Focus on Comics Scholarship: an interview with Frederik Byrn Køhlert

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Routledge will be publishing a series of scholarly texts on “Gender, Sexuality and Comics Studies,” as part of its Focus Collection, which offers quick publication of peer-reviewed work, of a length generally associated with a too-long chapter, or too-short monograph: 20,000 to 50,000 words including notes and references.

The editor for the Gender, Sexuality and Comics Studies series is Frederik Køhlert, who kindly answered our questions about this innovative project, and how it connects with his research interests and other innovative ventures, including co-founding two societies, and pioneering a new MA program in comics studies at his home institution.

The “Focus” format seems like the novella of academic publishing; somewhere between an article and a monograph. Why might a scholar prefer this to more traditional inclusion in an edited collection?

I like the idea of the Focus format as the novella of academic publishing—as something that sits between two more established forms—and the idea is exactly that: to set up a publication format for those in-between projects that are too long for a single article and too short or tightly focused for a traditional monograph or edited collection. That said, the series is also open to edited collections, although these will of course still be somewhat shorter than most academic books. Overall, the main idea behind the short format is to publish narrowly-focused books that explore a single topic in depth, something that can also be hard to achieve with a traditional edited collection.

The marketing flyer for the new series has information on Kohlert and the CFP

With a word count of 25,000–45,000 words, I also think the format is well suited for a cultural field that is undergoing rapid development and can sometimes change direction at a tweet’s notice, and it’s my hope that the shorter format will provide a useful outlet for the timely and exciting research produced by the many comics scholars who are working on gender and sexuality in comics. As such, I imagine that titles will be developed from conference papers or dissertation chapters, or written explicitly for the series as it hopefully establishes itself as a natural outlet for such scholarship.

“the format is well suited for a cultural field that is undergoing rapid development and can sometimes change direction at a tweet’s notice”

In addition, Routledge is committed to offering a much quicker turnaround for Focus titles than for traditional academic books, which can sometimes be years in the making—my most recent book, for example, took over a year to materialize after I submitted the final manuscript to the press, and much longer than that if you count the peer review process. In contrast, Focus titles will be peer reviewed in a matter of weeks, and published within three months of delivery of the final manuscript. Finally, the books will also be published as affordable ebooks simultaneously with the more traditional and expensive hardbacks, in order to make sure that the scholarship is made available to other academics, students, and a general readership interested in these issues.

So the idea is to create a new platform for comics scholarship that is innovative in any number of ways—whether in terms of length, subject matter, unusual treatments of existing topics, or perhaps because it is especially timely or cutting-edge and would benefit from a faster turnaround from manuscript to publication.

How did you develop the idea for the “Gender, Sexuality and Comics Studies” series?

Most of my own research concerns issues of representation in especially autobiographical comics, including issues of gender and sexuality. My new book, which was just published in March, is entitled Serial Selves: Identity and Representation in Autobiographical Comics, and has chapters on the representation of women and queer characters in comics, in addition to chapters on trauma, disability, and race. In short, the book asks what it means for marginalized authors to depict themselves in a form that relies on a simplified visual language derived in part from the history of stereotype and caricature for its effects, and I argue that at least the artists I study—Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner, Ariel Schrag, Al Davison, and Toufic El Rassi—use the form to challenge conventional representational schemes and create new ways of seeing and being seen.

In addition, it seems to me that comics culture in general has gradually begun to move in the direction of more diversity and inclusivity both in and outside the mainstream. Whether it is an explicitly lesbian Batwoman, the newly asexual Jughead in the current Archie series, the extremely sex-positive characters of Sex Criminals, the inclusion of the transgender character Blaze in Jem and the Holograms, or the all-trans comics anthology We’re Still Here, alternative expressions of gender and sexuality are cropping up in all corners of contemporary comics culture. So overall, the traditionally rather conservative world of comics is following and perhaps slowly catching up to the culture’s current engagements with inclusivity and the respectful representation of gendered and sexual difference, making it seem like the time was right for a project like this.

Finally, I’ve also noticed that some of the most interesting and innovative conference presentations by emerging scholars focus on gender and sexuality in comics, so when an editor from Routledge got in touch with me because she was interested in developing a new book series for comics scholarship, I immediately suggested that it would focus on these issues, in order to provide both an outlet for such work and a tight new focus for comics studies in general.

I know that you’re looking for “a range of national or transnational comics cultures” to include in the series; do you have any specific goals of breadth, or are there particular fields from which you hope to attract scholars?

Since individual books in the series will depend on the research being carried out by prospective authors, I don’t really have a specific goal in mind, although the aim is to publish books on as many different comics cultures and traditions as possible. Obviously, it would be amazing if we could publish books about lesser-studied (at least in an anglophone context) comics traditions, such as those found in Africa, South America, or the Middle East, and hopefully the shorter format will help attract that kind of work.

