Interview with Chris Murray

The comics researcher discusses ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree accusations, lessons on wartime alliances and the perils of eating cheese before bedtime

March 9, 2017
Chris Morgan, University of Dundee

Chris Murray is an academic in the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee. A researcher in comics, primarily UK and US publications, he has become a global authority in his field. His book The British Superhero was published this month by the University Press of Mississippi. At the end of last year, he was appointed the world’s first professor of comic studies.

Where and when were you born?

Dundee, 1975.

How has this shaped you?

Being born into Britain’s comics capital had a huge influence on me!

What kind of undergraduate were you?

Pathologically shy. Not yet fully comfortable with myself. Borderline weirdo – in the nicest possible way.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’d like to think that I would be a comics editor; but I expect that I would be a teacher. I spent a lot of time as a teenager and undergraduate tiling bathrooms with my dad – a career as a grouter loomed ominously in front of me for a while.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-plus tuition fees, would you go again or go straight into work?

I would want to study, of course, but I would not have been able to afford it. And now it’s worse. I feel very lucky and privileged that my education was paid for by the state. If that had not been the case, university would not have been an option for me.

How would you refute the idea that comics studies is a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree?

With a contemptuous laugh. Then a sigh. Then a deeper, longer, much more melancholy sigh. Then I would rally and point out, with a cheeky grin disguising a flicker of anger, that the comics medium is an old and sophisticated one, with a rich history that is poorly understood, and that it demands our attention like any art form. And I’d point out that our graduates have an excellent record of employment. To be honest, the value of the medium and comics studies as a field would be self-evident to anyone who cared to educate themselves about it, even just a little. Anyone who dismisses it as “Mickey Mouse” is, in my view, an idiot…The good news is that I almost never run into that “Mickey Mouse” argument any more. I think we’re finally moving beyond that kind of ignorance. But I stand ready to be proven wrong.

What do students learn on a comics studies course?

They learn about the history of comics, of course, and the theories about the formal operations of the medium. They also situate comics within debates about literature, history, art, design, genre, representation and narratology, and sometimes there are creative elements. It is a highly interdisciplinary field that encourages a problem-solving approach.

What are the best and worst things about your job?

The best is working with students who have truly original ideas and a love of learning. And my colleagues. They are wonderful. Worst thing? Very occasionally, I have to address that “Mickey Mouse degree” nonsense. That is tiresome and infuriating. Cue melancholy sigh.

What project would you undertake if money were no issue?

I would develop a National Centre for Comics Studies with gallery and archive space. It would support young comic creators and scholars and would engage the public in creative learning through comics.

What is the worst thing anyone has ever said about your academic work?

I did once give a long talk at a conference in the US addressing the tensions between British and American war aims and propaganda as seen through the comics of the Second World War. An audience member felt the need to point out in the question and answer session that the US and the UK were, in fact, allies during the war – as if I didn’t know that.

What book (including comics, of course) has had the greatest impact on your life?

The Invisibles by Grant Morrison. Also Zenith, by Morrison and Steve Yeowell, and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. And V for Vendetta by Moore and David Lloyd. 

Which graphic novels would you recommend to convince a sceptic of their literary merit? 

The Secret by Andrzej Klimowski; Maus by Art Spiegelman; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Too many others to mention.

How would a comics studies convention compare with a comic convention?

Comics studies academic conferences are like any academic conference in their rigour, although more diverse at the same time. Comics studies is inherently interdisciplinary, much more so than other fields, and this is a key characteristic of such academic gatherings. Comics conventions are a wonderful way to network with comics creators and to meet comics fans.

What is the strangest gift you have ever received?

My wife bought me an original page of comic art from my favourite comic series, The Invisibles. It is the oddest, most wonderful thing to own a piece of art that means that much to you. Also very surreal was a wedding present from my friend and colleague Damon Herd. I’d recounted to him a funny incident in which my two-year-old daughter ran up and told me that her mummy was getting married, and refused to accept my explanation that she was, in fact, marrying me. Several weeks later, Damon surprised me with a four-panel comic strip that captured that exchange perfectly. It was surreal and wonderful to see my family and this happy memory rendered in the medium that I love and to which I have dedicated my life and career.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

That things tend to work out OK. To take it easy. And to cut back on the cheese on toast before bedtime. Nothing good came of that.

hilary.lamb@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Dave Robertson has been appointed head of the College of Science and Engineer­ing at the University of Edinburgh. The profes­sor of applied logic at Edinburgh has been dean of special projects in the college since 2014. He has previously served as head of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics. Professor ­Robertson is a member of several strategy and advisory groups within Scotland and the UK, including the Farr Institute for medical data sharing. He is also a fellow of the British Computing Society and chairs the UK Computing Research Committee. Sir Timothy O’Shea, Edinburgh’s principal and vice-chancellor, said he warmly congratulated Professor Robertson on his appointment.

Naomi Graham has joined the leadership team at Edinburgh Napier University. As assistant principal, international, she will lead the development and delivery of the university’s internationalisation strategy, which includes plans to build strategic partnerships globally and to expand transnational educa­tion provision. She has previously served as director of international operations at Edinburgh Napier and as deputy head of international recruitment at the University of Glasgow. “Edinburgh Napier is a global university with significant ambitions to build strategic partnerships across the world,” Ms Graham said. “I am delighted to take on leadership in this area.”

The University of Reading has named Samantha Foley its new chief finan­cial officer. Ms Foley was previously the director of the Government Finance Academy, responsible for the creation and leadership of a new academy providing high-quality learning and development to some 14,000 finance professionals.

John Cridland and Jane Kelly have been appointed pro-chancellors at Brunel University London. Mr Cridland, whose role began on 1 March, is chairman of Transport for the North. Ms Kelly, who has been chair of Brunel’s council since 2011, takes up her office on 1 August. They will both serve for five years.

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