English professor Dale Jacobs realized he could use his training in composition and rhetoric to think about comic books. English professor Dale Jacobs realized he could use his training in composition and rhetoric to think about comic books.

Comics, a medium that’s all grown up

The revival of comic books and graphic novels in the 21st century has seen the medium transition from a children’s pastime to a subject of academic study. English professor Dale Jacobs says he was given the green light in 2007 to teach a Rhetoric of Comics course through the English Department and there continues to be a steady demand for the popular curriculum.

Like many children, Dr. Jacobs grew up a devoted comic book reader. He later gave them up to pursue an academic career, but about 12 years ago his own students persuaded him to give comic books another try.

“I started to realise that I could use my training in composition and rhetoric to think about comic books,” he says.

Jacobs started by looking at comics through the lens of multimodal literacy, which he says is about making sense of information communicated through multiple ways.

Multimodal literacy often deals with computer screens, which deliver information using text accompanied by sound, visuals and gestures. Jacobs says using comics is a more affordable and accessible way to teach all ages about multimodal literacy.

“I teach students that although they are getting the information and narrative from the comics’ pictures, the text is also key and you cannot privilege the words over the pictures or vice versa. It is an acquired skill and it’s a different way of consuming information.”

Jacobs also researches how comics can foster literacy through the sponsorship of multimodal literacy. These ideas spawned Jacobs’ book, Graphic Encounters: Comics and the sponsorship of multimodal literacy.

“I’ve been co-writing about comics in other ways too with former UWindsor grad student Jay Dolmage (M.A. ’02), who is now an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo,” says Jacobs. “We’ve written several chapters for books, highlighting work by creators with disabilities who are taking advantage of the medium to work against how society represents them.”

As it turns out, Dr. Jacobs is not alone in critically studying comic books. The Canadian Society of the Study of Comics, founded in 2010, is an academic organization with a mandate to approach comics from a wide variety of cultural and theoretical vantage points.

Across the border, Michigan State University houses the largest academic comic collection, with more than 200,000 volumes. Ohio State University is home to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, devoted to collecting, documenting and archiving American printed cartoon art, including editorial cartoons, comic strips and graphic novels. And for the first time in its history, Harvard University Press recently published a graphic novel - a Columbia University graduate’s PhD dissertation.

“More and more, it’s just becoming a part of what we do in English studies,” says Jacobs. “But in other disciplines too, like art history, art and communications studies. We are also starting to see text books and serious material being produced in comic form.”

UWindsor is using the idea of comics as educational tools in other cutting-edge ways. In 2014, Jacobs moderated a panel with cartoonists at Bookfest Windsor. This summer, he and a colleague, English professor Suzanne Matheson, co-curated a show of graphic artists’ work at the Art Gallery of Windsor. As well, the English Department will welcome Scott Chantler as their first Cartoonist-in-Residence this fall, as a part of the Writer-in-Residence program.

“Between the Cartoonist-in-Residence, the Bookfest Windsor panel and all the great buzz we’ve had about the AGW show, you can just see how interested people are in comics,” says Jacobs.

The exhibit, Between the Panels: The Comics Art of David Collier, David Finch, Jeff Lemire and Kagan McLeod, is on display at the Art Gallery of Windsor and runs until September 20.