In the coming weeks, we will be introducing our Board Members in posts where they discuss their relationship to comics and comics studies. We are starting with our intrepid President, Joshua Abraham Kopin. Josh works in American Studies and is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.
How long have you been involved with CSS? What brought you to CSS?
I was at the International Comics Art Forum meeting at Ohio State University in 2014 when the CSS was voted into being, and I attended the first meeting of the CSS Graduate Student Caucus that same weekend. I have been a member ever since, and I have served on the GSC Executive Board since then too, first as the web editor and then as the vice-president and now as the president. What former GSC president Colin Bieneke has called my “tyrannical rise to power” ends this spring, when my term does. Working to grow comics studies through advocating for graduate students and early career scholars as part of the GSC has been one of the great honors and few pleasures of my time in graduate school, and I would encourage people to run for the member-at-large positions, the secretary-treasurer position, and the vice-presidency, all of which will be open this spring.
What was the first comic that you remember reading, or the first that really had an impact on you as a reader?
I started buying Uncanny X-Men issues in 2002 or 2003, around the time that the second X-Men movie came out. Angel and Husk were dating. Northstar was on the team. Nightcrawler was… studying to be a priest? It was a weird time. But there were some great comics then, including the first iteration of Exiles, my favorite Marvel comic of all time. Today that book is being written by Saladin Ahmed, one of my favorite prose authors, and it’s still a blast. At the same time, I was spending a lot of time at my local public library, reading their collection of graphic novels, which seemed to grow bigger every week. That was my first exposure to works that are still some of my favorites: Sandman, Transmetropolitan, Fun Home, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Concrete, Blankets, you know… the classics. The first comic that made me want to study comics, though, was Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. It’s a little on the nose: the study of comics is a variety of the study of symbols, and it’s hard to get more blatantly symbolic than a man running around wearing tights that look like the American flag. I’m glad I’ve moved on to other things. Brubaker’s Cap comics hold up, though, particularly the ones drawn by Steve Epting.
What are you reading now that you think others should look into?
Unfortunately, my comics reading has gotten kind of sparse, and I’m a little less checked in than I used to be. But Ahmed’s Exiles, drawn mostly by the very talented Javier Rodriguez, is great fun, and I like the style of the Shuri series written by another favorite prose writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and drawn by Leonardo Romero in the round, flat-colored style of Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and Rodriguez that I’ve come to love most in the last few years. I also just read the collection of Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam, probably my favorite work from this past year, which is a beautifully drawn and imagined queer sci-fi romance set in a universe with big mysterious history and without men. It has some nice consonances with my favorite ongoing media, the cartoon Steven Universe, and I would love to see Walden explore it some more. Then there’s the stuff I’m always coming back to, like John Porcellino’s King Cat collections and Peanuts and Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats, and then the stuff I’m reading to better round out my knowledge of European, Latin American and Asian comics, which is an easier prospect than it used to be now that so much stuff is getting translated.
What comics scholar has most impacted your current research, and why?
I’m tempted to say that it’s someone working in the interdisciplinary cultural studies mode that I’m trying to work in, like Ramzi Fawaz and Jared Gardner, or someone whose work I really admire, like Carol Tilley, Scott Bukatman, or Chris Pizzino. I also thought about saying Martha Kennedy or Caitlin McGurk, since one of the best things about comics studies is the visibility of the work done by archivists as well as those by professors, although we, like every other discipline, could be doing better in that regard. Now that I’ve already mentioned, uh, seven, people, though, I’m going to go ahead and keep cheating, and say that it has been my community of graduate peers, more than anyone else, who have given me the will to keep going when the prospect of staying in school seemed like it was just too much. I was so, so lucky to meet Ben Owen, Frederik Kohlert, Colin Beineke, Biz Nijdam, Rachel Miller and Forrest Johnson at that first ICAF in Columbus, and then to speak on a panel organized by Margaret Galvan and Leah Misemer, who have been two of my most important mentors, at MLA in Austin in 2016. And then I went to the ICAF in Columbia, South Carolina that spring where I met Francesca Lyn and Jeremy Carnes… and that’s not to mention the folks who weren’t graduate students when I first met them, like Osvaldo Oyola, whose commitment to quality public scholarship is unmatched, and Keith McCleary, or the folks I met later. My community has only expanded as the field as continued to grow and as CSS has matured, and I believe it is my most important goal as the president of the GSC to help build structures that make it as easy as possible for as many young scholars as possible to build communities like the one I’ve been so lucky to have.
Is there any recent shift in the field of comics studies that you are particularly excited about?
Personally, I think it’s hard for us to talk about shifts, since the field is still so new. I think the big thing is growth! I started grad school almost six years ago, and the number of scholars and high quality monographs has absolutely exploded since then. This is our golden age.
Who is the comics writer/artist/scholar that has most influenced the way you think about the field?
Gosh, you’re going to make me pick just one? I’m going to go ahead and cheat, again: the writer who matters the most to me in the world is Ursula LeGuin whose plain language, sympathy, and grace in constructing dangerous archipelagos and ambiguous utopias steels my will in the face of many uncertain futures. So that’s one thing, LeGuin is just everywhere in everything I do. But she also invented this sci-fi technology called the ansible radio, a piece of technology that allows the characters in her Hain Cycle to communicate with each other instantaneously across vast cosmic distances. Comics, like the ansible, are able to disrupt what should be possible in our experience of linear time, and are in fact all about exploring new ways to explicate temporal and spatial relationships. Comics are the ansible.
If you could choose one comic writer or artist to meet who would it be and why?
Sometimes I write about an Austin cartoonist named Jack Jackson, who was a part of the Undergrounds in the Bay before coming back to San Francisco and drawing these really dense, really wordy, really weird Texas history comics. He died, rather tragically, in 2006. In the second half of his career he tried to use his comics and illustration work to float his research into very specific aspects of Texas history: ranching, stuff like that. He had some interesting ideas about how to approach history in comics form and some controversial ones about what the ethics of doing history were. I would have loved to have gotten to talk to him about them, and about the breadth of his career.
What are you currently working on and do you have plans for future projects?
Right now, I’m writing a dissertation about the early history of the comic strip. Focusing on one particularly famous R.F. Outcault strip (you probably know the one), the project frames comics as a uniquely nineteenth century technology of time and space, one intimately tied to other nineteenth social and cultural developments. Because I find it totally impossible to sit still or pick just one topic, I’ve also got an upcoming article on Jackson and I’m co-editing a roundtable on sound in comics with Osvaldo Oyola at his online magazine The Middle Spaces. Both should be out sometime next year.
How can folks get in contact with you to talk more about comics or your research?
If you’re a grad student with questions or ideas, or somebody who was once a PhD student with questions or ideas, I’d love to hear from you. There’s nothing more important to me than supporting my peers. Good luck out there!