A Masters in Comics & Graphic Novels: What You Might Expect and How It Actually Works.
Three months have passed since the MLitt students submitted their dissertations and went their separate ways. This week, some of the Comics & Graphic Novels graduates, artists and academics alike, are gathering back in Dundee for our graduation. Since finishing the course myself, many of my friends and relatives have asked me, “You studied comics? What does that mean?” The obnoxious ones will keep going: “Do you draw them? Do you work for Marvel?” Usually, I just laugh it off and explain to them that I was not blessed with a talent for art, but I analysed comics and studied them in the same way that people study literature!
So how does that work? The Comics & Graphic Novels programme has two degree options: an MDes taught by the School of Design, and MLitt taught by the School of Humanities. There are three parts to the one-year programme: two semesters during which students take five - six modules, while the summer is dedicated to creating a comic for the MDes students, and a dissertation for the MLitts. Students can choose from a variety of comics-related courses, such as Critical Approaches, which taught us to apply literary theories to graphic narratives, or International Comics Cultures, which introduced us to comics cultures from all over the world.
Below is a vlog I filmed in late April which documents what I did for the final week of the semester. If you have ever wanted to study comics at a post-graduate level, this will give you an idea of what you are in for!
In the video, I went to meet my professor for a consultation session before I hand in my final essays. Although we only have few teaching staff, they are always supportive and suggest different angles for us to approach our work. For each module topic, we are given a set of readings and submit a short analysis of a related topic or concept. For example, the lecture shown in the video was the final class for International Comics Culture. Each of us picked a comic, analysed it in terms of the culture it came from, and introduced it to the class. Most of our time outside of class is spent in the library. I prefer studying at the Main Library, because the DJCAD building is impossible to navigate. Alongside the library resources, the Baxter Studio where we have our lectures is full of comic books as well!
The programme also offers us are talks from the guest speakers. In the vlog, Cam Kennedy (experienced Scottish comic artist) and Leon Strachan (Comics & Innovations Design Editor at DC Thomson) came to the school for to share their experiences in the comics and publication industries. It is motivational to hear from people working in the field, and get understand who their careers progressed. However, comics is a fast-moving industry, and the course was not always good at reflecting that. For instance, Cam Kennedy is a traditional artist who prefers to use pen and ink for drawing as opposed to digital methods, which made his ability to comment on the use of the digital methods employed by the artists limited. Also, some of his ideas of the industry are quite conservative, which was discouraging for me. Having guest speakers who are more relatable to the students, discussing topics such as freelancing and commission, setting up personal branding, writing a portfolio, building connections etc., would be a more practical.
Our class remained close the classroom, meeting up for social occasions, critiquing each other’s work and collaborating on projects. On their own initiative, several of the MLitt students visited Manchester to attend the International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference, a five-day academic comics conference. The conference theme for 2019 was Storyworlds, leading many speakers to focus on transmedia comics. This was especially useful for my dissertation on game-licensed comics. I had the chance to speak with several scholars studying similar topics, and was given useful book recommendations and suggestions for my paper. I even met the author of one of my reference books! It was an eye-opening experience as, for the first time, I felt valued as a fellow academic in the field.
The conference helped me crystallise my thoughts on what a course teaching comics academia ought to do. It should provide a platform for comics creators and readers, educate students about the many different comics cultures and sub-cultures, and create a comfortable and healthy environment for sharing personal and cultural experiences related to comics. It should prepare students to write academic essays by teaching them to apply literary theory to comics, and with regular coursework and feedback. In order to facilitate a career beyond the course, it should encourage students to participate in and organize comics events, and provide opportunities for networking with academics and comics industry figures.
Our programme is still relatively small, with limited resources, and it did not fulfil all of these expectations. Luckily, our class still made the most of it. Between the six of us, we co-founded Ladyeez Do Comics Dundee, created webcomics commissions for the V&A Dundee, submitted our own scripts for 2000AD’s Future Shock, volunteered at the university archives, attended an academic comics conference, each wrote 18,000 word dissertations, secured an internship at the Guardian, tabled at DeeCon, published an academic essay on Avengers Endgame, lectured on art and design, and, most importantly, launched this website, quite a lot to achieve in a year. Without this programme, we would not have come together to create what you see here today.
As I am writing this piece in the Baxter Studio, the 2019/20 class is having their Critical Approaches lecture behind me. Seeing the new class raising questions and making their points on the lecture’s topics, a sense of nostalgia rushes through me. I feel myself becoming lost in memories of the lectures I had in this room: the interactions with my classmates, all the jokes we made, all the debates we had, all the worries we shared for our upcoming essays and presentations, all the moments we enjoyed. I am very grateful for all the like-minded people I have met and all the opportunities I was given. We were provided with an environment for comic academics to debate and learn from each other, made all the more fruitful by the many different academic interests which would have been cut off from each other in larger disciplines. Leaving the course and parting ways once, we took far more out into the world than we brought to it. As we gather again for graduation, we continue to share our knowledge to build the eclectic collection of academic ramblings that is Minds in the Gutter, made possible by the programme we will all be celebrating having completed tomorrow afternoon.
Writer: Cecelia Lee
Editor: Holly Roberts