Giant stack of comics, part 2

Writing these long commentaries is more trouble than it’s worth, considering that no one seems to be reading these things (though I haven’t put much effort into publicizing them). Besides, the primary purpose of this exercise is to help me fix the comics I’ve read in my memory, so long treatises are not necessary. Going to try to limit myself to a couple sentences per comic. All comics here were purchased at Comic-Con unless indicated with an asterisk*.

NEIL THE HORSE COMICS AND STORIES #2 – Not a lot of sustained storytelling here, but Arn Saba (now Katherine something) is very good at creating a gentle and wistful mood. My favorite part about this comic was the cute poem on the back cover. Grade: B+

CHEW #35 – Awesome as usual. Ends with a bizarrely powerful scene in which Tony invites his daughter Olive to eat her dead mother’s toe, but on pulling it out of the freezer, he discovers his dead sister’s toe there as well. I can’t believe that that sentence actually makes sense in the context of this series. Grade: A

CAPTAIN MARVEL (2012) #2 – Not as good as the previous issue, because DeConnick sends Carol off on a time-traveling adventure instead of taking the time to establish her character and setting. I understood a couple of the untranslated Japanese words in the dialogue. I still don’t like Dexter Soy’s art but I’m starting to understand it. Grade: B+/A-

MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER #4 – A masterpiece by my favorite Silver Age artist other than the obvious ones, Russ Manning. This issue is maybe not his best, partly because he did not plot it himself, but it has the beautiful action sequences and gorgeously slick machinery that make this series a classic. Passes the Bechdel test because Leeja and Serena talk about underwater farming. Grade: A/A+

SUPERBOY (1994) #12 – A really fun issue of one of DC’s better mid-’90s comics. Also significant in terms of the overall plot of the series, because it introduces Superboy’s compound on the Waianae Coast (I had to look that up to check the spelling). I think the best issues of this series are the ones from Kesel and Grummett’s second run, in the #50s and #60s, where they were very directly paying homage to Kirby, but this one was still quite good. Grade: A

STRANGE TALES #133 – This one was tons of fun. The opening story is only drawn by Bob Powell, but it includes a ton of witty banter between Ben and Johnny, who are not happy that Dorrie and Alicia have dragged them to an art exhibit. The Dr. Strange backup story is insignificant to the overall plot of the series, but Ditko’s art is beautifully weird. Grade: A

AVENGERS #244 – One of the only issues from this period I was missing. An average issue of the Stern/Milgrom run, mostly devoted to the Dire Wraiths storyline, which was some sort of unannounced crossover across a bunch of Marvel comics. Stern’s dialogue and characterization are as high-quality as ever, though the art is very boring — there were two pencilers, Al Milgrom and Infantino in his bad period. Grade: A-

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #186 – This issue is dedicated to Dick Dillin who had just died. Main attraction is gorgeous artwork by George Perez who was just reaching his artistic maturity. Gerry Conway’s story is just okay, including some nice character moments. I had an embarrassing moment at Comic-Con where I was telling Elliot S! Maggin that he was my favorite Superman writer, then I noticed Gerry Conway was standing next to him, and I went “Oh wow!”

NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. #3 – I’ve read “Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill” before, but it was worth revisiting for Steranko’s incredibly innovative and dynamic page layouts. The story is resolved in a way that makes absolutely no logical sense, but that’s part of the fun. Grade: A+

POWER GIRL #5 – I don’t think I would read any comic written by Palmiotti and Gray if I wasn’t otherwise interested in it, but Amanda Conner’s artwork makes this comic incredible. My favorite part was the page where PG and another character give her cat a bath, but nearly every page includes something awesome. Grade: A-

GRIMJACK #16 – This issue was mostly devoted to plot, which is kind of bad since what’s most interesting about Grimjack is the character himself and the setting of Cynosure. Still, the writing and artwork were excellent as usual for this series. The Munden’s Bar story, by Valentino, was not one of the best. Grade: B+

FEAR #12 – This early Gerber Man-Thing story starts off telling a powerful story about racial persecution and lynching in the Deep South, but sort of loses its way when it turns out that the persecuted black man is actually a murderer. The suggestion is that racial hatred is black people’s fault too, and that things would be better if we could all just get along. The offensiveness of this message may not have been as obvious in the early ’70s as it should be now, though, and Gerber’s heart was in the right place. Grade: A-

TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED (2006) #8 – The Crispus Allen Spectre story sucks; it’s full of grim violence and implied sexual abuse for no reason. The Doctor 13 backup story is why I bought this issue. I loved Traci 13’s portrayal in Blue Beetle and this story was equally fun. It was metatextual in a way very reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man; it reads like a deliberate protest against DC’s habit (even more prominent now than at the time) of shelving interesting but unusual characters in favor of popular ones. A notable Easter Egg is the Phantom Zone projector-like object that says “Plot Device” on the back. The story ends with Dr. 13 begging the reader not to turn the page; I wonder how Azzarello and Chiang knew that that page would appear on the right-hand side. Grade: F for the first story, B+/A- for the second

HOT WHEELS #5 – “The Case of the Curious Classic” surprised me because every page of the story had a very basic 8-panel grid, and there weren’t a lot of action sequences. Toth explains on his website that he did this because the story was very plot-heavy and required lots of explanation. The plot is quite intricate and reveals Toth’s passion for old cars. All the references to cars in the story seem to be genuine. The backup story, by Ric Estrada, is not worth mentioning. Grade: A+

ADVENTURE COMICS #449 – The Aquaman story is surprisingly written by Steve Skeates, not Levitz or Michelinie, and it’s really just average by the standard of Aquaman stories from this era. The Martian Manhunter backup story is kind of awful; Denny O’Neil depicts J’onn acting like a complete moron. Grade: B-, and no lower only because of the Jim Aparo artwork on the first story.

ATOMIC ROBO: DEADLY ART OF SCIENCE #1 – Absolutely hilarious stuff. Atomic Robo encounters a masked superhero and proceeds to act like Syndrome from the Incredibles, only more cute because he’s a robot. Grade: A

SUPERMAN #651* – Very nice writing here. I don’t know how much of this is Kurt Busiek and how much is Geoff Johns, but I feel like Kurt really understands Superman. This issue reads like an updated version of a classic ’70s or ’80s Superman story by Maggin or Pasko or Bates. The actual plot, though, is far less interesting than the interactions between Clark and Lois (I notice I make comments like that very often). Grade: A-

SERGIO ARAGONES FUNNIES #8* – Brilliant work by a consummate master. The best story here is “The Mexican Trip,” an autobiographical story (like his Eisner winner “The Gorilla Suit”), in which Sergio just exudes passion for his family and his Mad Magazine friends. I’m glad Sergio is healthy enough to do work like this. Grade: A+

CASTLE WAITING (Fantagraphics) #5 – This series is expertly written and Medley’s art has tons of emotional subtlety, but I’m not sure where the story is going, or if it’s going anywhere. Most of this issue is a long flashback which includes some extremely cute scenes between Lady Jain and Tylo. I still have no idea how Lady Jain got from there to where she is at the start of the series. Grade: A

SANDMAN #2 – I got this at Comic-Con for about one dollar, which makes me wonder if it’s a second printing, but apparently not. Cool. At this point in the series Neil was clearly still developing his personal style and figuring out how his characters fit into the DC universe. Still, it’s an issue of The Sandman which means it’s a classic. Grade: A-

THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #82 – I only paid a dollar for this due to poor condition, including severely rusted staples. Neal Adams’s artwork here is incredible and the issue reads like a genuine detective story. There is at least one gaping plot hole (it’s never made clear whether Aquaman really killed Dr. Simon Link or, if not, why he believed he did), which I suppose is not unusual for Bob Haney. Grade: A

MORNING GLORIES #13 – This issue arouses a lot of genuine emotion, mostly hatred because I just hate the school and its staff so so much, and I especially hate Ike, who is such a smug jerk and a sociopath. But I guess I also have to admire him for his ability to make everyone else angry while maintaining his cool. Joe Eisma’s draftsmanship is not flashy but he is very good at conveying emotion. I still don’t understand the science-fictiony part of this series’ plot at all. Grade: A

