Regularly left out of scholarly considerations, comics as an artform are now making up ground with The Comics Grid, a peer-edited online academic journal offering a serious take on "funnybooks." Kitt Di Camillo speaks with the brains behind the site.
Comics have a reputation amongst the wider general public that is still for the most part yet to extend past the decades-old stereotype they were saddled with early on. In a field responsible for the media-stretching likes of Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman, comics are somehow still left on the outskirts of recognized literature — looked upon by many as funnybooks aimed at teenage boys and the outlandishly geeky. My local library actually catalogues all their graphic novels in the same area as their children's section, meaning that if I want to peruse anything of the comic variety I'm left surrounded by eight-to-ten-year-olds as their parents watch suspiciously over me.
The fact that comics are present in my local library at all is a definite positive, though — a sign that points to their gradual climb to prominence in society and hopefully a more respectable standing in the minds of the non-comic-inclined. I'm possibly preaching to the choir, but the fact that Hollywood now seemingly counts graphic novels as the premiere source material for any prospective blockbuster shows a greater awareness for their storytelling potential and a growing understanding of the legacy of comics as a medium.
Taking further steps forward for the plight of the comic reader is The Comics Grid — an online academic journal dedicated to comics scholarship. Run by coordinating editor Ernesto Priego, assistant editor Roberto Bartual, and the editorial board of Esther Claudio, Kathleen Dunley, Michael Hill, Greice Schneider and Tony Venezia, The Comics Grid is an open-access publication providing well-researched comics analysis in a concise and focused format. With topics ranging from the neurological study of brain injuries in illustrated literature ("Asterix & The Brussel Sprouts") to a Peanuts and Tintin orientated look at phantom panels ("Peanuts, 5 October 1950"), The Comics Grid offers readers an intelligent viewpoint on an otherwise academically ignored medium.
The Grid's scholarly aims are expressed in short, sharp and often very funny essays that are thought-provoking without ever being patronizing. As Spanish Ph.D candidate Claudio puts it, "What we wanted for the beginning was to provide good, quality comics analysis that would be interesting and well-researched. It was also very important to make it fresh, to make it readable and easy to access. We all agreed from the beginning to write small pieces that wouldn't be too tough and scare the general audience, but also accurate and scholarly."
Having met at various comics conferences throughout Europe, the seeds of The Grid were first planted in the initial quintet of Priego, Bartual, Claudio, Schneider and Venezia and developed over a series of coffee breaks and enthusiastic pub discussions on comics scholarships. Hailing from all corners of the globe, the plan started out simply as a way to keep contact with each other, with conversation only turning to thoughts of building the website and deciding editorial lines near the end of 2010. Taking its name from an older project by Priego and Venezia, The Grid quickly developed from Priego's early suggestion for an online collaborative blog into the ever growing site it has now become.
"I was doing my Ph.D in Unviersity College London," explains unofficial Grid godfather Priego. "And I wanted to do something to bring together my interests in online publishing, digital humanities and comics scholarship. I first approached Tony, from Birkbeck College, London, and discussed the possibilities of starting a network of collaborative research around comics. It was so exciting to meet and debate with Roberto, Esther, Greice and Tony in conferences that starting the online journal came up as the natural thing to do."
What sets The Comics Grid apart from similarly scholarly based comics sites is its open access layout. The site encourages contributions from editors and readers alike, with each piece being put through a thorough collective editing process. The collaborative format makes for an inclusive atmosphere where other academically minded sites would normally opt for a slightly more elitist interpretation. "Many of the other comics journals (like the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comic Books) sit behind a pay wall," suggests Dunley, The Grid's US correspondent and faculty chair of English at Rio Salado College. "[It] can be hard to get in many library connections due to the lingering prejudice against comics in some academic circles. Not only is the Grid easy to access, but we can publish fast, and still put articles through a rigorous peer review process."
Dunley came to The Grid later in the mix, joining the journal's Australian contingent Hill as the only non-founding members of the editorial board. Both speak enthusiastically of the site's welcoming nature and varying approaches to its subject matter. "The thing I find really refreshing about the Grid in terms of scholarly publishing is its immediacy," adds Hill. "I have had articles published in peer-reviewed journals and it can take two years or more from the time of submission to publication. With the Grid it's only a matter of weeks, it has the peer review process, and, wonder of wonders, it is accessible, not only in terms of availability but it has this organic nature where people can post comments and consequently the post continues to grow and evolve, in public."
The response from the creators of the comics themselves has also been positive. The Grid's uniquely detailed analysis and wide-ranging subject matter has impressed the likes of Spanish creator Jonathan Millán and Belgian artist Brecht Evens. Another Spanish artist, Pepo Pérez, even went on to collaborate with The Grid on a piece about Frank Miller. "The reaction has been amazing," admits Priego. "We also appreciate that no one has complained so far! But seriously the positive feedback from the comics authors we have published articles about has been overwhelming. I.N.J Culbard, Robert Berry, Cameron M. Stewart, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Kristyna Baczynski, Charlie Athanas… they have also contacted and engaged with the Grid. It has been really flattering. That's the kind of feedback you can't get if you are a Victorian fiction scholar!"
The Grid is fast becoming a key resource for comic fans around the world, and is only going to get bigger throughout 2012. The plans for the site are extensive. "World domination!" laughs Belgium based, Brazilian Ph.D student Schneider. "To expand our dominion and conquer all continents (we even have a map of contributors, see?). There are plans for a site redesign in
2012, and maybe a book in the future."
Priego is less grandiose in his assessment of The Grid's future, but clearly just as excited as the rest of the board. "We are focused on creating more accessible in-house editorial guidelines so those new to blogging and WordPress find it easier to start leaving drafts. We'll also be exploring different ways to engage different audiences, for example through our new biweekly newsletter (you can subscribe here). So far we have published 85 original short articles on specific cases of comic and cartoon art and 16 short interviews and academic activity reports by authors from 15 different countries and 23 different universities. We want to see more contributors of both genders and different countries, so join us!"
The Comics Grid's call for submissions is ongoing.
Between working nine-to-five in a soul-destroying desk, job Kitt Di Camillo writes for a local music magazine in his small hometown of Perth, Western Australia. He enjoys interviewing rock stars more than they seem to enjoy being interviewed by him, and has a tendency to occasionally freak out musicians with his unhinged enthusiasm. He possibly spends too much time watching movies and alphabetizing his CD collection, but now has a thorough yet entirely useless knowledge of film and music as a result. He has a deep love of comics, but no quirky blog to show for it yet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org with any praise, joyfulness, criticism or vile hatred.