A Tale of Comics Academe in a History Department: An Interview with Professor Julian Chambliss

Julian Chambliss, tedx, Julian Chambliss, tedx, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Gag9ZYxWM4

Professor Julian Chambliss’s true origin remains shrouded in mystery but his LinkedIn page tells us that he has been a professor at Rollins College in Florida since 2003. In an interview by Chris Rawlins, Chambliss recounted his first experience teaching with comic books in 2006. As an editor and contributor for a recent compilation of research on comic books, Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, he is shaping pedagogy in the field of comics academe.

After I repeatedly threatened to interrogate him, Chambliss kindly answered some questions I had about how he came to research and teach comics and where his research and the field are heading.

How did you find your way to lecturing on, teaching about, and researching comics?

I co-developed a course called American Graphic Media: The History of Superhero Comics in the United States as a way to introduce students to major urban history themes. This course highlighted how superhero comic books can be used as artifacts of specific periods in the US experience. As a concept, it was a hard sell to my department, but working with a colleague in the library I was able to get it accepted, first as a freshmen orientation course, and then as a regular history course.

What are the biggest rewards and challenges of being a professor who teaches with and about comics?

The biggest reward is having a start point that most people immediately understand. This creates a tremendous opportunity when teaching in any context.  Most people are forced to create space and time to build a context to make an argument. In many ways, I can start from a point of understanding and then move into making an argument. This is also one of the frustrations. Because everyone “knows” the topic, they want to tell you about it. You can be caught in the audience’s understanding (and passion) for the topic. Moreover, comic scholarship is diverse, so creating unity around interpretations can be difficult.

What are the biggest risks or problems that you have encountered while researching comics? What have been the most gratifying results of your research?

I think the biggest challenge might be conducting research that achieves the historical engagement I think comics are uniquely capable of offering scholars. Comic books are complex cultural artifacts that facilitate analysis of social, political, and economic issues through the content on the page, the production process, and the creative environment. Comic narratives are historically grounded and the people creating them directly and indirectly reflecting the philosophy, views, and mindsets at the time they were created. Finding the narrative that crystalizes the complexity of that story is a great challenge.

As a result, I find an article on comics that captures that complexity can penetrate to a wide audience. I sometimes get notes from students and everyday people saying, “Thank you for writing this essay.”

What comics would you recommend to read or teach with? Also, weren’t you in a comic book?!

I read a lot of comics. 🙂 Moreover, I focus on superhero comics, which makes me a specialist or limited depending how you want to think about it. 🙂

My approach to comics in the classroom has evolved to reflect my philosophy that comics are artifacts of the U.S. experience. As a result, depending on the class, we read specific comics to get a specific idea. I’m teaching a class on the 1890s next fall and for that course we will read Moore and Campbell’s From Hell. I taught a class on the 1970s during the spring semester this year, and we read Maus I. In a course on the United States since 1945, I’ve assigned a graphic novel called 08 about the Presidential campaign in 2008.

If I were to do a general list I would suggest:

1930s-1940s — The Spirit, The Superman Chronicles, Batman Chronicles, All-Negro Comics, Captain America Comics, and selected Atlas titles. These capture the social, political, and economic issues of the era. Special mention to Charlton Comics… I don’t do enough with those titles.

1950s —Tales From the Crypt, Romance Comics, Millie the Nurse, and then post code Batman and Superman and The Flash & Green Lantern Chronicles. These cover the postwar era superhero decline and return

1960s — Marvel Firsts, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, and X-Men. I’m also doing more to try to understand Archie Comics, Gold Key, and Dell Comics.

1970s — Iron Man leaving Vietnam, Green Arrow/ Green Lantern across America, Blaxploitation and the rise of Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the Master of Kung-Fu (special mentions to Misty Knight and Colleen Wing), Revamped Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Underground Comix movement.

I could go on, but my list reflects my focus on the superhero as a window on US culture. I can and do move beyond it, but I think each scholar can craft his or her own approach.

