When I was in grad school, I took a course on Post-Holocaust Literature. At some point, I recalled some of the horror comic books I had read when I was a kid, specifically EC Comics, which produced some of the most famous titles of the 1950s (Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, etc.). When I revisited some of those comics, I was stunned to find that much of the imagery was reminiscent of certain Holocaust icons, while many of the stories (mostly written by William Gaines and Al Feldstein, EC’s Jewish publisher and head writer, respectively) were revenge-based tales of corpses emerging from the ground, their coffins, whathaveyou, to avenge a wrongful death. I thought I was nuts, or maybe just seeing the stories through the lens of the course I was taking, but it did inspire me to research the comics as a form of post-Holocaust literature, where Gaines and Feldstein were, consciously or not, processing the trauma of the Holocaust through their stories.
Research wasn’t easy; there’s serious criticism devoted to the comics, but not nearly enough (the folks driven to write about EC, for example, tend to lapse into a fan’s reverence, enough at least to keep them from serious scrutiny), and Gaines and Feldstein were good-humored men that weren’t very self-reflective about their efforts that, as far as they were concerned, blatantly pandered to the youth market. So, aside from reading a lot of EC comics, I did research on 1950s youth culture, Holocaust iconography, attitudes toward the Holocaust in post-war America, and artistic representations of trauma. Once I had a working thesis, I did presentations at a couple of conferences (as you can imagine, it was a laugh riot), and when I had a finished draft, I asked a friend of mine who publishes comic criticism where I could send it. He suggested The International Journal of Comic Art, and it was accepted there.
I’m not sure how to expand the definition of a research project, but it’s probably worth noting that the type of research I conducted doesn’t really prove anything – I wasn’t able to unearth any proof of my thesis, just offered what I hope was a ‘deep speculation’ on the subject. One of the books I came across in my research was Martin Hammer’s ‘Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda,’ where Hammer argued that Bacon was processing WWII and its imagery through his paintings. But in his introduction, Hammer notes, “It has to be said that the readings of specific works presented here are often quite speculative and subjective,” and that “This book is intended to open up such important and wide-ranging questions about the artist, whether or not the particular observations and hypotheses that it puts forward are found to be convincing.” So perhaps its a good lesson for students to realize that research doesn’t always answer questions as much as it provides opportunities for new questions and possibilities.