Q&A with comics studies professor Michael Allan

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Still from Tintin (Creative Commons).

This interview is part of a larger story about the unique courses offered at the University of Oregon, which can be read here.

COLT 370: Comparative Literature – “Comics, Colonialism, and Images of Empire”
What goes on: Analyze cultural representations through the graphical narratives of Tintin, Babar, Frank Miller’s “300,” Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” and Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir.”
When it’s offered: winter 2016.
Credits: 4.
Hours in class per week: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Prerequisites or course fees: None.

Check out our Q&A with professor Michael Allan below.

Emerald: What’s the unifying element to this course’s reading list?

Michael Allan: The classic conundrum of Babar is the classic story of colonialism. Jean de Brunhoff wrote it in the 1930s. He was Belgian. It was the height of the Belgian colonization of the Congo. Babar is an elephant who learns to walk on two feet and is “civilized” with his encounter with this old white woman He returns as a king to his people and trains them all on this “civilizing mission.” We read Babar with that question in mind: In the character arc of the story, noble savage takes on trappings of civilization and returns to his camp – that classic anthropological cliché.

Then Tintin is the detective who travels all over the world solving problems. Hergé, the author and artist behind Tintin, uses a very simple style. Tintin never changes shape or form in any of the places he travels. Part of the universality of Tintin is that he can travel all over the world and the background will change, but the form of Tintin is never affected or he never learns anything from the places he travels. For Babar, cultural encounter is transformative and essentially refigures who he is. For Tintin, it doesn’t reconfigure who he is at all. He’s never changed by anything.

We look at the observational style and journalistic ethic behind [UO journalism graduate] Joe Sacco’s “Palestine.” Unlike Babar, he’s not changed in any physical sense by Palestine, but he has an interesting way of witnessing the story that he’s hearing than Tintin does as a detective.

That section of the course, from Babar to Tintin to Joe Sacco, is an effort to look at how different comics wrestle with how it is to travel, to encounter a particular place.

So you study how a narrative or author’s bias can distort the culture it represents? I don’t believe there’s anything as “pure representation.” I wouldn’t use the term “distortion” because I don’t know if there’s a there there to be misrepresented. It’s not so much that these comics misrepresent a place, but I would say they’re instrumental in the imagination of how certain cites or cultural differences or civilization discourse is imagined.

But does the comic artist really have an obligation to be truthful about anything? I would say there’s an ethics to representation, whether or not it’s true or false. I’m Canadian, and Rocky & Bullwinkle includes Mounties [Royal Canadian Mountain Police] all the time. Is that a misrepresentation of Canada? Maybe. Are people watching Rocky & Bullwinkle as a documentary on what Canadian life means? Not really. It’s not that one’s right and what’s wrong; it’s a matter of asking to what end does R&B deploy Canada in its storytelling. If it’s any consolation, I don’t use R&B in the class.

I don’t watch Rocky and Bullwinkle and think I’d have a higher probability of getting tied to the train tracks in Canada, but do you study the author’s inherent bias in the narrative? Most of the authors we deal with in this class are dead. What we’re left with is their text, the pictures they’ve given us. These are pictures drawn at a different period in time for a different audience, according to a very different grammar. What is it to read Babar after the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan? What is Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” [published in 1996] after the failed peace talks of 2007?

Do you relate a lot of old texts to current events? Yeah. Whether we do that or not, it’s happening. Certain historical moments come alive in our point in time for very particular reasons.

This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on Sept. 30, 2015 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2015/09/30/qa-with-comic-studies-professor-michael-allan/

More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.

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