(Last Updated 9/6/11, added comments from Stewart Hosie MP) Scottish Labour MP Tom Harris has condemned news of Dundee University‘s new ‘Comics Studies Degree‘ announced earlier this week – despite the city’s long history as a comics publisher.
Dundee University announced its new MLitt in Comic Studies this week, playing up the city’s “strong local traditions and expertise to launch the UK’s first degree programme in Comic Studies.
“Dundee can lay claim to being the spiritual home of the British comics industry as the output of Dundee-based publishers DC Thomson & Co Ltd includes iconic titles such as the Beano, Dandy, Commando, Starblazer and Bunty. This means legendary characters such as Dennis the Menace, Desperate Dan, the Bash Street Kids, Oor Wullie, and The Broons were born in the city.
“As such, the English department at Dundee is perfectly placed to offer the new postgraduate Masters in Comic Studies degree, which is being led by Dr Chris Murray, one of the UK’s foremost authorities on the subject. He has researched comics and graphic novels extensively, and is editor of the journal Studies in Comics.”
But MP Tom Harris rounded on the idea on Twitter, arguing the new course “plays right into the Tories’ hands.
“Dundee University is launching a degree in comic books,” he noted. “That’ll show those who say degrees are being dumbed down!”
Challenged on his view, the MP, who did not at this stage seem to have read the full details of the course but was perhaps responding to initial press reports which gave the impression studying the Beano and The Dandy was part of it, declared: “Wait for the cries of outrage when people realise that a MA in the Dandy is considered less valuable than PPE from Oxford” and, apparently noting Dundee’s comics history, added he was “looking forward to Sheffield University doing a degree in forks.”
Respondents to his criticisms – including comic creators such as Simon Coleby, Vicky Stonebridge and Dundee MP Stewart Hosie – have praised the idea, although political commentator Conor Pope agreed the announcement was “poor timing”, but felt “a select few” graphic novels should be included in Literature courses.
Although a comic fan himself, Mr Harris views expose the continued snobbery of much of the chattering classes when it comes to comics, despite the quality of many publications and the success of DC Thomson, Titan Magazines, Egmont and other publishers whose comics have contributed much to the nation’s economic (eco-comic?) health of the nation.
Commenting on comics contribution to the local Dundee economy down the years as the home of DC Thomson, publishers of The Beano, Commando and many other comics, Mr Harris told downthetubes “Investment and encouragement are great – but I question the value of an academic qualification in the Beano.
When it was explained to him that the course was not just about studying comics, but also creating them he retorted: “Did writers of the past need a degree in comics to produce them?” Which could, perhaps, be interpreted to suggest that any arts degree is pretty pointless, but Mr Harris is clear that this is not a view to which he espouses. “On the contrary, academic subjects are always worth pursuing as a degree.”
Responding to Mr Harris, Dr Murray told downthetubes: “Worldwide, comics and graphic novels have never been so popular, and are widely read by both children and adults. Far from being the preserve of children, comics represent a multi-million pound, global industry and it is our intention that our graduates are at the forefront of this.
“Whilst we are proud of Dundee’s contribution to the comics industry, the much-loved publications Mr Harris so derisively refers to will not actually feature on the course. We will be examining critically acclaimed comics such as Maus, which deals with Holocaust, and works by Glasgow’s Grant Morrison, one of the most celebrated graphic novel writers in the world. These texts easily stand alongside any work of contemporary art or literature.
“Comics and graphic novels are increasingly sophisticated, and are studied both for their artistic merit and their literary value,” he continued. “They are an increasingly important medium in terms of popular culture, as shown by the number of comics and graphic novels adapted into hugely popular films, TV shows and computer games in recent years.
“Comics scholarship is an expanding field, reflecting the status of comics as an important part of contemporary art, literature and popular culture. Students will be required to think critically about complex ideas, examine comics from around the world and develop an understanding of them in the context of theory, politics and history, as they would in any other field of literary study.”
After being challenged and corrected on the course content on Twitter by Dr Murray, Joe Gordon at Forbidden Planet International and others, Mr Harris appeared to apologise for his original remark and expressed surprize that the comics industry had no apprentice scheme that could assist in training. He continued to argue, however, that academic degrees are not always the most appropriate way of improving employment chances.
“As an employer, I would look more favourably on a candidate with history degree than a comics one,” he said.
He might be surprized, then, to learn that courses in gaming at Dundee’s other university, Abertay, had helped many people get jobs in that industry; educational provision which has not gone unnoticed by Dundee’s Scottish Nationalist MP Stewart Hosie.
