From Scholastic to Fantastic

Posted by Jennifer

When I was in tenth grade, my friend Lauren and I wrote a four-song parody of the musical RENT for our U.S. History class. Called Tax, this theatrical masterpiece told the story of the Texan resistance to Mexican tribute taxes in the mid-1800s.

When we performed the skit in front of the class, it would be generous to call it a flop. Neither of us could carry a tune, and only two people in the entire room were familiar enough with the original play to appreciate our efforts. Yet performing that skit remains one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had in a classroom. I was learning, I was having fun, and I was incorporating my personal interests into something of scholastic merit. The six extra credit points Lauren and I received for creating the skit (no, it wasn’t a graded assignment—we were just that nerdy) were little more than gravy, compared to the thrill of composing and performing the piece to begin with.

I may not have had a term for it then, but in that moment I knew: I was going to be a fannish academic.

Years passed. I graduated high school and was accepted to Princeton University, where I began to take coursework toward an English degree. Over the next four years, I wrote a number of papers related in some way to popular books, plays, and movies I enjoyed, including two more on RENT. But my real pop culture niche wouldn’t be unearthed until the summer before my junior year of college, the summer of 2006. That was the summer I discovered comic books (and, by extension, my other Fantasic Fangirls).

That fall, fresh from a summer spent reading more than 300 comics, I was assigned an independent research paper. As long as it reached 20 pages, it could be on any topic I chose. I knew, immediately, that I wanted it to include comics in some way, and so I chose the topic of human-to-animal transformations in modern literature. With this topic, I could write about Hank McCoy, one of my favorite characters from my newly beloved X-Men. I could also write about Tobias, my favorite character from the Animorphs series of sci-fi YA books of the late 90s, and about the main character in Roald Dahl’s children’s classic The Witches.

But none of those texts were within the strict literary canon. I needed something, I thought, to balance the paper out. I needed something legitimate. So I threw in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and used it as the centerpiece of my argument, in which I demonstrated the presence and development of its transformation-as-alienation metaphor in the other, less-revered texts.

The paper earned a high grade, and my adviser seemed satisfied with the result. But I was not. I’d never cared about Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Though my argument was strong, the paper I wrote was not the paper I wanted to write. I’m sure there are Kafka fans the world over who would find the glee in writing about Kafka that I found in writing about X-Men and Animorphs, but I was not among them. More importantly, my mission was never to prove that things like children’s literature and comic books were worthy of study; it was, rather, to write about those genres because they already were worthy. I wanted to analyze the texts I loved on their own merits, without having to pull them up to “respectability” by tying them to a canonical text. And in my quest for that goal, I had failed.

When it came time for me to pick a topic for my required 80+ page senior thesis the next year, I was apprehensive. My mind cycled through a host of complicated, intellectual, and completely uninspiring possibilities, but nothing seemed to stick. In the meantime, my comic book tastes had branched out a bit from the X-Men, and I had fallen hard for the character of Captain America. I found myself fascinated by his goodness, by his humility and awkwardness despite his “perfection,” and, perhaps most of all, by the ways his writers over time had used him to define and bolster the American Dream and the American Ideal as they saw them, to both actualize and subvert cultural norms, and to show us all what Americans (at least in the writers’ opinions) could aspire to be.

So it shouldn’t have been surprising at all when, on August 28th, 2008, one week before the beginning of the school year, these two concurrent thought processes converged. On that day, as I toasted Lauren’s 21st birthday, my mind wandered back to the exuberant fun we’d had in tenth grade, singing off-key RENT parodies at the top of our lungs. I decided, right then, that I was going to fix the mistake I’d made with that junior paper. I was going to write my thesis about something I cared about, something for which I had a real passion, regardless of its critical reception. I was going to write my thesis on Captain America.

And so I did.

I was lucky. I had a supportive adviser, as well as a supportive professor/unofficial mentor, who encouraged me to take on a topic that was deemed strange or immature by many of my Ivy League classmates and other professors. But what really kept me going, as the page count got longer and longer (and far surpassed the page count of Jim Lee’s thesis twenty years earlier at the same institution, a fact that was not lost on my envious, sleep-deprived brain) was the love I had for the character, and my personal belief, against all opposition, that Captain America was a worthy topic of study.

