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Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix (2006)

There’s a graphic novel that I may be teaching in two different courses this fall semester. The first class is devoted solely to comics, while the other is a literature class in which the graphic novel will be the only expression of the form. I’ve been thinking about how my teaching approaches will compare from course to course, so I’ve decided to use my post this week to invite others to share their experiences with these two types of pedagogical situations.

The more obvious differences revolve around time constraints: in a comics course, the students will arrive at the text with a deeper understanding of the history, terminology, and critical theories of comics, along with prior examples to compare. The circumstances change when a comic occupies a single unit in a course dominated by another medium like literatur. The broader history and analytical tools will need to be pared down to accommodate critical dialogue between the comic’s narrative content and the other materials on the syllabus. I’m always excited by the opportunity to devote a full semester to comics studies. But is this second approach really so inferior or less ideal than the first?

MAUS_458Teachers have all sorts of reasons for including just one comic on their required reading list that don’t necessitate a detailed historicization or an in-depth study of debates within the medium. We know colleagues who teach Maus in courses on trauma studies, Jewish literature, or animal studies. Or those use V for Vendetta to generate writing assignments in composition courses. We may worry, of course, that these instructors aren’t taking the study of the form seriously enough. But the single unit approach is one of the most common ways that high school and university students are introduced to the scholarly exploration of comics, with good reason. Do students in these classes need to know about Yellow Kid or the Comics Code? Does it matter whether or not they know where the gutter is?

In the case of Stagger Lee, the graphic novel that I’m assigning in both an African American comics class and a course in postmodern literature, I know the two groups will likely come away from this text with different lessons and reading experiences. I have found, though, that incorporating this graphic novel in a literature class has had a surprising benefit. In past semesters, I noticed that our class discussions are more attentive to cross-disciplinary relationships and students are better prepared to explore how issues such as narrative fragmentation, questions about authenticity, hybrid genres, and other postmodern concepts that we have previously studied in novels and poems are also expressed in the comics form. So perhaps rather than being concerned about the ethics of teaching a lone graphic novel in my literature class, I should try to incorporate more fiction in my courses on comics!

What has been your experience with these two types of teaching approaches when it comes to comics?

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

3 responses »

  1. Interesting question, Qiana–and I have to say I’m intrigued by the idea of including more prose fiction (maybe even poetry?) in my comics courses!

    This year I haven’t taught my comics history and literature course, so I’ve been in the position of once again including at least one comic in my composition and in my introduction to literature courses. So, for example, my basic writing students read Maus while my research writing students have studied three graphic novels: Maus, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One.

    Last fall my Chicago literature course read Porcellino’s Perfect Example with short story collections like Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago and Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere. When I teach American Literature surveys, I normally include at least one comic, usually James Sturm’s The Revival or The Golem’s Mighty Swing, both of which teach very well when I cover the naturalists or realists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sturm seems to be working in that tradition.

    Some classes need additional context to read and also to write about the comics, but others raise fascinating questions well before I provide any historical or theoretical framework. For example, my composition students this term have read two short comics pieces in Dave Eggers’ collection of The Best Nonrequired Reading of 2012. One student struggled with Nora Krug’s “Kamikaze” but had a lot to say about Adrian Tomine’s “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture.” As a result, our class talked about the different visual strategies employed by Krug and Tomine before I’d had a chance to provide them with any theory or historical context.

    While Tomine employs, to borrow McCloud’s terms, moment-to-moment or action-to-action strategies in his panels, Krug tends to use aspect-to-aspect transitions. As a result, most of the students found Tomine’s story more engrossing and effective, whereas they were unsure how to write about or even to discuss the aspect-to-aspect movement of Krug’s panels. Of the two artists, Tomine, I think, works in a more traditional sequential style, one that is almost cinematic, whereas Krug’s panels illustrate her text boxes. “Why not just eliminate the drawings altogether?” asked one of my students concerning Krug’s visual essay.

    These are not questions I’d expected to be answering in my English 101 course, where my emphasis is on the mechanics and discipline of writing and peer editing. I did not plan on a detour into comics theory, but my students raised several excellent points that have me thinking more deeply about how I address these issues in my own writing on comics.

    And I am now thinking about eliminating or postponing the one or two class periods I devote to comics history and theory in my non-comics courses. This group of students has taught me to trust the collaborative aspects of the classroom in the the same way, perhaps, that as critics we need to start addressing more directly the collaborative nature of the comics form. Does the classroom in some way mirror the way in which comics themselves are produced (or tend to have been produced)–by a group of people working towards the same goal of making meaning from words and pictures?

    Also, on a side note, I always enjoy teaching John Porcellino’s work in comics and non-comics courses. Students struggle with his work’s simplicity and sometimes find his it more difficult–but also more rewarding–than more canonical texts like Maus (which, of course, is a wonderful text to teach; it always produces some excellent papers and class discussions).

  2. Brain, I really appreciate this incredibly rich and thoughtful response! I just ordered Adrian Tomine’s Optic Art #12 with the story you cited, so thanks again.

    I am drawn to your decision to maybe eliminate or postpone the comics history/theory classes in the non-comics courses. I am considering this too. I can see how when you are clear about the purpose of the reading and have really engaged students (which is sounds like you do) then trusting in the collaborative aspects of classroom instruction becomes really attractive. I mean, it really depends on what we want them to take away from the comic, right? And sometimes the short, self-contained works can raise critical questions in concise, interesting ways. I have a Harvey Pekar excerpt that I use to help students think about the nuanced relationship between image and text – and sometimes it works much more efficiently than a chapter from Understanding Comics.

  3. timscomics says:

    Thanks, Qiana, for raising this question because I think a lot of us who have worked hard to establish comics classes at our various campuses think about this question a lot. And thanks, Brian, for the good reminder about balancing a knowledge of the comics medium with students’ enthusiasm for the artform. Taken together, the post and the response remind me that I don’t need to inundate students with lots of technical knowledge about comics in a non-comics class in order to stimulate some pretty sophisticated thinking.

    I’d like to raise a related question. For those of us who are working to develop comics courses at colleges and universities, how do we (or how have we) responded when faculty suddenly “discover” comics and graphic narratives and want to include them in various courses? I’m not talking about turf-battles here. (“I developed the comics class; therefore, I’m the one who should teach the course.”) I’m talking about the faculty member who has demonstrated no prior interest in the art form–and may have even been skeptical about the intellectual merits of teaching comics–who suddenly starts including a graphic novel on his/her syllabus? For instance, I know of faculty members who have students read Maus, Volume I, but not Volume II. And who seemed genuinely surprised when I asked why this particular class was only reading half of the work. Mind you, this was not an example of a faculty member simply having students read an excerpt of a longer work, which is something literature faculty do all the time in survey type courses. Rather, this faculty member possessed so little knowledge of comics as not to know that there was even a second volume to the work. Similarly, I have attended panels, such as the MLA, where a faculty member discussed a graphic narrative and never once referred to the visual component of the work.

    If we ascribe good intentions to these folks, how do we encourage them to teach comics in a more responsible manner?

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