Kathleen McClancy is not your average comic-book reader. Unlike the legions of fans who developed a love for comics in childhood, McClancy, a seventh-year graduate student in English, didn't begin reading them until she was in college. On one auspicious day, a family friend dropped off some Fan Man comics, and she was hooked. "Suddenly, every week I was going to pick up the new publication."
McClancy doesn't read comics purely for their entertainment value. As an organizer of the Comics Arts Conference—academic programming that takes place during the popular comic-book conventions Comic-Con International and WonderCon—she studies them from an intellectual perspective, driven by a curious mind, the desire to bridge the gap between popular culture and academe, and the ability to uncover the layers of complexity and social commentary that can be found in comic strips.
This interest, perhaps, stems from her desire to learn more about how American society evolves.
"I read pop culture because I'm fascinated [by] the way American society defines itself, the way we tell ourselves about ourselves. That's manifested in pop culture in very interesting ways," McClancy says, citing the Marvel character "the Punisher" as an example. To avenge the murder of his family, killed by the Mafia, he turns into a vigilante who single-mindedly hunts and kills members of the Mob and other criminals. But McClancy, whose dissertation at Duke explores how Vietnam War veterans are represented in popular culture, says the character, a war veteran, also symbolizes a larger shift in the mindsets of the American people.
"As we get further and further away from the Vietnam War, what being a Vietnam veteran means starts to change," she says. "We start to think of Vietnam vets not as Dirty Harry but as John McCain."
Although comics and popular culture are beginning to earn respect as legitimate academic fields, there is still a prevailing disbelief that comics can be taken seriously. Even at the Comics Arts Conference, traditional convention attendees who wander into the academic discussions are sometimes shocked that the X-Men or Superman are subjected to such critical scrutiny.
"A lot of people have the impression that comics are simplistic or childish in their treatment of themes and in their artistic value," McClancy explains. "They were that way for a long time as a result of a certain amount of censorship starting in the 1950s. But since the '80s, they've become increasingly thematically complex."
After she completes her degree, McClancy hopes to find a faculty job that will allow her to continue her work, which may include an examination of the horror comics of the 1940s and 1950s that were so gruesome they ultimately led to the censorship of the medium.
In teaching and publishing about popular culture, she hopes to encourage people to think about the work in new ways, and to prevent it from fading into obscurity.
"People who are dressed in Storm Troopers uniforms will wander into our academic conference and then start to participate, and we get fourteen-year-old kids asking questions," she says.
"It's a way of trying to break down the distinctions between academia and the public."
Kathleen McClancy, comics genius
January 31, 2009