Where in the Academy is Dave?

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.

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