Dr Sabin’s extensive publication record includes Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (Phaidon), Adult Comics: An Introduction (Routledge), Punk Rock: So What? (as editor, Routledge), Below Critical Radar (as co-editor, Codex), and The Movie Book (as co-editor, Phaidon). He is a consulting editor and member of the editorial board of several academic journals, including the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (Routledge UK) and Studies in Comics (Intellect UK).
Ernesto Priego: How did you get started in academia?
Roger Sabin: It was an accident. I didn’t do the BA-MA-PhD-teaching route. I was unemployed for a while in the 1980s (thank you, Mrs Thatcher) and so started to do some freelance journalism to make money. That led to me becoming a film reviewer, which led to me becoming a comics reviewer – basically because nobody else in the office seemed suitable (I think that possibly the thinking was that comics were like films on paper). From there, I got asked to do a book, which became Adult Comics (1992), and that got me noticed by Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, which hired me as a lecturer (1993). I’ve been there ever since, and it’s been a lot of fun.
EP: How influential was punk in defining your work?
RS: Difficult question. I never had green hair, etc., but like many people of my age, punk had its influence. (It made my anti-social tendencies even more anti-social – haha!) So I guess I could never see myself doing a nine-to-five – though I would if I had to - and that an art school is probably one of the few working environments in which I feel comfortable. Perhaps it also means that, in my writing about comics, I have no time for what Thierry Groensteen has called ‘idolatry‘, and I’m interested in certain kinds of politics. Maybe it explains why I’ll always prefer Viz to anything by Jack Kirby. But basically, I don’t know - it’s hard to talk about. (I also edited a book, Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk in 1999.)
EP: Comics Studies, Comics Scholarship, Comics Research… what does it all mean?
RS: It means… a job. Haha! Seriously, the field has much to be proud of. When I started writing about comics in the 1980s, there was no such thing as ‘comics scholarship’ in the sense that we understand it now. But today I can count seven anglophone peer-reviewed journals, nine recurring conferences, and numerous academic book-lists, listservs and blogs (The Comics Grid is always good value). And, of course, comics scholarship is part of the university curriculum: there are modules everywhere, and now discrete degree courses. (The MLitt at the Uni of Dundee looks like a model for the future).
Yes, there are certain emphases, but that’s inevitable in any field. So, for example, ‘comics studies’ means ‘American comics studies’; means ‘graphic novel studies’; means ‘comics studied from a “lit crit” perspective’; means ‘post-1930s comics studies’; means ‘comics studies not newspaper strip studies’; means ‘print comics studies’, and so on. I’m generalising, of course, but you can see how things have developed. When I’m asked to review an academic essay entitled ‘Audience Responses to “Flook”‘, then I’ll know things have balanced-out.
I was at a conference in 2000 when somebody suggested that Comics Studies was the next Film Studies. The attendees mostly thought this was a good idea, but that critical mass had not yet been achieved. I think we probably have reached a kind of tipping point now, insofar as we are about to see the next phase of institutionalisation, but we have to ask ourselves what we gain and what we lose. I kind of like the rather shambling, inchoate, multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, fan-loving, fan-hating situation we have at the moment.
By the way, there are some great discussions out there about the ‘What does it all mean?’ question: check out Bart Beaty’s essay in Cinema Journal; Charles Hatfields’s article in Transatlantica and posts by him and by Rusty Witek at the Thought Balloonists blog; posts at Comics Forum; and, most recently, Henry Jenkins’ blog where he talks to the folk behind new book Critical Approaches to Comics.
EP: Where do you see the study of popular culture going in the future?
RS: Despite what I’ve said in answer to the previous questions, I’m going to introduce a bum note here. The study of popular culture is at a crossroads because of the cutbacks in education. Since the banking collapse of 2008, governments have been aggressive about this (none more so than in the UK, where Mrs Thatcher’s education policies now look positively benign), and especially about marginalising the Humanities. Make no mistake, this is not about austerity – it’s ideological. Departments are closing – maybe even entire universities next year; library budgets are being slashed; staff are being laid off; etc. So, the study of pop culture will soon be in crisis, if it isn’t already, and that means comics scholarship will be in trouble, too. Sadly, my feeling is that the only way these fields will prosper is if the Humanities in general prosper. We have to fight on a broad front.
We also have to take a position on the ‘impact agenda’. This is again part of the post-2008 attack, whereby Humanities research has to justify itself via three criteria: a) whether it will make a financial profit, b) whether it will place students in jobs; and c) whether it will have an impact on the outside community. This agenda has a different tone in different parts of the world, but talking to colleagues from the US and Europe it’s clear that the drift is the same, and that the idea of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ is being undermined. There’s no need to spell out how disastrous the consequences could be for comics studies (how many papers at conferences you’ve attended can address those three demands?)
So, in the future, I think we’re going to see many more political battles, and also, possibly, a shift in the kind of comics research being pursued. I’m not saying textual analysis will die, or anything as dramatic as that, but merely that things like the study of comics’ use in schools, in the military, in hospitals, etc. will move more to the centre as the impact agenda takes hold. Nothing wrong with that kind of research, so long as there’s a balance, and so long as the overarching right-wing agenda is resisted.
EP: Finally, any advice for aspiring scholars?
RS: To borrow the immortal words of Viv Savage, ‘Have a good time all the time!’. Seriously, I suppose the best advice is to trust your intuition. If you think a topic is interesting, then go for it. The worst thing is to feel intimidated by your supervisors. Yes, they’ll probably want you to produce a dissertation on something worthy and literary and that they’ve vaguely seen talked-about on Late Review. But there’s more to life than Maus or Persepolis, and if you don’t want to go down that route, then persuade them otherwise. ’Audience responses to “Flook“‘, anyone?…
Beaty, B. (2011) “Introduction” to “In Focus: Comics Studies Fifty Years after Film Studies.” Cinema Journal 50.3: 106 – 110.
Hatfield, Ch. (2010) “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies.” Transatlantica : n. pag. 5. <http://transatlantica.revues.org/4933>. Accessed 4 December 2011.
Jenkins, H. (2011). “Whither Comic Studies?: A Conversation with the Editors and Contributors of Critical Approaches to Comics (Part One)”. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 15 November. <http://henryjenkins.org/2011/11/wither_comic_studies_a_convers.html>. Accessed 04 December 2011.
Smith, M. and Duncan, R. (eds.) (2011) Critical Approaches to Comics. Theories and Methods (New York and London: Routledge)
“This, That and the Other,” is a radio program from the Spanish Radio and Television’s English language broadcast. This episode was recorded before a live audience at the Instituto Franklin’s International Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, which was held from November 9th to 12th in Alcalá de Henares, and features keynote speaker Roger Sabin. You can listen to it (after the news) here: <http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/emision-en-ingles/english-language-broadcast-16-11-11/1250994/>. (Accessed 29 November 2011).