Interview with Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan

In this interview, I chat with Matt Smith and Randy Duncan, the co-authors of The Power of Comics; a resourceful text that explores comics through a variety of lenses and serves as a great source for stepping into the field of comic studies.

Book cover to The Power of Comics by Matt Smith and Randy Duncan
Lance Eaton:  What was the genesis for the book?

Matt Smith:  I'd written two textbooks before, one an introduction to general communication studies and the other for computer-mediated communication, and realized when I had the chance to teach my first comics course that there was nothing of the ilk in the field of comics arts studies. After cobbling together readings from various sources in that first iteration, I wanted to see a book that addressed the field and worked up a proposal. As fate would have it, I met Randy Duncan at Comic-Con International that summer and we began talking about chapters he had already written for just such a book. Our visions for what this text should look like overlapped by 80%. All we had to do was negotiate the remaining discrepancies and we were off and running.

Randy Duncan:  I had been teaching comics as Communication for a number of years, and each year I expanded my handouts until, by the time I met Matt, some of them were “chapters”.  I even used Microsoft Publisher to format them with sidebars and inset boxes.  Matt and I took the longest of those pseudo-chapters and reworked it into a sample chapter for our proposal.

Eaton:   How long did it take from conception to publication?

Smith:   I began working on the book in late 2005, met Randy in the summer of 2006, and saw final publication in 2009, so it was a four-year process all told.

Duncan:   Luckily we each got a sabbatical during the final year of the process.  I’m sure it would have taken us longer if we had not had those months of concentrated effort.

Eaton:    How did the collaboration work between the two of you?

Smith:  Initially we divided up the chapters and each drafted the text. We then wrote over one another and/or took chapters from one another. I think one of the things that I enjoy most about working with Randy is that we are good about critiquing one another and accepting those critiques to get better writing out of the exchange.

Duncan:  We have somewhat different writing styles, but once we had edited and contributed new material to one another’s chapters it became a very blended style.  Someone would have to know one of us pretty well to be able to hear Matt’s or my particular voice in the work.

Eaton:   What were some of the challenges in putting together the text?

Smith:The hardest thing was securing image permissions. There are a lot of great images in The Power of Comics, but some of them took a long time to secure. And some we wanted to include, we couldn't get the copyright holders to let go without exorbitant fees. It seems like we spent the better part of a year just on images alone.

Duncan:  Matt is being very generous when he says “we”.  He did 98 percent of the work on securing permissions.  When I did pitch in it was for the fun stuff, like phone calls to Harvey Pekar, Scott McCloud, and Bob Jackson (the photographer who took the famous Ruby shooting Oswald photo).  For me, the most challenging part of the process was staying within our contracted word limit for the book.  There was so many difficult choices about what to leave out.   

Eaton:   What chapters/information/elements didn’t make it into the book that you wish did?

Duncan:  We each wrote a history chapter and both of us felt like we were leaving out way more than we were including.  We just didn’t have room to say enough about Sheldon Mayer, Pop Hollinger, Denis Kitchen and scores of other people who made significant contributions to the development of comics in America.
    Chapters 6 and 7 were written last and there was not much word count left of our contracted limit, so those chapters had to be very sparse.  Our deadline for delivering the book was also rapidly approaching.  Because we did not have room for the richness of explanation we would have liked, we relied quite a bit on visual examples. 

Smith:  We had some additional creator profiles that we had to cut because of space. A lot of those emigrated to our website, though, for people to reference if they want.

Eaton:    What do you feel were the major works that contributed to your book?  (For instance, it’s clear that Chapter 10 (Superhero Genre) was influenced in large part by Coogan’s book, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, what about other chapters?

Duncan:   Most people in comics studies know that Pete Coogan and I are good friends; we co-founded the Comics Arts Conference back in 1992.  However, even if neither of us knew Pete his book would still have been the major influence on the superhero chapter; it’s a great book.  Pete has planted his flag on the superhero concept and established himself as the foremost expert on the topic.
    Matt and I both loved Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, and I’m sure it influenced our take on comic book history.
    Bill Schelly’s work on the history of comics fandom was a great resource for Chapter 8 (The Comic Book Readers).
    The comics theory of Eisner, Harvey, and McCloud are evident in our approach to comics form, but even though he might not be mentioned as often, Thierry Groensteen’s ideas helped shape Chapters 6 and 7.  Of course, we ended up taking a somewhat simpler approach to the concepts, but grappling with The System of Comics certainly stimulated our thinking about comics form. 

