Thursday, July 2, 2020

Comics Studies by Clio Ding

Clio Ding is a comic artist friend who went overseas recently to do a master’s in comics studies. Although I have been researching and writing about comics for some years and have contributed to edited volumes like Comics Studies: Here and Now (Routledge, 2018), I am not schooled in comics studies. So I asked Clio to write something about her experience at the University of Dundee, why she wanted a MA in this field and what she has learned.

This is Clio’s bio in her own words:

A comic dabbler who loves to enjoy binging on snacks and alcohol while watching cartoons. To satisfy its immense appetite it became a full-time art educator. Clio started drawing weekend comics for the Singapore Press Holdings and messed around with doujinshi for a decade, before debuting with a gothic short story Libera Nos A Malo in the ARENA Fantasy anthology. It has contributed to the SG50 commemorative comic Our Months Together with Crisis.D featuring a pretty useless durian superhero. Currently, Clio has been making a 4 panel comic strip titled Kev!n, a humorous slice of life adventures of a food-motivated dinosaur and its bizarre friends like magical ice-creams, a ninja, aliens and broccoli. Libera Nos A Malo has also evolved into an ongoing series about a cyborg exorcist who runs a demon-busting agency with his academically overqualified assistant.

Here’s her reflections.

I have been an art educator since 2012. As a thirty-something comic enthusiast and dabbler, I felt the need to further improve myself academically as well as to give more attention to the passion that I’ve been neglecting. In September 2019, I embarked on my sabbatical to pursue a one-year Master’s degree in Comics and Graphic Novels at the University of Dundee (UoD). In this post I will be sharing my learning experience with the course, for those of you who might be keen to pursue a higher education related to this field.

Prior to my teaching career, I studied animation at the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University because I felt that animation techniques could help me improve my comic skills and broaden my aesthetic exposure. In my younger days I used to read mostly Chinese-translation shonen and seinen manga, because they were widely available, easier to read, and cheaper as compared to English comics. I tried reading American comics, but my English was not strong enough to appreciate all the puns. I was an otaku who didn’t really know about comics from the rest of the world till after university, but I also read very selectively and avoided the mainstream like the plague. Some of my favorite titles are EATMAN by Akihito Yoshitomi, Black Lagoon by Rei Hiroe, Biomega by Tsutomu Nihei, Hellboy by Mike Mignola, Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. In a sense, my taste in comics was shaped by economic constraints and linguistic inability, but my fellow comic enthusiasts abhorred my ignorance on the seminal works that all self-respecting nerds should know about, and so begin the process of learning.

I have kept on drawing while working as a fulltime teacher and have self-published my own comics as well being published by TCZ Studio. I have also gotten to know more about the comics community in Singapore through events like the 24 Hour Comics Day.

Drawing comics got me interested in Art, and I was able to have a teaching job because of an art school education, so when I was deciding what to do for my sabbatical, I eventually gravitated back to learning more about comics. Like everyone else, I consulted the ancient spirit of Google to guide my path. There were very few institutions in the world where one can study comics at the master’s level. Most of them focus on making comics, but I came across University of Dundee, that offers something different — comic studies.

What is Comic Studies?

Comic studies is a relatively new academic domain. It involves theorizing and analyzing comics in terms of their history, form, content, context and impact. These are done by comic scholars, who are experts in comic history, culture and theories, making them the most qualified human to talk about comics. Scot McCloud is one example that some of you probably know. Comic studies was normally carried out by various university departments such as American studies, English Literature, Sociology, History, Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology (but not art school…). Each of these disciplines takes a slightly different approach to analyzing comics. For example, American studies would be looking at comics (mostly superheroes) as a uniquely American cultural phenomenon; sociology might be gathering data on how comics influence certain social behavior; linguistics deconstructs the unique structure of comics and compares them to languages. Therefore, comic studies straddle multiple academic disciplines.

Having been a science student since secondary school, writing was never my strength. But my career in teaching art history and theory exposed me to the importance of art writing. Art, film and literature became important because of the attention was given to them in academia. But comic has always been much marginalized, narrowly associated with juvenile literature and popular culture, and never taken seriously in the universities until recent years. The growth in comic studies would therefore give comics the attention it deserves, as an important cultural artefact, and a unique form of art. Choosing a masters that deals with theories and writing instead of practice would be challenging myself to learn new skills and knowledge, and it could facilitate my future teaching practice.

UoD’s Masters in Comics and Graphic Novel was launched in 2011 by the English department, and is led by Dr Chris Murray, one of the UK's leading authorities on comics, and editor of the Studies in Comics journal. Currently it has two tracks, MLitt and MDes. MLitt (Master of Letters, somewhat similar to MA) is the original comic studies track with written dissertation as the final outcome, whereas the relatively newer MDes (Master of Design) mainly focus on creative practice, catering to those who prefer drawing rather than writing, as the final output is a comic project of at least 22 pages. MDes is anchored by the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, whereas MLitt is from the School of Humanities.

What can one learn?

The two tracks differ in their core modules and modes of final assessment, but all the core and optional modules from one track can be taken by students of the other track, subjected to the amount of credits per semester. I was in MLitt, but I shamelessly crashed almost all of the modules except for The Pictured Page, which was unfortunately cancelled due to low sign-ups for my year.

