Michael Alexander speaks to Dundee University’s Professor Chris Murray – the world’s first professor of comic studies – who was inspired growing up amongst the comics heritage of Dundee.
It sounds like the plot from a classic superhero comic.
A young boy growing up on the fringes of a provincial city is given a secret stash of comics by a mysterious benefactor – inspiring him to go on to become a leading authority in his field.
But truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the case of Dundee University academic Chris Murray – the world’s first comics professor – it’s a fair summary of how he got into comics himself.
“Some of my earliest memories are (of) reading comics,” recalls Professor Murray, 41, a former pupil of Dundee’s Brackens Primary and Rockwell High School.
“My uncle Dougie, when I was very young, worked as a delivery man and removals man.
“He used to drink in a pub in the Hilltown. There was a guy who used to go to the pub who knew my uncle.
“That guy used to get his comics delivered to the pub because he didn’t want his wife to know that he read comics.
“So he’d come in and sit with his stack of comics and read them and have a pint, and put them back behind the bar and leave them for my uncle because he knew that he had a little nephew.
“So whenever my uncle’s truck would pull up outside our house in St Mary’s, I’d run out and my uncle would have a stack of comics under his arm.
“Some of my earliest memories of getting comics is down to that mysterious benefactor in the pub,” he laughs.
Chris consumed everything comic related during those years. Marvel comics like Spiderman and Star Wars were being reprinted at the time, and, of course, he also read home grown publications like the Dandy and the Beano.
“I even used to read my sister’s comics – the girls’ comics – because often the artwork was a bit better,” he adds.
It was while he was studying for an English degree at Dundee University, however, that he began to think how much of the comic content he consumed was as powerful, literary and artistic as any of the classic books he’d been reading on the course.
In fourth year he did his dissertation on comics, supervised by DR Keith Williams, which was very well received.
He went on to do a PhD on comics and propaganda during the Second World War, and set up the film studies course at Dundee University before becoming a full-time member of English department staff.
“The first time I really got to teach any comics was just over 10 years ago,” he adds.
“I also did some teaching on comics for Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design.”
Chris initially set up a module about British Comics Writers.
Then six years ago he decided he wanted to launch a comics masters’ degree – “because there was nothing like it in the world.”
Chris says it’s apt that the course – and his recent appointment as professor of comics – has happened in Dundee – the land of Desperate Dan, Oor Wullie and Dennis the Menace.
But he says the fact it happened that way wasn’t by design.
“In many ways it’s one of those strange accidents,” he says, “but in other ways it feels quite inevitable.
“Growing up in Dundee surrounded by comics, I was aware of Dundee’s comics history. I was happy and proud when Dundee started to embrace its comics history with the Desperate Dan statue and those kind of things – because Dundee didn’t always do that as a city.
“Dundee really is the natural place to study comics with its long history of DC Thomson.
“Working here and starting to do comic courses here – it was the most natural place to do it.
“DC Thomson have been wonderful partners over the years. We’ve been partnered up to do various exhibitions, working on projects. But they also allow our students access to the comics archives. It feels like a coming together.”
Chris said comic circulations have always had their ups and downs.
But despite threats from TV, computer games and social media, Chris says they remain popular.
“What’s happening at the moment is things are transitioning,” he says.
“They are being consumed in slightly different ways. A lot of people still read comics. There are a lot of digital comics.
“Comics are having a huge impact on computer games, animation and particularly cinema.
“But at the same time you get the enormous rise of autobiographical comics or comics that deal with medical issues or serious historical issues, or comics that are winning literary prizes.
“The readership is changing, but that’s always been the case.”
Chris’ favourite comic of all time is Grant Morrison’s Zenith that appeared in 2000 AD.
It’s a deconstruction of the often forgotten British superhero.
And in the new year, Chris will pay his own tribute when he releases a book about the long history of the British superhero – from the 1930’s to the present day.
He’s also a supporter of the Dundee Comics Creative Space in the Vision Building, funded by the Rank Foundation, which has also allowed engagement with young people in creative education through comics.