Smash Pages Q&A: Adrienne Resha

The scholar and critic discusses her comic-related thesis and studies, Muslim and Arab superheroes, and more.

Adrienne Resha is a comics scholar and critic, a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies program at the College of William & Mary. She serves as President of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Comics Studies Society and is a contributor to and Assistant Editor of Comics Academe at the Award winning website Women Write About Comics. This year Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, published Resha’s paper “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” which had previously been presented at the first conference of the Comics Studies Society.

Resha and I have corresponded in the past, but I asked her to talk because I continue to ponder some of the ideas she raised in The Blue Age of Comic Books months later, as she tackles not just the content of comics but the medium of comics changing as digital has altered how they’re made and how they’re read. We spoke recently about her work, which focuses on Arab and Muslim representation in media, studying comics and learning to criticize art.

To start, how did you come to comics?

Ms. Marvel. I grew up reading manga, which was what girls read in the late nineties-early 2000’s so it wasn’t “comics.” Of course, it is comics. I am a lifelong comics reader. I just didn’t realize it. As far as comic books and comics studies, in my third year of undergrad in 2013-14, I learned that Ms. Marvel was a thing that was happening. They had announced her in the New York Times, and I’m not Muslim but I was doing Islamic Studies, so it was on my radar. That spring I subscribed to the series. I don’t think I really started reading other comics until she joined the Avengers in All-New All-Different Avengers, and I started reading other things like Ultimate Spider-Man, all of Sam Alexander’s run of Nova. I started getting more and more into it and I realized, I can write my masters thesis on Ms. Marvel. At that point I had read a lot of comics, but Ms. Marvel was the start. 

So in a just a couple years you went from reading comics to writing your masters thesis on comics?

Yeah. Two years. And now I’m doing my Ph.D. on them. [laughs] In comics time, that’s not very long. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not very long, either.

So how did you end up studying comics and writing a thesis? It’s a jump.

It is. My undergraduate degree is in International Affairs and Anthropology, and I had written my undergraduate honors thesis on Kurdish nationalism. I had applied to graduate programs in Middle Eastern Studies, and I ended up in a two-year program at the University of Virginia. My first year there I took a bunch of literature classes simultaneously, so I was taking Persian poetry, Arab women’s lit and Sufi literature all in the same semester. Which probably was a bad idea. [laughs]

But the first issue of Ms. Marvel has a Sufi poem in it. The summer after that semester, I went back and I re-read the whole series and realized, “I have something to say about this.” I started working with my faculty and asked, “Can I do this?” My thesis was titled “The ‘Embiggening’: Marvel’s Muslim Ms. Marvel and American Myth.” After finishing, I thought, “I want to keep doing this.”

I applied to Ph.D. programs in American Studies and media studies and ended up in American Studies. The focus of my research is on citizenship, it’s still on issues that concern the nation – identity, ethnicity, religion. And every degree I have or will have is interdisciplinary. It would be difficult to not be interdisciplinary when you’re writing about comics. Or at least for me it would. I know people do work from a single discipline. There are a whole bunch of ways to do it, and I like to draw on as many as I can.

What is your doctoral thesis on?

It’s on Arab and Muslim superheroes after 9/11, but mostly after the Arab Spring. There was a period after 9/11 where there was this influx of predominantly Muslim superheroes. After the Arab Spring you get Simon Baz and Kamala Khan – and I know Kamala fitting into this is weird because she’s not Arab, but G. Willow Wilson lived in Egypt while Hosni Mubarak was president, and her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, is about living in Egypt before the Arab Spring. My dissertation will be about Arab and Muslim superheroes: Arab and Muslim superheroes after 9/11 and Arab and Muslim American superheroes after the Arab Spring. It’s not until 2012 there are American superheroes who are Arab and/or Muslim and title characters. There’s a decade where there’s a bunch of Arab or Muslim superheroes but most of them aren’t American.

