A dream team of comics scholars has been assembled, including Professor Bart Beaty, Unflattening author Nick Sousanis, and asst. professor Benjamin Woo, and using funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and The University of Calgary and Carleton University they’ve launched a website called What Were Comics? which will…well, it’s best to let them explain:
Our proposed project is the foundational step in a larger program of work that seeks to reorient the study of comics (comic books, comic strips, graphic novels) by introducing data-driven research to the field for the first time. During this phase of the research we have two specific and inter-related goals: first, we will create the most comprehensive online open-access research tool for the study of the American comic book; second, we will draw upon the data produced by this tool to rewrite the history of the American comic book as the development of a set of styles and techniques that existed across the industry as a whole. By exponentially expanding our sample set, we will shift the study of comics away from the broadly humanistic study of exceptional works and towards a more rigorous focus on works that typified cultural production over time. This perspectival shift in method will produce new theories of the comic book as we facilitate a move from asking the theoretically abstract question of “what are comics?” to the empirically-grounded question of “what were comics?”.
Now, what does that mean?
With this project, we are proposing to study a randomly generated sample of American comic books produced between 1934 and 2014. Specifically, we will study a statistically significant sample from each of those eighty years. In the first phase, we will code a series of relevant pieces of data (number of pages per issues; numbers of stories per issue; numbers of panels per page; number of word balloons per panel; number of words per balloon). During the second phase we will be looking at data that is more subjective and more difficult to quantify (for instance, typologies of panel transitions). In the final phase, we will draw upon the data set to author a study of the evolution of comic book styles over time.
For a start, they’ve counted all the 9-panel pages in Watchmen. You may have thought ALL the pages in Watchmen had 9 panels, but it isn’t so! Can you guess which issue had the most 9 panel pages? And WHY?
This is gonna be great.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.