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?


About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

6 responses »

  1. conseula says:

    Excellent question Qiana! I think I would have to choose Chester Brown’s Paying For It. I don’t know that I would go as far as to say that the comic is *bad*, but I do think it is an aesthetic mess and for that reason, it teaches really well, My students and I had great discussions about our ability to separate the author from his work, whether or not that was even necessary or desirable. We talked about the value of polemics and the line between polemic and memoir. It was a really good week of class. I’d teach the book again, even though I don’t really care for it.

    • Thanks, Conseula! I will have to add Paying For It to my reading list. I read a few reviews when it came out that didn’t make me want to rush out and pick it up, but I’m always looking for more “teachable” comics.

  2. roytcook says:

    Well, I don’t actually ‘teach’ this one, in the sense of having them read it, but I do use the cover in a Powerpoint during my mini-lecture on the Silver Age and social issues in comics. The issue of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane titled “I am Curious (Black)” is rather horrendous, but is really useful to get students talking about race issues, their depictions in comics, and the dangers of upper-middle-class white males trying to address social issues (that they likely at the time didn’t well understand) in a medium crippled by the Comics Code and viewed as disposable children’s entertainment! See the first page here:

    • Ha! I’m familiar with this one too, Roy. I would love to get my hands on the entire issue to see if it is as troubling as that first page.

      • Tim Caron says:

        Thanks, Qiana, for a great question. There are several books I teach in my American literature classes that fall into this category, but I hadn’t really thought about applying this question to comics until your post.

        For me, it would have to be Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Students love it, and I’m profoundly troubled by its politics. In my comics classes, it serves lots of purposes…it works well in talking about a sort of respectibility that comes to comics after DKR, and it’s great for talking about all sorts of formal issues. However, the most fun I have in teaching the book is in talking about/problematizing the comics medium’s ability to portray abstract concepts in visual terms. We spend a lot of time talking about the splash pages in the book, particularly the one in which Batman, on horseback, leads the SOBs through the streets of Gotham. To me, this is the visual representation of fascism

      • Hi Tim, I am not a fan of Miller’s work for the very reasons that you mentioned and so far, I have not felt compelled to teach more than an excerpt from DKR. (I actually thought about you and INCOGNEGRO when I wrote this post – another comic I know we share a love/hate relationship with!)

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