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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  1. I never really thought about all the thought that went into making a book, let alone a book on comic books. If they ruined the subject, they would have really gotten people mad. In the article, they mention how a textbook always takes the fun out of everything that it is written about. This is so true. Whenever I read a textbook, I feel like it is so bland and drab that I never intake what I am reading. I always have to go back and reread what I just read. This book was not like that at all. It was interesting and got the point across in an easy to understand manner. Another thing that I never realized is that they had to get clearance from other artists of art that they used. I figured that they used them and gave the artists credit. I did not know that they had to pay for the artwork too. The last thing that surprised me is that there are a lot more comic courses taught at colleges than I thought. When I first heard about it, I thought it was a completely new type of course, but apparently it is more popular than I thought.

  2. This is an interview I have been wanting to read for a while. It is interesting how they went about writing the chapters. Many of them were written separately, but as the reader I cannot distinguish between the two writers. It comes as no surprise that finding the permission for images and other copyrighted material was the most difficult process. There is a lot of information and many references in this book, so getting the book out in 4 years seems reasonable. It was interesting to hear them talk about parts they felt got left out. Some sections of chapter 6 and 7 to feel very broad and almost rushed and now I learn that they felt the same way. Duncan and Smith were worried by people calling this a textbook, because usually we do not find textbook reading enjoying. They did a good job at keeping the book normal in size unlike many textbooks. It also is set up differently and it feels like they are trying to teach you something, instead of just spitting out facts. The creation of this book was a giant undertaking. There was a lot of material out there covering the topic, but Duncan and Smith put it all in one nice enjoyable package. They meant for this book to be a complement for comic studies classes. This book provides knowledge and structure to the awesome and interesting genre that is comics.

  3. I have never read an interview with someone who has written a textbook I am using in class, so It is interesting to get a better idea on how they created the book. As I was reading some of the chapters, I often got frustrated that they did not go into more detail on some subjects and some details and people that they missed entirely. Obviously, comic books have a rich history and trying to condense it down is a giant undertaking. You are not going to hit everything, especially with a word count and other topics to discuss. Because of this, I almost think the history chapters end up being more geared to someone unfamiliar with comics than a big fan. Comic fans can be a nitpicky bunch and are quick to crucify over the littlest of detail, so it is difficult to write a textbook that can be interesting to both the diehard fan and the uninitiated. That said I do like the book. The trouble I have found with a lot of critical essays on comics is they can have this attitude of “most comic books are lame, but this one is really cool because…” I did not find that to be the case with the Power of Comics.

  4. I never really thought about how much work it takes making a book or a comic book for that matter. All of the restrictions, deadlines, and phone calls you have to make to even get pictures. For the limited pages and deadlines they had to meet I believe that Smith and Duncan did an excellent job crafting a textbook. The only part is, as what they were acknowledging, textbooks suck the life out of everything. This textbook was interesting though because it described so much of what is going on behind the scenes of comics. Comic culture is extremely new to me so this textbook is one of the few that I learned the most from. Having completely no background with comics helped me to understand the educated text on the subject. I think what saved our class from being bored to death by the life sucking textbook was that we read Scott McClouds Understanding Comics along with the Smith and Duncan novel. I would read Smith and Duncan and then to put the life back into me Scott. Power of Comics enlightened me to the fascinating world of comics though I do have to give them that. I am going to remember things about comics that I learned from The Power of Comics for years.

  5. I am somewhat surprised about how little information and texts were available that took a serious look at comics before Duncan and Smith’s The Power of Comics. The fact that there were courses being taught with little or nothing in the way of texts that could be used reliably and that the professor or instructor of the course was being forced to compile and use their own resources in order to teach the classes was incredible to me and puts the book into a new context that sets it apart as being one of the first serious texts to look at comics as a whole in terms of terminology, genres, fans, history, and so much else. I would also like to say that I enjoy interviews like this which detail how a book or work came to be as it puts the work itself into a greater context and reveals how and why certain elements of the work were created the way they were. The interview further reveals how much time and work actually went into this book. By creating a textbook on a largely chaotic and unexplored topic such as comics, the authors were treading onto new ground with little in the way of support from other major texts and, perhaps most importantly, allowing classes which studied and looked at comics the access to a broad overview and sort of lens to examine the comics they were looking at through. This allows the study of comics to, hopefully, progress beyond small articles written for journals and into a larger field where textbooks and broader overviews of the entire media form are allowed to flourish.

