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Serious about Comics

By Elaine Jacobs Smith

Photography by Keith Boyer

Design by Aaron Kennelly and Michael Powers.

Bracka! Bracka!

When Melissa Rogers took an internship with Marvel Comics last summer, she was hoping to gain insight into the making of popular titles such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, X-Men, and Iron Man. She was also trying to advance her research.

Rogers is a senior in the Robert E. Cook Honors College majoring in English and Spanish. But, the focus of her honors thesis for the McNair Scholars Program, which helps first-generation college students prepare for graduate school, is more a product of her minor, Women’s Studies.

Rogers is combining her penchant for feminism and women’s literature with her interest in comics. The result, “From the Gutter to the Mainstream: Women Comics Writers and Marginalization,” explores autobiographical comic books by women and how they challenge the portrayal of women in mainstream comics and traditional literature.

Her research also touches on comics as a medium and how their format affects the way a story is read. “Gutter” in her thesis title refers to the term in comics for the space between frames—where readers must imagine what takes place.

Whether discussing superhero titles or the alternative comics making their way into college classrooms, Rogers cautions not to be fooled by the pictures and speech bubbles. Comics are a medium to be taken seriously.

Marvel Comics Internship

A native of Long Island, Rogers moved with her family to Hawley, Pa., after graduating from high school. To her good fortune, her grandparents still live in Huntington, N.Y., about an hour by train to Marvel’s offices in New York City. During her internship, she stayed in an apartment above their garage. The Cook Honors College’s Enhancement Fund also helped her cover expenses.

As an editorial intern in the Marvel Heroes Office, Rogers spent most of her days getting editors to sign off on new comic book covers and researching old comics for artists and writers. If an artist had to draw a character he had never seen, Rogers searched the archives to provide an image for reference.

Highlights of her internship, she said, were writing recap pages (the opening pages that refresh readers on previous issues) and placing the speech bubbles in Captain America: Theater of War and other titles not yet released.

There’s more to bubble placement than filling in a “Wham!” or “Pow!” she explained. Sometimes she had to fit dialogue from multiple speakers into one tiny frame. When the writer or artist didn’t specify a sound effect, she got to make up her own. “Bracka bracka,” the sound of machine-gun fire, was her favorite.

Melissa Rogers wears Hulk gloves
Melissa Rogers poses like a superhero

Images of Women in Comics

Reading stacks of Marvel comics in her downtime, Rogers said that even she was becoming desensitized to the images of women. “I heard the editors say it a hundred times: ‘Sex sells.’”

She describes the typical woman in mainstream comics as strong, tremendously buxom, and usually wearing something that resembles a bathing suit. It’s not uncommon to see the character lounging around in her underwear or thinking in the shower rather than, say, at a desk.

“Are they behaving the way real women would?” Rogers asked. “We don’t know because most of the editors, writers, and artists at Marvel and DC [DC Comics, also based in New York] are not women.”

The same is true of the literary canon taught in high schools and colleges, Rogers notes. “There are all these men’s stories. They usually have only a few archetypes of women that are supposed to represent all of them.”

In contrast, women tend to have total creative control as both writer and artist in autobiographical comics. Rogers uses the example of Fun Home, in which writer Alison Bechdel used photos of herself in different poses as a basis for her drawings. “Representations of women are dramatically different when it’s a woman drawing herself.”

Comics in the Classroom

Rogers spoke on Fun Home in English professor Chauna Craig’s class The Novel, in which Bechdel’s piece was an assigned reading. Craig, director of Women’s Studies at IUP, is also Rogers’s thesis advisor. Earlier in the year, the two served on a panel at a Louisville, Ky., conference on literature and culture since 1900.

The presence of comics in literature classes is growing, Craig said. One of her scholarly interests is how people read differently when images are incorporated into the text. “This is the direction I see the novel going,” she said.

Because they deal with many of the same societal issues as standard novels, “comics and graphic novels have become very legitimate as another cultural artifact to analyze.”

How people read comics is also part of Rogers’s research. She was introduced to the topic her freshman year in Comics as Literature, a special-topics English class taught by Gian Pagnucci. The effect of sequentially arranged art, the presence or absence of frames, and the need to make up what happens in between panels—“it changes the way we understand the story,” she said.

Melissa Rogers and part of her comics collection
Melissa Rogers holds up a Shakespeare anthology and a comic book.

Comics as Literature

Judging comics as simplistic based on their format—heavy on pictures, light on words—would be a mistake, according to Rogers. Some are incredibly literary, both in theme and dialogue.

Bechdel’s Fun Home is about a lesbian and her relationship with her father, a closeted homosexual. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, another autobiographical work Rogers has researched, is about an Iranian woman’s experience growing up during the Islamic Revolution.

“You can have just a simple story where people are beating each other up, or you can deal with really complex issues,” Rogers said.

Sophisticated story lines aren’t limited to alternative comics. Rogers used the example of the Marvel event “Secret Invasion”—an alien invasion that occurred across the Marvel Universe. “These aliens are shape shifters, and they’re infiltrating the superheroes,” she said. “I think that really speaks to Americans’ fear of terrorism.”

While adult themes may catch some readers off guard, comics have never been for children, Rogers said. She cites the ties of Iron Man’s conception to the Vietnam War and Captain America and Wonder Woman’s to World War II.

“These are not kids’ stories. These are adults putting people in costumes and relating them to the real world. I think people need to understand that.”

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