3 questions with USC comics expert Qiana Whitted

Comics are simply another form of storytelling and their imagery speaks volumes about how their characters are perceived. This week, English professors Qiana Whitted and Andrew Kunka will welcome graphic novelists and comic-strip artists to discuss “Comics Studies in the South” and using comics in the classroom.

Special guests include artist Jeremy Love of the DC series “Bayou” and Roy Thomas, writer and former Marvel editor-in-chief.

We asked Whitted, who also is a professor in the African American Studies program at USC, to answer a few questions about the field and what we can learn from comics.

Q: Why comics? What do they teach us?

Whitted: Comics are a medium that is as deserving of critical scrutiny as any other art form. For the last 10 years at USC, I've been teaching my students that much like novels, poetry, film or video gaming, comics and graphic novels are simply another platform for storytelling, and they use both visual and verbal strategies to do so. Of course most people know comics from superhero movies or they may associate the form with funny animal stories best suited for children. There's absolutely nothing wrong with these associations, but what I try to highlight in my classes are the masterful ways that comics represent every genre and speak to readers of any age. Just as fascinating is the fact that American comics have a long history of their own that emerges from the Depression era and with each generation, engages new social and political issues, along with trends in consumer culture and entertainment.

Q: How did you get interested in them?

Whitted: My personal interest in comics goes back to high school and college when I discovered titles like “Swamp Thing,” “Spawn” and “Sandman.” It wasn't until I joined the English department at USC in 2003 that I turned to the academic study of comics and graphic novels, particularly those that intersect with my primary area of specialization in African-American literature and cultural studies. My current research focuses on representations of race in 1950s comics. 

Q: What do you hope will come out of this symposium?

Whitted: I hope the people who attend any of the events will gain a better understanding of the stories that comics tell and a better appreciation for what comics scholars can do with those stories. By focusing on the theme of "Comics Studies in the South," we also have the opportunity to highlight comics and industry professionals who grapple with the setting, history and people of the region where we live. One can easily see, for instance, how a popular comic like “The Walking Dead” takes advantage of its location in the South to develop character and conflict. Similarly, the work of our special guest Jeremy Love imagines the South through the lens of folklore, mythic quests and racial strife. Although Love's “Bayou” takes place far from Gotham or Metropolis, the southern tale is right at home on the comics page. And finally, our discussion with Marvel's Roy Thomas will give participants an opportunity to learn more about his legendary career as a writer, editor and comics journalist who lives only an hour from USC Columbia's campus. The symposium is being held in conjunction with Cola Con, the comic book and music convention this weekend at the Columbia Convention Center.

 The “Comics Studies in the South” symposium will be held 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday (Oct. 25) in the Graniteville Room of the Thomas Cooper Library.

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