Julian C. Chambliss, PhD, is a history professor at Rollins College. In addition to studying urban planning and Africa-American culture, Chambliss is also a leading scholar of comics studies. His latest research in comics involved him co-editing Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains. Wanting to learn more about his background and his latest project, Chambliss allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some of your favorite comic books?
Julian Chambliss: Iron Man, Avengers, and Teen Titans were favorite ongoing series. Black Panther, when I found him, was a big favorite, as was the Falcon.
Yanes: As a scholar, when did you realize you wanted to research comic books and their impact on culture?
Chambliss: This was actually a direct outgrowth of teaching. I was asked to teach something called the Rollins Conference Course (RCC). This is a required course for every 1st year student at my institution. Part introduction to the college learning, part support structure, the course content is open to whatever the professor wishes to teach. I realized a history survey course built around comic books would be a good course and I designed a course with a colleague and taught it.
Yanes: On this note, what do you think the current state of comics studies in higher education is?
Chambliss: Comics studies is booming. There are more scholars engaged with comics as subject every year. This is a highly interdisciplinary field, so what you find in comic studies reflects a mix of social science and humanities approaches that can be really insightful about culture in the United States and around the world.
Yanes: You recently co-edited Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains. What was the inspiration behind this project?
Chambliss: This was a natural follow-up to Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes in the American Experience. In that volume, the goal was to highlight how the comic book could act as way to chart the cultural evolution of the United States. Looking at the state of comic book culture, especially in light of the explosion of adaptations into other media, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was/is the most successful expression of this process. To me, the MCU represented a distinct cultural narrative the comments on and is influenced by broader social, political, and economic anxieties. We want to explore this landscape.
Yanes: Prior to the MCU, what were your overall thoughts on film adaptations of comic books?
Chambliss: Outside Superman (1977), I think one of the things that unified comic book adaptation was an unease on the part of those people adapting the material to basic tenets of the material. One of the things that unifies successful adaptations is the efforts to make the comic book come to life. This goes beyond the visual, it is about the values and ethics linked to the character. Thus, I think superhero films that reject the core traits of the original comics fail and those that identify the core values of the source material and build the narrative to reflect those values tend to be more successful.
Yanes: This collection has several brilliant chapters. Did any of these chapters have insights or information that took you by surprise?
Chambliss: Jason Bainbridge’s examination of the law and justice in the context of the MCU and Jennifer Rea’s comparison of Captain America: Winter Soldier and Vergil’s Aeneid stand out as interesting framing of the MCU. Samira Nadkarni’s exploration of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. highlight how identity and imperialism are encoded in structure of the MCU. Of course, our overall call for the essays in this collection was focus on security, identity, and community as themes at the center of the MCU’s narrative universe. We reached out to a number of scholars to ask them to think about this framework and we were happy to have so many great essays.
Yanes: We are both fans of the MCU, but what are some of the MCU’s troubling threads that this book examines?
Chambliss: Without question the obsession with security and the danger posed by the other is a theme that comes through in this volume’s examination of the MCU. We recognize that the origins of the MCU is rooted in our decades long battle against terrorism and these essays examine the danger posed by an all-consuming search for security and the danger it poses when it becomes normalized in civilian society.
Yanes: Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe got started, other studios have tried to create their own shared-cinematic universes. Based on your research, what do you think Marvel Studios is doing right that others are doing wrong?
Chambliss: The MCU is one story with many chapters. As simple as that may seem, at some level the thing that aligns the Marvel Comics in print and the MCU is the power of the editorial vision to shape the audience experience. The MCU has a structure that prevents many things but delivers a consistent narrative experience. It is not to say every movie is perfect, but our experience is shaped by the MCU as a whole. They have earned a narrative freedom that allows them to bring characters with little or no popular awareness to the big screen and still be profitable. Ant-Man is not a household name, but it made money at the box office. The Guardians of the Galaxy are “deep geek” character before the first movie, now people know Rocket (Raccoon). Despite the having better known characters, DC has not been as successful because the approach has not been unified and not been earned in my opinion.
Yanes: When people finish reading Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what do you hope they take away from it?
Chambliss: I think we want people to consider how the comic book culture offers a way to think about the ways U.S. society struggles with changing global circumstances. We continue to think of comics and related culture as escapism, but the nature of social imaginary linked to comics is not simply about fantasy. It is landscape of ideology that offers insights into how society evolves and what the consequences of those changes for our national character.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?
Chambliss: My next essay is focus on exploring Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther run. Beyond that, I’m starting a project looking at the history of black comic book characters.