Teaching comics has become respectable lately. The Modern Language Association has published a volume on the genre in its series of teaching guides; elementary school libraries stock graphic novels and non-fiction texts, with the explicit goal of attracting “reluctant readers”; conferences and critical essays debate terminology (comics? Comix? Graphic narrative? Sequential visual. . . . Etc.). Like the novel, like film, this modern medium is emerging into mainstream status, but with the usual blind spots that canon formation in its early stages entails.
When I was in graduate school (cue bad nostalgic source music), literary studies was in the throes of discovering that women other than and prior to Jane Austen had written novels, and film studies was beginning to turn its sights on American movies more recent than Citizen Kane (ok, hyperbole is permitted in blogs). The film canon at that point emphasized alternative or foreign films. This meant that in order to be serious about film, one had to pretend to like Lena Wertmüller, which I found impossible, although I was dutifully swept away by Ingmar Bergman. But the Eighties punk sensibility, with its eye toward England and the Continent, also led to an increasing appreciation for genre films and their aesthetic, albeit with a good dose of irony. We happily wore trench-coats, lamé dresses, and Borsalino hats from thrift shops, sometimes in the art-house-cinema awareness that the French New Wave preceded us. What I at least had failed to notice was that comic books, which I had always secretly loved but had given up as uncool, were following the same trend, and in the process forming the nucleus of a new canon. If you study comics, you know these titles: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and The Killing Joke, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, Grant Morrison and David McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, all from the 1980s (all but Miller British writers and illustrators, BTW). The problem at the time, from the somewhat limited POV I inhabited, was that these were superhero comics, and superheroes weren’t cool. Even Batman, whom I had adored and wanted to be when I was five, was kinda square, right?
There is a point to all this reminiscence, I hasten to add: with all the diversity of today’s fiction and non-fiction comics — including a very teachable DC version of the 911 Commission Report, which the Commission commissioned (ok, awkward but accurate) explicitly to attract young readers — and even with the critical acclaim now granted the titles listed above, contemporary comics criticism still tends to act as if superheroes have counter-cultural cooties. Film versions haven’t helped, since they tend to be big on explosions and plastic abs (or worse bits) and lame on plot. But the critical focus on elements like costume, plot, and character is curiously blind to the Big Obvious: what makes comics unique as a genre isn’t any of these things.
It’s that they are drawn.
Like many new media, comics are visual/narrative hybrids. But unlike film, the medium to which comics are most frequently compared, comics are (in the famous idiom of Will Eisner’s 1985 Comics and Sequential Art), well, sequential art objects. Pop art knew this before anyone else outside the field did; just ask Roy Lichtenstein, who appropriated the mainstream style of the romance comic to great effect. The comics panel has a rhetoric all its own, one that can draw on any graphic style, including the dynamic idiom still best explicated in Stan Lee and John Buscema’s 1978 How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. That dynamic idiom speaks strongly to readers, as does hero comics’ continued engagement with issues of power, violence, control, and accountability. And the dynamic hero idiom, with its decades of tradition developed and made nuanced by multiple practitioners, engages students who are visually literate, often eliciting sophisticated analytical readings.
How do students respond to the use of comics in the classroom? After several semesters of experimenting, both in a course specifically on graphic narrative and in regular literature courses, I have found that both genres and all age ranges respond really well to comics of various types, including that heroic-style 911 Report. The title of this blog comes from a female adult student’s response to a question on a research survey (administered by a student, under IRB guidelines) concerning whether or not it was appropriate to use the medium to depict and teach historical events. Her answer: it’s ok as long as the work is “drawn serious.” Apparently the superhero idiom of Stan Lee doesn’t inevitably read as something for over-caffeinated fan-boys.
From my observation, student work and attitudes seem to suggest that if we teach new media on their own terms, outside the stereotypes that inevitably infest the formation of an emerging canon, we will find that they can communicate meaning and engage students in discourse at high levels. The process here matters more than the content, and skills transfer applies: a student who can read a film or a comic for metaphor, allusion, or thematic development can apply those skills to read other types of text. Moreover, the shock of the new, the revelatory dynamics of beginner’s mind, the chimeric interplay of hybrid media, can energize both instructors and students. The gains are worth the risks.