Smith:  Certainly you'll find Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics referenced and Bob Harvey's Comics The Art of the Comic Book in chapters 6 and 7. However, we worked to incorporate a lot of journal articles from multiple disciplines to flesh out a perspective on comics. There's a good deal of interdisciplinary ground covered in the book. 

Eaton:   How do you feel about how the book has been received?

Matt: Most all of the reviews have been very positive and supportive of the project. We want to encourage anyone teaching a course in comics arts studies to take a look at it and see if it could help provide some grounding for their course.

Duncan:  It’s great to hear from our colleagues that they think we did a good job of covering concepts creating useful exercises, but it has been just as gratifying to hear people say they enjoyed reading the book.

Eaton:   What additional thoughts/considerations would you have for people (students) who read this book?

Duncan:  One of the dangers of a textbook is that it can suck all the fun out of something because you are suddenly putting this thing that people love into the context of something that has to be studied.  We really hope we avoided that pitfall, and that our own love of comics infuses the book. 

Smith: I want to see comics arts studies mature in the way that Film Studies has in terms of academic (if not wider cultural) repute. The introduction of several key journals is helping that process, our courses are as well, and I hope that in its own way the very existence of The Power of Comics contributes to that process.

Eaton:   What new projects are you and Randy working on (on your own or together)?

Smith: We are editing Critical Approaches to Comics and Graphic Novels: Theories and Methods for Routledge. This book will be out in 2011 and features contributions from 20+ scholars in our field, each of whom explains a method for analyzing comics or comics culture and then provides a short application of it. For example, Randy's chapter introduces how to do formalist criticism of a comics story and then demonstrates that using Asterios Polyp. The book will features several luminaries in the field, including an introduction from Henry Jenkins.

Duncan: We are both contributing essays to the scholarly anthology Understanding Superman: The Evolving Contexts of a Pop Culture Icon.  That should be out toward the end of next year.  I'm also working on a couple of comics -related journal articles, and an article about Pop Hollinger, one of the first comic book dealers, for Alter Ego magazine.

Randy Duncan has a Ph.D. in Communication from Louisiana State University.  He has taught at Henderson State University since 1987.  He teaches a course in Comics as Communication.  He is co-author (with Matthew J. Smith) of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, a college-level textbook on comic books and graphic novels (Continuum Books 2009).  Dr. Duncan is co-founder of the Comics Arts Conference, which celebrated its 18th anniversary in 2010.  He also serves on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Comic Art and the Board of Directors of the Institute for Comics Studies.  Along with Matthew J. Smith he is co-editing the forthcoming Critical Approaches to Comics and Graphic Novels: Theories and Methods (Routledge 2011).

Matthew J. Smith is an associate professor of communication at Wittenberg University. He is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum, 2009) and former president of the Ohio Communication Association. In 2009, Wittenberg’s Alumni Association recognized him with its Distinguished Teaching Award. Each summer he leads the Field Study at Comic-Con during San Diego's Comic-Con International. Students interested in studying the intersection of fan culture and marketing are invited to check out the program.

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Freeway Flyer: Dead Time: Making The Most of It

The following is an excerpt from another blog I run on

While time management is a challenge for everyone, for Frequent Flyers, it’s particularly vexing as we dart from campus-to-campus, classroom-to-classroom, leaving trails of ungraded (or graded) papers in our wakes. There are two major types of “dead time” that I contend with, and I suspect you do, as well.

The Commute:  Whether on foot, bike, bus, or car, an awful lot of our time is consumed with transporting ourselves. Some days, I hit three different campuses in three different cities (and sometimes three different counties). This balancing act of classes and commuting is central to the formula we create in deciding our course loads at the various schools each semester. But commuting can swallow up a good deal of vital time.  So how to maximize that time?

