Comics challenge our understanding of history

Graduate Student Spotlight: Jeremy Carnes

PhD student in Literature and Cultural Theory

We usually arrange American literature in historical categories from realism to modernism to postmodernism and beyond. To think around the continually overstretched reach of this historical schema, I look to a type of literature that has, for many years, existed and flourished outside the realm of academia: comics. As Jared Gardener puts it, “almost never being respectable, comics has been left to develop its own language and its own unique relationship with readers, often for long periods.” Because of its independent development, comics require not only different historical categories but different assumptions about the relationship between literature and history.

My dissertation begins by focusing on Art Spiegelman’s 2004 collection In the Shadow of No Towers, which chronicles his experiences during and after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Through his consistent mixing of the past with the present, Spiegelman practices what I call transhistoric reading, where texts exist simultaneously within and beyond their historic moment. Reading in this way allows these texts to complicate our relationships with events, stories, and cultural productions across histories and periods. Transhistoric reading opens new pathways for studying literatures of minoritized groups, and reading across history also starts the process of bringing equity to comics studies. My latter chapters focus on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, Black Panther, and the Indigenous comics collection Moonshot to argue that such a broadening of historical understanding pushes literary studies to rethink how we approach history, especially as it is tied to various identity categories including gender, sexuality, race, and indigeneity.