Christopher Pizzino is an assistant professor of contemporary US literature at the University of Georgia. We asked him to reflect on why he wrote his book.
Reading Comics Like a Grownup
By Christopher Pizzino
Some years ago, I had the interesting experience of seeing my name on a list entitled “One Hundred Arguments Against Tenure,” featured on an academic watchdog site. The reason for my inclusion on the list: I study and teach comics. The website didn’t mention which comics I studied, or the way I taught them. Apparently, teaching or studying any comics, for any reason, was out of bounds.
I wasn’t surprised or anxious to learn that someone was arguing for my intellectual worthlessness on that basis. The idea that comics don’t merit academic study is scarcely new. But over time, such experiences have made me ever more curious. Exactly how—and why—do some people continue to believe that taking comics seriously is absurd (and for the academic, something that ought to get one fired)?
The how is sometimes easy to see, and the more I’ve paid attention to it, the more stories I have to tell. A student in one of my American literature courses once stopped by my office to submit an essay. As she turned to leave, she paused in the doorway, glanced back with a strange look on her face, and blurted, “Is that a comic book?” I was, in fact, reading a volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s science fiction series Y: The Last Man. Flipping through its pages and quickly handing it back as if it might somehow be contaminated, the student gave me the distinct impression that she had no faith in my ability to grade her essay on Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.
This was before I became known for teaching courses on comics in my department. Many college students absorb some cultural prejudices from their parents and teachers; they assume that comics reading is something only kids do, and that to be a grownup student of literature is to leave the funnies behind. Thus, some students initially had difficulty understanding that the same professor who taught Cervantes, Austen, Woolf and Achebe in History and Theory of the Novel might, in other courses, assign books with pictures as well as words. That notion has had some time to sink in. Nowadays, for every student who seems to believe that the phrase “comics studies” is a contradiction in terms, several others are eager to study the medium, and to find out what words and pictures can do in the hands of great creators with important things to say and show.
This leads us to part of the why: often there is simply a lack of opportunity to find out that comics are not, in fact, the enemy of culture. Few adults in the US read comics—even fewer than the number who read books at all—and there aren’t many ways they can influence larger public perception of what it means for a grownup to read a comic book. This helps to explain why most adults who do read comics have stories like mine, tales of a moment when someone—a friend, teacher, fellow student, or stranger on the street—would let them know that studying comics, or just reading them in public, can be like having the word ILLITERATE tattooed on one’s forehead.