Professor Paul Williams
Associate Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture
Room 322, Queen's Building
My research is centrally concerned with comics and graphic novels and my latest book, The US Graphic Novel (2022), explores the history of US graphic novels from the 1910s to the present, with an emphasis on contexts of production, distribution, and reception. Throughout the book I show how the graphic novel is the site of formal exchange between comics and other media such as silent film, the poster, and digital screens.
My previous monograph Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics (2020) broke new ground by explaining how graphic novels were published, circulated, and discussed in North America between the mid-1960s and 1980. Dreaming the Graphic Novel won the 2020 Book Prize in the Comics History Awards presented by the Grand Comics Database and was recognised by the Research Society of American Periodicals with an Honourable Mention in their 2019-20 Book Prize.
I am keen to develop my research in dialogue with public engagement and in 2016 I co-curated the exhibition The Great British Graphic Novel at the Cartoon Museum in London. This show was 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 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 have written a number of chapters, articles, and monographs examining how long comics narratives were imagined as novels in the United States. My book Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics (Rutgers UP, 2020) investigated the graphic novel as a phrase, a concept, and a product brought to market during the turbulent economic conditions of the late 1960s and 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 underscored the wide range and volume of graphic novel publishing, showing how they were produced by established comics companies, the new independents, underground comix publishers, and major trade presses. Furthermore, this project examined the various desires and anxieties bound up with calling a comic a 'novel' and what that said about US comics in the long 1970s.
One of my articles on 1970s graphic novels, "Jules Feiffer's Tantrum at the End of Narcissism's Decade," was published in Studies in the Novel and awarded the Javier Coy Biennial Research Award for Best Journal Article 2017-18 by the Spanish Association for American Studies.
My latest book is The US Graphic Novel (Edinburgh UP, 2022), which tracks the history of graphic novels in the United States from the 1910s to the twenty-first century: how they were published, where they were sold, and who was reading them. The US Graphic Novel underlines the intermediality of the comics created, marketed, and read as novels, occupying as they do an unstable zone between various cultural forms and in dialogue with media such as 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 of Mississippi) with my colleague Professor James Lyons.
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 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, was published in 2021 by UCL Press.
I was second supervisor to Dr Sarah Daw, who is Lecturer in English Literature (Literature and the Environment) at Cardiff University. 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 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
- Tea and Chinese American identity in twentieth-century US literature
- Defensive white male privilege in the novels of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Updike
I am currently second supervisor for one PhD student writing on:
- The Horned God and environmentalism in fantasy literature and live action role-playing
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; this historical tube map was republished in the Flemish-language comics magazine Stripgids in June 2022.
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).
My online essays on comics were included on The Hooded Utilitarian website’s list of “Best Online Comics Criticism” for 2013 and 2014.
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 attended Malmesbury Comprehensive School 1991-98 and I completed my BA, MA, and PhD at the University of Exeter between 1998 and 2005. From 2005 to 2008 I undertook myriad teaching duties at Plymouth University, including the role of 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.