Published: Aug. 1, 2023

By Joe Arney

Joel Thurman is like a kid in a comic book store. 

The media studies PhD student at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information is fresh off presenting some of his research work at Fan Expo Denver, the three-day celebration of all things pop culture, and the chance to speak with fans and educators has him excited about his future scholarly work in this area.

That event offered the latest validation for a career that he can trace back to watching Batman and Spider-Man cartoons as a youngster in a small Nebraska town without a comic book shop of its own.

Thurman started his collection in college, and “now I read comics for fun, but also to see how children are represented in comics—in particular, foster kids and other vulnerable children,” he said. “It truly is a wonderful time to be in comics studies.”

It’s the sort of vision that Rick Stevens could only imagine might come to pass when he first became interested in scholarship around pop culture two decades ago. 

From the churches to the cinemas

“You go back 50 years and the primary locations of cultural capital in America are the press, the churches, and organizations like the Boy Scouts or civic groups like the Lions Club,” said Stevens, associate dean of undergraduate education and associate professor of media studies at CMCI.

Today, political and cultural discussions are just as likely to play out in fan spaces of the Marvel, Star Wars or Barbie universes, Stevens said.

“This work is not just about analyzing a text and finding a meaning between a reader in the text,” he said. “This is about affecting the way our culture thinks about social engagement, or race relations, or gender norms. Everybody has access to popular culture, and if we get the right kinds of messages and critical thinking out into that space, we have the chance to make our culture better.”

It’s why students pursue undergraduate majors or graduate-level programs in media studies at CU Boulder. Many academic programs focused on comics or related media are oriented around literature, or are limited to particular media forms like animation or video games. At CMCI, Stevens said, programs consider the social environments where content is created, why certain stories succeed, how they’re received by fans and creators, and how all of that informs cultural values and norms in society. 

“We want our students to be critics of culture ... because when culture gets better, so does the society that houses it.”
Rick Stevens, associate professor, media studies 

“When we’re talking about comics, what we’re really talking about is the transmedia space,” he said. “There have been few comic book produced in the 21st century that are not connected to some other form of media—toys or movies or TV shows.” 

Many comics, for example, are created with screen adaptation in mind, which shapes the form those comics take and the narrative conventions they use to tell stories. 

“What makes our program different is we think about all of media at once as a strategy,” he said. “All those sites of culture have to matter at once—even if we’re focusing on one at a time—because the politics from one affect the production politics from another.”

Media meeting identity

For Nandi Pointer, faculty like Stevens helped her choose to study at CMCI. A PhD student in media studies, Pointer is studying Black American male identity formation in expats who have lived outside the United States, with the hope of continuing her research in academia while working on her own documentary projects. 

Stevens’ graduate seminar on Media and Popular Culture helped her identify the Marvel universe as a place to explore cultural perceptions of identity, agency and belonging.

“Having the opportunity and privilege to present on the rise of ‘Black Panther,’ in addition to receiving a positive response and feedback from the audience, has furthered my excitement to be a part of shaping the current discourse around the importance of representation in the Marvel universe,” Pointer said.

A panel of students and faculty answer questions at the expo.Thurman, meanwhile, hopes to continue his teaching, research and writing in pop culture and comics at a university. Fan Expo was just his latest presentation; last year, he showcased work to a scholarly comic and comics art community at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the largest and best-known pop culture show in the world, and has also spoken at more traditional academic conferences. 

“I’m hoping to fill a gap in the literature by looking at the way orphans, foster children and vulnerable children are represented,” he said. “Fan Expo was a great opportunity to present my ideas to the public. There is immediate feedback and a sense of accomplishment from the presentation, whereas journals take time to publish articles.”

That opportunity for public scholarship is, to Stevens, an important part of ensuring students graduate from CMCI ready to create impact. Because the event owes its creation to a nonprofit that focuses on literacy and arts education, it’s an ideal venue for students and academics to share insights with K-12 teachers eager to bring lessons from cinema and comics to the classroom. 

“We’re talking about these important topics in front of all of these people, acting kind of as evangelists for thinking critically about culture and working to make it better,” Stevens said. “We want our students to be critics of culture—to prepare them to be at the center of cultural creation, to whisper in its ear and address social problems. Because when culture gets better, so does the society that houses it.”

Photos: Kimberly Coffin, top; Jack Moody, bottom