Chris Bishop Interview

Dr. Bishop talks about the uses and abuses of classical and medieval texts in popular media, the value of studying flops, and how we all might misunderstand history for our own reassurance.  

Listen to more

The interview audio is available here at the New Books Network podcast.

What we talked about

Creating a layman’s definition of ‘medievalism’ and how it relates to swords and sorcery and the medieval. 

Dr. Bishop talks about the comics he examined, and gives us some background on how he chose them. 

He talks about Beowulf: Dragon Slayer as an exception which proves the rule and explains how this series stands out in the corpus.

Elaborates on the methodology of including the ‘failures’ alongside the successful, popular works.

Briefly discusses the gap between the medieval literary canon, and successful ‘canonic’ medievalist comics, and how scholars understand their favorites in contrast to fan ‘best of’ lists. 

He outlines some elements of medievalist comics which are not medieval at all (ex: Northlanders) and talks about what does it means to present kung fu adventures or 1980s feminism (for example) under the banner of the medieval.

About the scholar

Dr. Chris Bishop is a honorary lecturer at the Australian National University. He has published widely on the history of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, as well as on comic book studies. In 2012 Bishop was awarded a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress for his research, which led to the publication of the book.  

About the book

Chris Bishop, Medievalist Comics and the American Century, University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Official blurb: The comic book has become an essential icon of the American Century, an era defined by optimism in the face of change and by recognition of the intrinsic value of democracy and modernization. For many, the Middle Ages stand as an antithesis to these ideals, and yet medievalist comics have emerged and endured, even thrived alongside their superhero counterparts. Chris Bishop presents a reception history of medievalist comics, setting them against a greater backdrop of modern American history.

From its genesis in the 1930s to the present, Bishop surveys the medievalist comic, its stories, characters, settings, and themes drawn from the European Middle Ages. Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant emerged from an America at odds with monarchy, but still in love with King Arthur. Green Arrow remains the continuation of a long fascination with Robin Hood that has become as central to the American identity as it was to the British. The Mighty Thor reflects the legacy of Germanic migration into the United States. The rugged individualism of Conan the Barbarian owes more to the western cowboy than it does to the continental knight-errant. In the narrative of Red Sonja, we can trace a parallel history of feminism. Bishop regards these comics as not merely happenchance, but each success (Prince Valiant and The Mighty Thor) or failure (Beowulf: Dragon Slayer) as a result and an indicator of certain American preoccupations amid a larger cultural context.

Intrinsically modernist paragons of pop-culture ephemera, American comics have ironically continued to engage with the European Middle Ages. Bishop illuminates some of the ways in which we use an imagined past to navigate the present and plots some possible futures as we valiantly shape a new century.