STRANGE TALES #136* – I bought this at Dragon*Con last year but never read it due to poor condition, including one missing non-story page and one story page that’s completely detached. Both stories are excellent though. The Nick Fury story has a weird combination of John Severin finishes over Kirby layouts, but is exciting and well-plotted. The Dr. Strange backup is an intermediate chapter in the ongoing Eternity story, and is mostly interesting to me as the first appearance of a really cool minor character, the Aged Genghis. Grade: A/A+

IRON FIST #12 – This issue’s plot is a very basic version of the old trope of “superheroes fight due to misunderstanding and then team up”, but John Byrne gets to draw both action sequences and heavy machinery. The issue ends with some dialogue which was rather suggestive for the mid-’70s. Grade: B+/A-

X-MEN #37 – This is by far the oldest X-Men issue in my collection, and I’m not sorry I paid six dollars for it, but I had trouble finishing it because the plot is rather boring, the characters are uninteresting, and the art is highly competent but unspectacular. I can see why this series was cancelled. The villains include the Vanisher and Unus the Untouchable, neither of whom was ever used by Claremont as far as I can recall, and again I can see why not. Grade: C-

Giant stack of comics

Since my last update I have read the following comics, most of which I bought at Comic-Con:

BLACKHAWK #268 – The best of the three stories in this issue is the last, in which Olaf’s plane is shot down by the enemy and he ends up in the home of a Jewish family. This story is told entirely in rhyme, like Groo #77. The other two stories in this issue are kind of trite and predictable, but at least one of them is drawn by Doug Wildey. Grade: B+

AQUAMAN #36 – Spectacular art by Nick Cardy, but not one of Bob Haney’s better or weirder stories. One odd thing about this issue is that Aquagirl appears at the beginning of the story, but then completely disappears and plays no role in the resolution of the plot, showing up again only in the last panel. Grade: B

CHEW #34 – This issue is as hilarious and bizarre as usual, but also significantly advances the plot by showing us the Vampire, a character who can absorb the food-related powers of others. I bought this issue at the convention and had both Layman and Guillory sign it. Grade: A+

INVINCIBLE #36 – This is one of my favorite comics right now, and I’m actively trying to assemble a complete set of the back issues. This is a pretty good issue; it opens with a beautiful two-page splash of Mark flying, and features some interesting character interactions. Grade: A-

OMAHA THE CAT DANCER #20 – This was the last issue of the Kitchen Sink Omaha series I was missing. Omaha is one of my favorite comics I’ve discovered over the past few years. I genuinely have little interest in either erotic or funny animal comics, but Omaha is an exception to that, mostly because it has such warmth and heart and such depth of characterization, and secondarily because it makes me feel nostalgic for my hometown of Minneapolis. This particular issue has some absolutely heartwarming and/or heartbreaking moments, starting with Omaha’s parting from Jack and ending with her reunion with Chuck. One of the cool things that happened during my Comic-Con trip was that I got to hang out with Omaha’s creator, Reed Waller, as we were waiting for a plane. Grade: A+

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #9 (COMIC-CON EXCLUSIVE EDITION) – I was stupid enough to pay $10 for this, but it was almost worth it. The opening story is a brilliant piece of work by the most important creative team in contemporary comics, Katie Cook and Andy Price. It’s child-friendly but also contains a lot of inside jokes only older audiences will get, e.g. “For Want Of” brand nails. The backup story, starring Sunset Shimmer, was fairly accessible even though I haven’t seen Equestria Girls yet. Grade: A+

ADVENTURE TIME/PEANUTS FCBD EDITION – I’ve had this for over a year, but I was finally inspired to read it because of all the positive things I heard about the Adventure Time comics while at Comic-Con. I still don’t feel I understand the appeal of Adventure Time — it just seems kind of absurdist and nonsensical to me. Still, this issue contained some interesting work, especially the story by Michael DeForge, an artist whose work I’m becoming quite curious about. The other half of the issue was not all that great; I think I would rather read actual Peanuts strips than IDW’s adaptations. Grade: B+

BRAVEST WARRIORS #1 – I attended one of the YA/kids’ comics panels, and Mike Holmes was the only person on the panel whose work I wasn’t familiar with. So I went and bought this issue at the BOOM! booth and got Mike Holmes to sign it. The issue turned out to be an interesting and funny piece of work. It makes a lot more logical sense than Adventure Time does, at least. Grade: B+

