UO professor to collaborate with Marvel and Penguin Classics

Ben Saunders

Ben Saunders, a UO professor of comic studies, is working with Marvel Comics on a new collaboration series with publisher Penguin Classics.

The first three books published in the series will be “Black Panther,” “Captain America” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” with Saunders serving as the series editor and author of the scholarly introductions for the latter two. The series marks the first time Penguin Classics has published a comic.

“Penguin Classics is one of the oldest and most distinguished publishers,” Saunders said. “They have never published comics before of any kind. So, this is a canonization of comics as a medium that is worthy of study. It’s a huge step.”

Saunders founded the world’s first undergraduate minor in comic studies at the UO in 2012. The minor explores historical, international and critical perspectives on comics and cartoon studies.

Saunders also has served as curator for multiple museum exhibitions of comic book art. His most recent exhibition was “Marvel Universe of Super Heroes,” shown across the U.S. and Canada in 2019.

“Black Panther,” “Captain America” and “The Amazing Spider Man” have been leading titles for Marvel for decades. They’ve gone on to spawn movies that have grossed millions of dollars and captivated millions of fans.

“I feel so incredibly lucky to be working on this series,” Saunders said. “I’ve loved this material all my life. I became a professor because I learned to read from comics. There’s a direct connection between my childhood, the gateway to literacy which a lot of these texts were to me, and where I am now. It’s very exciting to be able to say I was a part of this process.”

Saunders’ scholarly introductions for “Captain America” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” will focus on the real-world origins and historical creation of the characters. Saunders will explore the careers of Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Steve Ditko, the initial creators of the characters, asking what their initial vision for the heroes was and how it has shifted through time into the characters of today.

Comics have had a long, storied history since their inception in the 1940s. To Saunders, it’s the poignant stories of the flawed human beings at the core of each character, combined with their uncomplicated moral imperatives, that give the superhero story a timeless appeal.

“The Penguin Classics will be of real value to someone who wants to quickly get up to speed on the decades of history and storytelling of these characters,” Saunders said. “They will, in a way, try and capture the essence of what was important about the characters in the earliest iterations and the first 10 years of the company. It’s not just about introducing readers, it’s about what would actually be helpful in a classroom, or helpful for a future creator.”

—By Victoria Sanchez and Cole Sinanian, College of Arts and Sciences