Archive for August 2009

Understanding “Understanding Comics”

August 28, 2009

This semester I’m teaching HIST 1500: History of American Comics at Webster University.  To start the course, we’re reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to build a common understanding of the medium and to give the class terms to use to analyze comics.    This is the first time I’ve taught the comics medium.  Previously I have used comics in my classes and taught a class on the superhero genre, but I’ve never taught comics as comics.

Not surprisingly, I’m finding that I understand Understanding Comics much more through teaching it. For instance, I always understood the subtitle “The Invisible Art” as it referred to the gutter–according to McCloud, “comics” happens in the gutter. The reader fills in the action that takes place from panel to panel. This action is invisible, the artist does not draw it.

But another sense of the invisible art is that the artist draws what is invisible.  In chapter five, “Living in Line,” McCloud explains the way cartoonists make visible emotional and sense experiences, which he refers to as synaethestics.  He starts by using wavy lines to show smoke coming from a pipe and moves on to wavy lines that stand for the stink rising off a garbage pile. In this way, comics depict smell, which is invisible.

So the art of the invisible is both closure, which makes the visible invisible, and synaesthetics, which makes the invisible visible.

For their first paper, the students will be applying McCloud’s terms to a comic book of their choice.  In this way we’ll be applying McCloud’s concepts and come to have a greater understanding of how the medium works.  If I were teaching a straight comics class (this is a history class), I’d assign Neil Cohn’s essay “Undefining Comics” from the International Journal of Comic Art, and Thierry Groensteen’s The Impossible Definition reprinted in A Comics Studies Reader, and I’m making both of them available to the students on reserve.

The point is that the expansion of comics courses will inevitably expand the understanding of comics (yes, this seems axiomatic) not only among students but also among faculty and comics scholars.  I imagine that the same sort of expansion of understanding of the medium happened with every new field as courses were developed.


Teaching “Understanding Comics”

August 26, 2009

I’m teaching HIST 1500: History of American Comics, an American Studies class, at Webster University in St. Louis this fall.   The class filled quickly and is actually oversubscribed (26 students). What surprised me is that on the first day we were covering the definition of comics by looking at various examples (single panel cartoons, motion comics, comic books, comic strips, single-panel Yellow Kids, individual panels from comic books and strips, comic book covers), and I was expecting to hear McCloud’s definition bandied about.

But they haven’t read Understanding Comics! Only two of the students (and one was in my superhero class last semester) had read Understanding Comics.  The discussion was very interesting and essentially reproduced much of McCloud’s first chapter in UC.

But in thinking about how to teach Understanding Comics, I googled “teaching Understanding Comics” and came across this great page from the National Association of Comic Art Educators.  It’s a study guide for UC written by M. David Lopez.  There’s a lot of good material on this site, from both scholars and professionals.  I haven’t really taught comics as comics before; primarily I’ve been teaching the superhero genre and have primarily used my own book, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, as the secondary reading.  Now that I’m moving more into teaching comics, I’m very pleased to see that the field is developing resources like other fields.

The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels

August 22, 2009

Danny Fingeroth’s The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels just arrived today.  I’m going to discuss it in a piece for Guttergeek on canon formation,  along with Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read (though I just checked the release date, and it’s not until October 31 and I want to have that piece on canon written before then, so maybe not).

The Rough Guide is a beautiful little package.  It’s square, 7×7.5.  It starts with a chapter defining graphic novels; moves on to a history of comics; includes a 30 page comic that covers some of the same territory narratively, presents “The Canon”, i.e. “the sixty best graphic novels” with an attendant “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read” and an additional 25 graphic novel call outs of further examples; brief essays on topics like what an editor does, what an inker is, propaganda, censorship; contains a chapter on great comics writers and artists; presents a chapter on manga, another on film adaptations, and closes with a chapter on resources–books about comics, websites, conventions, etc.  All in all it’s an excellent overview of graphic novels and a wonderful conversion tool–it’s the follow up to that you give after you’ve given Understanding Comics.  In fact, Danny and Scott ought to get them packages as the “Comics Conversion Kit.”

Superman: Hiding in Plain Sight

August 19, 2009

I’ve just finished reading Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster for a review I’m going to write for Guttergeek.   What a weird and fascinating story Yoe has to tell!  And he got on Fresh Air–I’ve been listening to Fresh Air for twenty some years, so this marks a particular point for me in terms of reaching the mainstream culture (and the book got blogged on NPR as well). Why hasn’t he gotten on the Colbert Report?