Keep reading?  Click on through

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Interview With George A. Walker

As I grew increasingly interested in comics, I also became aware of a whole other form of visual storytelling:  woodcut novels.  I found the works of Frans Masereel, Lynn Ward, and others to be beautifully steeped with powerful storytelling through images (highly influenced by German Expressionism) and impressively deep with what they communicated.  George Walker helped me gain a further appreciation of this particular form in publishing Graphic Witness, which not only had 4 great works of these assembled but also had a fantastic essay that further elaborated on the history and craft of woodcut novels.  Herein is an interview with George Walker about his work on Graphic Witness as well as the recently crafted and published, The Book of Hours, his own woodcut novel.
Book Cover to George Walker's Book of Hours, a woodcut novel
Lance Eaton:  How did you get into woodcut novels?

George Walker:  The inspiration for the woodcut novel was the Belgian artist, Frans Masereel. I first came across his work at an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the 1980s. I started collecting his work shortly after that. Surprisingly his books (with wood engravings printed directly from his blocks) were very reasonably priced. The publisher Kurt Wolff made a wonderful series of his wordless novels in the 1920s with introductions by such eminent figures such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann.

Eaton:  About how many woodcut novels were published in the 20th century?

Walker:  I would defer this question to my colleague David Berona who speaks to this in his book, Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels. The problem is of course definition of the term woodcut novels. For example the book Destiny by Otto Nuckel was engraved on lead because of a shortage of wood but the technique he uses stems from his experience as a wood engraver. I would want to include him in this number but some would argue otherwise.

Eaton:  What generated the creation of Graphic Witness?

Walker:  Based on my personal collection of wordless novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri, Laurence Hyde and others I contacted a number of publishers about reprinting these works and providing a contemporary context for their influence on comics, printmaking and film. Firefly Books was very receptive to the idea. Most of the rights holders were very enthusiastic about seeing their relatives’ work in print again. My wife and I made the journey to Ottawa to meet with famous spy novelist Anthony Hyde to request permission to reprint his father’s work Southern Cross. Over tea Mr. Hyde showed us his father’s engraving tools and original sketches and prints as we sat in awe at the marvelous collection preserved with such care and love. Mr. Hyde granted us permission to reprint his father’s book and we are grateful to him for his generosity. We were happy to connect David Berona (who has become a friend of ours) with Mr. Hyde for permission to reprint Southern Cross for his very fine Drawn and Quarterly edition.

Eaton:  What was the decision process for the particular selections in Graphic Witness?
Book cover to Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novel edited by George Walker
Walker:  All the books in Graphic Witness are from my own library. As far as choosing, it really came down to which books I could secure a letter from the family (or the rights holder) to grant permission to reproduce the whole book as the artist published it. The other factor is that all these wordless narratives are relief printed from wood or linoleum blocks. David Berona had already negotiated reprints with Dover for some of the Masereel work and the Redstone Press had done a reprint of Passionate Journey in the 1980s, so I wanted to select work that was no longer in print. Masereel’s work Die Passion appeared in 1918 and I felt that it marked the beginning of this form of narrative story. Hyde is Canadian like I am but also his work speaks to a contemporary issue that is still potent: destructive power of the nuclear bomb. All the books have in common relief printing as the process of making the images, and thematically, concern for social issues and the struggle for control of our own lives.

Eaton:  Do you distinguish between woodcut novels and comics?  What would that be?

Walker:  Yes, they are different narrative formats of sequential art! The woodcut novel is a direct descendant of the block books and the religious woodcut narratives of the 15th century. Jacobus di Theramos’ work The Early History of Man (1484) is a good example of this block narrative style. I suppose comics could hold this same lineage and that the cave paintings found in France are a type of pre-history wordless narrative too. Comics however are a popular mass media format that has a separate history and narrative problem. The woodcut novel has closer relationship to art history evolving from German Expressionism and its interest with an emotive response to human suffering and the sociological concerns of culture. Graphic novels and woodcut narratives share a kinship with each other through the province of visual culture, but they are separate media both in process and presentation.

Eaton:  Why did you decide to do your own woodcut novel?

Walker:  I have been planning to do one for years but was struggling with other projects that kept interrupting my focus. The events of 9-11 changed all that for me when I realized that the cultural paradigm had shifted and that I had to document the event. Writing about it was not sufficient for me to explain the complexities and symbolic shifts in our cultural climate. Words have many limitations that images do not have, especially when it comes to capturing the subtle all-encompassing shift in the grand narrative of western culture.

Eaton:  What challenges did you face in pitching the idea to publishers?

Walker:  The popularity of graphic novels and the sales figures for that market segment helped to convince the publisher that the book would have a chance of fair sales return for the investment.