AGE OF BRONZE #33 – My store sold out of this before I could get it, so I bought it directly from Eric Shanower and had him sign it. This issue brings the Troilus and Cressida story almost to a conclusion. I haven’t enjoyed this story as much as earlier Age of Bronze story arcs because it seems fundamentally incongruous with the rest of Eric’s material. Even though Eric does the best job he can of adapting it into an ancient context, it is still essentially a medieval story, which comes from a society with very different values than those of ancient Greece. Still, as I just mentioned, Eric does a good job of integrating this story into Age of Bronze, and his storytelling and artwork are as perfect as ever. Grade: A

CAPTAIN MARVEL (2012) #1 – I think this series is the best comic with a female protagonist that Marvel has ever released. Kelly Sue DeConnick writes Carol Danvers as a competent and confident character, a hero deserving of the Captain Marvel name (I use “hero” here as a gender-neutral term). I am kind of annoyed by Kelly’s decision to retcon a new character, Helen Cobb, into existence only to immediately kill her off, and I don’t particularly like Dexter Soy’s artwork. Grade: A

ADVENTURES OF LITTLE ARCHIE #32 – At $2.50 (marked down from $5 on Sunday), this was one of the best deals I got at Comic-Con. I’ve read the first two stories before, in the Little Archie trade paperback that was published several years ago, but they were worth reading again; the second one, “Time Taxi,” was one of Bob Bolling’s personal favorites. Besides a couple lesser stories by Dexter Taylor, there is also a third Bob Bolling story, involving an alien princess who was apparently based on LBJ’s daughter but who looks like something out of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. I have had a lot of difficulty finding any issues of Little Archie with Bob Bolling artwork, so I’m particularly thrilled when I do find one. Grade: A+

SAVAGE DRAGON #3 – I had Erik Larsen sign this and several other issues of Savage Dragon. This very early issue seems more like a generic Image comic than an issue of Savage Dragon, though Erik’s characteristic storytelling style is evident to some extent. One bizarre thing about this issue is that Frank Darling’s wife’s pregnancy is a significant plot point. In the current Savage Dragon storyline, the child who Frank’s wife was pregnant with is now a young man, and is about to become a father himself. Stories where characters age in real time are weird like that. Grade: B-/C+

DETECTIVE COMICS #470 – I didn’t think this issue was as classic as the six Englehart/Rogers issues that immediately followed it, though that might just be because I’m intimately familiar with those issues, whereas I hadn’t read this one before. Walt Simonson’s artwork is not his best, largely due to boring inking by Al Milgrom. The story is mostly notable as the first appearance of Silver St. Cloud. Grade: B/B+

INVINCIBLE #24 – A fairly average early issue, mostly devoted to a fight scene involving Angstrom Levy and that one big blue-skinned villain whose name I can never remember. I generally think the soap opera stuff in Invincible is more interesting than the fights, as is the case with early Spider-Man stories, though Kirkman would later write some genuinely thrilling and scary fights. Grade: B+/A-

1 FOR 1: MIND MGMT #1 – This one was given away for free at the Dark Horse booth. I fell asleep while reading this comic, though that was more because I was exhausted after teaching than because the comic was boring. However, I do find Matt Kindt’s storytelling to be somewhat slow-paced and minimalistic. I’m interested in this comic less because of the actual story than because of the artwork and especially the publication design. I find it fascinating that Matt Kindt is deliberately trying to make the single issues different from the trades, so that it’s worth buying them both. In this issue, for example, each page is formatted to look like a blank comic art page and has an excerpt from the “MIND MGMT FIELD GUIDE” on the inside edge. Grade: B

SUPERNATURAL LAW #29 – Batton was selling back issues at his booth for a dollar each, and I bought three of them. This one was absolutely hilarious. In this issue, Wolff and Byrd’s client is a 12-year-old boy who is clearly based on Herbie the Fat Fury (even being called a “big fat nothing” at one point), but who turns into a Hulk-like creature when his mother nags him too much. Batton exploits this situation for all its comic potential. Grade: A+

Comic-Con paper: Using Materiality to Teach Comics

Here’s the text of my paper from the Comic Arts Conference at Comic-Con 2013. The paper was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation: CAC presentation

Thank you all for being so committed to teaching that you’re willing to listen to my paper when there’s so much other wonderful stuff you could be doing. This paper is going to explain what I mean by “materiality,” why I feel it is something that students ought to learn, and why comics are an effective tool for teaching it. This paper is based on my experience teaching comics in the university setting, primarily in first-year English courses, although I hope that my suggestions might be adaptable to other levels of education as well. And also, I wrote this lecture with a public audience in mind; I have a forthcoming essay that will cover some of the same material in a more academic style.