Craig tells the story of how Joe Shuster in the 1950s took to drawing bondage porn in Nights of Horror, a cheap, poorly printed collection of torture sex stories sold under the counter in New York city.  Nights of Horror figured prominently in the case of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of Jewish neo-Nazi killers who in 1954 killed vagrants and whipped girls walking in parks with a bullwhip they ordered from those little classified ads in the back of a comic book.

The oddest thing about this story to me is the way Superman is tied up (no pun intended) in the middle of the thrill killers’ story.  Frederic Wertham was brought in to determine the boys’ sanity, and their leader, Jack Koslow (a tall, skinny red-head who wore a Hitler mustache), volunteered that he took his inspiration from comics and specifically mentioned that he had read every issue of Nights of Horror.  By 1954, Wertham had published Seduction of Innocent and had spent years researching the effects of comics on young readers and reading (or at least looking at comic books).  When Craig Yoe found a tattered copy of Nights of Horror in a used bookseller’s stall, the art immediately leaped out to him and Shuster’s name rang through his mind.  The same thing happened when he showed the magazine to others in the comics industry.  But never to Wertham, who specifically pointed to Superman comics as purveyors of an ideology that corrupted youth and turned them into criminals.

How could Wertham have read so many comics and never retained the images of Superman that have been burned on so many comics reader’s retinas?  The cover of Yoe’s book shows, essentially, Lois Lane whipping a bound prone Superman (or Clark Kent sans glasses). It’s freaky seeing Lois (in a skimpy bra, panties, and ultra-high heels) and Clark, well, doing it (or nearly so).  Yet Wertham never really saw the art.  There’s a Wally Wood story, “Whipping,” from Shock Suspenstories 14 (April/May 1954) that told the story of a racist sheriff who mistakenly beats his daughter to death because he mistakes her for her Hispanic boyfriend.  Wertham used this story as an example of how comics teach race hatred, noting the use of the slur “spic”, but failing to note that the characters who use the epithet are all presented negatively and that the lesson of the story is tolerance.  Wertham seems only to have looked at the pictures in the comic book, he doesn’t seem to have taken in the words or the meaning of the story.

Wertham repeatedly made the claim that reading comics damaged one’s ability to read.  Maybe reading all those comics damaged poor Freddy’s brain.

Digital Comics Database: A Comics Prof’s Best Friend!

August 14, 2009

At the Comics Arts Conference this year, Greg Urqhart introduced Alexander Street Press’s Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels database.  This is huge news for teaching comix.  It is an fully indexed and searchable collection of 75,000 pages of underground comix and independent comics, the complete full-text of the Comics Journal (more than 25,000 pages), as well as the complete transcripts of the senate subcommittee hearings that led to the Comics Code Authority and Mad Magazine.

This means that underground comix classes just became feasible in a way that they hadn’t previously.  Now, if other databases could follow up, we’d be all set.

Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited is already in place and could be used in this fashion.  A year’s subscription is $60, but a one-month subscription is $10.  If the Marvel comics you’re teaching are in this database, it would be possible to have students subscribe for one or two months; it would just take some creative syllabus construction.  But if you’re going to teach the Captain America story The Truth: Red, White, and Black, Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited is the best way to go since The Truth is not available in a trade paperback, but only in an expensive hardback edition.  If Marvel offered a library site license and expanded its offerings (or set up a request line for teachers so that you could submit suggestions to be added for the next semester), this would be a very workable solution to getting out of print books for class or for mitigating the cost of using a lot of trade paperbacks.

If DC did the same, and the independents followed suit–perhaps by combining their backlists into a big indy database, comics teaching would explode. Everyone would benefit.  The companies could monetize their backlist. With a site licenses, they’d have a steady institutional subscriber base.   The best selling paper titles (like Watchmen) could be kept out of the database. And this might cut down on scan piracy.
The benefits for comics scholars are obvious, both from a research perspective and from a teaching perspective–being able to assign exactly what we want to assign is fantastic, and the lower cost of the subscription makes it very doable in today’s financial climate (we have limits at my school regarding the total cost of the texts for each course, and this shapes our choices of material).  For universities, the benefit is that comics classes fill, so they can make up the subscription costs in tuition payments.
And all this circles back to the companies because students who read comics in class often turn into paying customers.
And we’ll just go out on the Beach Boy’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”