A few years ago Fady Joudah wrote an article about the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in American media, and it was about how they’re so often presented as recent interlopers from another culture.

Arab Americans have been in the U.S. since the late 1800s. They had to be “white” in order to become citizens, since they had to fit into a pre-established racial category. So Arabs have been in this country for a long time but they weren’t distinguished from other white ethnicities. Over the last century, there have been times when Arab Americans have been distanced from whiteness, often during periods of conflict between Arab majority countries and Israel. Both before and after 9/11, but especially after, Arabs have been conflated with Muslims even though the majority of Arab Americans are Christian, although there have been significant demographic shifts since 1965, and both have been racialized.

The tendency towards representing Arabs and Muslims in American media as “recent interlopers” is part a reaction to recent immigration and part recent recognition that second, third, fourth generation Arab Americans are people of color. Before 9/11, when Arabs appeared in comics, they were usually villains – Jack Shaheen, a media studies scholar, wrote about this before he famously wrote Reel Bad Arabs – and there were no Arab American superheroes in mainstream comics. That changed after 9/11, which criminologists Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl write about in Comic Book Crime. I’m kind of picking up where they left off.

That question of representation and who appears and then what people get to do.

And on top of that, who gets to write them and draw them. It’s connected. Sana Amanat is a big part of why Marvel had this wave of diversity in the early 2010s. There were so many properties she was working on, not just Ms. Marvel. G. Willow Wilson was a Muslim writer writing a Muslim character, followed by Saladin Ahmed. Geoff Johns, who is Lebanese American, co-created Simon Baz, who is Lebanese American. It’s slow but a lot of progress has been made. Outside of the Big Two, there are Middle Eastern and North African American creators breaking into comics.

Talk a little about comics studies. I know that you’re part of the Comics Studies Society.

Comics studies is small and the organization is relatively new, but comics studies isn’t. CSS was founded in 2014, but people have been studying and writing scholarship about comics for decades. There’s an impulse in comics studies to say that it’s new and marginal and fighting for space. Sometimes yes, but there have been a lot of gains. I didn’t have any pushback on teaching a class about the superhero genre mostly through comics, and it was the first class I ever taught but not the first class on comics taught at my university. 

A nice thing about comics studies is that you don’t necessarily have to identify as a comics studies scholar. It’s less about discipline or field than it is about object of study. I’m a media studies scholar who studies comics. Comics studies is still small but it’s a lot larger than it used to be and hopefully will continue to grow.

You called yourself a media scholar who studies comics earlier, and having read “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” I thought of it as a piece of media studies and considering the medium and people’s relationship to it, as much as the content and the themes of the comics.

I wrote it for a Media Studies seminar in my first semester of my Ph.D. program. I had not really done theory before, even coming in with a masters, so that’s where a lot of the theory came from, and the paper was a response to that theory, especially concerning digitization and how that’s changed comics. So I was reading theory for class and books on superheroes on my own time and combined them for “Blue Age.” One of my biggest regrets about it is that I don’t remember how or when I decided on Blue Age. But one of the books I was reading was Chris Gavaler’s Superhero Comics, and Gavaler had pointed to Black Panther and Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel and had identified these key texts but didn’t distinguish them from the Modern Age. His periodization was oriented around the Comics Code. At some point I thought, what if something different is happening and has been happening that distinguishes this period from the two decades before? And the Modern Age is such a terrible name [laughs]. “Modern” is a terrible word for it. 

There are a lot of comics studies scholars who hate the “Ages” altogether. There’s this idea that they’re not scholarly enough or academic enough, since they come from fandom, but they’re accessible. Fans and scholars – who are largely fans – use them. I think they’re useful. 

