Serious scholarship includes Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester’s thorough A Comics Studies Reader, which features essays from Charles Hatfield, W.J.T. Mitchell, and M. Thomas Inge. The great point of this book is that it serves as an excellent primer for introducing concepts serious comics scholars are grappling with. The only shortcoming is that besides an essay by Peter Coogan, it spends very little time discussing superheroes, and one would think that a reader involving comics studies would cover all of the ground as sufficiently as possible. Rather than focusing on the distinct genres within comics, the editors divide the book by aesthetic and technical considerations: Craft, Art, and Form; Culture, Narrative, and Identity; Scrutiny and Evaluation.
There are a few notable and interesting pieces in the reader, but none that are particularly useful for the present essay. Inge gives us the story of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Schultz, who grew up like Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota, was affected by Fitzgerald and admired him. Mitchell discusses the form of the comic book and how it need not be compared or utilized by other forms of mixed media narrative (specifically film) when discussing comic books because they are not like anything else.
“Gary Trudeau’s anti-cinematic, talky cartoon sequences in Doonesbury defy the normal privileging of the visual image as the place ‘where the action is’ on the cartoon page,” Mitchell writes in the Reader’s selection “Beyond Comparison” from Mitchell’s book Picture Theory (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Mitchell does an excellent job of discussing the nature of Picture Theory as it relates to comics in this paragraph, going from the newspaper strip (Doonesbury) to Maus to the The Dark Knight Returns:
“Postmodern cartoon novels like Maus and The Dark Knight [Returns] employ a wide range of complex and self-reflective techniques. Maus attenuates visual access to its narrative by thickening its frame story (the dialogue of a holocaust survivor and his son is conspicuously uncinematic in its emphasis on speech) and by veiling the human body at all levels of the visual narrative with the figures of animals (Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs. The Dark Knight, by contrast, is highly cinematic and televisual, employing the full repertoire of motion picture and video rhetoric while continually breaking frames and foregrounding the apparatus of visual representation.” (Heer 117)
Mitchell takes a New Critical approach to comics. He focuses on the aesthetic elements: the dialogue, the panel structure, and the difference in genre (one non-fiction and superhero) giving us a view of two disparate genres in the medium. This is, however, using a literary-critical method on comics, and since comic books are not entirely literature nor pure art, taking a sole method of criticism and applying it to the medium is not going far enough. Though one might say that the critical methods employed depend on the academic background of the critic. A step further, however, would be a suggestion of using a method specific to comics that is a wholly original form of critical discussion.
A Comics Studies Reader does, however, serve as a primer for further reading of these authors in their books, particularly Inge’s Comics as Culture and Hatfield’s Alternative Comics. Inge’s work is a 1990 text that is somewhat outdated, but still a useful work of criticism. This book provides a reason why the study of comics is an important activity. In the introduction, Inge writes: “Comics serve as revealing reflectors of popular attitudes, tastes, and mores.” He discusses how comics have grown from long-distant stories of our historical culture: Dick Tracy was inspired by Sherlock Holmes and “Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, Captain Marvel and the Fantastic Four draw on the heroic tradition to which Hercules, Samson, King Arthur, Beowulf, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan belong.” (Inge, xiv). Inge spends much of the text discussing the cultural roots of comics and gives a very complete look at how they became a twentieth-century cultural icon.