Here is an overview of all the modules available and what they are essentially about:

Or the full information for each module:

What are the classes like?

Learning comics at master’s level involves a lot of self-studies and readings. The modules are taught via 2-hour long seminars on a bi-weekly schedule. My timetable is thus shockingly empty, with lessons on only two or three days a week, sometimes none. We were given a lot of materials that has to be read before the seminar, both the comics being discussed as well as secondary readings on theories. Most of the materials are digitized and made available through the university learning portal, but regular trips to the college library are expected for physical materials.

On top of reading, there are bi-weekly journals to be written for the MLitt Core modules Critical Approaches and International Comics Cultures. Each journal entries are 400 words close analysis of any chosen comics relevant to the topics of the upcoming week. The journals need to involve citations of some secondary sources such as theories, so reading up is extremely crucial. In some sense it is Flipped Classroom where the bulk of work is done before the seminar.

Seminars usually begin with the lecturer invoking response from students regarding the reading materials and what they have written in their journals, with some commentaries and inputs. This is followed by an hour-long lecture where more theories are introduced, before finishing with group discussion on particular works or selected pages. The quality of discussion depends on the responses of the entire class or group, therefore being responsive and involved in discussions is essential. This might not be very comfortable for those who are used to being spoon-fed with information, those who are passive and less vocal, or those who are plain lazy and did not read anything beforehand.

This year we had a very small cohort of nine, only two of us were in MLitt and the rest were MDes. Students came from all over the world: we had two Scots, a British, a Canadian, a Greek, an Ecuadorian, a Peruvian, an Indonesian, and me the Singaporean. Some graduates have remained in Dundee for PhD in Comics, while others found jobs in the industry.

What else besides classes?

Apart from lectures, there are comics related events which we could attend. We made regular visits to Dundee Comics Creative Space, a comics event hub just across the campus where external talks, book launches, and workshops are made available to the public. We got to know some graduate students doing their PhD in the space, and they were very enthusiastic to form a little community that supports us outside of curriculum time. We saw Pat Mills and Ian Kennedy at the launch of Great War Dundee comic. It takes one’s own passion and initiative to seek out and attend these sessions and meet ups outside of curriculum times to make the learning experience worthwhile.

Dundee is also where DC Thompson is located. In Comics Production module we did a life project with The Beano. The editors came down for our critique sessions. You can read about it here: During the days without lectures, it is also recommended to take excursions outside to see more exhibitions and visit places. I attended Thought Bubble—the largest original comic con in the UK with my classmates. The train fare and lodging were expensive, but the loot was worth it!

The academic calendar of universities features long stretches of holidays. In academic year 2019-2020, Semester one was from September to November, and Semester two was from January to March, and Semester three is currently running from May to August. Seminars are only in semester one and two, and semester three is purely for dissertations or final project. That means a lot of unregulated free times which requires self-discipline. Due to disruptions caused by COVID-19, physical seminars have been replaced with online seminars since the last two weeks of semester two. I have chosen to return to Singapore and continue with my dissertation at home, and I am also meeting my tutor bi-weekly online. I felt that the seminars and especially workshops were too far and few in between. As the tuition fee for international student was over 17 thousand pounds for a year, I wish the modules could be more intense. Maybe years of stressful Singapore education has shaped me to expect the unsurmountable as the norm!

Overall, the course has broadened my knowledge horizon. This experience has allowed me the space to read and write more than any other occasions in my years of study. The most important module was Critical Approaches, because it introduces the various theoretical aspects of comic analysis. International Comics Culture is also one of my favorite because it introduces comics from around the world and how these global comics cultures have influenced one another. Throughout the many modules I have written and presented on interesting and strange topics: The Place of Comics in Art Education (for Critical Approaches); The Death of the Artist in the Age of Machine Intelligence; Love & Sex with Robots: The role and significance of androids in romance Manga (for Sci-fi); Hysterical Form: Chinese Lianhuanhua in the Cultural Revolution Era; Defining the Superhero in Contemporary Asian Comics; Asian Aesthetics in Digital Comics (for International Comics Culture); Adult Content: Sexual Politics in Adaptations of Comics to Film; and one about Hentai Kamen called The Male Nude – a Vulgar Spectacle (for Comics and Film). I am currently doing my dissertation on the negotiation of national and cultural identity in Singapore Comics.

Currently, comic studies are gaining tractions globally, with the most number of conferences and publications from North America, the UK, Franco-Belgian regions and Japan. Outside of the academia, comics are still presented to the public as commercial entertainments. Comics related exhibitions are sporadic, and most are exhibited within conventions, curated by publishers or fans. Apart from small scale showcasing of individual talents, very few are curated by educational institutions, museums, and historians. Fortunately, there has been an increasing number of comics related events in Singapore such as Singapore Writers Festival and Singapore Original Comics Festival (organized by TCZ Studio), and also some recent niche exhibitions featuring political cartoonists and alternative comics. I wish more of such exhibitions can be held for the public to appreciate not just the aesthetics of comics but also to gain insights about the relevance of their themes in the wider social context.

Thanks Clio for sharing.

To read Clio's comics:

Read Kev!n on webtoon:
Read Libera Nos A Malo on webtoon (censored as Mature):