A student commented in one of my course evaluations, “I had no idea this class was going to be this challenging! This was easily my hardest course this semester as funny as that may sound. If you suck at reading like me, you might want to pass on this class.” The course was AH 3875: Readings in the Graphic Novel, an undergraduate liberal studies elective offered online and often taken by students majoring in Illustration or Graphic Design. I would like to discuss issues related to the irony inherent in that comment.
My teaching alternates between studio practice and liberal studies, though for the past eight years I’ve been concentrating on the latter. My undergraduate degree is a BFA in Comic Book Illustration. History of Comic Art, History of Underground Comix, and Readings in the Graphic Novel are my primary courses (along with History of Rock & Roll), and most of my students are Comic Book Illustration majors. To my surprise, there is a small but strident level of resistance towards learning about comics in an academic context, as opposed to learning the mechanics of the medium and dutifully completing the studio work.
This resistance seems to take several primary forms.
- Resentment at having to take an academic course in art history in any context.
- Resistance to writing, largely borne of perceived inability or perceived lack of utility.
- Refusal to consider new aspects of the subject matter. This often translates as a fear of, or a resistance to, learning theory, as if the theory will diminish the appreciation of the comic art form or somehow dilute the aspiring comic creator’s work. Most of my observations concern this aspect.
A couple caveats need to be in place before furthering this discussion. First, not all students share these perspectives. Based on evaluations and the less scientific barometer of private feedback, approximately 12.5%, or 1/8 of the students, harbor these sentiments to any significant degree. Second, approximately 52% of students seem fine with the assigned work, and 37% thrive doing the work required for the courses. These numbers are an aggregate from five readily available past course evaluations.
In that context, it’s important to look at the one in eight students that pose this dichotomy—the student not interested in academic study of their studio practices in comics. It’s also worth noting that this phenomenon also occurs in other studio disciplines, and has infiltrated academia, as the push for the studio-based PhD becomes a requisite for teaching. There is significant discussion of, and some resistance to, this trend. As James Elkins notes, under this new mandate for a PhD as terminal degree over an MFA, “Artists will be at least 30 years old before they are out in the world. There are two possible attitudes to this: in the common response, it is said that the PhD artificially accelerates the academic properties of art practices; but it could also be said that the PhD is symptomatic of the decades in which we live, so that it reflects an ongoing tendency in the art world. If the latter is the case, it calls for a special study of the nature of intellectual, conceptual, methodologically explicit art projects, so that institutions can represent and teach those emergent properties of art. If the former is closer to the truth, then PhD-granting institutions also need to consider their complicity in the directions of contemporary art” (Elkins). This creates a larger question. If Comic Studies is to be taken seriously as a field, is it then incumbent on us to breed PhDs with solid studio chops? While there are many such professors, including Minneapolis College of Art & Design’s Dr. Frenchy Lunning and University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Dr. Ursula Husted, so far it is the exception rather than the rule. The growth of this trend may be inevitable. As Vency Yun speculates on the Art 21 blog, “Perhaps the PhD was always the next phase for an MFA student, considering the MFA educational pedagogy doesn’t seem to be that different than the one being offered at the PhD level, as it already combines studio work with critical theory” (Yun).
While this evolution may be inevitable on an academic level, that does not address the issue of the studio-based undergraduate student with no further academic aspirations. In that context, an anti-theory bias, though fading, still exists in Comics Studies. The 2005 anthology The Education of a Comics Artist contains no articles that are purely theory. In that anthology, there is a dismissive reference to comic studies in Todd Hignite’s article Popularizing the Comics. Hignite, also a comic scholar and the founder and editor of the demised journal Comic Art, only makes this derisive comment on comic book academia:
That content is created by self-aware individual artists with goals similar to artists in other mediums is misunderstood and frequently dismissed in favor of the mass nature and reception of the print medium as the crucial aspect of all production. Explicating contemporary comics through the overarching lens of “culture studies” inevitably stalls out pretty quickly. (Hignite 172)
This is a significant anthology to cite, as Allworth Press, who publishes it, is the publishing arm of New York’s School for Visual Arts, a studio school devoted in large part to comics. So if even some scholars take this perspective on comics academia, can we really fault some studio students for following suit?
