Short interview with Bart Beaty on “What Were Comics?”

whatwerecomicsDuring the last weeks, the research group “Hybrid Narrativity” of the universities of Potsdam and Paderborn received a lot of attention, not least because of their successful funding through the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The project is sometimes compared to a somewhat similiar Canadian approach, “What Were Comics?”: a relatively new project by Bart Beaty, Benjamin Woo and Nick Sousanis, supported by the University of Calgary and Carleton University.
“This project will develop a random sample set of comic books representing two per cent of all publications produced in the United States each year from 1933 to 2014. Comics will be indexed for a variety of formal elements (story length; page layout; panel composition; volume of text in captions, word balloons, and sound effects; scene transitions; etc.), producing a systematic survey of comic books’ material and symbolic characteristics over time” (cf. project description).
Since not all too many people in Germany are aware of What Were Comics? yet, the ComFor editorial board had a short interview with Bart Beaty, explaining a little bit of the backgrounds:

ComFor: introduces some of the intriguing questions behind the project. Could you tell us a little bit more about how these ideas developed? How do your prior books fit into this (new?) direction?

Bart Beaty: This project really grows out of a number of conversations that Ben Woo and I had when he was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Calgary in the 2014/2015 school year. Ben and I are both trained in Communication Studies, although I now work in a department of English literature, and so that is where Ben was when he was working with me. We were both struck by some of the disciplinary biases that can be found in literary studies – particularly the emphasis on studying “exceptional” works rather than the breadth of what has been produced in any given area. At the same time, I was working on my book Twelve-Cent Archie where the idea of studying unheralded works was always on my mind. We initially decided to address this issue in a book that we are now completing for Palgrave, tentatively titled Consecrating Comics, which will lay out a lot of our theoretical approach. What Were Comics? will allow us to support our contentions with data.

CF: How many people will be involved in the overall study?

BB: It’s not clear yet how many people will be involved, although we feel that it might easily be dozens. One of the first things that we did was recruit Nick Sousanis into this project as a post-doctoral fellow. Nick brings an invaluable level of insight as a comics creator and as someone with training in education. We’ve hired our first several students, and we have plans to hire at least half a dozen students each year to work on this project. I imagine that all of my graduate students will become involved to varying degrees, as will those who go to work with Ben at Carleton University. One thing that we hope will happen is that our students will use this data set to begin developing their own ideas, and we will work with them to publish those findings. For instance, one of our students right now is curious to use the tool we develop to look at the Claremont/Byrne X-Men comics of the 1980s. That would be a tangent from what we’re doing, but I’m excited to see what he would turn up.

CF: Could you tell us something about the estimated time frame already…? When do you expect on publishing some first results?

BB: The funding will roll out over four years, and we anticipate that we will extend this through 2019. Our goal will be to have the major work of this project – the big book – done in 2019, but we will be producing articles sooner than that. One of the things that we hope to do is to regularly blog about the project beginning in September. We are in a quiet moment right now as we assemble our tool and define our sampling frame, but we hope that we will be producing data in September. We should be presenting some very preliminary findings about the first portion of the data set in spring and summer 2016. Just today we were discussing what would be some of the earliest conferences that we would attend to present preliminary data.

CF: The research group “Hybrid Narrativity” of the universities of Potsdam and Paderborn received a lot of attention in Germany recently for a somewhat similiar approach. What kind of support on an institutional level – or what desirable next steps – would you consider important for Digital Humanities-projects at the moment…?

BB: We’re very excited about the Hybrid Narrativity approach and we’re hoping to connect with them to make sure that our data sets might be complementary. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, who have provided us almost $300,000 for this project. Both the University of Calgary and Carleton University are supporting us now, and we are hoping to receive additional student support from Mitacs Globalink later this year. This is a hugely resource heavy project because the preliminary frame simply doesn’t exist. We don’t have the advantage of Google having already scanned thousands of comics that we can work from – we need to start that step ourselves, so our federal funding has been crucial. That said, we have already learned that the DH community is incredibly helpful and welcoming. We’ve already spoken with scholars doing very different projects in, say, Victorian poetry who believe that they have tools that will help us gather some our data more easily, and that is really gratifying. We’ve received a lot of advice about crowd-sourcing as well, and we are beginning to talk about how that might work in the context of this project.

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