“the aim is to publish books on as many different comics cultures and traditions as possible”

For the purposes of the series, we are defining “comics culture” in the broadest terms possible, including printed as well as digital media, mainstream and alternative comics industries, transmedia adaptions, comics consumption, and various comics-associated cultural fields and forms of expression, such as for example conventions, comics shops, and cosplay. The series also aims to look beyond traditional literary studies and take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of comics, and to take the most inclusive view possible on gender and sexuality in order to ensure and privilege a diversity of voices and perspectives.

“I really want someone to write a book on erotica or porn comics, which is an incredibly understudied area”

All this said, I really want someone to write a book on erotica or porn comics, which is an incredibly understudied area. If you’re reading this and working on a project along those lines, please get in touch!

You’ve written a lot about Julie Doucet. Has your interest in her work shaped how you approach gender and sexuality in comics studies?

Julie Doucet is the reason I started working on comics academically. As I write in the acknowledgments in Serial Selves (which also has a drawing by her on the cover), reading her comic Dirty Plotte was a formative experience that convinced me that comics could do weird and wonderful things that are different from other art forms. Her approach to both autobiography and femininity is so delightfully irreverent, and her drawing style so expressively personal, that I immediately started to think about the cultural implications of that kind of representation of gender, and the result became first a journal article and later the first chapter in the book. As you’ve noticed, I’ve also written about her collaboration with the film director Michel Gondry in My New New York Diary, which is this weird little comics/video hybrid that places video images of Doucet herself in front of backgrounds and other characters drawn by her. It’s very her, and also very Gondry, and the chapter I wrote is an exploration of where we can locate traces of the two artists in a collaboration like this.

I also used to live in Montreal for six years, which is of course where Doucet is from. She very much remains a cultural presence there, and she would sometimes table at Expozine, the city’s zine fair, where she would just sit there and sell her prints for $5 like everyone else. As a result, my house has quite a lot of her art up, and it’s only when people visiting me point it out to me that I realize that not everybody has several images of menstruating women or ejaculating horses on their walls.

We at WWAC are big fans of the Comics Studies Society! Several of our contributors have attended CSS conferences or are looking forward to attending the next one. Do you see participation in organizations like that one creating fruitful working partnerships and tangible benefits benefits to your work?

Although I’m a founding member of the CSS, I haven’t really been actively involved since I was a grad student and worked with a few others to set up the Grad Student Caucus several years ago, but I will be attending this year’s conference at Ryerson University in Toronto in July. I’ve also been involved with both the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC) and the Nordic Network for Comics Research (NNCORE), and would say that as a relatively new academic field, it is important for comics studies to set up structures and organizations like these that support scholars in our work and allow us to meet each other. Going to conferences and meeting other people from around the world who study comics is one of the great pleasures of my job, and has led to exciting professional opportunities and long-standing friendships. As the editor of the Routledge series, I also expect that conferences will enable me to meet prospective authors and talk to them about submitting proposals based on their presentations.

When we set up the Grad Student Caucus [in CSS], creating an inclusive space for future grad students was very much on our minds. In the years since, I have certainly noticed the excellent job the organization is doing to support diversity and inclusivity in comics studies, including publishing a statement underlining the society’s mission to fight intolerance and encourage cross-cultural community-building at the time of the 2016 US presidential election.

The CSS also offers travel grants for graduate students and contingent faculty, and has launched a fundraiser based on the #womenonpanels initiative that will go towards a travel award for a female-identified or non-binary emerging scholar to present at this year’s conference in Toronto.

I see from the Routledge series poster that you are the “course director for the world’s first MA program in Comics Studies,” which will launch in 2020 at UEA. Can you tell us about how the program will be structured and what you hope it will offer students? 

As is the case with conferences and the various comics organizations, it is important that the field institutionalize if we are to grow into an established academic discipline, and dedicated comics studies programs are certainly part of that effort. So far, only a few undergraduate and a single master’s-level program (University of Dundee’s MLitt in Comics Studies) have been set up, and we are therefore hoping that a Master of Arts program will help to further solidify the field and provide students with an opportunity to study comics at the graduate level.

Because comics studies potentially exist across so many different academic fields, the program is conceived to be as interdisciplinary as possible, and grows out of the School of Art, Media, and American Studies here at the University of East Anglia. As such, students will be able to take seminars focused on comics and related art forms in a range of disciplines, including literature, history, politics, cultural studies, film and media studies, and art history. In this way the degree will be unique in the world, as it will allow students to follow their individual interests and approaches to studying comics across all these fields, in addition to several seminars that will be anchored in the program and be specifically about comics studies as a discipline.

Since we’re not launching the program until September 2020, we still have a lot of details to work out, but I couldn’t be more excited about the degree, which I believe fills a central gap in the field and will also help prepare students for undertaking PhDs focusing on comics. If anybody is interested in news about the program as we release more details, they can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Thank you, Frederik! I hope that your submissions for the Routledge focus series, and your application for the MA program are both filled with devoted WWAC readers.

You can find Frederik on Twitter at:

To find out more about the Comics Studies program at the University of East Anglia, check out their social media:

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Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She is a former Pubwatch Editor for WWAC, and frankly, there is a lot more gray in her hair than there was when this profile picture was taken.