POW! ZOWIE! Scholars discover the comic book.

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

mike blake/reuters/files
Man of steel: Comic figures gain new academic respect.

Amid the spectacle of the world's largest comics convention, tens of thousands of attendees had Batman on the brain.

But only graduate student Kate McClancy came armed with an analysis of how an asylum in the Caped Crusader's world reflects the American debate over treatment of the mentally ill.

It's an obscure topic, to be sure. But Ms. McClancy's treatise was right at home at Comic-Con International, which was held here this past weekend.

Dozens of other scholars were tackling arcane subjects from "the geek as melodramatic hero" to "the problem of vigilante justice" in the famed graphic novel "Watchmen."

Just 15 years ago, many professors would have scoffed at the in-depth study of comics.

Now, comics are coming into their own in classrooms of all kinds, gaining an unprecedented level of respect and spawning serious debate over their greater meaning.

"Comics have changed. They're not the comics that we grew up with," says Peter Coogan, an organizer of the academic-oriented panels at Comic-Con.

"They can stand up to literary and critical analysis," he says.

Across the country, hundreds of professors and college students spend their days analyzing comics, and the University of Florida even allows postgraduate English students to specialize in comics studies.

Meanwhile, teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools are embracing comics as tools to help students learn to read and enjoy words.

It's a far cry from the old days.

In the 1940s and 1950s, many schools accepted the view that explicit and violent comics caused juvenile delinquency.

Teachers have long confiscated the comic books of students who prefer the adventures of Spider-Man and Alfred E. Neuman to those of Macbeth and Jay Gatsby.

"Comics were a marginal literature for marginal audiences," says Mr. Coogan.

Then in the mid-1980s came the golden age of graphic novels – comics in book form – with complex, dark plots. Art Spiegelman's "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," for instance, won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for its vivid depiction of the Holocaust.

This year, Comic-Con offered almost 24 hours of academic workshops and panel discussions; hundreds of people attended. In 1992, when the discussions began, 20 people showed up.

In colleges and universities, comics scholars "are moving up in terms of institutional power and authority," says Coogan, whose newly formed Institute for Comics Studies think tank plans to hold conferences about comics.

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

"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?'."

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