“Yes, I followed feelings; I followed when I believed there was something to be looked at and something I’d be interested in.”

 John Lent is Professor at the School of Communication and Theatre, Temple University, in Philadelphia, USA. He is the founder and editor of the International Journal of Comic Art. His first book on Asian media, The Asian Newspapers’ Reluctant Revolution, was published in 1971. 

Institutional approach can stifle scholarship

john lent credit CHERIAN GEORGE

John Lent was a pioneer in the study of Asian media, and then comic art. In this interview with Media Asia editor Cherian George, he describes his unusual approach to scholarship. Suspicious of institutions and prizing his independence, he shuns grants, impact indicators and other trappings of modern academia, opting instead for the freedom to follow his curiosity and blaze new trails.

CHERIAN GEORGE:

We of course take it for granted that Asian media is worth studying. But back when you started, why did you do it and what were some of the challenges that you faced?

JOHN LENT:

I started looking at Asian media in 1963. I went to the Philippines in ’64–’65. Before I went to the Philippines, I searched everywhere I could –in the social sciences, political sciences, all of these areas –but I could find virtually nothing written about Asian mass media. There were some journalistic pieces, but very, very little. So there were limited resources. Most of my research in the Philippines came from interviews. That’s always been main part of my research. I think it’s very important to interview the people who are creating the messages and are owning the newspapers and the broadcast stations, etc.

I was on a Fulbright and my advisor was Father Ortiz. He was a labour leader, and he told me that he knew very little about media, so he farmed me out to Johnny Mercado. Johnny Macardo was the head of the Philippine Press Institute and one of the most honourable people I ever met. In 1964, he started a bunch of monthly seminars which I was invited to attend. He is still around and still writes a column in the Philippines.

It’s the same in many of the areas where I did work. I guess one of the things that challenged me always is that when I saw a void, I tried to fill it. Same happened with the Caribbean. I was on vacation in Aruba and Curacao with my family in 1968, got bored sitting on the beach, and went to town to interview newspaper owners and broadcasters. When I came back to the States and looked for materials. I found one monograph that had ever been written about most of those islands.

CG:

If you lack self-confidence and self-belief, and you see no existing literature, you may think, maybe it’s not so important after all, maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Did you have such doubts?

JH:

No. Because I just felt that it was important. I’ve always felt it was important to document the history of different phenomena. And history is a very important part, and something I hope students today do not neglect—and they do; they do neglect it. It was lonely, but as one researcher said years ago, research is a lonely occupation.

CG:

Even if it is lonely, ideally there should be moral and institutional support. Was it difficult to enthuse your bosses about the work you were doing?

JH:

No, I never depended on institutional support. I worked rather independently. I didn’t apply for grants, my trips are paid for by myself for the most part, because I didn’t want to be beholden to anybody else. At Temple in the 1970s and mid-’80s, I would get about $1,000 a year for travel if I applied for it; but I quit applying for it after a while, because I figured that with the time I would take to fill out those forms, I could do something more constructive.

CG:

This sounds extremely radical in today’s scholarly environment, where everyone is expected to apply for grants as a kind of feather in the cap. You’re describing a very different model of following your own instincts.

JH:

Yes, I followed feelings; I followed when I believed there was something to be looked at and something I’d be interested in. And my interests have been pretty wide-ranging. I have done a number of things over the years. I had interest in archaeology –back in the ’60s, I supervised some archaeological digs in Canada and stuff. I tried to make life as interesting as possible and enjoy it, and also hope to make a contribution.

CG:

Was it the same instinct that led you into the study of comics?

JH:

Yes. My father had an eighth grade education. We came from a rather poor town. But he was a very educated person for an eighth-grader. A lot of what he learnt was from the comic strips. I would listen to all these phrases he used and wonder where did he got them. Ten or twenty years ago, I put it all together. He was getting it from the newspaper comics.

I was in Syracuse working on my doctorate in 1963. At the time, there was a lot of controversy about comics causing juvenile delinquency. So I conducted an experiment in some grade school classes with fourth-graders, trying to determine if violence in comic books had impacts on them. I didn’t do that much with it because I was looking at other topics like press freedom and development communication, foreign news coverage and historical work throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

Then in the ’80s I saw that there was nothing much on comics, except that literature about violence in comics. So I started a cartoon magazine in 1986 called Witty World and built up some contacts through there, and then just kept moving on from there. I started interviewing cartoonists, mainly in Asia at first. One of the first people I interviewed was Lat and we became extremely good friends.

CG:

This was long before he became Datuk Lat?

JH:

Oh yes, it was 1986. In the late ’80s and ’90s, I was encouraging PhD students to write their dissertations on comics. Most were from Asia, one was from Cuba and another one from Turkey. There were seven or eight of them from Asia who wrote some very good dissertations on political cartoons, humour magazines, World War II propaganda cartoon leaflets.

CG:

In more recent years, it’s become a more respectable area of study, thanks to the manga and so on; and the study of popular culture is now given due seriousness within media studies. But when you were doing it, the environment was rather different?

JH:

We weren’t considered part of academia. We were the dustbins of academia, if we were even there! It wasn’t that anyone told me I couldn’t do. It was just, why would you do it. It was difficult to convince people that some of the best political commentary is in political cartoons. Animation is a very big industry and comic books have had a lot of impact over the years. It’s used for social consciousness raising and other things.

