ImageDo you teach nonfiction comics?  In which discipline(s)?  My biannual comics course—heavy on nonfiction—is offered as a cross-listed literature and communication/rhetoric upper-division elective for majors, and also serves as a recommended elective for art history and art education majors.  The course privileges structural and formal topics: students read comics theory steadily alongside our primary texts (Thierry Groensteen, Gillian Whitlock, WJT Mitchell, Hilary Chute, David Kunzle, Stuart Medley, and others), with some additional forays into visual studies, media and cultural theory and the occasional anomalous but relevant articles/excerpts from other disciplines.  Each time I teach the course, however, I find myself troubled by the simple question of historical/political context:  how much, in what manner, and why?  When teaching graphic works that address political, national and military situations in a Humanities course, what is a responsive and responsible method for selecting the types and quantity of supplemental materials (articles, lectures, documentaries, news footage, photographs, etc.) and the amount of time dedicated to situating the work in its historical, “real world” context?

Nuclear proliferation.  War.  Uprisings.  Regime change.  Territorial disputes.  Graphic narratives have become a vehicle for disseminating critical viewpoints on such matters, and often focus on particular regions, conflicts, peoples.  My students read Joe Sacco’s work (excerpts from various texts focused on different conflict zones); this year, we read from Footnotes in Gaza.  We also read Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem, as well as selections from Jean-Pierre Filieu and David B.’s Best of Enemies:  A History of US and Middle East Relations, Harvey Pekar’s Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me,Image as well as Jens Harder’s piece on the city of Jerusalem, “Ticket to God,” collected in the Avant-Verlag anthology, Cargo: Comic Journalism Israel/Germany. And those are just our Middle East selections.


How much to contextualize these works is not an abstract question for me.  Each time I teach comics that reference global events (for example, Foumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms – Hiroshima bombing, Josh Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans:  After the Deluge- Hurricane Katrina, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis- regime change and revolution in Iran), I struggle with the right approach.  It’s not just a matter of will and preparation, either; I believe that a little knowledge can be more destructive than none, and that my feeble attempts at channeling a history professor for brief moments are inadequate to the circumstance and possibly deleterious.  Over the years, I’ve tried various approaches:  documentary excerpts, mini-lectures (since there is nothing quite like the barely informed lecturing to the ill-informed), cooperative learning activities in which groups of students “adopt” one of our nonfiction works and create a 20-minute “background” presentation for the class.  I am chagrined to admit that the student presentations were generally better—more nuanced and informative—than my mini-lectures, which tended to be fragmented, confusing and rather quirky in their focus.


Other things I’ve tried:  disseminating secondary readings (hoping they were actually read), news footage, guest lectures from knowledgeable colleagues (this, rarely, as it takes mad skills I don’t seem to have to plan for this in advance), and this year, a meta-discussion in which I did not attempt to situate, but rather invited my students into a discussion about what would be the best way to do this, and why (just as I am raising the question with you here).  I told my class about the various methods I have adopted over the years, and how unsatisfying each was.  Asking “what the work asks us to know/understand/research” in order to better apprehend its meaning and effects, I tried to stay text specific, acknowledging that different works beg different amounts and types of background knowledge.   Students noted that their readings were influenced by their relative degrees of ignorance/knowledge and conjectured that the five students who professed significant awareness of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (vis-à-vis the sixteen who stated they knew little to nothing) surely must be interacting with our Middle East focused comics in a fundamentally different way from that of readers who take the work at face value with little ability to contextualize it.

Needless to say, it is not only with regard to teaching nonfiction comics that this issue has arisen for me as an English professor.  Literary works are never ahistorical, of course, and establishing various contexts in which to read a work (cultural, intellectual, historical, ethnic, etc.) is a natural part of what we do when we involve our students in the study of literature or art.  A postcolonialist colleague of mine, when I engaged her in discussion about this topic, confirmed that this is an integral aspect of her curricular planning.  She mentioned that she likes to ask students (most of whom are literature majors or minors) to think about which works seem to be “allowed” –in their various literature courses, in literary criticism they’ve read–to float untethered to original or other context (so-called “timeless” works, canonical Western European texts, etc.), and which ones (often those by writers of color or authors originating from non-European, non-North American countries) inevitably call up in American readers a problematic urge to historicize (and, thus, perhaps, limit/contain/ “other”) the work.  Implicitly, she was gesturing to the suspect nature of my very anxiety (i.e. why did it take comics on the Middle East situation, or Iran, or Japan to make me raise this issue)?  Why wasn’t it a pressing problem when teaching T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jon Krakauer, Mary Oliver?

I would be interested to hear from readers who have insight into either aspect of the problem:  1) how do we conceive of a “responsible and responsive” approach to situating nonfiction comics in their historico-political contexts and/or 2) do you find this very impulse problematic?


About Adrielle Mitchell

Adrielle Mitchell is a Professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY. She is a comics scholar whose work is informed by visual and media studies, cultural theory and formalist criticism.

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