Treating Comics Seriously – Six Questions for Dr Chris Murray

Dr Chris Murray is a lecturer and programme convenor in English for Dundee University’s School of Humanities with research interests in comics, film and popular culture. He has contributed articles to the academic International Journal of Comic Art, Gothic Studies, and several books on comics, and has written a book on comics and propaganda. He is also editor of the peer-reviewed comics journal, Studies in Comics.

Chris organises and runs the Dundee Comics Day event, now part of the Literary Dundee festival, that since 2007 has grown out of a purely academic conference to become a day of talks and presentations from comics professionals plus an associated art exhibition.

Beginning with the 2011/2012 academic year, he will be running the post-graduate Master of Literature (MLitt) in Comics Studies at Dundee that was derided by MP Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South, when it was announced.

Jeremy Briggs talked to Chris about the reaction to the MLitt announcement as well as his plans for this year’s Dundee Comics Day.

downthetubes: Much was said in June about the new MLitt in Comics Studies course at Dundee. Could you tell us what the course is about and the academic requirements needed to take part?

Chris Murray: The course aims to provide a space for the academic appreciation of comics at postgraduate level. I already teach some undergraduate courses on comics, so it seemed time for the next step. There is certainly a gap in the market for this kind of course, and a demand for it. The course, contrary to the views expressed by Tom Harris, has a wide remit, with one module on autobiographical and documentary comics, another comparing various international comics traditions, and a third which is for those with an interest in creating comics. All students also write a dissertation on an aspect of comics history.

The normal entry requirements are the same for any MLitt course in the Humanities (a 2.1 degree), but as it isn’t very likely that anyone will have an undergraduate degree in Comics Studies there has to be some flexibility in terms of the discipline. Some of the students who have been applying have a degree in a Humanities subject, such as English, Film Studies or History, whereas others have Art degrees. One of the applicants who inquired about entry next year has a degree in Astro-Physics but wants to study comics!

The appeal of the course has been quite wide, but the course isn’t just an opportunity to pursue a hobby in a University setting. Many of the students currently on the course want to pursue comics academically, others want to be creators, or work in the creative industries, whereas others are using it as a means of professional development (yes – we have someone who currently works in the comics industry taking the course!).

DTT: MP Tom Harris’ tweets, which rather showed his ignorance about the MLitt, caused a flurry of indignation amongst the British comics community that was picked up on by some of the Scottish press. What was it like to be at the centre of a mini storm?

Chris: I take things like that in my stride these days. I knew there would be some backlash, and there’s been things like that in the media before (Biff! Bam! Crikey! Comics in Universities, eggheads read comics, blah, blah, blah…) but having taught comics and researched comics for several years I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to Tom Harris. I’m part of a growing community of comics scholars, and I can tell you there is some incredible work being done by these highly talented and driven people. Comics Studies is here. We aren’t waiting for the approval for everyone with an opinion and access to a Twitter account.

My abiding memory of that incident was the huge amount of support that came my way, not least from downthetubes, but also from David Lloyd and lots of other people I’d never met who just wrote to me out of the blue to express their support. The University, and Dundee politicians, were also very supportive.

In the end, so much flak was flying in Harris’ direction from so many people that I just stood back and let them set him straight. The most surprising thing was that a politician would believe what was written in a tabloid. Hook, line and sinker. He made his comments based on a tabloid story and didn’t even check his facts. You’d think a politician would be a bit more savvy. Then again, it’s been mentioned to me that certain politicians use Twitter to drop little controversial nuggets out there to generate a bit of hype and to create an image for themselves. Far be it from me to suggest that this was the case here.

DTT: In my review of the 2010 Dundee Comics Day, which included talks from Pat Mills, Alan Davis and Dez Skinn, I described it as “the highlight of my comics year so far”. How do you plan to top last year’s programme?

Chris: Luckily for us the UK is home to an astounding array of comics talent. This year we have John Wagner, Frank Quietly, Cam Kennedy, Robbie Morrison and Colin MacNeil, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a pretty amazing line up.

