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The serious side of comics

There are panel discussions, and then there are panels discussions.

Over the past several months, Southern Oregon University associate professor and Communication Department chair Erik Palmer has been focused on the latter through his COMM 218 class: “Comics: Culture & Politics.”

It’s a class that uses social science as a filter or framework for understanding comic books, especially related to topics like equality, gender and race.

“This course examines comic art relying on the theoretical and methodological approaches by which mass media have been formally studied in the 20th and 21st centuries, including media effects, audience reception, cultural studies, feminism, ethnic studies, political economy and more,” the SOU 2020-21 course catalog says of the class.

The four-credit course fulfills a social science requirement for students. Most comic studies courses look at the art medium from a literary or aesthetic perspective, Palmer said. His class, taught for the first time with the intent of a return next year, has a different tack.

“My interest, which is much less common, was to think of comics as a phenomenon within the domain of social science, which also aligns a little bit more closely to where I am as a scholar,” Palmer said.

You can’t fully detach from the literature and art that goes with the comic book territory, Palmer added, but the class is more focused on thinking about topics such as how the art medium functions and the commentaries it offers of society.

Art imitating life, basically. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

“There’s always a debate, and this comes back to the social science of comics,” Palmer said. “Do comics reflect underlying trends in society, or do they set an agenda and shape and influence trends in society? It’s really hard to know the answer, but one of the things we can see in mainstream superhero comics is that questions of gender and identity have been explored through the filter of science fictional, super heroic stuff for quite a long time, and increasingly.”

Palmer taught a similar course at Portland State University around 2010 while he was an adjunct professor, he said. It was a one-off that he wouldn’t revisit until years after he first came to SOU in 2012. Former Medford resident Susan Kirtley has taught comics studies courses at PSU, too.

Palmer first taught his class at the SOU’s Honors College in 2019; a trial run, of sorts, he said.

“It went pretty well, so that led me to conclude that we should have kind of a regular version of the course for other students,” Palmer said. “And so this is the first time that this precise articulation of this course has been taught at SOU.”

Student Bart Tveskov first heard about the class from some faculty. It piqued his interest, both as a longtime fan of comic books and as someone who has been considering going into the industry as an artist.

“I was stoked about this option, the idea of it,” Tveskov said.

Tveskov’s father is also a longtime fan of the medium, fond of Marvel’s X-Men and DC’s Legion of Superheroes. He introduced Tveskov to superhero comics with some classic X-Men titles, too. Later in life, Tveskov became a fan of DC’s Young Justice and Blue Beetle, along with Image Comics’ science fiction opus “Saga” and a handful of web comics published online.

SOU also offers a comic book art class, which Tveskov has taken.

Week to week, Palmer’s class will focus on a particular topic, reading some comics and scholarly articles on the subject, with class discussions over Zoom and group chat.

“There’s a lot of good discussion between students in the Zoom chat,” Tveskov says. “Everyone’s very opinionated about the different things, and everybody brings a lot different perspectives to it, which I think is fun, too.”

Some conversations among classmates can get pretty charged, Tveskov adds, but they have all been constructive.

Assignments include students making some comics of their own, all responses to prompts.

Key works the class analyzed included Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” an autobiography about growing up in Iran during the 1970s, “March: Book Two,” also an autobiographical work, that is one of a multipart series about the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis and his work during the Civil Rights Movement, and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” a highly influential book, stylistically and content-wise, from the 1980s.

“I know that I’m a very visual learner, just in general, so I think that using comics as a medium for learning is a really cool way to make some of these topics more accessible to people who might otherwise not be able to engage with it,” Tveskov said. “Visual learning can be really useful for a lot of people who struggle with heavy academic papers and things like that. From that point of view, I think it’s really good.”

Palmer pointed to a scholarly article about “Persepolis” that focused on the idea of using comics as a medium to increase empathy and broaden perspective on a variety of topics.

“One of the things that distinguishes comics from other media forms is how close it is to the body. To make comics is a very embodied practice. It’s very kind of intimate to the individual,” Palmer says. “And to read comics, especially in print, to physically handle the object is a very material experience. So those things together kind of distinguish comics from other kinds of media and create that opportunity for comics to have that deeper empathy you’re engaged in with the character or with what’s going on in the story.”

Recently, the class also got a taste of the medium’s business side. Ted Adams, an SOU alumnus and co-founder of IDW Comics, which prints titles that include “Transformers” and popular horror series such as “30 Days of Night” and “Locke & Key,” joined the class for a Zoom chat March 2. Adams also spoke about the longtime relationship between comics and politics, using the example of a famous Captain America issue cover that shows the Marvel hero punching Adolf Hitler. The first book to ever feature the hero, it was published months before the U.S. entered World War II.

“The idea that a comic book publisher would take this fairly strong political stance and have his character be launched by punching Hitler it’s not what we think of today as such a sure thing,” Adams said. “Really, from the very beginning, (comics and politics) have intersected.”

He continued with additional early examples of other popular superheroes depicted in ads for war bonds. Adams also touched on racist stereotypes depicted in some early issues and the lesser-known genre of comics that were explicitly anti-war stories.

“I can’t say enough good things about Ted and about alumni like Ted,” Palmer says. “His presentation had so much intricacy.”

Palmer says the class is coming back. He thinks the eventual opportunity to do it in person will make it even better.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” Palmer says. “And hopefully a bright spot in (students’) year of COVID.”

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.

Image courtesy of Bart TveskovOriginal comic art by Southern Oregon University student Bart Tveskov, done for his class Comics: Politics & Culture.