Ben Saunders makes comic books mainstream at the University of Oregon

Professor Ben Saunders and his 3-year old daughter Bronwyn read comics from the Superman anthology "Superman: From the 1930s to the 1970s" at Marche Museum Cafe in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.  Saunders, an avid comic reader since the age of five, directs the UO Undergraduate Minor in Comics and Cartoon Studies, which began enrolling students last fall - the first academic minor of its kind in the nation. (Michael Arellano/Emerald)

Professor Ben Saunders and his 3-year old daughter Bronwyn read comics from the Superman anthology "Superman: From the 1930s to the 1970s" at Marche Museum Cafe in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Saunders, an avid comic reader since the age of five, directs the UO Undergraduate Minor in Comics and Cartoon Studies, which began enrolling students last fall - the first academic minor of its kind in the nation. (Michael Arellano/Emerald)

Posted by Samantha Matsumoto on Monday, Feb. 25 at 10:14 am.

Ben Saunders leaned forward in his chair. Sitting in his office, with comic book characters on the door and the books on the wall ranging from studies of Shakespeare to Spider Man, he explained his enthusiasm for teaching.

“This shit is so fucking awesome. This stuff is cool; look at this,” he exclaimed, gesturing around his office.

His voice dropped again, becoming serious.

“And then you just hope. You do your little boogie and you hope that people will want to go and do it,” he said.

Saunders has taught classes ranging from rock and roll and religion to Renaissance literature, but regardless of the subject, he hopes to impart his enthusiasm for the subjects to his students.

Beginning last fall, Saunders manifested that enthusiasm as the program director for the University of Oregon’s comics studies minor, which studies the history and importance of comics. The program is the first and only of its kind in the country.

Saunders first taught a comics class at the UO in 2007, which was met with great interest by students. However, Saunders knew more could be done with the study of comics, and he aimed to take it further.

“The reason I wanted there to be a minor is that it means that it won’t go away quite so easily,” Saunders said. “(As a minor), it ceases to be a cool elective and becomes something that is offered regularly.”

The project got rolling in 2009 after the unprecedented success of Saunders’ comics exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. When Saunders suggested the creation of the comics study program, the support was enormous, coming from then-UO President Richard Lariviere and faculty members and continuing to the Office of the Dean of Students.

Saunders emphasized the amount of support the comics minor has received, but he is not surprised by it.

“I know how powerful this art form is,” he said.

According to Saunders, comics are one of the most powerful forms of communications humankind has devised because of their ability to tell stories ranging from the informative to the fantastical. For the same reasons fine arts, literature and film are studied, he said, it is important to study comics. According to Saunders, by studying the history behind comics, many other subjects are explored, including American history, print culture and human psychology.

“I could teach you for two weeks about the history of American comic art form, and you’d know more about all those things,” he said. “That’s an amazing shortcut to a huge amount of knowledge.”

This is part of the reason that Saunders believes it is important to have an established programmatic study of comics at the UO.

“It shouldn’t just be about me. It shouldn’t just be about one person teaching anymore than you should have one person teaching the novel or one person teaching film,” he said. “This is a global art form with a large history.”

In all the subjects Saunders teaches, it is not about him. His goal is to make himself irrelevant, giving students the enthusiasm and skill to pursue the subjects outside of class.

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching Elvis or early modern poetry or Iron Man. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The point is, can I make people want to go and do this by themselves?”