Academic Tracks vs. Conferences

August 11, 2009

A recent discussion on the Comix Scholars Discussion List got me thinking about the distinction between academic tracks at comic book conventions and conferences held in conjunction with comiccons.  Just to establish my bonifides, I co-founded the Comics Arts Conference back in 1992 with Randy Duncan, and we held it at San Diego in 92-93, Chicago Comic-Con in 94-95, and back at San Deigo in 1996; after a year off, we took it into the Comic-Con and the CAC became an official part of the convention programming.  In the past year, the Institute for Comics Studies (I’m the director) has run academic programming at Wizard World (a panel at Chicago in 2008; Wizard World University-Texas in 2008 and WWU-Chicago 2009), and sponsored the Dragon*Con Mini Conference for 2008 and 2009; I set up a couple of panels at NASFiC in 2007, ran a mini-comics conference at Michigan State back in grad school, co-sponsored the Met@Morph confernce/con in Second Life, co-sponsored the upcoming Possibilities and Perspectives conference at Thought Bubble in Leeds in November,  and chaired the Comic Art and Comics area of the Mid-West Popular Culture Assocation for a bit in grad school.

So what I’m actually saying is that I never thought about the distinction between an academic track and a conference until the discussion came up on the list.  A quick google search for “Academic track” and “Academic track convention” shows that the terms academic track and  conference are used pretty much indiscriminately by convention organizers–the examples I found came from Second Life Community Conference and World Con (NASFiC also), though I know with comic book conventions the terms are used in the same way.

But a point was raised on the list that participating in an academic track at a fandom convention for some faculty is useless in terms of promition and possibly harmful to their careers; other people differed–it all depens on one’s insititution and department.    Of course, scholarly participation in fan events exists not primarily to advance academic careers but as a form of public intellectual engagement and as a way for the convention programmers to expand their offerings and give the audience something it wants.

I think it may be useful for the field of comics studies to start thinking about the distinctions that could be made between academic tracks and conferences that are held during conventions.  A conference should be separable–that is it could be moved off on its own by the organizers, it shouldn’t have the name of the convention in its name, possibly it’s held off site or on the day before or after the convention proper (though this last element is exceedingly tricky as it loses the primary advantage of attaching to a convention, the ability to make use of the physical facilities and AV equipment of the convention, and thereby lower the cost of academic participation).

This is the route of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF).  At one time it was held in conjunction with the Small Press Expo (SPX), but since moved to the Library of Congress and is now located at the School of the Art Institute.  The Comics Arts Conference was similar in its first five year–it was held the day before the San Deigo Comic-Con and in a separate hotel during years 1,2, and 5, and during 3 and 4 it was held during the Chicago Comic-Con in a separate hotel and then inside the convention center (IIRC), so it was independent of the cons but it had the material support of the cons in terms of getting conference space and AV equiptment.  The CAC is still a conference in that it could be freed from San Diego and WonderCon and it’s administered by its own committee (me, Randy Duncan, and Kate McClancy).  The CAC is free to separate from Comic-Con, which is also free to start its own academic track (not that there’s any danger of this ever happening because of the mutually beneficial relationship), but it couldn’t be called the Comics Arts Conference.  The point is also that the CAC couldn’t be run by the con alone.

So there’s some sense of independence with a conference. In addition, the con affiliation of a conference need not be mentioned on a CV if that’s an career issue.

Academic tracks, though, are more imbrecated in a convention.  Typically the convention plays a significant role in shaping the academic panels (whether the composition of the panels, the scheduling, or other aspects of the organizing), and the track bears the name of the con (e.g. Wizard World University, Dragon*Con Academic Mini-Conference) so that the conference and the con can’t be separated. In addition, the con itself might continue or take over the track if the academics backed out (or if there were some dispute over the track).  The academic organizers could not take the track private–there’s no way to hold a Wizard World University outside of Wizard World.

I think that conferences have more weight. It’s possile to have a juried or blind juried conference, but the size and compoistion of an academic track is primarily determined by the programming needs of the con.  ICAF is blind juried, CAC is juried (and invitational), and while papers or presentations might be rejected for quality at the tracks at Wizard World or Dragon*Con, those are still in the stage of needing to generate enough proposals that acceptance criteria (outside of papers that don’t fit the track at all or which are of such low quality that they don’t qualify) that this isn’t an issue.

