Researching AUM – Darren Harris-Fain explores fantastic literature

Dr. Darren Harris-Fain and his collection of sci-fi Watchman comics from the 1980s.

Photo by Nick Thomas

The realms of academia and fantasy might seem to belong in parallel universes, but Dr. Darren Harris-Fain has devoted much of his career to merging the two.

“My primary goal has been to explore the history of so-called popular literary forms such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics,” says the Auburn University at Montgomery English professor. “I'm especially interested in how genres emerge and change over time.”

Not surprisingly, Harris-Fain developed an interest in the popular genres as a child.

“I've read comics since I was five and picked up the occasional science fiction or fantasy novel from the school library,” he recalled. “I saw the original ‘Star Wars’ at just the right time in my late childhood to give me a lifelong sense of wonder and appreciation for science fiction.”

But it was during graduate school when Harris-Fain recognized his fondness for the fantastic could translate into an academic career after studying the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.

“I realized there was a lot of uncovered territory in a field I enjoyed reading,” he explained. “So I ended up writing my master's thesis on Ellison and my Ph.D. dissertation on H. G. Wells.”

An author and editor of books on American and British science fiction and fantasy writers, Harris-Fain also penned introductions to reprint editions of Wells's “The Island of Doctor Moreau” and three novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

“I’m currently editing a documentary volume on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and writing a history of the graphic novel as a literary and artistic medium.”

Given his broad background in pop culture and extensive general knowledge, it’s probably not surprising the Auburn Montgomery professor was selected as a contestant on the popular TV game show Jeopardy!, although the arduous vetting process required many years and four auditions.

“It was simultaneously one of the most exciting and most terrifying things I've ever done,” said Harris-Fain who was crowned daily champion on three episodes during the 2015 season.

“Although my time with host Alex Trebek was limited to being on the set while the cameras were rolling, he was charming and amusing,” recalled Harris-Fain, who was pleasantly surprised by a literature category on one show and a question about the superhero TV series, “Arrow” on another.

“Alex said that my success was due in part to a good liberal arts education, which is true, and it surely helped me become a Jeopardy! champion.”

Harris-Fain believes scholarship on fantastic fiction will continue to grow.

“I like that my fields are still kind of on the margins, a kind of geek pride, I suppose,” he noted. “There's opportunity to do groundbreaking work – to go where no scholar has gone before!”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.org).