The 1st American Comics Scholar was a Superman Artist, Except for all those Scholars Before Him
In an article for The Beat, Brad Ricca recounts his interaction with Sean Howe, the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, concerning an early thesis written by Paul Cassidy dating back to 1942. Cassidy was an early “ghost” artist for the Superman comics. The 156 page document included statistics, footnotes, and anecdotes about the industry. It’s absolutely an important piece of comic book history, and great find.
Ricca makes an unfortunate jump. Instead of just covering the discovery, he makes the claim:
According to Gene Kannenberg, Jr.’s great site ComicsResearch.org, the oldest American comics academic work is a 1944 dissertation by Anna Florence Heisler titled “Characteristics of Elementary-School Children Who Read Comic Books, Attend the Movies, and Prefer Serial Radio Programs.”
Cassidy’s work is dated two years earlier. His thesis is, we think, the first graduate-level American scholarship on comic books.
The problem is, that 1944 date from ComicsResearch.org is incorrect, and there is indeed scholarship research that predates not only then, but Cassidy’s newly found thesis as well. On a comics scholar listserve where I’m a lurker, the article was quickly debunked, and chalked up to “not enough detective work.” That listserv actually points out two examples much earlier than 1944 or 1942.
Munger, Elizabeth M. “Preferences for Various Newspaper Comic Strips as Related to Age and Sex Differences in School Children.” M. A. Thesis. Ohio State University, 1939.
Smith, Lewis C. Jr. “Comics as Literature for Children.” M. A. Thesis. Colorado State College of Education, 1938.
A “M. A. Thesis” would be a masters’s thesis, “graduate-level” scholarship. I’d say both count as “American comics academic works,” and those dates indeed pre-date the above claim. A quick Google search brings up this 1999 dissertation that references the two works above, confirming their existence (though not like I’ve seen both in person).
In the same listserv there’s also a reference to earlier scholarly work from the 1920s in psychology and linguistics, though examples haven’t been given yet. I did some digging and found this example also from 1942 that was cited in a recent scholarly paper:
Haggard, E. A. (1942). A projective technique using comic strip characters. Character & Personality: A Quarterly for Psychodiagnostic & Allied Studies, 10(3), 289-295.
So, lesson for everyone, don’t believe everything you read without a little research of your own, and it might be far past time for a “Snopes” for comics.