Professor Paul Williams
Associate Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture
Room 322, Queen's Building
In Term 3 I am available to see students by appointment only; please contact me using the email address above to arrange a meeting.
My monograph Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics (2020) was recognised by the Research Society of American Periodicals with an Honourable Mention in their 2019-20 Book Prize. Dreaming the Graphic Novel is published by Rutgers UP and breaks new ground by explaining how graphic novels were produced, distributed, and discussed in North America between the mid-1960s and 1980. This book is part of my ongoing research into US comics and graphic novels from the long 1970s, and my work has also been published in journals such as Textual Practice and the Journal of American Studies. My article "Jules Feiffer's Tantrum at the End of Narcissism's Decade," published in Studies in the Novel, was awarded the Javier Coy Biennial Research Award for Best Journal Article 2017-18 by the Spanish Association for American Studies.
My next book, The US Graphic Novel, explores the history of US graphic novels from the 1910s to the 2000s and is forthcoming from Edinburgh UP.
Between 2014 and 2016 I was an AHRC ECR Leadership Fellow, supported by a grant of £144,000. During this project I co-curated the exhibition The Great British Graphic Novel (Apr.-July 2016) at the Cartoon Museum in London, seen by over 10,000 people.
I have many additional research interests, such as:
- Critical theories of race and ethnicity (my book on Paul Gilroy was published in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series in 2012)
- Post-apocalyptic fiction (the subject of my 2011 monograph, entitled Race, Ethnicity, and Nuclear War)
- South-West writers, especially John Betjeman and Laurie Lee
- The history of Cultural Studies
- The cultural and political impact of 1970s alternative psychotherapies
- American Studies - I belong to Exeter's North American and Atlantic Research Group
I teach across many modules, often lecturing on comics, critical theory (Sianne Ngai and the Frankfurt School are particular favourites), and North American literature and culture. I welcome inquiries from potential PhD students on these and related topics.
My main research interests are comics and graphic novels. I am interested in these forms across the centuries and around the world, but I am best known for my work into North American comics between the 1960s and the 1980s. I am also starting to explore 1990s British alternative comics in detail.
I recently completed a major project that explored how long comics narratives were imagined as novels in the United States between the mid-1960s and 1980, leading to a series of articles and the monograph Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics (Rutgers UP, 2020). This research investigated the graphic novel as a phrase, a concept, and a product brought to market during the turbulent economic conditions of the 1970s, when stakeholders in the US comics world regularly declared the ‘death of the comic book’. One or two graphic novels from the period are well known but Dreaming the Graphic Novel underscores the wide range and volume of graphic novel publishing in the period; graphic novels were produced by established comics companies, the new independents, underground comix publishers, and major publishing houses. Further, this project examined the various desires and anxieties bound up with the act of calling a comic a 'novel' and what that said about US comics in the 1960s and 1970s.
My next book, The US Graphic Novel, is forthcoming from Edinburgh UP. Exploring the history of US graphic novels from the 1910s to the 2000s, The US Graphic Novel underlines the intermediality of the comics created, marketed, and read as novels, occupying as they do an unstable zone between the book and proximate media such as the periodical comic, the poster, the 'zine, and the computer screen.
All of this builds on earlier research I conducted into comics, materiality, and literariness. In 2010 I coedited the essay collection The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts (UP Mississippi) with my colleague Professor James Lyons.
I have often published books, articles, and chapters on cultural constructions of race, ethnicity and national identity. My work asks: what role does literature, film and popular culture play in producing or fracturing those subject formations? During the early stages of my career, this question was posed in relation to the Cold War, but I have also published on how Hollywood film and hip-hop staged debates about the racial politics of the War on Terror.
One of the enduring touchstones of this research is the critical theorist Paul Gilroy, whose work I find perennially rewarding to revisit. In 2012 I wrote an introduction to Gilroy’s thought in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series, which (amongst other things) tracked how his theories have been challenged and appropriated by scholars working in his wake. This book contained a brief glimmer of a project I hope to pursue at a future point: a critical account of the singer-songwriter Sam Cooke and his position in the US music industry at mid-century, standing at the crossroads of gospel, Black nationalism, and the protest tradition.
I have also produced, with Dr Brian Edgar, a series of articles on radical psychotherapies of the 1970s and their global legacies. These articles are typically centred on Primal Therapy and the activists, musicians, dramatists, and fiction writers that it inspired, though we also consider Nude Therapy, est, the Synanon ‘Game,’ and various types of rebirthing in our research. We also think about the relationship between alternative psychotherapies and radical politics: some therapeutic practitioners saw themselves doing revolutionary work that would contribute to the downfall of capitalism. The therapies we discuss are closely associated with California, but they travelled widely around the world, from the squatters’ community on London’s Villa Road to the coast of County Donegal, and from an ashram in Pune to the Colombian jungle.
