A Lesson in Comics and Capstones
I’ve been joking around that I’m a bit of a nerd for the past ten years of my life. The subject of that nerdiness has changed quite a bit over the years, but I’m definitely the type of person that you would want on your trivia team if the categories included things like Star Wars, celebrity baby names, English literature, Keanu Reeves’s filmography, unsolved mysteries (what the HECK happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?!), and Boston sports history. I’m not joking about the celebrity baby names category – I once singlehandedly won the entire category during Slow Train trivia last year. But besides that, I’m more or less a professional nerd now in that I had a job where I was paid to be nerdy—a research fellowship.
Last summer was the first summer of my Oberlin College Research Fellowship (OCRF), and I did a project on multiracial Asian and Pacific Islander media representation, using Keanu Reeves and Bruce Lee as case studies. I actually did something slightly different this summer, where I looked at anti-imperialist discourse in Marvel Studios’s Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War. It was an absolute DREAM to be able to think about these movies all day and get paid for it. One of the walls in my apartment looked like it belonged to a conspiracy theorist, because I taped up pieces from the paper I was working on to better visualize my argument.
My day-to-day activities involved any of the following: writing revisions to my paper by hand while lying on the floor of my apartment, writing on a whiteboard in Mudd Library and drawing connections between large concepts, reading critical essays on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and verbalizing my disagreement with the writer, reading postcolonial theory by Homi K. Bhabha and Edward Said, and hunting down primary documents from the days of British and French high imperialism and analyzing their content. I was lucky to be living in Firelands, where it’s air-conditioned, because I was able to work comfortably all day without having to leave my room except to eat breakfast or go for a run.
I wrote a draft of a paper at the end of the summer that was 50 pages long, and was the longest piece of academic writing I’ve ever done! I’m continuing the work I started over the summer with a private reading this semester with my faculty research mentor in cinema studies and English. A private reading means that I am registered for essentially an independent study under the guidance of a professor, and is a bit different from most other types of classes because it’s up to the student and the professor to come up with a meeting time to discuss work. Because I had to be disciplined the last two summers as an OCRF fellow about completing my work, this model is working well for me in the regular academic semester.
In addition to my private reading in cinema studies, I am taking a senior tutorial class for my English major. This senior tutorial is similar to my private reading in that I have chosen to explore a topic within the field independently, which will cumulate in a 20-page paper at the end of the semester. The main difference is that the senior tutorial meets once a week for class time, where the eight other people in the class share what they have been working on in the past week.
My topic for my senior tutorial combines a few different areas of interest for me that have grown over the years. I am analyzing how shape-shifting represents assimilation and code-switching in Asian American graphic bildungsromane (coming of age stories), using Kamala Khan from the Marvel superhero comic Ms. Marvel and Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese.
At first, I was having trouble with choosing a topic that was of significance to me, because I came to the realization that my movie knowledge is several times larger than my knowledge of literature. I toyed with the idea of doing my work on settler anxiety in Australian colonial literature, but I felt that I should branch out from my usual indictment of British imperialism and do something that was challenging. I only started reading comic books a year ago. I immediately felt that doing something in the realm of graphic narratives was what my heart wanted.
In a couple ways, my decision to do my English capstone on comics is a bit unexpected. I learned how to read at a young age first from traffic and street signs, and I voraciously read anything I could afterwards, even if I couldn’t understand every word (case in point: I worked my way through Macbeth in fifth grade before giving up on Hamlet not even halfway through the first act). Teachers and librarians gave me the impression that I was “too smart” to read comics, so I never did, except on the off day when one of my friends would bring his Tintin books to class.
So my child self went on to read books that I thought were proper (grown-up) literature, which manifested in W.B. Yeats, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, The Odyssey, and weirdly enough, The Exorcist. It has only been within the last year that I’ve discovered how deep the field of comics really is, and that I’ve been missing out on some great stories simply because I thought they “were for kids.”
That said, my work on Ms. Marvel and American Born Chinese is less of a rebellion from what “the authorities” told me was worthwhile literature and is more powered by my appreciation for the space that comics give for people of color to tell their stories. Before I started reading Ms. Marvel and American Born Chinese, the literary characters I connected the closest to were two of the most archetypical, moody boys of all time, Holden Caulfield (don’t @ me, please, I was 14!) and Hamlet, AKA the Prince of Denmark.
Then I read Jane Eyre and everything changed, but the pattern here is that I had very little in common with the circumstances of any of these characters. On one hand, this highlights the power that literature has to reach across cultural, racial, and temporal divisions. The fact of the matter is is that I never got to read any books about or written by people like me.
Enter issue one of Ms. Marvel, and from the first few pages I felt a powerful sense of identification. Kamala Khan is Marvel Comics’ first female Muslim superhero to headline her own series, and much of Ms. Marvel concerns her experiences as a second-generation Pakistani-American girl in high school. She grapples with problems of assimilation into mainstream, white American culture as well as how brown girls are hardly ever seen as heroic figures.
Her superpower takes the form of shapeshifting, and she initially takes on the form of the previous Ms. Marvel, who was white and blonde-haired before she becomes more confident that she, too, can be a superhero in her true form. There isn’t a terribly huge amount of scholarly work already done on Ms. Marvel, so it’s also nice to feel that I’m contributing to something new. This senior tutorial paper utilizes much more than my burgeoning knowledge of Marvel and Asian American comics, because I also am foregrounded my analysis with information from Asian American history and European literary history with the bildungsroman.
In a way, these two papers feel like a summary of my education at Oberlin. From using information from Asian American studies and history, British colonial and postcolonial studies, cinema studies, comics studies, superhero studies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and literary theory, these papers combine several different disciplines that I am passionate about.
But more than that, they also directly engage with my own experiences as an indigenous Polynesian and Chinese American person, which I never really had the chance to do with academic work before college.
That said, it still surprises me, and probably my mom too, that I didn’t end up doing my English capstone on Hamlet, but I’m endlessly fulfilled with the two projects at hand. Unless Marvel Comics decides to add Hamlet, Prince of Denmark into its comics universe, that’ll be a story for another time.