Graduate student studies comic book stories’ intersections with mental health topics

Rachel Karas

Many English students will say their favorite types of stories are novels or poems, but Valentino Zullo prefers comic books — so much so that he made them his dissertation topic.  

Zullo is a graduate student and is going for his PhD in English. His dissertation topic focuses on the relation between psychology, mental health and comic book storylines.

He has been interested in comic books since the age of five and decided to study them after Vera Camden, a professor of English and Zullo’s advisor, brought up the topic in class.

Camden asked the class what they like to read and when Zullo said he liked comic books, she asked him why he wasn’t studying them.

Zullo has looked at a variety of different comic books, including ‘Wonder Woman’ by William Moulton Marston and Harry George Peter and ‘New Mutants’ by Chris Claremont for his research.

“Since I’m trained both in an academic setting as a scholar and I’m also trained as a clinical practitioner, I am interested…specifically in how the overlap of comics and mental health creates new stories and has going back to the 1940s,” he said.

As he has been studying the comic books, Zullo has been able to publish some of his findings in a few places.

“He has published a couple of chapters from the dissertation into different journals already, which will become key chapters in the work (his dissertation),” Camden said. “…His progress has been very prompt and I expect him to finish within this next year and graduate.”

With all of the progress Zullo has made with his project, Camden has also seen his work and what he does outside of it and believes he will continue to bring change.  

“Not sure if he’ll apply for an academic position…but he’s also been approached by other members of the community to help,” Camden said. “…That is the kind of thing we’re going to bring: a lot of distinction at Kent State.”

Even with all the work he has done over the years and will continue to do as he finishes his dissertation, Zullo feels there is still more to be done.

“There’s countless stories…of the comic book becoming a carrier for psychological ideas as artists and writers become interested,” he said. “…There’s plenty of history of comic books becoming a carrier or even facilitating new types of stories in this intersection.”

Rachel Karas covers graduate education and research. Contact her at [email protected].