Mail Tribune: Medford native heads comic book course at Portland State
Author: Ryan Pfeil
Posted: January 4, 2017

Susan Kirtley is associate professor of English and the director of PSU's Comics Studies program. This article originally appeared in the Mail Tribune

Let's pretend - just for a minute, this won't take long - that someone adapted Susan Kirtley's professional life for a comic book.

In the first panel, the Medford native is huddled over a comic book on the Jefferson Elementary School playground. She isn't yet an associate professor of English and director of rhetoric and composition at Portland State University, she's just a kid with her nose buried in a book, carried away by the words and pictures that combine to tell a story.

In the second panel, some kid enters, makes a nasty comment or three about girls not reading comic books and walks off, laughing.

Now, real quick, skip to the end, past her graduation from South Medford High School in 1991 and her college years. On the final page, a smiling Kirtley, now a PSU professor, holds up an award.

"And so," the final text box reads. "Kirtley's love of comics paid off with an Eisner Award (one of the highest honors in the comics industry) for her book about comics artist Lynda Barry. 'Do what you love' is sage advice, it seems."

The end? Hardly. Issue No. 2 of Kirtley's journey is even better, the story of how she created a comic book studies program at Portland State. Approved in January 2015, the certificate program has already landed students jobs and internships in the industry, several with heavy hitters such as Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press.

"It's really exciting for me to see the students having a job in the field that they love," Kirtley says in a telephone interview.

Per Kirtley, the program rose from a "wonderful, perfect storm."

In 2013, she had just won the Eisner Award - think comics Oscar - for Best Educational Academic Work for her book "Lynda Barry: Girlhood Through The Looking Glass," which examined the life and works of the book's namesake, who wrote several illustrated novels and created the weekly comic strip "Ernie Pook's Comeek."

Following the win, Kirtley realized PSU was an ideal spot for a comic book studies program. Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press reside in Oregon, and Image Comics, publisher of popular titles such as "Spawn," "The Walking Dead" and "Saga," will soon call the state home. Writers and artists such as Brian Michael Bendis (Marvel's "Ultimate Spider-Man") and David Walker (DC's "Cyborg") also live in Portland.

"There are only a few comics programs in colleges," Kirtley says. "Most of them either focus on comics creation exclusively, or on scholarly perspective. I thought it would be great to do both."

Kirtley went to PSU faculty with a proposal, they got on board, and the program was born. It's a mixed bag of theory and application, Kirtley says; plenty of reading, but plenty of hands-on stuff, too. Authors, illustrators and other industry professionals make regular appearances in classes.

Many students had been hungering for such an environment, Kirtley adds. She gets that. As a lifelong comics fan, she never got to discuss the medium she loved in a structured way.

"I read comics, but I didn't have the opportunity to share it with people or study it in school," she says. "To have the opportunity to study them and talk about them and work in an environment supportive of that ... the students have been incredibly receptive."

Current class offerings include comics history, writing comics, introduction to book publishing, typography, layout and production, mixed media, and the philosophy of art, according to the program website,

Looking ahead, issue No. 3 of Kirtley's story arc includes two new book projects. One is about female-created newspaper comic strips from about 1970 to 2010, and the other is a collaboration with a Stanford professor and a Los Angeles K-12 teacher about using comics as teaching tools. Like any successful comic book story, Kirtley's still has a lot of momentum.

"That girl on the playground at Jefferson could never have imagined a career trajectory like this. I'm so very lucky," she says. "I tell the kids, 'If you have a passion for something, don't give it up because someone tells you it's nerdy or silly. It's the best thing.' "