Associate Professor of English at Howard University, Marc Singer has blazed new paths in comics studies with his many articles, books, and editorships. With a nascent scholarly interest in comics growing already as a teen with Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and after pursuing a PhD in literary studies at the University of Maryland, Singer decided to set his sights on publishing scholarship on comics.
Singer’s seminal work on super-heroes and identity opened many doors for future generations of scholars working on race and comics. His publication in 2012 of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics provided the first book-length scholarly study of the evolution of Morrison’s aesthetics within and across his mainstream and independent creations. He served as the chair of the International Comic Arts Forum. His comics scholarship has won several awards, including the M. Thomas Inge Award and recently a 2019 Eisner Award nomination for Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies (Texas UP, 2018).
With the news of this Eisner nomination, I was able to catch up with Marc.
Frederick Luis Aldama: How might you see you and the totality of your scholarship intervening intellectually, creatively, politically in the academy—in the world?
Marc Singer: At the moment I’m most interested in advocating for a renewed sense of empirical rigor in humanities scholarship — by which I do not mean we should all be turning to computational analysis or quantifiable testing, just that we need to rediscover the importance of referentiality, verification, and facts in our own work. I may have chosen the arcane little corner of comics studies to stage this particular intervention, but I think you can see how these questions of determining truth and challenging falsehoods animate everything from our debates over public history to our ongoing failure to address climate change. This is one of the bedrock responsibilities of our scholarly profession and we need to rededicate ourselves to it.
FLA: You mention in another interview moving away from serialized comics and mostly reading more graphic novels and collected editions. Where is the real WOW happening in comics today?
MS: I’m currently enjoying artists who don’t stay inside the lines when it comes to genre—like the way Michel Fiffe combines classic superhero plotting with some of the most adventurous drawing in comics, or the way Eleanor Davis moves between surreal allegories and bracingly honest travel writing.
FLA: In the early 90s, as an undergrad at the University of Maryland you discovered a very small collection of comics scholarship. This along with your earlier interest in Watchmen and DKR planted the idea that you could write about comics in an academic setting.
Yet, still today it seems that comics scholarship is at the margins of the academy — certainly in English departments. When I advise my PhDs, for instance, I insist that they have at least a chapter on alphabetic narratives …
MS: Yes, the reality of the job market is that very few of us will be hired solely to teach comics; although some experience with comics has become an asset in a way I never could have imagined when I started grad school. We all need to be able to cover the courses that will make up most of our teaching load, and that means demonstrating some familiarity with more traditional disciplinary subjects. My dissertation was focused on prose fiction (with one film chapter) in a way that seems to bear very little relation to most of my research today, but it’s been a constant part of my teaching and advising. Graduate students who want to work with comics should think very carefully about how they will fit their project within the demands of their discipline and their profession.
FLA: The International Journal of Comic Art debuted when you were a graduate student. Today, there seem to be a proliferation of scholarly book series and journals dedicated to growing a comics studies field. Have we arrived?
MS: It certainly feels like it to me! We don’t yet have the kind of institutional support that other fields such as film studies have made for themselves, but we seem to be farther along that process than ever before. The comparison to even a decade ago is striking: new journals, new conferences, a Comics Studies Society, even a couple more degree programs. The field has made tremendous strides.
FLA: You mention tremendous strides. I wonder if indeed comics studies has arrived as a discipline. I wonder, too, if something been lost in this arriving—this move from margins to centers. Is this analogy even useful?
MS: I’m not so sure (about the loss, not the analogy). I know some comics fans and scholars like to offer a similar narrative about the comics themselves, idealizing what they see as the transgressive energy of the comics before they became graphic novels and classroom staples. I don’t really buy it there — for one thing, that can be a patronizing, nostalgic, or even reactionary narrative — and I certainly don’t believe it with respect to comics studies.
What did we have before that we’ve lost in the move to disciplinarity? A certain freedom from oversight, I guess, but that was also a freedom from accountability that incentivized some terrible scholarship. And still does, frankly.
FLA: Perhaps that a book like Breaking the Frames can be written as a polemic is an indication that we have arrived as a field. That is, we are robust enough not to pat each other on the back.
MS: That was my assumption when I started writing the book. As a colleague once pointed out to me, the arrival of a new book of literary or film scholarship that offers critical readings of canonical authors or filmmakers — or even fellow scholars — isn’t read as an attack on the entire field of literary or film studies, because those fields are robust enough to handle criticism. Critical and oppositional readings are an important and expected part of their role in the academy and in society more broadly. I’m confident that comics studies has reached the same point.
FLA: Can you describe how you teach comics?
MS: It’s changed over the years. When I started out, I was sneaking comics onto the syllabus in my lit classes, never more than one at a time. I basically taught them as literature, looking at various narrative themes and genre conventions, usually with a quick Scott McCloud crash course in comics formalism to help the students read and discuss them.
I’ve been teaching classes focused solely on comics for the past decade, and now I’m much more interested in getting students to recognize the creative labor that goes into making comics. I want my students to pay attention not just to the writing and the art but to the inking, the lettering, the coloring, and I want them to think about the issues of ownership and intellectual property that have kept many of those creators from seeing just compensation for their work.
Lately, I’ve also become interested in getting students to look at the paratexts of the comics we read — the editorial statements, text pieces, letter columns, advertisements, and so on — to see what they reveal about the audiences and the publishers. I’d like my classes to see these comics in their production contexts, as works produced by specific creators for specific audiences.
