cons are shaped by both fans and corporate interests (e.g., promoters, publishers, retailers).  I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to the economics of cons from both a supply and demand perspective; the collaboration and tension between the two forces fascinates me. These events typically feature (at minimum) profit-seeking retailers, who are there to make a living. While many of them may, indeed, love the medium, they have a profit motive that factors into their motivation. When you get into major promoters like Wizard World, the scale of their profit-drive is even more apparent. At the same time, the fans are there, in part, as consumers, eager to buy the products retailers offers; however, they have other motives to be present as well. They love the medium, characters, creators, and social opportunities. When these motives coincide, it is one dynamic; when they clash, such as when a con is too focused on costly encounters with celebrities, then the tension with the fans and the promoters (in this example) is an even more interesting social dynamic to examine.

How would you describe the resistance from universities and academia to studying comic cons and the fandom culture? 

While it is true that the majority of institutions still do not prioritize the study of popular culture in their curricula, I think that there is progress in gaining legitimacy in the academy. In particular, I’m heartened by the number of courses in comics studies that are taking root. There are even whole comics studies programs springing up at places like West Liberty University. I think we are at a place in comics studies where film studies were fifty years ago, just starting to wedge our way into recognition and acceptance.

Will it or has it changed at all in any way since you first got involved? 

It has absolutely changed for the better. My chief collaborator, Randy Duncan, and I liken it to the cresting of a wave, which we count ourselves very fortunate to be riding at the moment. There’s an energy with comics studies that’s electrifying right now. Just take a look at the number of academic conferences, journals, and monographs coming forth! Work is even developing on apace for a Comics Studies Society for scholars. This is the primetime to get involved.

What are the cultural aspects of comic cons have you discovered in your research and your own experiences? 

I’ve been privileged to shepherd a number of student projects into various aspects of the con over the seven years as a part of my field study program, “The Experience at Comic-Con”.  A select number of those projects are now in print as part of an anthology I’ve edited with Ben Bolling of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill called It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon (McFarland, 2014). Therein, my former students reflect on everything from cosplay to the treatment of Twihards, and from fan talk to the social practices of waiting in line. Each new class teaches me something I didn’t know before, whether that be the culture of machinema or the search for acceptance among Disney pin collectors. It’s all fascinating.

What are the perceptions of fans and their behaviour? Do or how do fans subvert these expectations of people on the outside looking in? 

It depends on what one is a fan of. Here in Ohio, if I dress in scarlet and gray and wear a necklace made out of buckeyes, no one thinks it odd at all to support the Ohio State teams with such colourful displays. However, anyone who dresses like a character from Star Wars or a video game is viewed with curiosity. So, it’s acceptable to practice fan behaviors in contemporary culture, but not entirely acceptable to be a fan of things outside popular or mainstream consumption.

I think many comics and video game fans enjoy their position on the margins. They aren’t necessarily seeking the acceptance of most people but are hailing those who share in their passions. They don’t need acceptance by everyone, just someone. I like that about these fans: they are social creatures but they aren’t willing to give up what interests them to find greater acceptance. They are willing to do the social “work” it takes to find and connect with similarly interested others.

ReginaIs there a difference in the perceptions of fans of shows and movies as opposed to just comics?

Certainly it’s cool right now to be a fan of comics-inspired films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. However, I do not think the cool factor comes from such films being based on comic books but because they are genuinely well-made adventure flicks. For more than a generation now comics have been and continue to be a marginalized medium, segmented off from the mainstream. In part, this gives comics a cache because it isn’t known to everyone. Comics fans (myself included) strike me a little more “religious” (for lack of a better word) about their perceptions. For instance, one might know all the types of kryptonite that Superman has encountered, much like a Bible-thumper can quote you chapter and verse from the Good Book. Your question suggests a great project, though, as someone could compare the film fans against comics fans to see what differences divide them and what possible factors unite them.

Why, do you think, is pop culture so looked down upon? 

Underlying every teacher-student relationship is the notion that the teacher knows something that the student does not. Universities build their institutions on opening doors to ideas and skills that are not commonly accessible. Pop culture is by definition widely accessible and so there appear to be fewer revelations in the same way that deconstructing a concerto or appreciating an impressionist painting presents. However, I would argue that it is precisely because our films, television, and magazines appear to be so uncritically accepted that we need to train ourselves to view them more critically and analyze them for the deeper meanings that they reinforce in society.

You mentioned in an interview that the great authors and artists are able to make contributions to their medium that “transcend the limitations” of their mediums – can you tell us a little about how they do that, in your opinion?

Most crafts are learned through repetition. I’m witnessing my eleven-year-old son try to learn the intricacies of playing the trumpet right now and reminded that the only way to get any better at performance is through practice. If we are disciplined enough, most of us will get “good” at something like this but a few will be “great” at it. In comics, for example, there are numerous creators who get very good at what they do and consequently enjoy profitable careers that engage and entertain people for years.

However, it seems to me that there are certain individual creators whose impact is studentscomic confurther reaching, further lasting than that. Call them auteurs, call them geniuses, call them whatever, but they seem to not only understand their medium but work in ways to define and defy it. Think of a writer like Alan Moore or an artist like Jack Kirby or a colorist like Lynn Varley, etc. Their work is so much further along than mere practice can account for. There’s just a difference between folks who work hard at something for years and those whose work goes beyond the simple calculus of time spent at practice.

I suspect that folks in this distinct category have something going for them in terms of relating to the underlying heart of culture. I speculate that they have an insight into what appeals to us aesthetically that resonates with audiences as a kind of universal truth within our subconscious. If you like, they are able to mainline our primal understandings of myth and beauty and manifest it in a manner most others cannot. It’s why, I would contend, the top grossing film in the world (Winter Soldier), an ongoing network TV series (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), many of the top ten selling comics (Avengers), and numerous licensed products bear the mark of someone like Jack Kirby, nearly twenty years after his passing. His influence permeates comics and transcends them. That’s awe-inspiring.

You can find out more about Dr Smith and his students on their Facebook and the website.

Years ago, in university, the last thing I ever thought I’d see as a course is one on pop culture, and I’m amazed at how much as changed, or on the way to changing in this regard. Do you feel the same? I seem to have a chip on my shoulder about the perception of sci-fi and fantasy, comics and the like — I’ve spent years having to explain to people just why I enjoyed this genre so much, and just found it easier not to say anything… and now, it’s a university course. Well, it’s about time people caught up!



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