MSU: A Leader in Comics and Pop Culture Scholarship, Now Host to Comics Studies Society

This week, Michigan State University will host the fifth annual conference for the Comic Studies Society, one of the premier academic communities dedicated to comic studies. What makes MSU the perfect place for this conference, besides the fact that it is home to the largest publicly accessible comic book collection in the world, is the research being done here that focuses on comics and popular culture.

Julian Chambliss, Professor of English at Michigan State University, who helped bring the Comic Studies Society Conference to campus, is one MSU faculty member whose research centers on comics and popular culture. His research also offers an interesting example of the type of work being done with MSU’s Comic Art Collection, which contains more than 350,000 items that are housed in the MSU Libraries’ Special Collections.

Comic Studies Society Fifth Annual Conference advertisement

Chambliss’ most recent project, Comics as Data North America, is an ongoing collaborative project with faculty, librarians, and digital humanists that utilizes MSU Libraries’ catalog data drawn from the Comic Art Collection to explore geographies of publishing and library collecting policies in North American comics, from the mid-19th century to 2018, to compile and analyze comic book data. The project was part of the Department of English Graphic Possibilities Research Workshop led by Chambliss as faculty lead and graduate student co-leads Dr. Justin Wigard, who recently graduated, and Nicole Huff.

“We’re looking for patterns of production, thinking about the ways that comics are produced and circulating the ideas of communities of practice that might emerge from thinking about the sort of metadata,” Chambliss said. “Things like who’s the publisher? Who’s the writer? Where was it published? How many publishers are involved? What themes are in the publication? How those things come together to create a kind of different, more nuanced picture of comics culture in the United States.”

The goal is to use the data to visualize patterns in comic culture that may not be immediately considered to provide students, teachers, and scholars a greater opportunity to collaboratively engage with emerging narratives in Comics and Popular Culture Studies.

Julian Chambliss, Professor of English, during a visit to the MSU Libraries Comic Art Collection.

“It allows you to ask different questions. It allows you to think about ‘Why are there so many comics in Ohio about x?’ Or, ‘I didn’t know they made comics in Ohio? What kind of comics?’ Every one of those questions, when people started to ask them, were questions they did not have in their mind,” Chambliss said. “Immediately, you open yourself up to a really complex set of conversations about what are the potentialities represented by comic production in North America.”

Working with the data raises myriad questions about American culture and comics that can be investigated. Recently, the Graphic Possibilities Research Workshop hosted a series of Wikidata edit-a-thons to add information to Wikidata, the structured data repository for Wikipedia. Adding information to Wikidata allows the research team to support popular culture research using data and provides opportunity to generate visualization using Wikidata visualization tools.

Pop Culture, Comic Art, and Graphic Novels Studies at MSU

Michigan State University has long been at the forefront of Popular Culture Studies and has always taken this relatively new field seriously.

MSU offers a bachelor’s degree in English with a Popular Culture concentration, which explores the deeper meaning of pop culture and how it influences our current and future lives. The university also supports its faculty in their exploration of niche interests across the spectrum of popular culture including contemporary comics, music, movies, books, and more.

“Michigan State allows folks to grow and gives them the opportunity to really investigate pop culture in ways that other places do not.”

Kinitra Brooks, Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies

“Michigan State allows folks to grow and gives them the opportunity to really investigate pop culture in ways that other places do not,” said Kinitra Brooks, Associate Professor in MSU’s Department of English and the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies, who specializes in the study of popular culture. “So many places require you to only teach what we call high culture. But Michigan State allows us to have freedom and has a history of appreciating and analyzing pop culture and working with pop culture.”

Michigan State University also offers a minor in Comic Art and Graphic Novels that introduces students to the concepts, vocabulary, and methods of sequential art and a minor in Popular Culture Studies in which students study popular culture texts, trends, and topics across a range of media.

“There aren’t that many places in the United States where you can study comics as an academic field,” Chambliss said.

Comic Studies Society 2022 Conference poster

By giving its faculty and students leeway to freely explore new fields and subjects, MSU creates a culture that encourages new voices in academia. People realize their opinions and voices have value and MSU creates a space for inclusive conversations where they can be shared.

“I think academia opening itself up, or more like being forced open, has really allowed a lot more people to participate and to see themselves in these ways,” Brooks said. “This also has created more creators, so now we have even more interesting material to analyze, to appreciate, to teach.”

The freedom to investigate and teach popular culture topics has set an example that many other universities across the country have begun to follow. This culture and the Comic Art Collection cement MSU as an institution on the cutting-edge of pop culture and comics scholarship.

The Comic Studies Society Conference, supported by MSU’s Department of English, the MSU College of Arts & Letters Office of the Dean, and MSU Libraries, is part of a multi-year agreement that will bring the Comic Studies Society to MSU on a triannual basis. This year’s conference is scheduled for July 28-30. For more information, see the conference program.