Finally, I have a long-standing interest in literature and the South-West, notably two writers at the edge of the literary canon often cast as witty elegists for a vanishing England. I want to reframe these writers as figures engaged with some of the biggest social and political questions of the twentieth century. I contend that John Betjeman used poetry and broadcast media to foster a public debate about the forms of community enabled or prohibited by the built environment. Having consulted Laurie Lee’s unpublished diaries, I argue that his observations as he travelled across the Mediterranean (Spain, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus) were shaped by his interest in left-wing politics, and Lee should be seen as a writer grappling with the UK’s changing relationship with the world during the rise of nationalist dictators in the 1920s-30s and the decline of the British Empire after 1945. As part of this, I want to shift attention to Lee’s poetry, drama, and multifaceted cultural practices, such as his work for the GPO Film Unit during World War Two or as Curator of Eccentricities during the Festival of Britain in 1951.
I invite inquiries from potential PhD students regarding the following subjects:
- Comics and Graphic Novels (especially creators such as Shary Flenniken, Lee Marrs, Samuel R. Delany, and Roberta Gregory, and companies such as Eclipse, Rip Off Press, and Star*Reach)
- US Literature and Culture (especially 1960s-1980s)
- Alternative Psychotherapies and their Cultural Influence
- Sam Cooke
- Literature and the South-West (especially Laurie Lee and John Betjeman)
- Paul Gilroy
- Post-Apocalyptic Representations and Future-War Fiction
If you are interested in doctoral study, please include a brief outline of your project and a copy of your CV with your initial inquiry.
I have supervised one PhD student to completion as first supervisor, Dr Robert Yeates, who is now Senior Assistant Professor (kōshi) in American Literature at Okayama University (Japan). Dr Yeates’s thesis examined representations of the post-apocalyptic city in emerging media; the book that emerged out of this research, American Cities in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction, is forthcoming from UCL Press.
I was second supervisor to Dr Sarah Daw, who is now Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Bristol. A version of Dr Daw’s thesis was published as Writing Nature in Cold War American Literature by Edinburgh UP in 2018.
I am currently the first supervisor on a postgraduate research project exploring the art and design of the comics published by Fantagraphics.
Previously I have second-supervised / co-supervised PhDs on
- Reading manga in translation
- Toni Morrison’s Beloved
- Contemporary British poetry and Objectivism
- Cultural representations of psychiatrists and psychotherapists
I am currently second supervisor for four PhD students, writing on topics as broad as:
- The Horned God and environmentalism in fantasy literature and live action role-playing
- The defence of white male privilege in the novels of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Updike
- Tea and Chinese American identity in twentieth-century US literature
- Harry Potter fan fiction
External impact and engagement
Between 2014 and 2016 I was an AHRC ECR Leadership Fellow, supported by a grant of £144,000. During this time I wrote a monthly blog and co-curated The Great British Graphic Novel (Apr.-July 2016) at the Cartoon Museum in London; this exhibition was seen by over 10,000 people and received international attention from the media. The exhibition was promoted with a 'tube map' of the history of the British graphic novel that I devised and which was brought to life by the eminent underground comix artist Hunt Emerson.
As a result of The Great British Graphic Novel, the Cartoon Museum was able to add original art from notable comics creators to its collections. The variety of artwork in the show was well captured by Rich Johnston's review on the Bleeding Cool website, and the exhibition received strong reviews, not least in The Spectator. I held follow-up workshops at three schools.
In Jan. 2010 I wrote a webpage for BBC Wiltshire entitled “Betjeman and Wiltshire.”
I have written several online essays on comics and graphic novels, such as my 1970s Graphic Novel Blog and the article “Literary Impressionism and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000),” which was published on the Comics Forum website (Oct. 2013).
I teach on a wide variety of modules, typically on courses that focus on critical theory, US literature, or twentieth-century and contemporary literature.
I have won or been nominated for various teaching awards at the University of Exeter:
Shortlisted (top five in the University) for ‘Best Research-Led Teaching’ at the Student Guild Teaching Awards.
Winner of the category ‘Most Supportive Member of Staff’ in the Department of English in the Student Guild Teaching Awards.
Winner of the category ‘Best All-Round Lecturer’ in the Department of English in the Student Guild Teaching Awards.
Winner of the categories ‘Tutor of the Year’ and ‘Feedbacker of the Year’ in the Department of English in the Student Guild Teaching Awards. Placed second for ‘Feedbacker of the Year’ and in the top ten for ‘Tutor of the Year’ in the University of Exeter-wide awards.
- EAS1032 - Approaches to Criticism
- EAS2090 - Humanities after the Human: Further Adventures in Critical Theory
- EAS2112 - Empire of Liberty: American Literature, 1776 to Present
- EAS3003 - Dissertation
- EAS3248 - Against the Mainstream: Alternative Comics, Politics, and US Society
- EASM157 - The Literature of Cold War America
I completed my PhD in 2005 (University of Exeter) and between 2005 and 2008 I performed various teaching roles for the University of Plymouth, notably as Lecturer in American Studies. I returned to the University of Exeter in 2008, working as a Teaching Fellow (2008-10), Lecturer (2010-14), Senior Lecturer (2014-20), and now Associate Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (2020-).
I was awarded an AHRC Early Career Research Fellowship (£144,000) in 2014 for my research project Reframing the Graphic Novel.