To explain the context for how I teach comics, I am a teaching postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech, and I teach most of my courses in the writing and communication program, which heavily emphasizes multimodal rhetoric. Multimodality means the ability to use different channels of communication, including written, oral, visual, electronic and nonverbal communication, both separately and simultaneously. So in my courses I am required to design assignments that ask students not only to write traditional academic prose, but also to use oral, electronic and visual tools for communication. Comics are obviously a perfect fit for this academic setting because comics by their very nature are multimodal, combining verbal, visual and increasingly electronic rhetoric. In another academic setting where multimodality is less valued, it might be more difficult to get away with using comics in the ways I’m going to describe. But my specific interest in both my teaching and scholarship is materiality, and I’m now going to explain what that is and why comics are an effective tool for teaching it.

So what is materiality? The media theorist Katherine Hayles defines it as “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies.” She elaborates: “In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather, it occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user.” Materiality refers to the way in which the physical and technological substance of a text affects the way readers understand it, and vice versa. Comics are actually a good example of this because many comics are now available in a variety of formats, including single issues, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and digital editions. SLIDE: MULTIPLE DIFFERENT EDITIONS OF THE WALKING DEAD The reason we choose one of these formats over another is because we prefer one mode of materiality over another – for example, I generally prefer to read single issues because I think they offer a more satisfying material experience. Can I get a volunteer who reads comics? What is your preferred format? Why do you prefer that format? WAIT FOR RESPONSE [Here a man in the audience answered and said that he prefers to read single-issue comic books.] Again, all of these decisions come down to materiality. Materiality is important because it conditions the way we respond to texts. Reading a text, even if it’s a digital text, is an embodied experience in which the physical form of the text helps to determine our response to its content. But materiality is also important because, as Hayles further argues, texts have the ability to use it a signifying resource. Material properties like typography and publication design can be used as tools for creating meaning. There are numerous examples of this in poetry and prose literature, from George Herbert’s pattern poetry SLIDE to Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels SLIDE. And I would argue that comics are particularly good at using material properties to create meaning. Think for example of the crucial role that publication design plays in the work of artists like Chris Ware or Seth or Lynda Barry. Finally, materiality takes on particular importance in a post-digital world. There is a common belief that materiality is something which only applies to paper texts – that e-books and works of electronic literature lack the materiality of printed books. However, we need to remember that interacting with digital texts is still a physical and embodied process. And comics like the xkcd strip “Click and Drag,” or Chris Ware’s “Touch Sensitive,” SLIDES IF POSSIBLE are effective at reminding us of the physical parameters of our interaction with digital content.

So I feel that comics are a particularly effective tool for teaching students to appreciate the materiality of reading processes. This is especially true because materiality tends to be a much more visible property in comics than in prose literature, where the material properties of the text, such as typography and publication design, tend to be much easier to ignore. When you read a comic, you tend to be much more aware of the physicality of the reading experience. So when I assign comics, I try to get the students to think about why we’re encountering the comic in this particular form, and how that affects our comprehension of it.

For example, in the fall of 2012 I had my students read Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, a choose your own adventure comic, and I also had a student give a presentation on the iPod app version of the same comic. In the same class, I assigned Carla Speed McNeil’s Talisman, a comic which heavily emphasizes the emotional attachment between readers and books and the immateraility conflict between physical and electronic books, and I asked the students to consider how their interpretation of this comic was affected by the fact that some of them were reading it via Dark Horse’s digital comics app.

