Dissertation Innovations: A Comics Dissertation

Paula Krebs: You decided to create a comics dissertation. Can you tell us more about what that looks like and what topics you tackle? Who do you envision as the readership?

Nicholas Alexander Brown: My dissertation responds to the increasing number of scholars who have produced comics-as-scholarship in the last decade. Nick Sousanis (2015) and Jason Helms (2017) have both released comics monographs, and Visual Arts Research (vol. 38, no. 1), Digital Humanities (vol. 9, no. 4), and Technical Communications Quarterly (upcoming) have all explored what might happen when comics and research intermingle. Sequentials exclusively publishes comics-as-scholarship content. Despite all this attention, however, little has been made of the implications of this form of research. In short, my dissertation proposes and demonstrates one way that scholars might produce, consume, and respond to radically multimodal scholarship.

First, my dissertation offers a methodology for the production of comics as scholarship and suggests ways that scholars might use the medium in the future. Although my emphasis is comics, the ideas I propose may serve as a foundation for other theories of radically multimodal scholarly production. Second, my dissertation traces the reception of multimodal scholarship within the context of rhetoric and composition. I examine the ways that our scholarly literature tends to emphasize certain multimodal producers (undergraduate students) but then avoids others (graduate students, faculty members, and staff members), and I suggest that this approach is unsustainable in the long run.

I am using the conventions of the comics medium and the superhero genre to craft a dissertation that is deceptively familiar and to avoid remediating the classroom setting on the comics page. I don’t want to draw scholars lecturing in a classroom, so I am using imagery that allows me to tell the stories I want to tell. I turn to Norse and Celtic myth as the visual motif unifying my project. Throughout these tales of brave heroes and fearsome beasts, I weave rhetorical scholarship. Visually, my project favors strong contours and clear outlines. My color palette is purposefully limited as a visual cue suggesting the sameness of scholarly forms (fig. 1). I break this palette only when I articulate my methodology. These factors expand my readership beyond my intended audiences within rhetoric and composition and comics studies.

comics pages
Figure 1


PK: How do you see form connected to content?

NAB: My research focuses on form and content as a single entity. We might artificially separate the processes of looking at and through a piece so that we can better understand in a given moment the artifact before us, but this distinction is made for our convenience. I prefer instead to discuss formcontent and the various ways that materiality and research variously support, oppose, and complicate each other while forming what is hopefully a harmonious whole.

I prefer to use the term formcontent for two reasons. First, running each word together into one reminds us that these pieces of an artifact are inseparable. Second, placing form first reflects my belief that figure comes before discourse (à la Lyotard). It is unfortunate that the affordances of written and spoken language prevent me from running the words together even more.


PK: Why is your form more valuable than the form of a traditional dissertation?

NAB: More than any other reason, my comics dissertation is valuable because it is not subject to many of the sedimented practices that often dictate what’s possible in written scholarship. My work still has to function as a dissertation and demonstrate that I possess the knowledge expected of someone working in rhetoric and composition, but I am not beholden to many of the limitations that my colleagues are. For example, the interconnected nature of comics encourages me to compose my endnotes (an extensive series of comments that does not explain but rather complements and complicates what appears in the comic) in targeted chunks. These endnotes demonstrate that I can, in fact, produce traditional scholarly prose. However, I allow these notes to function through juxtaposition instead of forcing a linear discursive logic on them. This decision leaves me greater room to play with ideas and their connections without having to worry about the explicit signposting and transitional phrases (among other features) that traditional academic texts require to function well.

My dissertation may allow me to exert greater control over the project than if I were producing something traditional, but it also comes with the added bonus that I need to articulate what I am doing constantly. It is not enough that I state what I’m arguing; I also have to discuss how I’m arguing it and the ways that the form supports my theses. These added explanations are difficult, and their necessity is often disheartening, but they have helped me to think through the formcontent of my dissertation in ways that I never would have if I were writing a traditional, alphabetic text.


PK: What implications do you see for the types of jobs you want to get?

NAB: Although I believe that my dissertation is valuable and that it will help to position me as a desirable candidate on the job market, it is a risk nonetheless. On the one hand, my dissertation demonstrates the depths of my abilities as a scholar: I combine various theories of rhetoric, composition studies, media studies, comics studies, studio art, Norse mythology, and Celtic studies into a coherent text that speaks to each of these disciplines in different ways. Additionally, I demonstrate that I can produce the types of texts that I critique and demonstrate how I might teach students to compose in similar ways. In short, my dissertation illustrates that I am a widely read scholar conversant in a variety of disciplines and that I value interdisciplinary work.

On the other hand, my work also paints me as a very particular (and often peculiar) type of scholar. I situate my work within the conversations surrounding nonrational rhetorics and multimodal composition, but the comics medium I have adopted for my dissertation encourages others to see me as “the Comics Guy.” I may read, enjoy, and use comics in my research, but I have to be careful when describing my work to make it clear that I am primarily a rhetorician specializing in multimodal and digital rhetorics who happens to be using the comics medium.

Nicholas Alexander Brown is a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University. His comics dissertation (The Rousing of Ogma: Developing Functional Methodologies for the Production of Multimodal Scholarship) examines the ambivalent reception of multimodal scholarship and proposes a methodology for the production of comics-as-scholarship.

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