Eaton:  Technically, what challenges did you find with The Book of Hours?

Walker:  During the technical making and preparation of the blocks (over 100 of them) each block had to be exactly .918” high to work on my Vandercook SP15 proof press (as in all letterpress projects). The next challenge was preparing each block’s surface on which to draw the reversed image. This required a careful sanding and then a series of fine polishing on a dead flat stone surface. I then engrave using the tools of the silversmith on the endgrain of Canadian maple. (for more detail see my book, The Woodcut Artists’ Handbook) Of course if I made a mistake in the engraving process I could not easily correct it. Everything all along had to be checked in a mirror, as the drawing on the block would be reversed again once it was printed. The press can be a tricky machine and I would spend hours tweaking the paper, ink and impression to pull the best possible proof.  It’s not at all like making a comic, although both start with sketching the printmaking involved in the woodcut novel takes the artist on a tactile journey through the process of reversals and presswork to finished image. The wood engraved narrative is more an assembly of visual signifiers arranged one block at a time without the problems, limitations and cultural baggage sometimes precipitated by words.

Eaton:  Conceptually, what challenges did you find with The Book of Hours?

Walker:  Constructing a narrative that flowed through a sequence of people and places yet told a larger story of place and time was difficult. I had to play with the sequencing and pace relating to the events that led up to 9-11. One of the things that helped me was to follow the detailed weather reports from New York City for the day before and the day of September 11th.

Unlike the selections in Graphic Witness, The Book of Hours is a decentered narrative, focused around an event with characters moving in and out; why did you choose that route?

Walker:  It is a deliberate narrative of the everyday. It is the mundane routines of our everyday lives that are centered on the immediate concerns of sleep, food, work and travel that consume us. Those World Trade Center employees and visitors are the people I wanted to honour. The media provides us with a bias news and entertainment that leaves us narcotized to the devastation that lurks behind our cultural fa├žade. I chose this route to point to the end of the post modernist narrative and the dawn of a new historical period that questions our understanding of the words ‘everyday’,‘security’ and ‘terrorist’.
Image from George Walker's Book of Hours

Eaton:  How do you feel that your woodcut novel manages to convey this?

Walker:  This is a good question and I am not sure that my piece conveys it fully. But I believe that our sense of security, the idea of ‘the terrorist’ in society and our notion of ‘everyday’ — meaning the comings and goings and what we expect to find in our everyday movements and engagement with those around us, has changed fundamentally in our society. After 9-11 we no longer think we are safe from terror and our feeling of trust in the world has changed. The ‘other’ in our community who is not like us —is suspicious to our constructs and notion of safe and acceptable. Our idea of borders and community has changed and our privacy and belief in government systems, news media and truth has changed. The question as to why the USA attacked Iraq when the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were from Saudi Arabia has never been fully answered. If the answer is greed, oil and corporate values over government agency, then we are certainly moving into a different world order in my opinion.

Eaton:  There are several pages where the character seems to be looking at the reader; can you speak to your goal with this?  (In particular and probably the most intense reading experience in the book is Pg 99, after the previous 2 pages had the same person looking downward and then on Pg 99; directly at the reader).

Walker:  The goal is to engage the reader in the silent dialogue including them in the story as if they were present at the event. The device of having the subject look out at the reader derives from concepts in art theory and the writings of many existentialists and phenomenologists who have explored the concept of the "Gaze". Foucault and Derrida explored this idea in power relations and its context to creating meaning beyond the frame of the picture (in this case the book is the frame). It is a strong signifier that draws the reader into the story as the viewer is more engaged when the subject (the wood engraving) addresses them directly. The reader then must interpret the ‘look’ they are receiving and attempt to decode its meaning. We will never know if we the readers are being scrutinized, analyzed or just observed by the signifier which offers only their symbolic facial expression as a sign of what may be the dialogue between the invisible viewer (you) and the image.
Image of 9/11 from George Walker's The Book of Hours

Eaton:  Was 99 Panels a deliberate choice or coincidental?

Walker:  I have played with numerology throughout my book. 99 engravings was intentional and so are the time signatures. If you add the numbers together in the time displays they add to 9 or 11.  It’s an intentional symbolic tome with deliberate hidden meanings.

Eaton:  And new projects on the horizon?