I’m working with Phil Vaughan this year (he is a lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, where he is delivering some modules on comics). We sat down and came up with our wish list, and they all signed on! Our only concern was what we’d do for 2012. But rest assured, we have something pretty exciting lined up…

DTT: Over the years the exhibitions tying in with the Comics Day and its spin-offs have included original artwork borrowed from the DC Thomson archive, from early pages of the Dandy, Beano and Magic right up to covers and internal artwork from Starblazer on display. Is there an associated exhibition with this year’s Comics Day?

Chris: Yes, we have a display of artwork from Commando, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. The exhibition, curated by Matthew Jarron (Museum Services, University of Dundee), just went up. It looks great. I love the Ian Kennedy stuff in particular. It was a real treat to go to the Commando offices to pick out the artwork for the exhibition and speak to the editor Calum Laird, who provided us with some great material and some cracking anecdotes!.

DTT: Could you tell us a little about the Studies In Comics journal and how it differs from a commercial comics magazine such as Comics Heroes or a comics fanzine like Crikey?

Chris: Studies in Comics, which I co-edit with my partner-in-crime, Dr Julia Round (University of Bournemouth), is a peer-reviewed academic journal. It comes out twice a year from Intellect. The journal exists to provide a forum for academic work on comics, although that can be from any perspective.

The thing that distinguishes an academic journal from a commercial magazine or a fanzine is that academic work is usually designed to address the subject matter from a theoretical position, or to advance a methodology for criticism and analysis.

I enjoy Comics Heroes, and they’ve had some great articles and interview. Likewise, I thought that (the much-missed) Crikey! had some very well-researched articles on comics history. However, they are not intended to work in the same way as an academic journal. They are different tools for different jobs, although I think that the co-existence of commercial magazines, fanzines and academic journals is great and they all enrich one another.

DTT: Your book Champions of the Oppressed: Superhero Comics, Propaganda and Popular Culture in America During World War Two was recently published by Northampton Press in the USA. Can you tell us a little about it and how your interest in the subject began?

Chris: I’ve always been interested in comics. My earliest memories are of looking at comics and being fascinated by them. This never went away, despite the fact that I also became very interested in literature, especially William Blake, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, and so on. I also loved film and art. When I was at University I studied literature (after very nearly going to art college). I always felt that there was an undeniable connection between literature, art, film and comics.

When I came to study literature academically I found that any theory or critical position that could be adopted to study literature could be applied just as readily to comics, and the connections between comics and the other mediums were obvious. What was fascinating though were the differences, what comics could do differently, or better.

When I discovered that I could write my undergraduate dissertation on anything I wanted, as long as I could get a tutor to approve it, I lined up my arguments and knocked on Dr Keith Williams’ door. He worked on modernism, media and science fiction, so I though there was a good chance he’d hear me out.

As things went, he was more than happy to discuss the project, and to supervise it. He later supervised my PhD. I have a lot to thank Keith for. He was always encouraging, yet challenged me always to be rigorous and thorough. Likewise Roger Sabin and Paul Gravett, who’ve always been incredibly supportive.

When you have people you respect standing behind you, and colleagues like Julia Round, Billy Grove, and Phil Vaughan, standing beside you, some ill-informed rants on Twitter don’t really add up to much.

The book grew out of the PhD and allowed me to explore the political messages communicated by comics during the Second World War. I argue that comics were able to go a lot further than many other mediums, notably film, in presenting propaganda messages, as they were less regulated by government. It was a fascinating topic to research and gave me a new insight into the power of the superhero as an icon, and as a metaphor for ideological positions.

My current research is on British comic writers and artists, and I’m very much enjoying working on this. As I said earlier, the UK is home to incredible talent. It makes sense to be researching this in Dundee, one of the great homes of British comics publishing, and to be taking this research into the classroom.

DTT: Chris, thank-you for your time.

The Dundee Comics Day will take place in Dundee University on Sunday 30 October 2011 as part of the Literary Dundee festival. More details are available from the Dundee Comics Day Facebook page and tickets are available in advance from the Literary Dundee website

• There are more details of the MLitt in Comics Studies at the Dundee University website

• There are more details of the Studies In Comics journal at the Intellect Books website including a free PDF download of the first issue.

• There are more details of Champions of the Oppressed on the Hampton Press website and the book is available to buy in hardback or softcover on Amazon.

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