I do have a comic book character named after me. Julian Chambliss appeared in Black Panther: The Man Without Fear in 2011. I know the writer David Liss and we spoke briefly about Black Panther and his connection to wider social issues in the United States as he was doing his research.

What has been your most well received class? Most well received article? How useful have comics been in discussing topics like identity, poverty, and urban issues?

The most well received class has been American Graphic Media: The History of Superhero Comics in the United States. I’m actually developing a new class called “Creating the Comic Book City” for our new general education curriculum at Rollins College. I think it will be popular, but it will also necessitate redesigning American Graphic Media as an upper division research oriented course.

Probably the most well received article in the last couple of years has been “Superhero Comics: Artifacts of the American Experience,” an essay I wrote for a conference on comics and teaching at Juniata College in 2011 that has been download over 100+ times from EBSCO. An article I co-authored with a colleague on the origins of the superhero has been downloaded 5000+ times from our college’s academic repository.

Comics are extremely useful to explore any topic in the U.S. experience. Either superhero comics or not, every aspect of the American experience can be found in graphic narratives. The trick is to use those narratives in a way that is effective. I think comics are excellent ways to explore urban development and community issues. You can easily use them to explore cultural values, gender, diversity questions, and environmental concerns.

You teach U.S. race and ethnicity history, explore the African Diaspora through digital humanities projects such as Project Mosaic: Zora Neale Hurstonedited a book about comics research, maintain an active social media presence, publish, teach, and win research grants (among other things)! What is your favorite part of your career? How do you balance all of this work?!

You know, I don’t think of it that way… that is a lot. The truth is I only do one thing, and I pursue it through differing points of entry. My concern is the city. My work explores perceptions of the urban experience and how those views shape practice. To me, superhero comic books are an urban topic. Superheroes are a reaction and reflection of urban fears and desires.  The characters, stories, and setting are merely heightened examples of urban realities. What do we fear in the city? We fear the person unhinged by the pressures of urban life (Joker). What do we desire of the city? We hope that our neighbors can be counted on to help us and protect us (Spider-Man). What do we want from urban life? When it works well, we want it to be the “City of Tomorrow” full of new opportunities and innovations (Metropolis). What do we fear from a failed city? We fear that inequality and lack of opportunity will lead to conflict and chaos (Gotham).

The favorite part of my job is my job. I do things I enjoy, when it feels like work… I’m off track.

Do you have any suggestions for researchers just getting started in the field of comics studies, perhaps through considering graduate school in history, graduating from a doctoral program that emphasizes visual studies, finishing up a post-doc, or refocusing their academic research?

I think you should consider how you want to approach comics. I think the modern academic must be willing and able to work in multiple modes. If you are going into History look at the graduate programs and seeing how the scholars in those programs approach comics.

At some level, I think Media Studies and Cultural Studies are exciting areas to talk about comics because these programs emphasize understanding media across platforms. Despite this, I would still say History is a great choice. History has a tradition of embracing new ideas and tools. It is a field where the past and the future are in conversation. Today, I think historians are powerful voices concerned with recording, documenting and preserving societal experience through digital projects. These efforts place historians in a position to understand process in contexts both local and transnational. I think comics are a natural part of that conversation and understanding how the comics bridge societal spaces is important.

For anyone thinking about academic study, I suggest you look at the scholarship that interests you. After that, see what disciplines and programs those people are housed. If you can, get in touch with them and asked about their program.

I recall filling out a Dr. Who fan questionnaire for your research sometime ago. Is that work still percolating, or have you moved on to other projects?

The First Question (TFQ) is a research project that grew out my work on Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men. While I was working on that, I had some really interesting conversations with Dr. Claire Jenkins about British popular culture and I pointed out Doctor Who was an “organic” British superhero. TFQ gives me the chance to look at how people describe and understand Doctor Who. We (Dr. Claire Jenkins is working with me) have collected 600+ response from around the world. Right now, we are looking at the data independently. I’m learning about data analysis and exploring digital tools for visualization.