Walker:    I am working on a wordless narrative now titled, The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson.

For more information about George Walker & The Book Of Hours, check out his website.  

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Overinflated Claim: Now Is The Beginning of Widespread Hyper-LinkedInterconnected Traceable History…P.S. Thanks F.B.!

Facebook, for all our praise, fears, neurosis, and hookups that we can attribute to it, continues to be a compelling intersection of culture, identity, technology, and history.  On my mind today is one of the latest features that Facebook unloaded:  A history of your account activity.  I found out about it when listening on the radio and the crux of the discussion was “fear Facebook, they now allow you access to your entire history.”  Nothing like old media trying to scare us from new media; next they’ll be telling us it’s bad for our eyes and will lead to juvenile delinquency…ooops, they already do.  

Upon hearing about this new feature, I went to Facebook and checked it out.  Under account settings, there is now an option “Download your information.”  Clicking through allows to make the choice to keep your history and download it.  I went forward and selected to download it.  However, since it can take some time to accumulate, you don’t download it from Facebook, but through a link sent to your email.  So, forth I went and downloaded the file, which was 300 megabytes (not a light load by any means).  It’s broken down into pages such as messages, friends, notes, wall, etc along with folders with photos and videos.  It’s all really fascinating, though with material going as far back at 2006.  

The Floodgates of Copying

But this has me reflecting again on the nature of preservation and records in the digital age.  While certainly so much can be wiped out very easily, there are also many more copies available.  Before the printing press, if a person destroyed a book, that may be the only copy of that book around and thus, the knowledge the book contained could be lost.  This is the case in the burnings of the Library of Alexandria.  In the mechanized age of the 19th and 20th century, destroying books did not have nearly as caustic repercussions (though, we have inevitably lost some books; not many by contrast).  But in the digital age, where bits are easily replicable instantaneously (simple copy & paste), much throughout the Internet can be (and is being) preserve.  The most classic example is The Way Back Machine at the Internet Archive where you can few what websites looked like for each year they have been in existence (and sometimes, you can see month to month or day to day changes).  

What is intriguing about Facebook is not just that it contains a person’s history, usage of the site and other information, but from a historical perspective, if gives us much more.  After all, Facebook isn’t just one person writing/posting for his or her own pleasure.  Instead, it’s an intricate web of connections and back and forth discussion among a range of people—entire conversations occur on people’s “wall” in their absence.  As I’ve said before, a “Facebook profile” has a mixed authorship between the company, Facebook, the person whose profile it is, and the person’s friends; they all come together on the profile to make it what it is.  And now, that can be seen in the large scope of things.

This has the potential to pack a powerful amount of tracking/exploring of how social networks and interactions develop, work, and evolve.  In tracking this, it not only allows us to better understand the sociological and psychological elements but also to actually have a (albeit limited) accounting of a person’s life.  After all, for active users, Facebook is essentially an interactive journal revealing a variety of things about their choices, preferences, actions, interests, etc that might not generally come out in any kind of standard record keeping.  From “Likes” to “Fans” to “Tags” to all the other kind of information provided about each person, it allows for a plethora of things to research.  

But most importantly in this possibility is that access to a large group of people (non-elite, in particular) with this range of information is unprecedented and extremely useful.  Gathering this kind of information has usually required soliciting individuals in expensive/expansive research projects.  But imagine if at some point, Facebook made this information accessible to sociologists, anthropologists, and historians (among other researchers).  It could generate a great deal of research.  (Granted, this also scares the bejeepus out of us because it implies our personal information would be out there.  However, that could simply be fixed by replacing names with numbers to avoid individual divulgence; or have a rule of name reveals could not happen until 10 years after a person’s death or some other means of keeping individual anonymity).  

The floodwaters of social dynamics (or social dynamics in an online environment) could give significant insight into understanding humanity as well as potential ideas about the past or how the individual experiences and discusses historical events (take your pick of events in the last 6 years).  


What is some of the information that could be weaned from one’s profile that could be used for the historical record?  

What specific ways could the profile history give insight into larger cultural/historical events?

How much can we rely on what is being said as “truth”?  Definitely, people lie (and they have lied throughout history) but are there things that we can consider more reliable as truthful than others (that is, just like with primary sources, there are some things that we feel are more reliable/dependable to believe than others; so what are those more believable things in a Facebook profile)?

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