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Serious about comics

English PhD student recognized by humanities and social sciences federation

Student Life

By Chad Pelley

A Memorial University student has been honoured by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Michelle Pfeiffer posing beside a white wall that has artwork of a silhouette of a woman.
Elisabeth Pfeiffer says comics are ripe for an examination of socio-political issues of gender, race, and sexuality as the artform is becoming more popular than ever, especially through film adaptations.
Photo: Submitted

Elisabeth Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate and comics scholar in the Department of English, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, is a recent recipient of the federation’s Congress Graduate Merit Award (CGMA).

The CGMAs recognize exceptional graduate students and the work they present at the federation’s annual congress, Canada’s largest gathering of academics, and one of the largest in the world.

Ms. Pfeiffer was nominated for the award by the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics.

Exploring blackface and racism in comics

Ms. Pfeiffer’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences presentation focused on blackface in comics, and how blackface is rooted in minstrelsy — an inherently racist form of early 19th-century entertainment that mocked and dehumanized Black people and Black culture.

But it also detailed the history of white women upholding white supremacy, the unique intersectionality of sexism and racism experienced by women of colour and the ways in which “white women [in pop culture] have appropriated the look and language of Black women for profit, ‘coolness’ and fame.”

Titled Basic Bitches and Their Curiosity with Blackness: Comics and Blackface, the presentation was inspired by her master’s degree work on the comic series, Bitch Planet.

“Superhero movies are seen by millions and are a billion-dollar industry.” — Elisabeth Pfeiffer

She describes the series as a feminist dystopia where women and marginalized genders are sent to an off-world prison planet by a patriarchal system.

“Bitch Planet does what The Handmaid’s Tale is criticized for not doing, and that’s examining how white supremacy plays a role in whose freedoms are more likely to be taken away,” she said.

In one instance in the Bitch Planet anthology, a white woman uses futuristic technology to add melanin to her skin, in what is essentially an advanced form of blackface.

That prompted Ms. Pfeiffer to examine other storylines where white women, specifically, appear in blackface.

One example is when Superman character Lois Lane uses Kryptonian technology to become “Black” in order to gather information for a newspaper article about an African community.

A 1970 Superman comic showing Lois Lane in blackface.
Photo: CPR.com

Comic studies more vital than ever

Comic studies is a burgeoning field in the discipline of English these days, and for good reason.

“Superhero movies are seen by millions and are a billion-dollar industry, and other genres of comics have been adapted into TV shows, movies and video games, exposing comics to an even wider audience,” said Ms. Pfeiffer.

“The industry itself is growing exponentially, especially with digital and webcomics. Comics are ripe for examining socio-political issues of gender, race and sexuality precisely because they use both words and images, allowing us time to pause and really consider what both of those combined aspects represent. And, really, who doesn’t love to read comics!”

Mentorship and expertise

Ms. Pfeiffer says she particularly enjoys exploring feminist dystopias and utopias in the comic narrative because dystopias help people to recognize the flaws in our society, whereas utopias are where we get to imagine a better society, and one that takes care of everyone.

She also says she is excited to continue her studies under “the incredible” Dr. Nancy Pedri, who is also a comics scholar.

“Honestly, it’s a dream come true and I am so fortunate! Dr. Pedri is one of the experts in this field of study … and has also been an amazingly supportive supervisor. It is not easy being an academic with two young children, and in a field that has long been male-dominated.”

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