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POW! ZOWIE! Scholars discover the comic book.

Comic figures gain new academic respect as they enter the world of literary and critical analysis.

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Man of steel: Comic figures gain new academic respect.

mike blake/reuters/files

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Amid the spectacle of the world's largest comics convention, tens of thousands of attendees had Batman on the brain.

But only graduate student Kate McClancy came armed with an analysis of how an asylum in the Caped Crusader's world reflects the American debate over treatment of the mentally ill.

It's an obscure topic, to be sure. But Ms. McClancy's treatise was right at home at Comic-Con International, which was held here this past weekend.

Dozens of other scholars were tackling arcane subjects from "the geek as melodramatic hero" to "the problem of vigilante justice" in the famed graphic novel "Watchmen."

Just 15 years ago, many professors would have scoffed at the in-depth study of comics.

Now, comics are coming into their own in classrooms of all kinds, gaining an unprecedented level of respect and spawning serious debate over their greater meaning.

"Comics have changed. They're not the comics that we grew up with," says Peter Coogan, an organizer of the academic-oriented panels at Comic-Con.

"They can stand up to literary and critical analysis," he says.

Across the country, hundreds of professors and college students spend their days analyzing comics, and the University of Florida even allows postgraduate English students to specialize in comics studies.

Meanwhile, teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools are embracing comics as tools to help students learn to read and enjoy words.

It's a far cry from the old days.

In the 1940s and 1950s, many schools accepted the view that explicit and violent comics caused juvenile delinquency.

Teachers have long confiscated the comic books of students who prefer the adventures of Spider-Man and Alfred E. Neuman to those of Macbeth and Jay Gatsby.

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