It’s a continent away from Comparative Media Studies headquarters in Cambridge, but the CMS spirit was palpable at Comic-Con in San Diego this year. The international pop culture convention, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this July, was the perfect place to witness civic media-enhanced community communication in action. And CMS founder and former co-director Henry Jenkins had a front-row seat.
Jenkins, who left CMS this summer to take a position as Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, geared his second-ever Comic-Con visit to comics-related events and appeared on a panel centered around comics studies.
Always on a quest to find the best ways to support comics studies and use comics as an educational tool in the classroom, Jenkins appeared on a panel titled “The Comics Arts Conference Session #8: The Institute for Comics Studies.” The recently launched non-profit institute, on whose board of advisors Jenkins has agreed to serve, is devoted to promoting the study and appreciation of the comics medium, especially in teaching and research at the college level.
Such an appreciation, Jenkins said, can spring from taking a multidisciplinary approach to comics studies and learning from other fields–just as the CMS program seeks to do for its various course offerings, from film to games studies.
Social Media in SoCal
Jenkins noted the power of networked, comics consumers all meeting face-to-face and in virtual spaces to celebrate a common passion. “When you gather 125,000 hardcore fans, many of whom are bloggers or twitterers, in one location, the media industry pays attention and sends its top directors (Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, James Cameron) and performers (Johnny Depp, Sigourney Weaver), not to mention entire casts of popular television series,” he said in an email interview after the conference, adding that Entertainment Weekly had devoted most of its last two issues to Comic-Con. “The four days garners the attention of the national media.”
The television networks also previewed all things comics in the hope of a strong start in the fall season, Jenkins observed. He predicted that the reception of upcoming shows will be defined by their relationship with fans, with The Prisoner getting the most buzz for delivering what its followers hoped to see.
“In a world where fans exert much greater impact on the production decisions of networks and studios, Comic-Con is the central mechanism for sampling their interests,” Jenkins said. Such fan influence has led to the rise of women to the forefront of the convention, which only a few years ago was very much a male affair. He attributed much of this change in demographics to Twilight, already a hit last year. “Long term, this can lead to greater visibility for female fan interests, whereas in the recent past, fan-boy tastes ruled in San Diego,” he said.
“Comics Studies as a field takes roots in a range of different academic disciplines, each asking their own questions about this medium, some of which require them to dig deep into the history of graphic storytelling as a specific medium of expression, others of which encourage them to go broad and deal with the ways comics have impacted other forms of media,” Jenkins said.
But the devoted comics fan and expert has always included the medium in his teaching. And he plans to keep doing so at USC.
“I will be using a number of graphic novels as part of the mix of resources in the transmedia storytelling and entertainment course I will be teaching this fall. My undergraduate students will also be reading thesis work from CMS alumni Sam Ford, Geoffrey Long, and Ivan Askwith, as well as interacting with people we’ve brought to MIT through the years as part of our Futures of Entertainment conferences.”
Word of Jenkins’s upcoming classes at USC has spread fast and demand for them is high. “I can say that I am already hearing from students from all over USC who want to be doing thesis and dissertation projects on comics and have had trouble finding informed committee members,” he said.
Despite remaining hurdles for teachers to win over skeptical and traditionally minded administrators and integrate comics into the curriculum, the signs are good, Jenkins said.
“The comics industry is at least as responsive to academics as any of the other media industries,” he said. “We’ve had great luck bringing comics creators to MIT through the years with our colloquium speakers, including both alternative and mainstream comics creators. Many of the comics publishers have shown a deep commitment to supporting the educational distribution and deployment of their titles.”