There was no one who told me not to, but definitely in the field of academia there was a feeling that comics did not belong there. That has changed in the last 15 years. It’s now become rather large field, comic studies. In the mid-’90s, Lucy Caswell of Ohio State University had a publication called Inks. It only lasted for a couple of years, and when it went out of existence, some scholars were lamenting the fact that we had no journal in comic art.

When I was listening to these young scholars, they were saying it would cost $20,000–30,000 a year. Who’s going to do that? I just listened to that. We had a meeting of comic art people in 1998, and I brought a sheet of mimeographed sheet and said now we have an international journal of comic art. Which there wasn’t, but I was starting it. I used my money to start the first issue. I remember how excited I was when the first person sent 25 dollars for a subscription, and it grew from there.

I am working now on the 31st issue. It comes out twice a year. The smallest issue in recent years, which was published in spring, was 500 pages. The largest was 860 pages and the one in fall will probably go higher than that. There is a lot of literature being written on comics.

 

CG:

Why so many pages? Going by conventional wisdom in academic publishing, journals are supposed to accept only the pinnacle of academic research. Journals and academic conferences pride themselves on high rejection rates. You seem to have a different model.

JH:

I have a very different model, which I am proud of. I don’t worry about any of that stuff. I think Scopus is a scam and a lot of these rating systems are business operations. So I don’t get concerned about that.

It’s been kept independent. I don’t ask for money. For the first couple of issues, I was putting my own money into it, but now it pays for itself. It usually has a surplus of $5,000–6,000, which is enough for the next issue.

CG:

Are articles sent out for blind review?

JH:

No

CG:

So you rely on your own feel?

JH:

If I don’t feel I can do it, I ask someone else. There are reasons for that. One is the time. I try to publish material quickly, within an issue. That’s why the issues are so large—I don’t keep a backlog. Sure, there are manuscripts rejected, but I don’t keep statistics of what percentage is rejected. That’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because you have a few people setting all the standards in all these areas.

CG:

And these would be the same kind of people who disrespected the groundbreaking work you were doing; so it makes sense that you don’t trust their judgment entirely.

JH:

Exactly. A lot of them would be people like that. I am not against the peer-review system, but I don’t feel the need for it. It’s a young field of study and, until recently, to whom would I send the manuscripts? Now, I could. But when I started 15 years ago I would be hard-pressed to find people who would knew about these areas. That’s not the case now. It’s financially independent. No one tells me how many pages I should use. I keep the cost low. No one tells me how many photos I should use. No one tells me anything.

CG:

And are contributors mainly young scholars? What’s the profile?

JH:

Many are young, because the profession is young. But there are number of others too. Many are rather important cartoonists. Will Eisner, for instance, wrote an article for us. Jerry Robinson who created the Joker in Batman. Lots of Lat cartoons have appeared in my journal, he is on my editorial advisory board. I don’t want to sound arrogant about it, but the way I came up, from childhood, I always had a distrust for institutions. In the coal-mining town where I grew up, we had three institutions –the post office, two wood clapboard buildings for the school, and we had three bootlegging joints.

CG:

What are some of the exciting developments in comic art in Asia that media scholars and graduate students with interest in this field should take note of? What are the topics or research questions that are ripe for the plucking?

JH:

As I said before, to go into the history and to preserve what’s there. So much of the comic art in many parts of the world, especially in Asia, was tossed out, shredded, or no one paid attention to it. So what’s left has to be preserved. From that and from other materials, we have to go back and look at the history. There have been so many claims, especially from the West, for the first this, first that. One Indonesian cartoonist who wrote an article recently showing that there was a graphic novel written in Indonesia in 1962. That’s before anyone else in the world had talked about graphic novel. So there is a lot of stuff like that to be found.

Secondly, the use of comic in raising people’s consciousness. No one is looking into that very much. In the Philippines in 1960s, when developmental communication was starting, one of the media that they used was comics, to push different types of development topics, because that was the best-read material in the Philippines. So that’s another area. A lot of comics are used to make people aware of HIV/AIDS and lots of other things.

I think cartoons as a poetic entity has to be studied more. There have been some very famous political cartoonists all over Asia. And the control of cartooning in some cultures. Audience studies would be difficult, but it would be good to find out who’s looking at these comics, who’s watching this animation for what purposes. Almost any topic you can think of in social sciences can be applied to comics and I think they are important because much of that has not been looked at.

CG:

You have met many important cartoonists in Asia. What is it that draws you to them?

JH:

I respect them because they are respectful. And they are people who are very kind. I have not met a cartoonist I did not like. I have interviewed hundreds of them. Most have been kind with their time and their materials. They are enthusiastic and they appreciate the fact that someone from academia is showing interest in their work. Until recently no one really cared about what they are doing.

CG:

Personally, what’s next for you? Looking forward to 2014, what’s next on the horizon?

JH:

I retired two years ago from teaching but I try to do teaching through seminars in different countries. I plan to continue travelling until I no longer can, and only I can determine that. I plan to continue doing my journal independently. When I can no longer do it myself, I hope I would find an individual who would take it over. I try to keep the corporations out of my work.

I plan to continue writing books. I had three books, edited volumes, come out in the last four months on Asian public culture. I just finished a long running project, coming out next year, on Asian comics and another one on Southeast Asian comics. I plan to write a book on China’s cartoonists. My wife and I were introduced to some of pioneers of China’s cartooning. I have an agenda to take me for another 20 years.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MEDIA ASIA AS

George, Cherian (2013). “Institutional approachcan stifle scholarship”, Interview with John Lent, Media Asia 40 (4): pp. 300-305.

PHOTO BY CHERIAN GEORGE