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POW! ZOWIE! Scholars discover the comic book.

Comic figures gain new academic respect as they enter the world of literary and critical analysis.

(Page 2 of 2)

The growing academic interest in comics comes as Hollywood continues to embrace the form.

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"Dark Knight," the new Batman movie, is poised to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time, if not No. 1.

Last weekend, Comic-Con sold out before the event began for the first time.

An estimated 125,000 people showed up for the four-day festival, which has largely become a celebration of movies and television.

As for comic books, a leading comics distributor reports that sales of all types of comics to shops in the first six months of 2008 are just 1 percent below the same period in 2007.

Comic Buyer's Guide estimates the annual US comic market at $660 million-to $700 million in 2007, excluding the popular Japanese comics known as manga.

In a sharp contrast to days past, many school libraries now put comic books and graphic novels on their shelves.

At an elementary school in the San Diego suburb of Cardiff, fourth-grade teacher Trish Dentremont encourages her students to read comic strips in newspapers. Among those she suggests: "Calvin & Hobbes," "Zits," and "Luann" in book form.

The comics work on two levels, she says, allowing those with smaller vocabularies to learn words from context while providing complex double meanings for more sophisticated students.

"They love them," says Ms. Dentremont, who attended Comic-Con to learn more about using comics in the classroom.

Comics aren't universally respected. In Maryland, some educators scoffed a few years ago when the state school superintendent approved the distribution of "credible" comic books and graphic novels in elementary schools, says high school teacher Jeff Sharp, whose comics-based work with art students helped inspire the program.

But state officials deemed the program to be a success, and 200 third-grade classrooms are slated to work with comic books this year.

In academia, the study of comics remains questionable in some minds.

Postgraduate students worry they'll never get college teaching jobs if they write dissertations about comics, Coogan says.

Older professors more skeptical

McClancy, the graduate student, says older professors are more likely to be skeptical of comics studies.

Younger people accept her work studying comics, movies, and video games at Duke University, she says, although some exclaim, "You can do that?"

McClancy plans to teach once she finishes her graduate studies. Ultimately, she says, teaching people to analyze comics has a serious purpose.

"We can help people to be critical of what pop culture throws at them," she says. "[We can ask:] 'What is in the ideology that this comic book is pushing?'."