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Taking comics seriously

Lecturer in Library Science, Dr Ernesto Priego, says comics offer value to research in diverse areas ranging from software development and journalism to data science.
by John Stevenson

Ernesto Priego comic strip

Dr Ernesto Priego has a broad spectrum of academic interests. As a Lecturer in Library Science in the Centre for Information Science, Dr Priego has carried out research into digital humanities, library science, social media, alt-metrics, online publishing, and scholarly communications.

He is also a comics scholar and editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid Journal of Comics Scholarship. 

The combined comics and graphic novel industry worldwide was estimated to have turned over more than £1bn in 2012. Comics and graphic novels also boast a 40 percent female readership. Underscoring the topicality and ubiquity of comics, the British Library will launch an exhibition entitled Comics Unmasked in May.

Dr Priego caught the comics bug from a young age and has not been able to shake it off since then:

"I started reading comics as a very young child in Mexico. They were for the most part American superhero comics written in Spanish and English. Comics helped me to learn English, inspired me to be a writer and then to become an academic. I started reviewing comics for the arts section of a national newspaper when I was 17. I haven't stopped writing about comics since then."

Dr Ernesto PriegoDr Priego believes that comics are a fantastic tool for literacy, comparable to the best examples of world literature. He explains:

"Comics are all about the joy of reading, of being immersed in multi-sensorial textual networks, narrative worlds, which all build an implicit, intimate relationship with the reader. It is fair to say that comics have influenced other media both aesthetically, and in their narrative. Nowadays it is difficult to recognise which films or video games are based on comics and which ones aren't".

As an enthusiast, Dr Priego found that there wasn't a place for likeminded individuals to share their ideas. This led to him developing the The Comics Grid in 2009:

"As a long-time comics enthusiast I knew there were lots of clever people doing academic research on comics who in my view were not getting their work disseminated outside very specific academic or comics fan networks. The existing comics scholarship journals were very good but were paywalled, and their open access options were significantly expensive for most researchers in the field".

After discussing the idea with his peers, his thoughts coalesced around a network of comics scholars interested in writing and publishing their work. However, as they were to discover, many of the production processes proved prohibitive:

"Standard licensing agreements were so restrictive that authors could not even share their own work. In this sense, comics scholars were experiencing something similar to what superhero comics authors such as Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel went through in the 20th century. I thought the technologies were definitely at our disposal and that we could start a different model of academic publishing based on rapid publication and open peer review using the WordPress blogging platform."

In 2013, The Comics Grid was signed up by Ubiquity Press, a full-fledged Open Access publisher. It migrated from a WordPress blog to an Open Journals Systems platform. This has helped to provide more structure and validation.

Dr Priego explains how the research he and others are carrying out at City will be of benefit to the academic community:

"Comics and the topics they encompass such as journalism, publishing, social media and libraries are of interest not just to the public but to academics. The potential for public impact is evident and so is the potential for international collaboration. We live in an age in which people are successful because they do what they love doing. People like to study things they love, and the public loves reading about things they think matter. I think that conducting research into these areas can lead to the application of better solutions to meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market demands in very diverse areas ranging from software development and journalism to data science.

(Comic strip courtesy of Ronan Deazley and Jason Mathis)

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