I don’t have an answer for this issue, but I’m starting to think about it.

Where in the Academy is Dave?

August 7, 2009

Sim that is.  As part of doing a show on comics courses for the fall (with a little for spring and summer and Portugal–didn’t you know there was a Portugal semester?) for Major Spoiler Podcast (which should drop sometime soon), I asked for syllabi on the Comix Scholars Discussion List. And while what I recieved could not be called a representaive sample of comics classes being offered this fall given the sample size and sampling bias of the source, it was a slice of what’s being done on campuses this fall.

What I found interesting was the repetition of texts–Watchmen, Maus, American Chinese, Persepolis, Understanding Comics.  It seems that a canon is in the process of formation. I’m going to write a piece for Guttergeek on this issue that will go into greater depth–I wrote a paper on Classics Illustrated back in grad school and investigated the formation of the literary canon, so I’m going to draw on that research for thinking about the emerging comics canon.

But what I found interesting was the recurrance of Persepolis in comics classes.  It’s a fine graphic novel and it’s obvious why people pick it.  It’s interesting because unlike Maus, which came out of a tradition of underground comix and was part of Spiegelman’s larger argument about the definition of comics and their place in the larger art world, Persepolis is really a novel that happens to be a graphic novel, or at least it seems to have been recieved that way.  I didn’t follow it’s coverage too closely, but there’s a certain New Yorker-NPR-New York Times-Atlantic-Nation nexus of discussion that I often see wherein a book or other topic comes along and gets coverage in all these media outlets (all of which I read or listen to regularly), so sometimes it seems like I know a book long before I get to read it.

But the thing is that Maus got covered in relationship to comics/comix/graphic novels. It was serialized in RAW, the first New York Times review declared that Maus wasn’t a comic book (I can’t find a link–I need to get a copy of that review!), etc. But Persepolis was treated like Reading Lolita in Tehran with pictures.  The comicsness of it just seem to be taken for granted and while it was discusses as an element, the content, rather than the form, seemed to be foremost in the minds of the reviewers and interviewers.

In other words, Perspolis shows that comics can be a “normal” medium. And I think Perspolis may be the first literary graphic novel (literary graphic novel is the comics equivalent of literary fiction; it’s the kind of book that gets taught in English department courses on the graphic novel) without a clear connection to the comics world, unlike Maus or Jimmy Corrigan, or American Born Chinese because of the backgrounds of the creators that are tied to the American comics industry or community.  Persepolis emerged out of Satrapi’s encounter with graphic novels and Art Spiegelman in France, but she didn’t grow up drawing or reading comics, and in fact considers Persepolis to a book, which she defines as “pages related to something that has a cover”. She doesn’t have the kinds of definitional defensiveness that Spiegelman, Ware, or Yang carries around.

But all of this is a lead up to the question of my title, Where in the Academy is Dave Sim?  Why aren’t High Soceity or Church and State on any of the reading lists of the classes I looked at or other ones I’ve seen online since (google comics courses syllabi and you get some amazing stuff.  Or look at the National Association of Comic Art Educators small list of syllabi).  Sure there’s an American bias in many of the classes being taught (Stephen Schleicher in the MSP interview noticed that there’s a northern bias too–the syllabi seem to be clustered around the Great Lakes for some reason), and Sim is Canadian, but Satrapi is Iranian, so that can’t be it.

It could be length since even High Society runs 25 issues, and I’ve found 12 is the limit for a class that meets only once per week (and may be similar to the limit for a MWF or T/Th course, so it might take two weeks to get through any of Sim’s collections, and that’s probably more time than any one can devote to a single work).

Or it could be that Sim’s shift toward Islam and misogyny colors interprtations of his earlier work.  It’s really hard to say. I may use some Cerebus issues to discuss the rise of creator-owned works, the black and white indie market, and the shift toward trade paperback production because Sim was pretty central to these movements.  But I also don’t think I can devote two weeks to High Society, though it works well as an example of complex storytelling and comic-specific narrative techniques and devices.

I wonder if I can ever get a single-author course. It would be interesting to spend a whole semester reading Cerebus (except for Reads and the other prose sections–how can such a talented cartoonist and storyteller be such a boring prose stylist?)

So look for something along these lines in my Guttergeek piece.