It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's Ben Saunders and the Comics Studies minor
In a darkened, packed classroom in Esslinger Hall, Ben Saunders is talking about the Golden Age of comics, an era when hundreds of superheroes with strange names saved the world from evil-doers many times over.
Images of garishly costumed men and women in tights and masks flash on the screen behind him: Some are familiar names, like Superman and Captain Marvel. Many more are obscure: The Red Bee, Black Terror, Doll Man, Wonder Man, The Blue Beetle, The Hangman, Microface (“basically a superhero ventriloquist,” Saunders says).
“This is real knowledge,” Saunders tells his students after delivering a quiz. “It may be nerd knowledge, but it is testable.”
What quickly becomes clear in listening to Saunders talk is that the study of comics is a legitimate topic for scholarly inquiry. Which is why he decided to establish a Comics & Cartoon Studies minor at the UO last fall, the first program of its kind in the United States.
“Comics are a global art form with a long history — at least as old as print culture,” he says. Comics “are one of the most effective means of communications humans have devised, but are poorly understood at the academic level.”
An English professor on the UO faculty since 2000, specializing in Renaissance studies, Saunders started teaching an elective class on superheroes in 2007, “which snowballed quickly,” he said. In 2009, he curated "Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero,” a hit exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.
“I got a message about the level of public interest” in comics, he adds. “I realized that it was more than a cool elective course."
Making comics studies a minor, rather than a major, makes perfect sense, he says.
“It makes any major look more interesting,” he says.
Saunders says the study of comics goes well beyond the purview of one scholar, so he enlisted more than a dozen colleagues to help him teach the minor. Key players include Surabhi Ghosh in Art, Akiko Walley in Art History, Glynne Walley in East Asian Languages, Fabienne Moore in Romance Languages, Michael Allan in Comparative Literature, Jill Hartz and Kurt Neugebauer in the JSMA, and James Fox in the Knight Library - among others
“This interdisciplinary support has been absolutely crucial to me — as well as a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from my colleagues here,” he said.
Saunders teaches a class called the Modern American Superhero, placing these uniquely modern creations in the ancient mythic hero tradition. Saunders lectures with equal parts scholarly insight and humor. (In the DukTalks video posted above, Saunders talks about the "Birth of the Superhero.")
“I do try to be funny,” he said. “Making 1940s superhero comics funny, that’s not hard.
“You need to be uninhibited. I try to model my enthusiasm as passionately as I can. If I look like I am having fun, (students) can have fun too.”
But he’s serious, as well, when he tells students these comics are “complex, primal, narcissistic and sexual,” and “some of the queerest images in the culture.”
Saunders’ love of comics began as a young boy growing up in Wales, when his grandmother bought him the black-and-white British version of a Spider-Man comic book. Saunders said he liked the comic in part because he couldn’t figure out whether Spider-Man was a good guy or a bad guy, and because Spider-Man was often wracked with doubt.
“Badman doesn’t doubt the righteousness of his mission,” he said. “Spider-Man is constantly questioning his actions.”