A lecture on Wednesday will explore social struggles and identity in comic books. The event is hosted by the library and the Alworth Institute and will feature the work of UMD professors Dr. David Beard and Dr. Mitra Emad. “Bullets, Bracelets, and Social Struggle: National Identity and Comic Books” is the result of Beard and Emad’s personal and academic interest in the medium of comics.
“I go home to 11,000 comic books in my apartment every night,” Beard said.
“Well, I certainly don’t have 11,000, but I do have one file cabinet dedicated to comics. And I have an entire shelf of graphic novels,” Emad said.
Both had an interest in comics from a young age.
“My father bought comic books when he was in the military in Germany. He came back with a box of them,” Beard said. “My mother used to reward me with them. When I did a chore, I could bring down five new comics and put five away.”
Though some may abandon comic books along with other childhood memorabilia, Emad and Beard have turned the topic into an academic pursuit. Both used Barthes' concept of reading text in everyday activities.
“Barthes realized that you can read anything like a text — you can go to a wrestling match and read it like a text,” Emad said.
Emad has been particularly interested applying this concept of decoding to the role Wonder Woman plays in our society.
“My work is generally about the human body, so the way I went into the decoding process was to try to read Wonder Woman’s body,” Emad said. “The way that Barthes was reading a toy or wrestling match, I was reading her body.”
Emad was especially interested in the way Wonder Woman simultaneously represents nationalism and femininity.
“Usually nationalism, patriotism, those kinds of things are very masculine, and yet she’s this sexy woman in a revealing costume — not just feminine, but hyper-sexualized,” Emad said. “So how do you make sense of that — what are we saying about our society when we have an icon that looks like this?”
Wonder Woman began in 1941 when women were asked to contribute their efforts to the war by taking jobs in factories. According to Emad, this caused Wonder Woman to become intertwined with the feminist movement.
“There’s a lot of back-and-forth with feminism. The whole history of the women’s movement and feminism is tied up in this icon, and controversially so,” Emad said.
However, she argues that this icon has lost a bit of steam in the feminist sphere.
“A lot of the more recent stuff doesn’t grab my interest the way the early stuff did. I think it’s much less feminist now,” Emad said.
But Wonder Woman isn’t the only way Emad and Beard will explore issues of gender and nationalism in their lecture. Beard will be discussing “the use of comic books by American and European creators to explore the experience of Israelis and Palestinians,” according to the event description.
“One of the things I want to focus on is the way comic books display the experience of cultural contact,” Beard said.
Beard will be using various graphic novels and comic books to shed light on this notion of cultural contact, one of which is “Palestine” by Joe Sacco, which he often uses in his writing classes.
“These are all disorientation stories,” Beard said. “Most of these narratives follow the standard process: you arrive, you think every Palestinian is going to pick your pocket and you leave thinking ‘Wow, it’s not that bad here.’”
Of course, the primary focus of the lecture is how comic books are able to display these issues in a way that other novels can’t. Both professors routinely use graphic novels and comics in their classes to share stories in an engaging way.
“Comic books are a super friendly and efficient way to introduce key concepts and issues to students,” Beard said.
They also hope to combat the myth that comic books are not used for important issues.
“I think comic books are still fairly misunderstood or misjudged and that’s largely because not enough people are engaging with them,” Emad said.
The event is sponsored by the library and the Alworth Institute, both of which were very important in facilitating this conversation at UMD.
“The library hosting it helps us evaluate the usefulness of comics as a resource. The Alworth gives it a sense that this is dealing with important national and international issues,” Beard said.
Both professors agree that no prior knowledge is needed to understand the materials they are presenting.