Established creators do not always echo this negative view. Joe Kubert began his first school of comic art by correspondence in 1947, and one of its lessons was devoted to theory. Similarly, even as basic a book as Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way can be seen as a primer on comics theory. Will Eisner’s 1985 Comics and Sequential Art was publicly acknowledged both because there was a need for such a book and due to Eisner’s studio credibility, as was Scott McCloud’s 1993 Understanding Comics. Other comics creators have authored books on comics, though until McCloud, these often dealt with craft almost exclusive of theory. Heidi Macdonald and Phil Yeh’s 1994 volume Secret Teachings of a Comic Master: the Art of Alfredo Alcala begins to bridge this gap, as did Fry and Poulos’ catalog for the 1978 Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibit Steranko: Graphic Narrative. Some artists, including David Mack, who comes from a multi-disciplined studio background, have embraced theory both in their work and in discussing it:
Just with the nature of the six-panel grid in comics, there’re boundless opportunities to how you can tell a story. Even starting with a conventional six-panel curvy S grid, you can have things fold inside and moving around. It’s about the nature of how you read it. It’s not really about what’s on the paper itself. It’s about this idea you don’t have to cut out the cube and fold it into 3D. You’ve done it in your mind already. I think that’s similar to the act of reading comics, and I think, story-wise, it’s similar to the act of following an idea out into reality. (Jenkins)
Inside academia, and inside the professional comics community, attitudes towards academic study of comics are divided. The reasons for this are varied. Some artists are only interested in theory and history as they serve their studio practice (though this is a narrow view often borne of inexperience). Others find themselves pulled to the humanities at the expense of their studio practices, seeing these courses as distractions. A few successfully integrate the two disciplines. And a select few regard the requirements of the liberal arts component of their education as an irritant, something to be endured and bypassed if possible. This may be due to inability, disinterest or, in some cases, the myopia of youth.
In such cases, reaching these students becomes a delightful, if frustrating, challenge. It’s incumbent on anyone teaching comics in such an environment to adapt to their mindset to an extent. Pedagogy must be tempered with a fanboy mentality. Understanding the fanboy mindset is crucial in considering the needs of these students. This is easy for those of us who have spent much of our lives in comics, but it may pose a challenge for those approaching teaching comics without that history. The following primer may be of help.
Young men (and sometimes young women—superheroes are no longer an exclusively male domain) slavishly devoted to core texts (Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, etc.) and young women whose passion for anime and manga sometimes blinds them to other possibilities of the comics form can be the most difficult students to reach (but most rewarding when their perspectives do widen). This is in part because comics have long been perceived as an “outlaw cachet”, a necessary transitional step in the evolution of any substrata of society whose primary organizational activity is regarded with suspicion or disdain. Beyond that, while it has diminished in recent years, a rigid and sometimes merciless hierarchy can invade the comics, manga and anime worlds. As summarized by Dennis Gagliardo,
Intentional or not, comic book fans are actively creating an aspect of their social identity rooted in the consumption of devalued cultural objects with a deep history of negative connotations. As social objects and cultural artifacts, comic books embody a whole host of meanings and signifiers beyond the realm of content and text. (Gagliardi 16)
The tattoo community is an example of a similar cachet achieving a measure of social acceptance. As anthropologist Marge DeMello notes, “In summary, tattooing has moved from being a symbol of the outcast to that of the rock star, model, and postmodern youth, and with this shift in public perception has come a shift in meaning as well, as tattoo moves from stigma to status” (DiMello 49). Beyond that, striations evolve within the sub-community. Gender theorist Kate Bornstein has discussed the hierarchy inside gender communities: “Post-operative transsexuals look down on pre-operative transsexuals, who in turn look down on transgenders, who can’t abide she-males, who snub the drag queens, who laugh at the out transvestites, who mock the post-op transsexuals” (Bornstein 67-68). Substitute the terms superhero, funny animal, manga, experimental comics and comic strip fans as you see fit, and you have a model for the frustration sometimes experienced by the novice comic student. Parenthetically, this hierarchical circle is not unique to gender or to comics. It can be applied as easily to sports, music, or to any other subculture. This may be helpful in getting students to understand the dangers of such systems.
Similarly, the imprimatur granted the comics form through the mainstream acceptance of the graphic novel has served to partially legitimize the form, at least certain aspects of that form, and only under certain conditions for those outside the comics community. So subtle striations persist in the acceptance of comics in the mainstream. Within that community of comics, however, several overt hierarchies are still prevalent, and those who choose to attempt a career in comics through formal study are both prey to, and eager participants in, these hierarchies. The challenge for the instructor is to transcend that resistance, to help students accept both the illusion of that hierarchy (and the inherent value of most comic forms implicit in shattering that illusion), and to expand the student’s desire and willingness to learn about comics beyond the practice of craft, which, while a lifetime study in itself, can be enhanced by the knowledge gleaned from academic study.
Many scholars have responded to this challenge. The interdisciplinary approach taken by Allison Mandaville and J.P. Avila (a women’s studies professor and an art professor teaching graphic design, respectively) has met with success.
