The Social and Material Lives of Comic Art, or, How Comics Get Around

Course Information

Instructor: Charles Hatfield
Location: Smithsonian Libraries and Archives / Washington D.C.
Mode: In-person
Dates: August 14 – August 18
Tuition: $1200.00


Popular yet personal, branded as trivial yet rich with meaning, comics are more than cultural scraps or leftovers. In fact, comics are everywhere: they are art objects, storying machines, readable games, tools for disseminating knowledge, and platforms for worldbuilding and political argument. Whether viewed as historical artifacts or distinctive literary and artistic works, comics carry culture with them. In this workshop, we will study how comics move through the world, socially and materially, how they can make a difference in the world, and how we, as teachers, researchers, and creators, can use them.

Comic art has a complex social life. Comic books, graphic novels, strips, and cartoons come in varied material (and now digital) forms and reach diverse readerships. Many are thought to be ephemeral, as disposable as yesterday’s newspapers or tweets; some are built to last. Many last despite their seeming ephemerality, archived by collectors, fans, and, increasingly, archiving professionals and research libraries. Conserving, organizing, and accessing these artifacts can be a challenge but also a profound pleasure; comics offer us opportunities for creative engagement as well as deep research. Our workshop will study how comics come to be, how they circulate, where and how they are archived, and how we may teach with them.

We will focus on comics’ physical materiality, on firsthand experience and “show and tell.” Our hands-on sessions will mix varied forms of nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century comic art, from newspaper pages to comic magazines, from graphic novels to minicomix, zines, and webcomics. Drawing on the resources of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, we will explore the material and social histories of comics, the idiosyncrasies of comics production, including differences among American, European, and Japanese traditions, and how comics have been shored against time by collectors. We will consider comics as products of various industries, cultures, and social scenes—as historic artifacts, yes, but also urgent dispatches from the here and now. Participants will come out of this workshop knowing:

  • the distinctions among various genres of comics (including comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, and minicomics) and how they look and feel
  • the various ways comics are produced and circulated, by whom, and under what conditions
  • how to find and access comics in archives
  • how we can deploy comics in teaching
  • how comics can elevate marginalized and minoritized identities and serve as vehicles for social protest and transformation
  • overall, how comics move through and “trouble” the world, in the best senses of that word.


I will share a list of pre-readings with participants prior to the course. We will read further materials during our week together. In addition, everyone should prepare a brief (one or two-page) written or comics-style introduction to themselves, to be shared no later than our first meeting. Expect to participate in class discussions, take part in various site visits, and interact with, and prepare questions, for our guest speakers (comics and archiving experts from the greater Washington, D.C. area). Sketchnoting or keeping a comics diary will be encouraged.

Feel free to email me with questions at (Enable Javascript to see the email address)




Completion of this course helps to meet credits for one of the following certificate requirements:

  • 1 of 3 elective credit courses for Certificate in Rare Books and Manuscripts, or
  • 1 of 2 elective credit courses for Certificate in Librarianship, Activism, and Justice