  6. Randy Duncan and Matt Smith do a really nice job here of explaining their motivations for writing the book. I found it interesting how they had both already started their own version of a book before they even met. It is also telling as to how they were willing to flex their own ideas to incorporate them into one finished product. The two needed to be open to listening to each other and absorb criticism in order to provide the best possible book. This interview really does a good job of explaining the whole creation process.
    I do believe that with The Power of Comics, Duncan and Smith fill a void in the area of comic textbooks. Before taking this class, I had never really given any thought to the study of comics. However, now I see how going forward, comics can be used in a variety of ways to teach practically any subject. I thought Matt Smith’s comment about how he could see comic studies becoming like film studies to be a really good analogy. When you think about, any subject or medium can be studied in depth and there is always going to be a need for textbooks in a specific area. Matt Smith and Randy Duncan took a field that had a small amount of academic works and provided people with a basis for studying comics. Their book was interesting and entertaining and I believe that they met the goal that they set out to accomplish.

  7. Smith and Duncan both had a love of comics and realized there wasn't any substantial material on the history of comics. Both of them have experience in the realm of comics but still had to do a large amount of research and had to contact publishers and authors for copyrighted pictures and quotes. While the information was a bit dry, it proved how scholarly comics can be and the techniques, themes, research, and distribution.

    Because of the advances in technology, Smith and Duncan were able to expand their knowledge and expertise of comics through the internet which is now a common way of communicating information. I thought it was great to have incorporated some of McCloud’s book as well since his work was already out there and while was much more loud and “fun”, also had a lot of important information pertaining to the history and techniques of comics.

    Randy's chapter on analyzing a comics story through Asterios Polyp should be interesting. Asterios Polyp was one of my favorite comics this semester and reminded me of McCloud's book Understanding Comics. I experienced the varying colors, the lines, shapes, vocabulary, style, and symbology of Mazzucchelli's work and would love to see a formal criticism of the story.

  8. While reading The Power of Comics I figure that writing it would basically just be putting down information but from what was just said I guess I was wrong. The amount of effort that goes into making a text book in very large as it is with anything in the comic industry. From this to making a comic everything is extraordinarily time consuming and difficult. The effort that is talked about in this article that surrounds just getting the rights to the images seems huge and this is what people go through every day while making text books. Another thing is surprising about the interview is how they are talking about making a text book. In most everyday college life a text book is something that is being read but you never really get to see or hear about just how much work goes into writing and editing one. You never see this view and it is very interesting to hear about especially because it has to do with a field that is just emerging into the mainstream literary canon. Comics before the aughts were never really seen as something that was literature and with the release of this text they can now be taken seriously

  9. The Power of Comics is a very great read. To be honest with a book that says the Power of Comics I was hoping to see a lot of panels and such. Maybe in the same line as Understanding Comics. Though if that were the case I’m pretty sure that it would be a WAY thicker book if it were to be in that format instead of it being like a standard textbook format. Still I found this to be a really good book and I plan on keeping it so I can take my time to read it more so than I did during my class. It has a lot of interesting facts that I didn’t know comic books would offer. Normally I would read a comic book and just enjoy it for what it is, but as I read this book and Mcloud’s book I got a better understanding of comics and I can appreciate it a lot more than I already do so now. The only thing I think would be better is that the book would be a little longer, so they could dig deeper into some of the things that they talk about. Still I did like the book very much and I probably won’t sell it at the bookstore.

  10. next time, look into FAIR USE for the images

  11. Usually when I think of comic books I think of superheroes and super villains. So when I saw the title "the power of comic books" I thought the book would be how comic books depict what is going on in the world. Being that this book only has one chapter on the superhero genre makes me realize that there is much more to comic books then I thought. Come to think about it wasn’t 300 and a history of violence comics before they were movies?

    Just like some of the other bloggers I didn't realize how much work goes into making a book. Many people may you just sit down and write without knowing how much research the author has to do even if he/she is familiar with the subject I guess that is why they say write about what you know. It is obvious that Smith and Duncan did their research and definitely knew what they were talking about.

    It surprise that it took them a year to get permission to put certain images on their book I thought that by mention the original cartoonist or artists name they avoided plagiarism or copyright infringement after all aren’t they giving credit to the creator?


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