Professor Jeremy Larance writes;
Yes, you can now major in comic literature.
As an English professor at a relatively small public university in West Virginia, West Liberty University, I often try to find ways to sneak comics and graphic novels into my courses. For several years now, for example, I’ve used V for Vendetta as the culminating text in my British Literature course, because—let’s be honest—there just isn’t a better example of a modern-day Byronic Hero than Alan Moore’s V. Some scoffed, but my decision was ultimately validated by the fact that The Longman Anthology of British Literature now includes an excerpt from that graphic novel in its section of contemporary British fiction, just a few hundred pages after James Joyce’s Ulysses. I also recently taught a course titled “Tales of the Supermen,” where my students spent the first half of the semester studying classical representations of the superhero archetype in works such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Odyssey, and Frankenstein. Then, in the second half the semester, students took what they (hopefully) learned and applied that knowledge to twentieth-century superheroes in comics and graphic novels, the idea being that cultures have always looked to heroes with superhuman abilities for inspiration, enlightenment, and, yes, entertainment.
And I am not alone. As luck would have it, or perhaps due simply to good taste, several other members of the English faculty at West Liberty University, all with different specialties, have been using comics and graphic novels to varying degrees in their own courses. Dr. Dominique Hoche, our resident Medievalist, uses contemporary comic theory to teach her students how to read medieval illustrations and art, and Dr. Waller Hastings (our Chair) specializes in children’s literature, an area of study that frequently lends itself to several forms of “picture books,” including comics. Overall, the response from our students was so overwhelmingly positive that the administration soon took notice and asked the English department to look into the feasibility of actually offering our students a major devoted to the study of comics as literature.
To that end, starting in the fall of 2013, the English program at West Liberty University will begin offering its students the first literature major in Graphic Narrative, a unique four-year degree for students interested in the study and analysis of comics as literature. Many art programs already offer comic-related degrees for students interested in the creation of comic art, but—up until now—only a few options existed for students interested more in the literary analysis of comics as opposed to the production of the art itself. English MA and PhD students at the University of Florida, for example, have the option of choosing a track of study referred to as “Comics and Visual Rhetoric.” And, just last fall, the English Department at the University of Oregon began offering a minor in what they call “Comics and Cartoon Studies,” an interdisciplinary program with course options in areas such as Art, Cinema, and Literature.
Obviously, there is no single, correct way to study “comics”; indeed, most academic programs cannot even seem to agree on what to call the medium in the first place. At WLU, the major will be in “Graphic Narrative,” an interdisciplinary approach to the study of comics that is, at its core, a degree in literature. Students will still be required to take the same core classes as other English majors (American literature, British literature, Shakespeare, etc.), as well as a selection of introductory courses in the visual arts in order to provide students with a grounded understanding of the significance of illustration and design. But the focus of the Graphic Narrative major will be “the study and creation of graphic novels and comics” through courses such as “Principles of Graphic Narrative” (comic theory), “The History of Sequential Art,” and “Writing for Comics,” as well as a variety of alternating special topics courses on subjects like “The Superhero,” “Graphic Non-Fiction,” “Underground Comix,” and “Manga.”
West Liberty University’s literature degree in Graphic Narrative is the first of its kind anywhere, and, trust me, we were just as surprised as anyone to discover that fact once we started looking around for models for our new program. However, although we are the first, we certainly do not believe that we will be the only comic-lit degree for long. If anything, as our department chair Dr. Hastings has pointed out, our Graphic Narrative major simply “reflects a growing interest nationally in this form of literature, both as a subject of academic study and as a field of creative endeavor. This major will prepare students for graduate work or employment as writers, editors, critics or other roles in the general publishing and comic book industry.” So now you have a little something extra to say the next time someone asks you what you can do with a degree in English.