“Tom Harris is entitled to his opinion but I believe that he is talking down Dundee University and this excellent and timely new post-graduate course,” he says. “He also appears to have basic facts wrong – this is a postgraduate course for people who already have a degree. It is not offering ‘an MA in The Beano‘.
“We live in a fast-moving world where cultural influences extend into major industries. And in Dundee, we know all about the jobs value of comic books as the city is home to DC Thomson & Co, one of the most successful companies in the field.
“Comics tie-in with films and TV, with the computer gaming industry, with art and design, music and popular culture on many levels. This is an enormous global industry employing hundreds of thousands of people and with an estimate value of more than £5bn.
“The success of Mark Millar from Glasgow who is now one of the most-celebrated comics writers in the world, and whose work inspired hit movies Wanted and Kick-Ass, as well as the purchase of Marvel Comics by Disney for $4bn in 2009 show the global economic value of the industry.
“Dundee is already heavily-involved in the computer games industry which employs nearly 3,000 here and anything which can help to develop that into new areas of employment is very much to be welcomed.”
Dundee University is clearly proud of its new course and Mr Harris’ views have stirred up a hornets’ nest on Twitter and other social media. “Far from being the preserve of children, comics and graphic novels are increasingly sophisticated texts which comment on culture, politics and values, and cross over into areas such as television, film, computer games and the internet,” the University argues in their announcement for the course.
The MLitt in Comic Studies programme, delivered on a one-year full time or two-year part time basis, is expected to appeal to local, national and international graduates with an interest in pursuing academic careers, or working in the media, the creative industries or publishing.
From September, graduates will have the opportunity to gain an understanding of the comics medium and the comics industry, and their relation to different genres, cultures, and media.
Dr Murray said students will be required to think critically about these ideas, and develop an understanding of comics in the context of theory, politics and history.
“This is a very exciting time for comics scholarship, and I am delighted to be able to offer this postgraduate course on comics,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity to give this important medium the attention it deserves, and to allow those with an interest in comics to study it in detail.
“I hope that this course will help forge the next generation of comics scholars, and may even help some students with creative ambitions to find their way into the highly competitive comics industry.”
One of the modules on offer will look at autobiographical comics, one of the fastest growing and critically acclaimed fields of comics production in the last 20 years, whilst another will look at the relationship between various international comics cultures, from Scottish publications, and the wider British context, to French, Russian, American, Japanese and Chinese comics.
An undergraduate module focusing on contemporary British comic writers and graphic novelists is already taught at Dundee, and the Masters programme will allow graduates with an interest in the comics to pursue this at postgraduate level. Those who want to progress further may even study for a PhD in comics once the MLItt is completed.
Those with an interest in the creative side of comics, either as a writer, artist, or both, will find the course very useful in terms of expanding their knowledge of the history of comics, and the artistic and literary potential of the medium. There will also be the opportunity to enhance practical skills related to the creation of comics.
The creative elements of the course will be delivered by Phillip Vaughan, a lecturer in Graphic Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, part of the University. Mr Vaughan has a great deal of experience in animation, computer game design and comic art.
“As well as studying different genres, styles and uses of comics, there will be a focus on writing for comics,” said Dr. Murray, “with classes and workshops on scriptwriting skills as well as on artwork and the creative process.”
“A range of activities of interest to students, such as conferences, talks and workshops featuring some of the most influential figures from the comics industry, and worldwide experts on comics and graphic novels will support the academic work. These will be of great interest to students and will allow them to make contact with influential figures from within the industry.”
Dr. Murray also outlined how the degree could help anyone taking it up in terms of future employment.
“Employability is an important consideration for any postgraduate programme, and it lies at the heart of what we aim to do with this course,” he saud. “There will be practical advice on publishing and developing a career as a comics scholar, writer or artist, and we hope to arrange work placements for students.
“Comics and graphic novels are becoming an increasingly important form of literature, art and field of study, and it is our intention that our graduates are at the forefront either as researchers, writers, artists or filling other roles within the industry.”
Dr Murray also organises an annual comics conference in Dundee. The Dundee Comics Day has featured such celebrated figures as Warren Ellis, Alan Davis, Pat Mills, Rian Hughes, Hunt Emerson, Dez Skinn, and manga artists Ilya, Emma Vieceli and Nana Li in the past.
The 2011 Comics Day, part of the Dundee Literary Festival, will be held on 30th October, and features a stellar line up of writers and artists, including Frank Quitely, John Wagner, Cam Kennedy, and Colin McNeil.
• More information about the MLitt programme is available by visiting the Comics studies webpage or emailing Dr Chris Murray on c.murrayATdundee.ac.uk