In April, I submitted 115 bound pages of comic book research to my adviser. By June, the thesis had earned a very respectable grade and a few prizes. But the real moment of triumph was my visit to the 2008 New York Comic Con, where I got to meet one of the guests of honor: 94-year-old Captain America co-creator Joe Simon. After I got his autograph and thanked him profusely for his contributions to comics, I told him, through an assistant who had to repeat my words into his failing ears, that I’d written my senior undergrad thesis on Captain America. And Mr. Simon looked up at me with a grin, shook my hand, and said, “Wonderful.” As I stepped away from his table, I’m sure I was trembling.

I doubt that Joe Simon ever thought, when he first wrote the words “Captain America” on paper back in 1940, that his creation would one day merit remembrance, much less academic research, in 2008. But for me, meeting Joe Simon — shaking the hand that created this character I adore, and dedicated a year of my life to analyzing and exploring — was just as rewarding as meeting Franz Kafka (or Ernest Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf, or Henry James) would have been for others.

I would never deny that comics can be bad. I won’t cut bad comics slack because they’re “just comics,” and I won’t defend bad comics just because I love the medium. But comics can also be very, very good — or, as is usually the case, both good and bad in different ways. This is what my research as a student has taught me; this is what my experience as a fan has taught me. My mission, as a fannish academic (and now, blogger) is simply to recognize those facts, and to give comics — and their impact on society and the lives of their fans — the analytical treatment they deserve.

  • agirlcalledbob

    Thank you Jennifer. That was fun to read and a good way to start my Friday.

    I attempted to write a college paper on the history of comics. The professor poopooed my idea as not being an appropriate topic for a “college level paper”, so I wrote it on the history of photojournalism instead. Even with the great grade I got, I remained pissed at him the rest of the semester.

  • Margot

    Freshmen year of college I took 20th century American culture. My first topic was going to be Star Trek, but got turned down. Then I suggested Batman. And again turned down.

    Finally, I was able to write a paper – on Chicago: The Musical. No idea why that one was okay, but Batman or Star Trek was not. (Not that I’m still annoyed about this or anything.)

    And your thesis was still fabulous. :)

  • Caroline

    They wouldn’t let you do a 20th century culture paper on *Star Trek*?? That’s messed up.

  • Margot

    @Caroline Seriously!

    I think his objection was that it was too broad a topic. I could have narrowed it down really easily though! I like babbling on about these things!

  • Anika

    @Margot When I was little I attended one of my theatre professor dad’s student’s senior thesis performance of a Star Trek episode. It was the student’s goal to make live theatre as close to television as possible. There were commercials. It was amazing – I mean I was at most 10 years old and I still remember it vividly.

    Anyway, Wesleyan loves these topics.

  • Jennifer, that’s a great story! It’s nice to hear that you not only got to do the project you wanted, but that you got rewarded for it, too!

    In grad school, I wrote a paper on Watchmen and got my worst grade of the semester on it. The professor told me that she didn’t feel the subject matter was “very literary.”

  • Jennifer

    Thanks for all the great responses, guys!

    agirlcalledbob: Ugh. That’s exactly the kind of attitude I hate seeing. The history of comics is a rich and layered subject that many professional, respected people have written about, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t be “appropriate” in a college classroom. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

    Margot: I think you’ve told me that story, and it still makes just as little sense to me now as it did then. It sounds like your professor didn’t understand 20th century American culture very well.

    Anika: That sounds like an absolutely awesome theatre project. I wish I could see something like that!

    Jeff: Jeez, if Watchmen isn’t literary, what hope do any comics have of respectability? If and when I go to grad school, I think I’ll have to enter a popular cultural studies program of some sort, because a literature program might completely strangle me. And that’s a real shame – there’s no reason both shouldn’t be able to be studied at once, with equal critical attention.

  • Jen’s Mom

    Congrats on the blog. I’m proud of you, my fannish academic.

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