Comics, TV and academics, oh my!

By Emily Ask

Comic books, video games, television, professional wrestling — these are not terms usually associated with words like “dissertation,” “PhD” and “intellectual,” but Bart Beaty, a Communications and Culture professor at the University of Calgary, wants to change that.

“Certainly I have colleagues in the English department, colleagues I respect very much, but they look at me and say, ‘You know, we’re teaching our students Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Donne and Locke . . . You’re teaching them how to beat up hookers in Grand Theft Auto 4,‘ ” says Beaty.

“Well, I don’t teach [students] how to beat up hookers in Grand Theft Auto 4, but the fact of the matter is that Grand Theft Auto 4 still raises up many issues that are akin to those [found in more traditional curriculum].”

Though he’s explored a wide range of pop culture, Beaty’s passion resides within the comic book industry. He recently wrote a book titled Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s, which was published in 2006.

In it he documents the artists that radically and rapidly impacted the French comic book industry in the 1990s, not unlike the French New Wave in cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

“They were moving comics away from the traditions we associate with comics — that is humour, children’s stuff and superheroes — and really looking to make serious and mature artistic statements,” he says.

Beaty was pleased to see that after he released his book, many of the French artists he wrote about began to be translated into English by American publishers.

“I think I was a bit ahead of the curve on that one,” he grins.

His next book will examine why comics have only recently started to be regarded as “art,” despite their long history and impact on our culture.

“What does it mean when artists like Robert Crumb and Chris Ware are having their work displayed in international art museums?” Beaty asks. “Well, it means that something has changed in the relationship between art and comics, and I’m trying to diagnose what exactly that change is and what it means.”

Though he has many friends among European comic book artists (including one in Belgium who draws comics using entirely his own blood — how’s that for avant garde?), Beaty is impressed with local Calgary talent.

“The predominant trend for young artists in Canada is webcomics,” he observes. “You have the opportunity to gain a far wider audience on the Internet than the few dozen people who will wander into a comic book store.”

In 2002, Beaty found himself in San Diego for the famed International Comics Convention, but didn’t give it rave reviews.

“I went because a couple of European cartoonists who were invited as guests asked me to come translate for them,” he explains. “I can’t say I want to go back . . . . When I was there I hated it.”

After witnessing a throng of fans following Quentin Tarantino from booth to booth and a girl crying with joy at the sight of Rob Zombie in the food court, it’s hard to blame Beaty for his disdain.

He adds that the convention has become more about cult followings, be it manga, science fiction or Twilight, than actual comics.

And unlike some of his fellow comic book enthusiasts, you won’t ever catch Beaty dressing up as his favourite character for a convention. In fact, he says that even if he had actual super powers to fight crime, he’d stick with the khakis.

“I wouldn’t disguise my identity ­– if I had the powers of Superman people would know it,” Beaty muses. “I’d walk around and say, ‘I’m Bart. I can lift up the whole building.’ I wouldn’t care. This would be me with my orange sweater. I don’t need a costume.”

Though there have been successful efforts to remove the stereotype surrounding comic books, Beaty still has his work cut out for him. While he may receive a few raised eyebrows during his classes, he hopes to challenge students in the way they see art just like art challenges the way they see the world.

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