You mentioned that “Ages” are a fan-centric idea, and Blue Age is about the reader experience. Which I think is an important shift in how we think about and frame comics

Often in scholarship there’s a reluctance to acknowledge one’s positionality and say, I come from this background and with all of that baggage. A lot of comics studies scholars – and comics fans – are lifelong comics readers. There’s this idea that you’re the reader and you represent other readers. The majority of comics scholars are white men, so there’s this presumed reader who looks like you, sounds like you, and reads like you. And for a long time there was one way to read a comic book. From left to right, front to back, and you knew it intuitively. But it’s not intuitive! You had to learn how to read comics. It’s not obvious how to read a comic. One of the things that’s changed with digitization is that there are other ways to read comics. They’re still sequential, usually, but maybe you read with Guided View, maybe you read a panel at a time, maybe you look at two pages at a time. Comics are presented in different ways. People read webcomics before they ever read a physical comic book. People read comics all the time even if they don’t register as comics. There are a bunch of different kinds of readers with different backgrounds. I am not a traditional comic book reader – and I know others who aren’t. That’s a big part of the Blue Age. That there are people who never considered themselves comics readers but who now read comic books both because the technology is different and there are characters who look like them. 

On top of everything else, you write for WWAC. Recently you’ve been reviewing Champions, which you also find…

I hate Champions. [laughs]

[laughs] I was going to be polite.

I want it to be better than it is! Most of the time when I write a negative review it’s because I wanted the comic to be better than it was. I was really excited about Champions. I thought Eve L. Ewing’s Ironheart was good. It was something I would have liked to see her do for dozens more issues. Ironheart should have easily gotten as many issues as Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Champions is trying so hard to be Civil War III – and nobody wants that! Nobody wanted Civil War II! I want new things.  

I started writing for WWAC in 2018, shortly after presenting “Blue Age” at the first CSS conference. About a week after that, I tweeted about a cover and I didn’t know the artist term searched, so, there was a thing. One of the editors at WWAC reached out and asked if I wanted to write about it, so I wrote a personal essay. It went up within a week and was well received. At least among other critics and scholars. Not so well received among people who were still harassing me, but WWAC was a really welcoming community. Writing for WWAC has really improved my writing about comics, not just as a critic but also as a scholar. Before I was more hesitant to write about the art and going through a process with editors who will say “you should talk more about this” and “say more about that thing” really helped. One chapter of my dissertation is about color theory and how color works in terms of representing race and racial identity. That’s because I’ve been writing reviews. 

I know what you mean about talking about art. We know how to analyze a text. Analyzing art is a different thing.

This is something I had to stress with my students who hadn’t ever written about comics before. Art is narrative in comics. I think that there’s this idea that art and narrative are separate things, and sometimes we have to talk about them separately, but they’re never totally independent. 

So many scholars and fans are approaching comics because they were fans of Marvel and DC, who treated every aspect as a separate job, and now the companies have positioned the writer as the architect of the comic.

There’s definitely an emphasis on who the writer is. They’re the first name of the book, the most consistent person on the book. I’m guilty of this. It’s “G. Willow Wilson’s run on Ms. Marvel” because she’s on every single issue and the artist changes. It’s harder to remember who comes after Adrian Alphona. 

It’s been a year, and obviously a lot of what you’re doing next year is planned out as far as classes and your dissertation, but what did you take away from reviewing more, from The Blue Age coming out, and what are you thinking about or interested in doing more of next year?

This has been a relatively good year for me – apart from the pandemic. My article came out, I taught my first class, I did my dissertation prospectus, I’m on schedule to graduate on time. I’m really privileged to get to work from home and teach from my bedroom. I’m also lucky to have already been a part of virtual communities like WWAC and my scholarly network, since we’re so scattered. Reviewing more has made me a better writer, and I’m starting to see how other scholars use “Blue Age,” so that’s mostly out of my hands. Next year is mostly about writing the dissertation. I’m going to keep writing for WWAC. I just pitched my first freelance article so I’m going to be writing for other sites and publications. My hope is that by the end of next year I’ll be able to be back in a physical classroom.

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