ImageI was hired at UT Austin as a specialist of medieval literature and am up for tenure this year. Tenure and promotion committees like to see a coherent narrative when they scrutinize a researcher’s career, so in my case the unavoidable question has been raised I can’t tell you how many times, what is the connection between your research in medieval culture and your research in comics? My colleagues have tried to help by pointing out similarities between stained glass narrative and comics, the bayeux tapestry, manuscript illuminations, etc. A very astute colleague of mine suggested (rightly) that I am interested in questions of cultural legitimacy that cut across both fields. Friends and comics scholars have pointed out that comics have drawn on medieval story cycles and used medieval settings and themes since at least the 1930s. Some long-standing examples of comics medievalism include daily and Sunday strips like Prince Valiant, Hägar the Horrible, and the Wizard of Id, comic books like Camelot 3000, Knights of the Living Dead (Arthurian zombies!), and countless appropriations of medieval heroes and villains such as Robin Hood (including Green Arrow), Beowulf & Grendel, and King Arthur & Merlin. The Franco-Belgian tradition has its fair share of medieval-inspired comics as well that includes Asterix, Mélusine fée serpente, Sfar and Trondheim’s Donjon series, Les chemins de Mallefosse, and Bois Maury among (many) others.

ImageBut for all of the fascinating medieval themed comics out there, I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet taken the time to write and reflect on comics medievalism. Fortunately, plenty of other people have. The International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo has hosted a “Comics Get Medieval” panel every year since 2006. Michael Torregrossa keeps a blog entitled The Medieval Comics Project in collaboration with Carl James Grindley, and Jason Tondro. (These three are also behind the “Comics Get Medieval” sessions). Tondro recently published a book entitled Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature that looks tremendously interesting. And I’m sure there are plenty of other projects on comics medievalism out there that I’m not yet aware of.

My head spins with the possibilities when I try to imagine all the ways in which one might approach the question of comics medievalism. One might look at how the Middle Ages becomes a utopic terrain for fantasy and projection (erotic and otherwise) or at how a medieval setting enables certain artists to treat present political concerns with safe distance. One might also think about comics as a form of cultural production in which traces of medieval Imageinstitutions and cultural forms (heroic masculinity, arming rituals, millennialism, magic, etc.) survive in the present. In medieval literature classes I find myself citing comics whenever I have to explain the complexities of story cycles such as the Arthurian cycle or the divergent branches of the Roman de Renard and Tristan et Yseut cycles where certain characters are treated so differently as to be villainous in one branch while being sympathetic in another, and so on. I cite the various story arcs in the Marvel and DC comics universes to explain how a readership is able to accept, and even enjoy, conflicting variants cohabitating within the same narrative universe. In what ways has the medieval figured in your comics reading experience?

About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

4 responses »

  1. Michael– Though I am not a medievalist, I certainly think the connection between medieval studies and comics is a natural one. There certainly are many content-specific parallels (medieval legends, characters, tropes that have been/can be fruitfully revisited in modern comics) and cultural questions to be asked comparatively, as you note. The most immediate connection I make is a formal one, however: illuminated manuscripts (which I associate with the Middle Ages; in my one graduate seminar on medieval literature, we spent time thinking about the nature of the illuminated manuscript, its effect on the written text contained therein, and its cultural production). Though I didn’t think about this connection to comics before reading your post today, I know that my excitement about the dual nature of those texts (visual/verbal) was similar in nature to my reaction to well-wrought comics. I’m glad you are fighting the good fight at UT Austin!

  2. Maybe comics are medieval in certain respects. I wonder, though, about the attention to language. When I was working on my M.A., I took an Old English course and, the very next term, I took a seminar on the Beowulf. I spent a lot of time learning Anglo Saxon grammar, focusing particularly on phonology and morphology. I remember–with some joy–the time I spent learning how to differentiate between Weak 1, 2, and 3, verbs on the one hand and Strong verbs, classes 1-7. The alliterative half-line was one of the major features of Beowulf, and the interweaving of kennings (the whale road) into the verse was absolutely magical.

    I don’t know that similar attention to language can be found in 20th and 21st century comics. Of course, comics artists pay attention to language. After all, Superman and Bizarro couldn’t have a conversation (Morrison and Quitely) without extraordinarily careful attention to language. But is it poetic? Does it rise to the intensity of the kenning? I’m not sure it does.

    I would be very interested in hearing from other scholars about this. I’ve been away from Anglo Saxon for quite a long time. How does the use of language in modern comics compare to medieval texts?

    Great post, Michael!

  3. roytcook says:

    While there are certainly a lot of connections between medievalism and comics, a lot of these connections strike me, in many cases, as the sorts of connections that could be drawn between comics studies and any number of other sub-disciplines in literary theory (e.g. the connections between studying Southern literature and certain genres of comics that characterizes some of Qiana’s work on comics). What would be particularly interesting, of course, are connections that are specific to medieval studies or medieval literature. The long-standing “Comics get medieval” event event suggests that there are such medieval-specific connections (or maybe its existence merely suggests that medieval scholars are a particularly nerdy bunch – I am cool with it either way!) But I agree that we need to say more about the special connection between medieval studies and comics studies, if indeed there is more to be said.

    As a result of these sorts of quibbles, I was immensely interested in your quick comments about (i) medieval story cycles and (ii) stained glass narrative. The reason is simple: these seem to be instances where there are formal connections and similarities between medieval storytelling and modern comics – the sort of connections that won’t be found when comparing comics to many of their other sources (of course, no surprise that it is me pushing the formal connections stuff!)

    Also interesting along these lines are Frank’s comments about language(of course, no surprise that Frank brings up the cool language-oriented connections stuff!) Many comic writers take great pains to carefully construct the language contained in a comic. Grant Morrison’s work, and his ideas about the magical/reality-shaping powers of language, especially come to mind here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were deep connections to be mined. Further, sort of combining the two, one wonders if there are also larger (‘grammatical’ in a broad, perhaps not-quite-literal sense) similarities between storytelling in medieval tales and comics storytelling

    Anyway, great post!

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for your referencing to The Medieval Comics Project and The Comics Get Medieval sessions (held, to be correct, regularly at the meetings of the Popular Culture Association and rather irregularly at Kalamazoo).

    I’ve been offline most of the year but hope to respond further once I’ve had a chance to digest your post.

    Michael Torregrossa

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