But the primary purpose of my first-year composition courses is to teach writing, and the biggest reason comics are useful for this academic setting is because comics help students think about writing as a physically and technologically situated process. In my writing courses, I try to get the students to think about mediacy and materiality not only through their reading, but also through their writing practice. What that means in practical terms is that I ask the students to actually use the media and the technologies that they’re learning about. The purest example of this was when, in a course on handwriting and typography, I asked my students to write a handwritten paper analyzing their own handwriting. In my future of the book course, I asked the students to format all of their assignments as books, so that they would understand books from a practical as well as a theoretical perspective. This is a vastly scaled down version of a project my colleague Hugh Crawford did with his students, where he had them read Walden and then actually build Thoreau’s log cabin using the methods Thoreau would have used. The theory behind this sort of pedagogical practice is that it asks students to think about their writing as physically situated, as a practice that involves hands-on interaction with objects in the world. And, when students create the types of media that they’re analyzing, it gives them firsthand insights into those media. When you produce a creative work using a given medium, you discover through firsthand experience how the physical and technological parameters of the medium affect your ability to realize your creative attentions. And then you can take the discoveries you make through your creative practice and feed them back into your critical reflection on the medium in question, so the result is a virtuous cycle, a self-reflexive feedback loop.

So my basic method in teaching materiality is to get students to engage in creative practice and then think self-reflexively about their own creative acts, and I find that comics fit perfectly with this method. Why is that? In the first place, because it seems very natural to use comics to think about comics. Here are a couple examples of my own work. SLIDES And I never did get that hat back, that’s why I’m not wearing it now. Here I’m actually using comics to think about comics – I’m asking the question, what is a panel border, what is a word balloon, what sort of spatial relationship exists between the characters in a comic and elements like word balloons and panel borders, and I’m also visually suggesting some answers to those questions. And of course there is a long tradition of using comics to theorize comics, if we think back to Eisner and McCloud. So in the comics class that I taught last semester, I asked the students to engage in this sort of work, and I’m going to show some examples of that. The first paper asked the students to select a short sequence from a comic of their choice, and explain how the sequence accomplished its purpose. As a counterpoint to this, I also asked the students to draw the same sequence in a different way, and explain how it accomplished its purpose more or less effectively. This SLIDE was one of the best responses I got to that assignment. The student chose the opening pages of the first chapter of The Sandman: A Game of You, and argued that in this sequence, Shawn McManus draws the dreamworld in a nonrepresentational way and creates a deliberate disjunction between the text and the artwork, whereas the real world is drawn in a much more representational way and has a much more conventional relationship between words and images. So the student proved this by producing her own version of the sequence, in which the real-world and dream-world scenes were drawn with the same type of artwork. MORE SLIDES This was not only a visually impressive piece of work but it effectively illustrated her arguments. Similarly, for the final project, which was a group project, I asked the students to choose a specific type of comics and explain how they think this type of comics will evolve and develop in the future. Several of the groups chose webcomics, and for this particular comic, one of the students chose to illustrate the diversity of subject matter in contemporary webcomics by drawing each panel as an homage to a different webcomic.

So these examples suggest that comics can be an effective tool for getting students to engage in hands-on thinking, to use their personal experience with the medium as evidence for their critical engagement with the medium. Now in terms of using comics to teach materiality, the next step beyond this, as my friend Roger Whitson suggested, would be to have the students do comics using different media technologies – e.g. pen and paper versus digital platforms. And then, to have them think about how the different material properties of each of these platforms help to shape the sort of comics they produce, and how the differences between the technologies affect their ability to achieve their creative goals. In my media studies course last summer, I explicitly did that – I asked the students to use a medium of their choice to create a representation of a monster, and then write a paper explaining how the properties of the medium affected their ability to produce the sort of monster they had in mind. I did not explicitly ask my students to do that in my comics class. Even so, in some of the work that my students did for their final projects, like this other project on webcomics SLIDE you can clearly see that they were thinking about the material and technological differences between webcomics and print comics, and that they were using their comics to graphically demonstrate those differences. So I think that comics can be an effective tool for getting students to think about the interplay between media technologies and creative expression, which, if you will remember, is what materiality is all about.

