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August 12, 2009

Behind the Scenes with Peter Coogan, Director of the Institute for Comics Studies

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Peter Coogan is a writer about comics who has elevated the study of the art form to new heights with his literary approach. As cofounder and cochair of the Comics Arts Conference, he has helped teachers around the country better discuss and educate others about the format. And now he’s the director of the Institute for Comics Studies, whose mission is “to promote the study, understanding, recognition, and cultural legitimacy of comics.”

 
Do you remember your first comic book? If so, what was it?
It was three books that we picked up on a family trip to my grandparents in California in 1974. My mom, whose parents didn’t let her read comics (her father was a Presbyterian minister, but it was probably more just the times she grew up in), so she let us pick up on each. The three were Captain America #176, when Steve Rogers quits being Cap in the wake of the Secret Empire/Watergate story; Marvel Two-in-One #4, with the Thing and the Guardians of the Galaxy; and a Black Panther book, probably Jungle Action #10; unfortunately I don’t have that Black Panther comic because my older brother tore it up because he didn’t like the art (he was 10 year old). On that same trip, I discovered the Batman TV show, which was running in reruns in California, but not back in Ohio, where I was from. When I got back home, I started buying comics at the News and Tobacco Shop, owned by Jay Geldhof’s family, so I was lucky to have a comics shop right in my town, Kent, Ohio.
 
What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
I love the flexibility and control it allows the creators. The page can be shaped in so many different ways, with a variety of panel layouts. There’s just this simple connection that occurs when you read comics that’s different from other media. Saturday, the day I bought comics as a kid, was the narcotic splash of color in my week. I’d get the 40 or so comics that I bought for $10, go up to my room, and read myself into a daze. I can get the same sort of narcotic warmth from literature as well, but as a kid, it was comics that gave me that hit. Hi, I’m Peter, comicholic.
 
Whose work do you admire?
I guess I’d have a pretty standard list, but one artist I particularly admire is James Sturm, especially his book The Golem’s Mighty Swing. I’m not a baseball fan and I don’t watch it because I find it boring, but I found the portrayal of the game more exciting to read, in terms of a baseball game and watching the action and thinking about who was going to win, than I’ve ever found a real game to be, or even any game in a film (like The Natural). So Sturm was somehow able to achieve in comics something superior to real life and to other art forms. Another person I admire is Alex Raymond. The Flash Gordon stories are pulp (not that there’s anything wrong with it), but his work is compelling—I was working my way through his early strips and I kept forcing myself to stop reading at 3 or 4 in the morning because even though the content of the stories wasn’t particularly complex, there was something about the art that kept driving me to the next week’s installment. The same thing with E.C. Segar’s Popeye—it’s just the expression of genius.
 
Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
Sadly, I don’t get to read much for pleasure these days. With prepping for class—though that often includes comics, trying to keep up on comics (which I do partially through Marvel’s and DC’s PDF previews), and reading to my kids, I’m not reading much literature these days for myself. But I listen to audiobooks to fall asleep to. I recently listened to Dave Barry’s third Peter and the Starcatchers novel along with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Libravox.org is the Project Gutenberg of audiobooks, so I’ve been listening to a lot of public domain stuff, like G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday,” and I’m working my way through Jules Verne with my daughter, who also listens to a lot of audiobooks. And I’ve got a huge library of NPR and other podcasts—Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Radio Lab, This American Life, Fresh Air, Planet Money, Major Spoilers, The Moth, The New Yorker Outloud, On the Media, and Hardcore History whenever it comes out, and I listen to those while I do chores or walk the dogs. We also get The Nation, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, and I pick up Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine from the library on a pretty regular basis. And don’t get me started on my 90 hours on my DVR (I’ve still got the last half season of Lost to watch).
 
How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
It varies depending on what I’m working on. If I’ve got a project going, like a talk—I’m giving a talk at the Missouri Historical Society in December—I might read several to prep for it, but some months go by with no graphic novels at all and my only comics reading are the PDF previews from DC and Marvel (keeping up six pages at a time!). Then again, I’ll get a break and get a stack from the library and burn through a pile, so I don’t have a regular reading schedule. I never got into manga. Once we start accepting donations of comics at the Institute and more comics pass through my hands, I imagine my reading levels of everything will go up.
 
How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
Originally I was going to try to break into comics as a writer, though in the ’80s I had become disillusioned with the comics industry as a place to work. I was going to do a semester of grad school at Kent State University, where I earned my B.A. in English, and I had to fill out a form declaring my area of intellectual interest. I didn’t have a good answer, outside of heroes (I had just discovered Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces), and my advisor, Vera Camden, uttered the five most important words of my professional life, “Why don’t you study comics?” I didn’t know that I could study comics. We actually put down “the literature of popular culture,” because we weren’t sure if the department would accept comics as an area of study, but this led me to decide to try to become a comics professor instead of a comic book writer. My dad was a professor, so academia was always comfortable for me. I went to Bowling Green State University for an M.A. in popular culture and then to Michigan State University for a doctorate in American studies. Along the way, I regularly presented at the Popular Culture Association conference and then cofounded the Comics Arts Conference. And in 2006, I published my dissertation as Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre with MonkeyBrain Books, so that was sort of my big break, because it’s led to a lot of attention. So that’s how I got into the field of comics studies.
 
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
Most people think studying comics is great. They haven’t typically heard of doing it, so it strikes them as new, but they’re generally fascinated that it’s possible to study comics and superheroes. I’ve never gotten the pushback from the academy that popular culture scholars faced in the past, though I probably haven’t positioned myself properly to get a tenure track job, but that also has more to do with the fact that for family reasons I can only apply for jobs in the St. Louis area.
 
Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I’ve got 6000+ comics. When I was growing up, I bought just about everything that came out (comics cost 25¢, though). Lately I prefer electronic versions of comics, so I don’t have to figure out where to store all the paper. But I don’t collect comics in the sense of being concerned about their value. Their value to me is as source material for my scholarly work.
 
Is there something you covet adding to your collection?

Nope. My goal is to read comics but not build up a pile of paper in my house. As I buy new comics, I expect to donate them to the Institute for Comics Studies’ collection, and eventually I’ll likely donate most of my existing collection to ICS, though I’ll keep Captain America #176 and Marvel Two-in-One #4 and probably get them framed.