On December 3rd, the University of Oregon announced that they had received a 200,000 dollar endowment from a private benefactor to be dispersed over 4 years in support of their one-of-a kind minor in Comics and Cartoon Studies, the first of its kind in the USA. The minor, which is only one year old, is directed by English professor Benjamin Saunders, and with this endowment, the program is geared toward expansion. Funds are set to bring in a greater number of comic creators as guests and lecturers, following in the footsteps of Brian Michael Bendis, who began teaching in the program last fall.
Bendis had formerly been teaching a similar comics studies course at Portland State University, and though the course was always in high demand, he surprised students and fans by announcing in 2013 that he wouldn't be returning to PSU. His reasons for leaving, and his reasons for resuming teaching again at another institution were made a little clearer when Bendis started at U of O in September 2013. Firstly, it seems he had left PSU as a personal decision before being contacted by Saunders, who called him upon hearing the news and offered him a position at U of O. Bendis explained:
"[At PSU] I was kind of the only comic book guy there. It made the class stand out, but it also made it really frustrating. Here, there's a great support system from the professors within the comic minor."
So working in a more comics-friendly environment seems to have been the appeal of returning to teaching so soon after leaving PSU. Bendis' first semester at U of O focused on writing workshops, studies of seminal cartoonists like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, and above all, on "creativity". Bendis comments:
"There's no right or wrong answer to creativity…I'm hoping to give the students all kinds of different creative avenues that they'll be able to explore so that they can get what they need out of the class. You find that little nugget that'll change their life, so I try to give them as many little nuggets as possible."
But given the scope of the endowment for 2014, will Bendis be back? It is a reasonable assumption that the famous creator's involvement in the program may have helped generate awareness and the windfall of funding in the first place. U of O said of Bendis' involvement in the Comics and Cartoon Studies program as of the autumn:
"If all goes well, Bendis plans on teaching the class for the foreseeable future, which is something that the majority of comic book enthusiasts are hoping will happen".
While Bendis is not listed as the instructor for any of the 5 courses being offered in the program during the Winter Semester (a shorter, more intensive semester that runs between the normal Fall and Spring Semesters), the Spring course allocations have not yet been posted. One thing is clear, however, Bendis' stature has contributed to the success of the program so far, and may help bring in other veteran comic creators to enrich the program. Saunders says that while a substantial part of the endowment will be used for just that purpose, some funding will also go toward hosting special comic exhibits at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on campus.
Hannah Means-Shannon is Senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.