My name is Francesca Lyn, and I am a second year doctoral student in the Media, Art, and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University. My research interests center on graphic memoirs written by women. I didn’t come to VCU knowing I wanted to study comics. In fact, my path to studying comics is a rather winding one. This makes my particular situation a little unusual; most people enter doctoral programs with a focused area of study that they want to pursue. I have a Master’s degree in Digital Arts and Sciences from the University of Florida. My thesis was on music mashups and online culture. I had a great thesis advisor, and I learned a lot about what it meant to study the digital humanities. After graduating with my Master’s, I took a year off from school and worked in an office doing public relations. I always planned to return to my studies eventually but wanted to take some time off to really think about my future and research programs of study.
While working at my office job, I decided to take classes at the Sequential Arts Workshop, a comics arts school that was conveniently located two blocks away from my apartment. I have a background in art and I thought doing drawing exercises would help me reconnect with some of my creativity. It was incredibly challenging and an amazing experience. I felt like learning the basic mechanics of comics kept me sane. While I was always a comics reader, taking these classes sparked a deeper interest in comics. I was hooked. Despite this rediscovered passion, I did not give serious thought to studying comics in school. I thought I would continue study within digital humanities at VCU and write critical papers about Twitter. For a while that was true. I enjoyed writing these papers, but I did not feel like it was something I could continue to do over a long period of time. While I was still interested in critical views of social media, I was not interested in having that as my primary area of research.
I found myself returning to comics. I read Fun Home. I wrote reviews for the comic and pop culture news website Comics Bulletin. I read critical theory on comics for fun, and I revisited Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. My collection of comics continued to grow, with friends introducing me to incredible examples of small press works. Comics became more and more important. I realized that there were significant areas of comics research that were relatively unexplored. Unfortunately, much of the study of comics seemed to be a bit of a boys’ club. I did not see a lot written about the creators I found the most fascinating, people like Megan Kelso or Gabrielle Bell. While I did read some feminist readings of comics, these seemed to mostly be concerned with superheroes. I began to think that I could contribute something to the study of comics.
At one meeting with the director of my program, I brought up my interest in studying comics. I was surprised at my own enthusiasm for the subject. It felt great to articulate this interest to another person who immediately understood the potential studying comics began to feel real. I wrote my first paper on representations of fashion in comics and presented it at the University of Florida’s academic comic conference. That conference allowed me to meet many other comics scholars who were all at various points in their academic careers. My personal focus on autobiographical comics stemmed from meeting a lot of comics artists who choose to create diary comics. A lot of these artists happened to be women so I thought that this was an interesting facet to investigate.
I am incredibly lucky. VCU is an excellent place to study comics; our library houses a large comics art collection, and the librarians are all incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Access is an incredibly important aspect of studying comics. Make friends with your librarians! I have found that cartoonists are usually very kind and will generally respond to most questions related to their work. Most importantly, find other like-minded scholars. This semester I am beginning to write my research prospectus for my dissertation. It has become super important to have other people I can talk through my ideas with. It has also been important to be more than just a scholar: I advocate for comics in academia in every way I can think of. I hope I can help encourage others interested in comics to pursue this interest. It is not easy but it is worth it.