What’s next for you? I read that you had a Florida Humanities Council grant for a project called “Placing Memory, Exploring Context: Winter Park’s Colony Theatre.” Does this type of project overlap with your comics work, or is this more focused on urban development in other contexts?

“Placing Memory, Exploring Context” was a museum exhibition I co-designed and curated with Dr. Denise K. Cummings back in 2007. Actually, we recently returned to that research, which examined Florida as a mediated space in 2012. Our special issue of the Florida Historical Quarterly, “Florida: The Mediated State” brought a group of interdisciplinary scholars together to explore the state of Florida’s real and imagined history.

My work is always looking at perceptions of the urban experience. When I’m working on Future Bear, the comic book project I’m doing with Professor of Art Rachel Simmons, or looking at Doctor Who, I’m considering these things as outgrowth of a changing urban pop culture landscape. My next project is an essay on War Machine for a book on Iron Man.

A bit of crystal-ball-gazing here: Where do you see the field of comics research heading in the next few years? Is there any up and coming scholarship that you are particularly excited about or interested in following as it unfolds?

I think there will be a great deal of scholarship exploring the cinematic superhero experience. I think we will also see more work that looks at comics through a transnational lens and asks about the global comic culture and its implication. There will be tremendous work on gender and comics. I expect we will see historical work that focuses on forgotten female contribution to the Golden Age, questions about gender in contemporary superhero comics, and questions about diversity.

There is so much creativity around Kickstarter and Indiegogo and other crowdfunding sites I can’t keep up. I do think the rise of the independent will continue, and this will change the US comic landscape as genres other than superheroes take up more and more print publication spotlight. I would like to see more digital project focus on comics… I am thinking about that myself.

Do you have a favorite superhero / comics character or movie? Can you offer academic / historical justification for your choice?

My favorite character has always been Iron Man. There isn’t a historical reason; I have just always liked Iron Man. If I was going to use history to pick… Iron Man might still win, but I think Spider-Man or Black Panther represent significant firsts.

I can’t help but notice that you don’t have a Wikipedia page. If you did, what are three things you’d want included?

Wow. I don’t know. I would say 1) Fascinated by urban experience 2) Committed to engaging people around ideas that matter. 3) Funny… and available. 🙂

Further information and links:

You can hear more from Professor Chambliss on the topics of American values, Seinfeld, social biases, welfare, popular television in the Black community, subprime mortgages, and more in his San Jose Real interview. He spoke about Iron Man in another interview.

Chambliss has also been interviewed about the Ages of Heroes anthology. Read more about Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes in the American Experience on the blog.

You can follow him on Twitter, check out his faculty page, or watch his TedX talk about Superheroes and the U.S. Experience 

Full disclosure: I met Professor Julian Chambliss on a boat at the Florida Conference for Historians in 2010. After I presented a paper about Wonder Woman and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, he invited me to revise and submit the paper as a chapter to Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men. He interviewed me for the Ages of Heroes blog that he developed to accompany the publication. I chose to interview him for WWAC because he researches and teaches about comics, which could provide inspiration for those interested in comics academe. His work on comics as a historian offers fascinating insight into American culture through. Furthermore, as this disclosure may indicate, comics academe is a collaborative and friendly field. If you are interested in studying comics, know that you can meet fellow scholars at fan conventions, academic conferences, or even on a swamp tour during a conference break!

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Amanda Murphyao

Amanda Murphyao

Amanda Murphyao is full-time human, with much of that time devoted to researching, studying, and writing about comic books, political cartoons, and visual culture in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She has been called a "sassy lassie" and, somewhat less frequently, worn a bedazzled t-shirt celebrating her status as a "classy lassie." She is a settler from Chicago who currently lives in California.