Meshell Sturgis: Filling In the Gaps of Comix

by Alan Song || UW Department of Communication Intern

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” – Uncle Ben

For Communication Ph.D. student Meshell Sturgis, discovering an interest in comics allowed her to find her own research niche. Sturgis was first exposed to comics in the last year of her Bachelor’s degree program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says her undergraduate experiences at UNC had a great influence on who she is today, and what she wants to pursue during her academic career.

As a first generation college student, Sturgis earned the Carolina Covenant Scholarship. Sturgis says that her acceptance to UNC opened up some big doors for her, which might have otherwise remained closed due to her socioeconomic standing. Upon reflecting on her experiences at UNC, Sturgis says that “there are two things that really stick out for me.” The first was joining Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc. Originally from Olympia, WA, attending school across the country made it challenging for Sturgis to find a community, but Theta Nu Xi soon became her family away from home. Working with a small group of women, Sturgis found herself collaborating with other Greek organizations, many of which had upwards of 400 members, for events focused on fundraising, philanthropy, and scholarships for students. “It taught me a lot, especially about recruiting, content planning, and organizing,” Sturgis recalls. “It was the perfect opportunity to develop my professional skills.”

The second experience that defined Sturgis’ time as an undergraduate was serving as an orientation leader. Although there are thousands of first year students and transfer students attending the University of North Carolina every year, there are only a handful orientation leaders. As one of the first people they met on campus, Sturgis considered it a privilege to provide students with a positive experience; she took great pride in introducing them to the history, values, and community of UNC. Although meeting and networking with others was a large part of the job, serving as a representative of the University made the experience for Sturgis one of her most special.

Sturgis also warmly recalls taking a class with Professor Robinson; the first to introduce her to the world of comics from an academic point of view. As a Creative Writing Minor, Sturgis had her choice of different writing tracks; she bounced between the poetry and the fiction tracks before finally settling into her growing interest in comics. “Comics are a storytelling device similar to poetry. In fact, they can be art, poetry and fiction all combined into one,” Sturgis says.

Currently, Sturgis studies comics as a member of the Communication and Difference Research Group. Her work revolves around analyzing these stories through a black-feminist-lens as part of her dissertation. “Comics aren’t new, but there is a new surge of academic interest and validity behind them, keeping their creative merits [as a communication form] alive and well,” Sturgis claims. “I am in the STSS Graduate Certificate program; at large, my research looks at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class in our social world, as influenced and structured by science and technology. Society is built with all these binaries, and I’m interested in what happens in-between the binaries.”

Comics offer Sturgis a different angle on storytelling as well. There is no traditional format; although there is a recognized structure, creators and readers do not strictly adhere to it. “With comics, it’s a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style; a little bit rebellious,” Sturgis explains. “You can choose to read it like a normal book, or just flip through and skip around. And sometimes more structure means [a comic is] more limited.”

Sturgis encourages students to read comics, not just for new perspectives on race, but also for narrative twists on gender, sexuality, and class. She insists that it’s impossible to separate race from gender, or sexuality, or class, because they are always playing together within those previously mentioned gray areas. “In comics, you can see very clearly in each box, but by delineating each panel, there are all these gaps and silences that are realized.” She posits that a look into today’s depiction of comics features only a portion of the gaps and silences portrayed in society. “What happens in the gaps?” Sturgis questions. “Even if you don’t fully identify with the narrative, you can insert your voice in some way.”

This year, Sturgis is a GO-MAP Presidential Dissertation Fellow, a member of the GPSS Diversity Committee, and a resident of the Black Embodiments Studio through the Simpson Center. She spends her Fridays at the Gig Harbor Correctional Center for Women, teaching public speaking alongside Victoria Thomas, who is a Ph.C. in the UW Department of Communication. Sturgis is part of the Mixed Comix Collective, a collaborative project funded by the CCDE. Sturgis also produces and creates her own art. Currently on the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Ethnic Artist Roster, she is working to build her identity as an artist.

After finishing school, Sturgis sees herself working as a tenured professor. When asked about her own superheroes, she grins as she recalls Matilda, Roald Dahl’s young heroine who finds magic in books (and eventually herself) which helps her overcome the challenges she faces at home, at school, and in the world. “My magic is within the university” Sturgis says. “The UW is home for me.”