Campus Life

Comics expert shares graphic novel history

Matthew J. Smith heightened the audience’s understanding of comics with his presentation “Beyond Biff! Bam! Pow!: Reclaiming Comics as the Ninth Art” Sept. 17 in the College of Business auditorium.

As a communications professor and director of cinema studies at Wittenberg University in Ohio, Smith conducts courses in media studies, including graphic storytelling.

His presentation, which introduced the history and culture of graphic novels, aimed to reframe the audience’s perception of comics.

“Comics are the juxtaposition of images in a sequence,” Smith said. “When images are placed side by side, something has transformed. That’s how you get a story.”

Known for his expertise in graphic novels and comics, Smith spoke about the history of comics and its importance. He spoke about the evolution of comics and how parents burned books in the 1950s they felt were unsuitable for their children.

That was the era when comics could only cater to children, birthing series like “Richie Rich,” he said.

Smith explained that comics are a collaboration between the reader and the comic artist to understand the meaning of the story.

“Meanings come in many layers,” he said. “Comics are not the container; they’re everything you can put in the container. Comics can do education. You can teach people through graphics. You can tell your life story in comics. They’re not limited to just any old thing. You can do anything with comics.”

He said a Japanese comic artist, Tadashi Agi Shu Okimoto, produced an entire comic series on wine tasting, which caused the audience to laugh.

“The prompting of the writer collaborates with the imagination of the reader,” he said. “The gutter between the panels of images allows readers to fill in the space with their own imagination.”

Smith said a comic’s panels determine the meaning of the story.

The size, colors and spaces between panels all contribute to the overall depth.

“The art conveys deep meaning. When you step back and look at the context, then you’ll understand,” he said.

To evaluate the artwork, Smith said one should look at the big picture.

“Comics are a complex process of meaning making,” he said. “They are larger than just a frame, drawing or moment. They are art.”

Smith said comic experts measure art. He said Jack Kirby was one of the masters of comics.

Kirby was a comic artist who collaborated with other artists to create legendary characters such as Captain America, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

“When you think about art, you think about the impact [and]how it affects people,” Smith said.

Kirby died in 1994, but he left a legacy behind. With the recreation of his collaborated work with Stan Lee, “The Avengers” was born.

Smith explained the concept of onomatopoeia, the visualization of sound in print, referring to words that imitate the sounds of their source.

“Biff,” “bam” and “pow” are a few examples.

Smith ended the presentation by showing a slideshow of some of his early drawings.

“Like every young boy in the 70s, I wanted to be a superhero,” he said.

He said he fell in love with comics when his parents bought him a copy of “Justice League of America.” He said his favorite comics are “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon and “News” by Art Spiegelman.

Smith promoted participation among the students through brief pop quizzes and he opened the floor to questions pertaining to the history and culture of graphic novels.

At the end of his presentation, he gave the audience comics.

“The presentation was fulfilling,” senior Keith Hudson said. “It was well-thought of, educational and informational.”
Sophomore Zach Lachowsky said he learned a lot from the presentation.

“It was a very interesting and informative presentation that expanded my understanding of art and comics,” he said.

Smith holds a Ph.D. in communication and a Masters in English.

He is the co-author of five books, including “The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture” with Randy Duncan.

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