“Graphic Novel Scholar”? Naw, “Comics Geek”

Tintin and the Black Island.

The first comic I ever read when I was 6 after receiving it as a present from Aunty Doris. Here’s a recent photo of my tattered but beloved copy 20 years later:

Irreplaceable.

It wasn’t long before I completed my Tintin collection, then moved on to Asterix. Read a couple of Archies lying around my relatives’ places in Singapore when I’d visit from Japan in the summers.

Then I delved into manga, starting when I was 11 with kid-friendly Doraemon (or as “kid-friendly” as you can get in Japan; a culture with public bathing—onsens/sentos/ofuros—doesn’t quite view nudity in the same taboo way as in the West). Then One Piece when I was 13, followed by all the shonen staples. In high school, I transitioned to seinen and dabbled in shojo. At one point in time, I owned 1,500 manga; I reckon I’ve read close to 2,000 now. Also likely spent more hours tachi-yomi (lit. standing-reading) at secondhand bookshops than I did at home.

Literally dropped by BOOKOFF 3-4x every week after school to stand-read secondhand manga.

English comics (aside from Tintin, Asterix, Archie) I first encountered at 13 in the summer of 2005. My parents were doing a summer course at Regent College in Vancouver, and I often wandered off alone to Chapters Bookstore. Craig Thompson’s Blankets was the first that fully captivated me; I remember reading it straight in 3 hours sitting on the floor. I was in Singapore for a few months after that, which meant easy access via Kinokuniya: superhero comics (e.g. Ultimate Spider-Man), as well as more grown-up comics (e.g. Watchmen, The Sandman, Y: the Last Man, etc.).

Now at age 25, I’m still reading comics. Except in the process, I’ve gotten a BA and soon will get an MA in English Literature. That’s right, I get to read and write on what I love and get a university degree.

But I masqueraded for a bit. When I started writing on comics in my undergrad, I had to probe the uni department, test out the waters. I used the term “graphic novel” (popularised by Will Eisner’s A Contract with God) to make it sound sophisticated and, as much as possible, to avoid having to defend my choice of texts. I wrote on Alan Moore’s Watchmen for my literary theory exam, and on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (comparing it with Don DeLillo’s White Noise) for my American Fiction essay: both received firsts, which meant I successfully foole— I mean, impressed the markers. For my dissertation, I wrote 12,000 words on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and received the highest mark I’ve ever got. I was a certified, legit scholar of graphic novels.

My desk whilst working on my BA dissertation.

But now, I don’t even use the term “graphic novel” anymore. Daniel Raeburn calls the phrase out

for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a “sanitation engineer” (Wikipedia)

Or in the words of Alan Moore, one of the greatest comics writer ever:

That pompous phrase was thought up by some idiot in the marketing department of DC. I prefer to call them Big Expensive Comics. (Telegraph)

I’m still reading and writing on (big expensive) comics. When people ask me what I specialise in, I tell them comics studies. There’s no hiding it: I may be donning the façade of a graphic novel scholar, but in reality, I’m just a full-blown comics geek.

(Disclaimer: this doesn’t change the fact that I fully believe in and advocate the literary value of comics. I guess you can view me as a geek able to wield intellectual rhetoric to negate any belittlement of comics. Bring it on.)

There’s something particularly affecting about how my MA dissertation takes me back full circle 12 years ago to that fateful summer day in Vancouver, 2005 sitting on the floor of Chapters: Craig Thompson’s Blankets, plus his subsequent work, Habibi.

I’m also thankful that I’ve been able to incorporate my faith into my study of comics. I examined the possibilities of redemption in The Sandman; I’m now exploring the themes of faith and doubt in Blankets (which deals extensively with Christianity) and Habibi (likewise with Islam).

I’ll end by telling you a little secret: I’ve managed to leave my own little handprint—a legacy of sorts, if you will—on the English Literature module at Durham University, which I’m rather proud of considering it is the best English course in the UK (even above Oxbridge; sorry, as a Durham student [cough Oxbridge reject cough] I’m obliged to mention this every time).

All freshers have to take the Introduction to the Novel module, which since 2015 includes Alan Moore’s “graphic novel” V for Vendetta on its list of texts.

I put it there.

Well, not technically, but I did have a huge say in it. My undergrad diss supervisor who’s done extensive work in comics studies was pushing for the inclusion of a graphic novel. In one of our meetings, he mentioned his keenness for Moore’s From Hell (planning to pair it with Jekyll and Hyde), to which I replied, ‘A 600-page tome that even I, a seasoned comics reader, find intimidating? Not the best choice for an introduction to a medium that many might be new to. It might very well put them off from reading comics forever.’

So he asked me what I’d recommend, to which I put forth V for Vendetta. And lo and behold, there it was on the module the following year.

Geek: 1. Uni: 0.

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