We always follow creative practice by having students share their efforts and discuss what they learned. Alison has found that her students’ critical papers demonstrate far more engagement and in-depth learning (with the pleasant side-effect of also being far more fun to read) when she includes creative practice and exploration of the literary strategies being studied. For J.P., who teaches in a hands-on professional field, creative practice comes with the territory…we don’t limit students to brief creative practice; they regularly deepen their learning with longer analytic assignments in which they ground and extend their critical vocabulary and understanding of comics in significant creative practice of the form. (Mandaville and Avila, 249-250)
I have evolved a few strategies and techniques for research projects that are often successful in this arena. These strategies also encapsulate much of my teaching philosophy.
- Require writing on what the student does not already know. As always, it’s about learning above all else.
- Allow some flexibility in assignments. With the cautions that this is not a studio course and that I will not be grading them on the merits of their craft, I will permit students to present work in the format of their studio majors in some cases.
- Require solid research, beyond reading the comics. Help the student see that knowledge about comics obtained from other sources has value.
- Require at least one source dealing with a related topic outside comics. When agreeing to accept yet another in a seemingly endless series of papers on Batman, I will suggest the student look at works on psychology, mythology, the mechanics of weaponry, or any topic related to the central theme of the student’s work. Comics cannot exist in a vacuum. It is crucial that students of comic art recognize the multidisciplinary aspect of that study. As pioneer comics scholar Charles Hatfield notes, “Comics studies forcefully reminds us that the disciplines cannot be discrete and self-contained; in effect, the field defies or at least seriously questions the compartmentalizing of knowledge that occurs within academe. Inevitably, comics studies will bring together various disciplines and methodologies in a workspace that is at least multidisciplinary if not truly interdisciplinary” (Hatfield 2).
As such, when lecturing on comics, I make it a point to touch on real-world issues as they relate to the comics discussed. As obvious examples, when discussing 1950s Superman comics, I will draw a parallel between the Fortress of Solitude and 1950s bomb shelters/ fallout shelters. Or the class will read the Shantytown sequence of McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, which serves as a springboard for discussion of social ills of the time and the editorial stances of McCay’s publisher, William Randolph Hearst.
This remains a universal challenge to pedagogy. There will always be some students who don’t care to do the work in any class, for whatever reason. But as we are teaching in a field that is slowly (and still sometimes grudgingly) gaining academic acceptance, it is incumbent on us to nurture the field’s organic growth by creating the next generation of comic scholars as we earn our paychecks and dutifully publish our articles. And if we must preach to the choir to do so, that’s all well and good. Preaching to the choir enhances its singing, which keeps the collection plate full and keeps the church open. To torture the metaphor, if the professor is the preacher and the students are congregants, the faith cannot assume its place in the world if it is not part of that world. As Ozlem Sensoy notes, “What this scholarship contends is that pop culture representations don’t simply reflect what’s in the world, but they shape and construct one’s ideas about it” (Sensoy 1).
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.
DeMello, Marge. “‘Not Just For Bikers Anymore’: Popular Representations of American Tattooing.” Journal of Popular Culture 29.3 (Winter 1995): 37-52.
Elkins, James. “Four Reasons to Mistrust the PhD.” Artists With PhDs. Updated 2013. Cited November 13, 2013. URL: http://www.jameselkins.com/yy/?page_id=308
Gagliardi, Dennis. Comic Book Fandom and Social Consciousness. MA Thesis. Western Michigan University, March 2013.
Hatfield, Charles. “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies.” Transatlantica 1. September 27, 2010. Cited July 20, 2013. URL: http://transatlantica.revues.org/4933
Hignite, M. Todd. “Popularizing the Comics.” The Education of a Comics Artist. Ed. Michael Dooley and Steven Heller. New York, NY: Allworth Press, 2005. 170-173.
Jenkins, Henry. “Comics as Poetry: An Interview with David Mack.” Confessions of an ACA Fan. May 1, 2013. Cited November 30, 2013. URL: http://henryjenkins.org/2013/05/comics-as-poetry-an-interview-with-david-mack-part-four.html
Mandaville, Allison and J.P. Avila. “It’s A Word! It’s A Picture! It’s Comics! Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching Comics.” Teaching the Graphic Novel. Ed. Stephen E. Tabachnik. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2009.
Sensoy, Ozlem. “‘Ball Licky-Lickly!’ Pedagogical Strategies for Interrogating Pop Culture Images.” Films for the Feminist Classroom 4.1 (Spring/Summer 2012). Cited July 10, 2013. URL: http://www.signs.rutgers.edu/issue_4-1.html
Yun, Vency. “Life After MFA: the PhD Option?” Art:21 blog. September 29, 2010. Cited November 17, 2013. URL: http://blog.art21.org/2010/09/29/life-after-mfa%E2%80%A6the-phd-option/