Pushing academia’s limits, profs delve into comic books

Forget Batman and Robin, the Williams College campus has its own Dynamic Duo of graphic storytelling: Peter Murphy, professor of English and department chair, and Christopher Bolton, associate professor of comparative and Japanese literature. Both professors have brought graphic storytelling, a genre that ranges from comic strips to anime, into academic life at the College. According to Murphy and Bolton, there is a lot more to comics than putting on a mask and wearing one’s underwear on the outside.

When the word “comics” is thrown into day-to-day conversation, Lord Byron is hardly the first name that comes to mind. Perhaps someone should have told this to David Morris ’96, who is now an assistant professor of theater at the College. Not too long ago, Morris was a student in a romantic literature class taught by Murphy. Morris turned in an essay that would impact Murphy significantly: He argued that Morpheus, the hero of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series Sandman, was a Byronic hero. His intriguing argument led Murphy to ask himself the essential question: “Why can’t I think of comic strips as important?”

Murphy describes his interest in comics as an extension of his interest in storytelling, which he calls a “human compulsion.” In his extensive meandering through different comics and graphic novels that catch his fancy, he keeps in mind the opposing yet complementary nature of words and images. “A great way to see the texture of storytelling in words is to look at storytelling in pictures – graphic storytelling as not only a medium in its own right but also as a way to further analyze written texts,” Murphy said.

In Murphy’s “Graphic Storytelling” class, offered for the first time this year, his students help him explore the wide genre of picture storytelling that academia has thus far left quite unexplored. To talk about comics and graphic novels, for example, one must invent an entire critical terminology. “[I hope my students] come to understand the interest of critical tools rather than absorbing them … as rubrics for uncovering and encountering the culture that you are working on,” Murphy said. For example, he replaced the term “pop culture,” which he deems insufficient for what comics encompass, with “daily culture,” implying the appropriate amount of importance.

Murphy hopes that his students will invest not only their critical minds into examining comics, but also their own modern perspectives and personal experiences. “The great thing about comics’ relationship to daily culture is that almost anybody I talk to has something that I can learn something from them,” Murphy said.

This potential for learning extends beyond students to other professors. “Because it is such a widespread medium and such a various medium, almost everyone I talk to has something that they want to talk to me about with respect to comics and comic strips,” Murphy said. Go ahead and ask around – you’ll probably discover that your roommate or math professor is an expert in, say, Flash Gordon comics from the 1930s. Associate Professor of English Theo Davis, for one, is fascinated by old comics of every sort. Provost Bill Lenhart is full of knowledge about the Fantastic Four.

As with Murphy, Bolton’s interest in manga and anime (Japanese comics and Japanese animated film, respectively), springs from a broader interest – in this case, Bolton’s research in modern Japanese culture. His area of study focuses mainly on the interaction between technology and literature: how authors write about science, but also how technological advances can inform perceptions of literature. In a lecture that he gave in February titled “Vampire Samurai Schoolgirls and Other Demons,” for example, Bolton cited the different animation styles used in the movie Blood as a way to convey illusion.

With these advances in visual technology, Bolton seeks to answer the question: How can we use it in the classroom to make us rethink what it means to experience a text, identify with a character? His comparative literature class, “The Masks of Japanese Literature,” is a perfect place to explore this question. “Prose challenges the way we read poetry, then film challenges the way we read poetry and prose, and then anime challenges everything else,” Bolton said.

Just as American comic books are read left-to-right and Japanese manga are read right-to-left, these professors approach their mediums from different directions. Murphy has structured the syllabus of his class around a progression through history, whereas Bolton glides across the cutting edge of visual technology and looks back at the retroactive effect that comics and animation have had on literature’s interpretation. However, they both land directly in the present, agreeing that the world of superheroes, wacky science and pictures present productive approach to literature.