Studying Comics from A(nt-Man) to Z(odiac)

What do Princess Leia, Superman, Freddy Krueger, Lieutenant Uhura, and author Ben Saunders have in common?

Other than being five people you’ve likely never had over for dinner (though Freddy Krueger is a whiz at dicing onions), all five will be appearing at this September’s Rose City Comic Con in Portland—or, at least, their “alter egos” Carrie Fisher, Brandon Routh, Robert Englund, Nichelle Nichols, and University of Oregon professor Ben Saunders will be.

Rose City Comic Con is Portland’s annual comic book and pop culture convention, and in just five years has gone from 4,100 attendees in a DoubleTree Hotel, to 25,000 devotees taking up all but one exhibition hall in the Oregon Convention Center. That 25,000 makes it already the thirteenth-largest comic convention in North America, and represents a figure that took San Diego Comic-Con twenty-six years to reach, and Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle nine years to match.

With a great crowd comes great responsibility though, and the Rose City Comic-Con organizers have carefully created an outstanding event with guests including movie and TV stars, such as Fisher, Routh, Englund, and Nichols; artists and writers of such titles as The Mighty Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel; and a man who may be an expert in all of them: Ben Saunders.

Saunders is a mild-mannered English Renaissance professor at a great American university, who happens to lead a double life as one of the foremost experts in American and British comics and cartoons. While he may be unable to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and it’s highly unlikely that he’s faster than a speeding bullet, he is the author of Do the Gods Wear Capes: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, one of two books he has written since 2006. In 2011, Saunders founded the Undergraduate Minor in Comic Studies at the University of Oregon, and since then has been invited to present on his not-so-secret passion all over the country.

Born and raised in Wales, Saunders attended the University of East Anglia, whose alumni include authors Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and Ian McEwan (Amsterdam, Atonement). The school’s creative writing master’s program was founded by Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man), though Saunders’ sole exposure to the legendary author was a single lecture during his first year on a campus, a lecture that was largely spent watching a BBC documentary about James Joyce.

“I had some wonderful teachers at UEA, and was introduced to the writers that I continue to admire, half a lifetime later,” Saunders said. “My fondest memories are of Ellman Crasnow (a fearsome but brilliant man who first taught me the poetry of Wallace Stevens), Lorna Sage, Victor Sage, and—above all—Peter Womack, a gifted and generous teacher who helped me to think about Shakespeare in theatrical rather than purely ‘literary’ terms. He probably changed the course of my life by inspiring me to think of ‘college professor’ as something more than a mere career, but a role that I could aspire towards.”

Saunders earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature, with honors, from UEA in 1991, and one year later received a master’s degree in English Renaissance literature from Cambridge University. He moved to America to work as a graduate instructor at Duke University from there, and received his PhD in English literature in 2000 before moving to Eugene to join the faculty in the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences.

After originally making a name for himself teaching both Shakespeare and rock ‘n’ roll, leading classes in everything from upper division Advanced Shakespeare to a summer course in Elvis Presley, in 2011 Saunders established the Undergraduate Minor in Comic Studies.

Given that four of the top-ten grossing films in 2014—and four of the top-fifteen grossing films of all time—have origin stories that involve ink and paper, it’s little wonder that Saunders’ minor has become as popular as it is. With up to 35 students enrolled in the minor at any one time, and up to 45 people packing a classroom to hear Saunders wax philosophical on the moral ambiguity of Spider-Man and the psychology of Wonder Woman, his classes are as successful at the UO as the genre is worldwide.

The key is not just presenting the genre as pop culture, but as bona fide literature. Wonder Woman isn’t just a scantily-clad Amazonian warrior princess gearing up to make her feature film debut in 2016, 75 years after first appearing in print: she is a powerful feminist icon conjured up by a psychologist who once stated that his creation was “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.” Superman isn’t just the true identity of reporter Clark Kent, hiding his alien superpowers behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses: he is a constantly changing reflection of “good” in his era, a superhero who started by tackling social injustice and economic inequality in post-Depression Era America, then became a symbol of US supremacy in post-World War II America—a hero who now stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!”

Saunders initially got into comics when his grandmother bought him a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974. It was a British reprint of a 1960s story, in black and white and done by Stan Lee, Gil Kane, and John Romita, and Saunders was hooked immediately.

“I have a very clear memory of the first page, and of trying to figure out whether someone called ‘Spider-Man’ could be a hero,” he said. “It was particularly confusing because the cops seemed to be after him in the story in question. It was my first self-conscious encounter with moral ambiguity.”

Saunders was entranced by the world of caped crusaders and men of steel, and it was through the world of comics that he gained a deep appreciation for his other area of expertise: the works of William Shakespeare.

“I do pay a different kind of attention—a kind of floating but focused and very slow, detail oriented attention—when I’m looking at something that am writing about,” Saunders said. “I enjoy getting into that zone—it can really be something akin to rapture.

“The first comics I can recall having this experience with—that slow, suspended, detail obsessed attention—well, as a younger child, Jack Kirby’s imagery in the Fantastic Four flipped that switch, but I didn’t have any critical vocabulary or instincts around it. It was just something about the work that took me to a new level of receptivity. Later, I discovered another version of this experience in high school English classes, probably with Shakespeare and some modernist poets and a few others.”

Thirty-five years after first flipping through a Spider-Man comic, and nine years after arriving on the UO campus with the ink on his PhD barely dry, Saunders curated the “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero” exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. More than 1,500 turned out for the exhibition’s opening, a successful launch that eventually led to the establishment of the comic studies minor, where Saunders now teaches students to think more critically about superheroes and villains. Seventeen instructors are involved with teaching the classes now, and the ten courses offered this fall include “Art & Gender,” “Indie Comics & Zines,” and “Graphic Narratives & Cultural Theory: Graphic Novels.” The students are turning theory into practice, and since 2014 have been contributing material to Art Ducko, a new comic book produced by UO students that lists Saunders—who names Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and the Fantastic Four as his own favorite illustrated reads—as the publication’s “sugar daddy.”

Perhaps one day Art Ducko will be taught alongside The Avengers and Elektra, either at the University of Oregon or at another university that will create a field of study similar to the UO’s. Until then, though, Saunders will continue teaching and educating a new generation of comic lovers, while continuing to study the genre as his own labor of love.

“Nowadays, I really like it when works of art kind of seduce me into paying that sort of attention without me realizing it—when I find myself reading as if I were planning to write something, even though that was not my intention when I sat down,” Saunders said. “That’s a sign for me that the work in question has some special value—even if only for me.”

Ben Saunders will be appearing at Rose City Comic-Con, sponsored by the University of Oregon, from September 19–20. Learn more here.

Want to support Saunders' minor while hearing his thoughts on superheroes? Join him at Superhero Night with Ben Saunders in Portland on September 17. Click here for more information.