University of Oregon capitalizes on lasting appeal of comic books

University of Oregon English professor Ben Saunders (right) has created an undergraduate program in comic book studies. Here, he visits with a character called “The Thing.”

Courtesy photo
University of Oregon English professor Ben Saunders (right) has created an undergraduate program in comic book studies. Here, he visits with a character called “The Thing.”

Did you read comic books when you were young?

How about as an adult? Do they hold the same appeal?

There’s long been a social stigma attached to comics and comic books – the perception that they have no literary merit or they’re just for children.

In fact, comics and comic books in the past century – like many other forms of media – have had major transitional shifts in their messages, appeal and scope.

“Yes, comics are great for young people,” says Ben Saunders, an English professor at the University of Oregon. “But the people who first read comics and remember comics are now in their 70s. There’s a real intergenerational appeal to the comic book.”

Newspapers in the 1880s began publishing comics, but the idea of comic books didn’t form until the 1930s.

“And even then, those were just reprints,” Saunders says. “When they start doing original content in the mid- to late-1930s, we get the start of the superhero genre.”

For many Americans who lived in rural areas without access to things like museums or movie theaters, comics provided a way to see and appreciate a visual narrative.

Ken Paul is a retired UO professor who grew up in Wyoming in the 1940s. His family’s first fuzzy, black-and-white TV set arrived in his home when he was about 14 years old.

“There was one small movie theater, and we benefited somewhat by being on the main transcontinental railway and highway,” Paul says. “It was only much later that I learned how culturally isolated we actually were.”

Like most households, they had magazines for the adults. For kids, there were comic books.

“They cost only a dime, and most kids I knew had a stack of them at home,” he says. “When we tired of re-reading our stack, we’d get on the phone and network with other young collectors to arrange a meeting to do a swap.”

He remembers when EC Comics came out with such beguiling titles as “Weird Science,” “Vault of Horror” and “Tales from the Crypt.”

“The stories were more sophisticated and the graphics far more advanced than the other major comics publishers,” he says. “I was soon hooked. I hardly ever missed an issue. In the local kids’ trading game, ECs were deemed to be worth at least two of issues from other labels.”

His family moved to a larger town, but Paul continued to collect ECs, hoping his children and grandchildren would want them.

“In light of what kinds of in-your-face visual material are currently available in the media, I wonder whether my grandchildren will even find much of interest in this now-dubious inheritance from Grandpa,” Paul says. “They’ll find them rather quaint, perhaps?”

His collection did find a home in a 2016 show on EC Comics at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, curated by Saunders.

Saunders founded the UO’s undergraduate minor in comics and cartoon studies program in 2011, the first of its kind. Other universities have since followed suit.

He’s also curated three large comic-related art shows. The most current is on display at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. It chronicles the universe of the Marvel Comics superheroes: Spider-Man, The Punisher, Iron Man and Black Panther.

Saunders was born in 1968, after the heyday of comics. EC, for instance, stopped publishing in 1956, except for Mad, which survived by turning into a magazine.

“Reading comics is a window into the era of the 1950s, which I can only know imaginatively, so talking to people in their 60s and 70s who come to the shows and actually remember buying them, is incredibly valuable to me,” he says.

He grew up in Wales, but enjoyed reading American comics that his grandmother would buy for him. At first, he wouldn’t learn to read, but when he wanted to know something for himself and wasn’t satisfied with his grandmother’s answers, he learned to read them himself.

Teaching comics actually requires Saunders to delve into quite a bit of American and global history.

For instance, the superheroes class is a 10-week investigation that starts in 1938 with Superman.

“None of his villains are supervillains,” Saunders says. “This was the era of the New Deal, and he fights corrupt politicians in bed with arms manufacturers who are trying to tip America into war. He fights oil barons and corrupt mine owners working people in unsafe conditions. He explicitly acknowledges and confronts the role of the ghetto in youth crime. He breaks cars in protest of unsafe automobile manufacturers.”

Teaching these parts of history means “you have to teach wealth, power, racial history, depictions of masculinity, visual styles and how they change, the New Deal, the Depression, strongman culture, and why America didn’t enter the war until 1941,” Saunders says. “The creators sold the character for $130, so you have to teach the concepts of economics and ownership. And that’s just one character.”

Other classes in the program go beyond history to include art and foreign cultures.

One colleague teaches the history of a Japanese art form called manga, which requires knowledge of Asian culture. Another teaches a class on French comics, which requires that students read French.

Saunders says some of his students think they can skate through his classes with ease, but the program is much more in-depth and broad than what it first appears.

Controversial history

Although TV and movies celebrate the comic book genre, a German psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham published a series of articles, stating that the unregulated comic book industry was causing juvenile delinquency. Young people could buy comics for a mere 10 cents, and many parents believed his unfounded claims.

Many comics intended to send a social message. “Preachies” actually spoke out about issues such as racism and crime.

“They depicted politicians and policemen as members of the KKK, for instance,” Saunders says. “It’s hard to do stuff like this today. People who are older today would have lived through this.”

Because of Wertham’s propaganda, as well as the now-infamous Senate hearings of 1954, the comic book industry permanently changed.

“Following the hearings, the Comics Code Authority emerged to self-regulate the industry so that the government wouldn’t have to,” Saunders says. “The CCA agreed to ban words like ‘creepy,’ ‘terror’ and ‘uncanny,’ and they also agreed that people in authority could never be depicted as breaking the law.”

But this decision drove a majority of publishers out of business and infantilized the industry.

“After that, comics were something you were meant to outgrow,” he says. “If you still loved comics as an adult in the 1960s and 1970s, you were seen as not properly growing up. Everything about that is wrong. It’s a medium, like television, and it can do anything. It’s not just for kids.”

Saunders teaches it’s a big mistake to think of comics as just storyboards for potential movies.

“Comics aren’t designed to be turned into films,” he says. “They’re a different vision that requires a different, but not superior, visual literacy. There’s an emphasis on visual metaphor and symbolism.”

Spoken like a true professor – Saunders has studied and taught 17th century poetry and Shakespeare. Paul, as well, is a celebrated artist who taught courses in lithography and screen printing.

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