Another universe: Alumnus finds unexpected career calling
December 1, 2022
Lots of people love Marvel movies. But for Devon Keyes ’19, this cinematic universe was more than a source of escapism. It influenced his career.
While pursuing a master’s degree in English at Virginia Tech, Keyes went to see “Doctor Strange” with a friend. Walking out of the theater, he knew exactly what he wanted to study.
“I fell in love with everything about the universe and the character,” Keyes said.
He followed that passion straight to a talk with his advisor, Virginia Fowler, now professor emerita, who told him that much of what he was researching at the time would translate well into studying comics and the uses of rhetoric within them.
Keyes was sold. From that point forward, he switched his academic research focus from postmodern metafiction to comics, and eventually to his current field, visual culture. Now, working toward his Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Keyes remains focused on comics, though the field of visual culture includes any text with a visual aspect to it.
It was this specific research interest that drew Keyes to Boulder to pursue his doctorate, but it was his time at Virginia Tech that allowed him to explore his initial interest.
“The Virginia Tech Department of English is constantly striving for students to take whatever they are doing and find ways to approach it from different perspectives or through different fields or research areas," he said.
He said that the diverse research interests of Virginia Tech faculty allowed him to see how other fields of study fit within or alongside his own, a concept he carries with him to his Ph.D. program.
After shifting his research focus to comics, Keyes began to work with Shaun Baker, an advanced instructor whose research includes children’s literature and comics not only as pop culture, but also historically. Through working with Baker, Keyes gained an understanding of the way that comic books shifted from being geared toward young children to targeting a more mature young adult or adult audience. Understanding how comics audiences changed allowed Keyes to question how the medium speaks to society, answering questions about the American Dream, American values, and how we view superheroes or heroism.
He also said that unlike novels, comics are published monthly, allowing researchers to get a pulse on what is happening in culture now. Because of this, comics provide researchers an interesting opportunity to look at how ideals developed over time or to assess where society is at in the current moment.
Keyes is a double Hokie, having attended Virginia Tech for both his undergraduate and master’s degrees. From his time at the university, and as a graduate student, he learned the importance of community and having peers to rely on and support. Graduate studies in English at Virginia Tech is often done in small groups, but classes tend to include the same groups of students. This helped Keyes and his classmates learn to lean on one another for support or advice when the coursework felt particularly challenging.
Without the group of peers and faculty members that Keyes found at Virginia Tech, completing high-level research would have proved much more difficult. Having such a strong community showed Keyes that graduate work truly is not a feat to attempt alone.
Keyes’ biggest advice for current students is to take courses outside of their principal research areas.
“Not only will that give you time to just take a break and step back from whatever research you’re doing, but taking classes that feel so incredibly different from what you’re doing will also allow you to research from a completely different angle," he said.
When he took such courses, he always felt refreshed knowing that there was a completely different world of research that he could explore if he wished.
Branching out of his comfort zone helped Keyes to take a fresh look at the comics he was studying, too. While taking a course on 18th and 19th-century literature written by women, Keyes realized that the comics that he had studied did not include those written by women or that featured female characters in prominent roles. This led him to question why that might be and why female characters are featured as central characters less often than males — a line of questioning he might not have pursued without that course.
Keyes also suggests that all Virginia Tech English students take a class with Ashley Reed, associate professor and director of the literature/English major program, regardless of their research discipline.
When asked for a comics recommendation, Keyes suggests “Loki: Agent of Asgard.” The comic is about the Norse god of mischief, making internal decisions that are reflected in external changes. As the series progresses, Loki tries to be more than the villain the world expects and his physical appearance morphs between sex and race. Keyes said the comic allowed him to see a character struggling with internal choices and external pressures and helped him zero in on the anxieties of transformation.
As a graduate student and a Black man, Keyes said he felt that the struggle between projecting a version of oneself, what that person wants the world to see, and the version the world expects is well represented in the comic.
“Zeroing in on those anxieties, what parts of yourself you have to leave behind, and what parts of yourself you can carry with you was really comforting,” Keyes said. Beyond this, he said the comic is also a fun read.
Now, as Keyes works toward his Ph.D., he looks forward to a long teaching career.
“I love the work that I’m doing and will be doing this until I retire, hopefully,” Keyes said about teaching.
In addition to working on his dissertation, in 2023, Keyes will be published in “The Routledge Companion to Superhero Studies.” His article discusses the Gwenpool comics, whose protagonist, Gwenpool is from our universe but falls into the Marvel realm. A huge fan of comics, she takes with her an understanding of the fact that the world she is in isn’t real, but the other characters in the comic don’t know this. Through the Gwenpool comics, Keyes explores empathy and how Gwenpool navigates her situation.
Written by Hannah Ballowe, a graduate student in the masters of arts program.