Earlier this month, Roy posed a question about how we use comics in different types of classrooms and it got me thinking. For my literature and cultural studies courses in which I focus on analysis of the form and interpretation of the content, many of my favorite comics are pretty terrible teaching tools. In some cases, it’s a matter of time; if I can’t devote more than two weeks to Watchmen, for instance, the graphic novel is very difficult to manage in an undergraduate course. Other comics simply presume too much prior knowledge of the series to be fully appreciated in a single semester.
But to make this question a little more interesting, I thought I’d inquire about the “teachable” comics that are our least favorite. Is there a story that you personally dislike that nevertheless ends up on your class reading list again and again? Perhaps it contains key design features, clear and concise expressions of the medium, or a groundbreaking narrative that necessitates its inclusion on your syllabus?
One comic that comes to mind for me is Will Eisner’s The Spirit, particularly issues that contain the title character’s cab driver, the grinning and guileless Ebony White. Of course, caricatures of blackness are all too easy to come by in early comic strips and serial stories, but the admiration that I have for Eisner’s illustrations and the nuanced perspectives in his New York tenement stories, not to mentioned his critical studies, makes Ebony White an even greater failure of imagination to me (and more so when one considers how progressive his sidekick status was in the 1940s). Still, I use the story, “Ebony’s X-Ray Eyes” in my class on race and identity in comics. Li’l Eightball might work just as well, but when it comes to thinking about the persistance of racialized physical, speech, and personality differences in the evolution of American comics, Ebony White is an incredibly effective example.
I often conclude this particular class with another comic that I don’t like at all — Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel by Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker. It’s perfect for discussions of race and satire that expand beyond the situational limits of McGruder’s far more interesting comic strip, The Boondocks. The historical and pop culture references as well as the parody of the politics surrounding the 2000 presidential election also make the graphic novel useful for study. My students overwhelmingly find the comic to be accessible, engaging, and hilarious. But I think the jokes fall flat and, as I point out in class, the racial discourse occasionally ends up reaffirming some of the very same stereotypes that have been with us since “Ebony’s X-Ray Eyes.” No matter how much I dislike the comic, I have to admit that it makes for terrific classroom discussion.
What is the worst comic that you enjoy teaching?