FLA: What makes a comic worthy of teaching and studying?
MS: I think that depends on what the teacher or scholar can get out of it. The first and most important requirement is that the comic has to justify the time and attention (and student textbook money) given to it by yielding something relevant to the class or the discipline that it’s studied in — or, ideally, something of value to the students who read it and the fellow scholars who read about it.
There are a lot of different ways to find that value, especially in the classroom. I like teaching some comics because they help unpack the creative labor behind comics (for example, comparing the procession of inkers in Don McGregor and Billy Graham’s “Panther’s Rage” to see what different inking styles bring to the line art), others because they let us talk about a particular genre or historical period, still others because they present a rich thematic complexity or a distinctive point of view that never fails to generate class discussion. If you find a text that does all of these at once, hold onto it.
FLA: You mention in another interview “feeling very downcast about the state of comics scholarship as it existed at the time” before writing Breaking the Frames. And, at the end of Breaking the Frames you gesture toward a “surface” approach to comics. Where are the most innovative and joyful scholarly spaces happening in the study of comics today?
MS: I don’t know if I’m going to be the best guide to joyful scholarly spaces because they’re all more joyful than I am. But I do see innovative and exuberant scholarship across the field. When I went to the first Comics Studies Society conference last summer, I had this moment of panic that my book, which was still in the final galleys at the time, would be completely irrelevant by the time it came out. It seemed like scholars were already doing the kind of work I hoped to see — breaking out of the narrow canon of the graphic novel, pursuing methodological variety and rigor, and challenging earlier critical narratives. But maybe that just meant the timing was right for the book to find a receptive audience.
FLA: When writing the book, your biggest beef seems to be that scholars and critics (clearly not the ones you just mentioned) either “dabble” (inadequately contextualize within comics traditions and its aesthetic grammar) or slip into an “aspirational” analysis that leads to misreading comics along with their respective worldviews. What would the elevator-pitch version be of bringing a radical correction to this?
MS: Just that we need to put in the work of contextualizing our subjects, interrogating their values (and not just finding our own values reproduced in them), responding to other scholarship in the field, generally maintaining our professional standards and practices. Scholarship has to serve a lot of different purposes beyond the celebratory, and we need to make a collective effort to ensure our field fulfills all of them.
FLA: When I see the books that I publish in my Latinographix trade-press series (fiction and nonfiction comics by Latinx creators) I often feel this to be more important than what I do in my scholarship. Yet, with those flare-ups from toxic places like Comicsgate and where creators like Gabby Rivera received actual death threats for creating her America series, maybe our scholarly voice matters. Does the comics world need us scholars?
MS: As I was working on the book I often pondered why the world needs us scholars, period. This isn’t limited to comics studies! The university in general and the humanities in particular are going through a time of crisis right now as the public and our own administrative-managerial class have lost sight of the value of our work. There are a lot of reasons for that, many of them external to us, but so many academics have themselves disparaged the mission of the humanities that it’s no wonder we’re having a hard time justifying ourselves to the public. So yes, I think the world does need us scholars, but we need to regain a sense of our own scholarly purpose as well.
All of which is to say that “scholarship” is a pretty broad category that includes creative and curatorial work as well as traditional criticism — but whatever our scholarly mission is, we need to own it and embrace it while living up to the highest standards of academic rigor.
FLA: You just got word that Breaking the Frames has been nominated for an Eisner in the category of Best Scholarly Work. And, your other work has been recognized with several M. Thomas Inge Awards. Does institutional recognition matter? If so, why? If not, why?
MS: It absolutely does matter. Being recognized always confers a nice psychic boost and encourages us to do more work, but it also matters in terms of letting scholars outside the discipline know that our work in the discipline matters and has been recognized by our peers. This is important information for job search committees, administrators, tenure committees, and so on, which will rarely have specialists in our field and could use the guidance. Awards are one of the key steps in building scholarly institutions, and I’m glad to see comics studies—and the comics community more broadly—has taken up the challenge.
FLA: What’s changed for you and for comics in terms of race and comics since publishing your groundbreaking “’Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race” in 2002?
MS: Obviously the explosion of diversity within the comics industry, but also within comics scholarship. We have more artists and more scholars from more backgrounds making and writing about comics than ever before, and that’s pushed the field well beyond the kind of basic groundwork I was doing in that article.
FLA: If you were to look back over the totality of your comics scholarship, how would you characterize it?
MS: Oh God. I think in my earlier work I was just trying to figure things out as I went along, but then I still think that about my current work. When I started working with comics I was a lot more interested in trying to figure out how they constructed narratives or signified meaning — part of the formalist bent of comics scholarship at the time, which was trying to build a critical armature we desperately needed. Lately I’ve been more interested in the social and institutional context of comics and of comics scholarship, but I still like to scratch that formalist itch from time to time.
FLA: Can you say a few words about your next project on George Pérez?
MS: I don’t know what kind of project it’s going to be yet — at the moment I’m just writing a conference paper, but I’ll probably turn it into an article at some point. I’m looking at Pérez not only as a popular artist who’s been all but ignored in comics studies, but as a case study for examining the Bronze Age comic art style that he perfected — densely packed with information both visual and textual, formally controlled in a way that is completely placed in service of the narrative, and obsessed with reproducing the ways images get packaged and received in the broadcast media culture of its day.
But honestly, I chose this one because after spending five years wrestling with texts and critics that caused me to question the very purpose of my profession, I just wanted to write about something I enjoy.