I want to conclude by discussing some possible pitfalls with this approach and to suggest some issues that have to be considered when teaching comics in this way. One obvious problem raised by the notion of using comics assignments in an English class is that students have wildly varying levels of artistic talent and training, and many students have a complete lack of confidence in their ability to draw. The three projects I’ve shown were all done by students who had a higher than average level of coding talent – in particular, the student who did the second project was already a gifted artist who had a preexisting interest in comics. So I had to adopt various strategies to correct for the differences between students’ levels of artistic talent, and to make the students confident in their artistic ability. First, I emphasized that this was a writing and composition course, not a studio art course. I was going to grade students not on the quality of the comics they produced, but on how effectively they used their comics to prove the point of their essays. I also emphasized that I was grading based on effort: did I feel that the student did the best job they could given their previous level of talent? A second possible pitfall is that not all students are equally familiar with the visual language and the storytelling conventions of comics. In order to make sure that everyone knew what a panel was and what word balloons mean and so on, I chose Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures SLIDE as the textbook for the course. Abel and Madden’s book is intended to be used in studio art courses and is designed to offer practical training in how to compose pages and stories and how to format them for publication. And I think that this was sufficient preparation to enable the students to produce their own comics. Of course ableism is also a possible issue – accommodations would need to be made for students who are physically unable to draw.

To conclude, then, I think that comics can be an effective tool for getting students to think about reading and writing as embodied, situated processes – as processes that involve complex interactions between the artist’s creative intentions and the tools through which those intentions are realized. And that is the basic lesson I try to teach in my courses – that there’s always a complex feedback loop between creativity and the material conditions under which it takes place. More generally, I think that when we teach comics, we need to consider our students not just as readers but also as creators. In an era where visual-verbal communication is becoming increasingly important, comics offer a useful means for enabling students not just to intelligently consume visual-verbal texts but also to produce them.

List of all the major comic conventions I’ve attended

Just for my records, here is a list of all the major comic book conventions I’ve attended:

1997. 8th grade. First MCBA Fallcon
1998. 9th grade. Second MCBA Fallcon
1999. 10th grade. Only Wizard World Chicago
2000. 11th grade. Third MCBA Fallcon
2001. 12th grade. Fourth MCBA Fallcon?
2002. Freshman in college. First Comic-Con
2003. Sophomore in college. Second Comic-Con
2004. Junior in college. Third Comic-Con
2005. Senior in college. Fouth Comic-Con
2006. MA year. Fifth Comic-Con
2007. First year of Ph.D. No convention
2008. Second year of Ph.D. Sixth Comic-Con
2009. Third year of Ph.D. No convention
2010. Fourth year of Ph.D. Only Florida Super-Con
2011. Fifth year of Ph.D. First Dragon*Con
2012. First year of postdoc. Second Dragon*Con and first Heroes Con
2013. Second year of postdoc. Seventh Comic-Con and third Dragon*Con
2014. Third year of postdoc. First TCAF, second Heroes Con and eighth Comic-Con
2015. First year as VAP. Third Heroes Con, first Cincy Comic Con and first NYCC

Comics read recently

SCARY TALES #36 – First story: boring art by Studio Recreo, boring writing by Joe Gill. I’m writing this ten minutes after reading the story and I can’t remember what it was about. Second story: much like the first except that the artwork, by Pat Boyette, is a little better. Third story: gorgeous artwork by Tom Sutton. The story, by Tom Tuna — which is apparently a real name, not a pseudonym — is basically an excuse for Sutton to draw a bunch of bizarre Lovecraftian creatures, which he is extremely good at. Grade: C but would have been a D- if not for the Sutton artwork.

NORTHLANDERS #15 – I’m still not getting into this series. There is some good stuff here — in particular, there’s one pretty amazing page showing the protagonist’s shocked reaction when he hears some bad news about his daughter — but it’s basically a lot of blood, gore and emotional trauma, with very little subtletly. There is also a bizarre lacuna in the narrative, where the hero goes from being tied up with a rope around his neck, to being free, with no explanation; I assume this would have made more sense if I’d read the preceding issues. I believe this is the last unread issue of Northlanders I had, and I won’t make any special effort to seek out any more issues. Grade: B-

GOD THE DYSLEXIC DOG #4 – I admit it, I’m reading bad comics because I’m too tired to read anything that requires mental effort. Like the previous issue, this one has gorgeous artwork by Alex Niño, but a completely incoherent and unintelligible story. I think the writers were trying to be Kirbyesque or something, but they failed; this story is just a confused muddle that goes nowhere. Grade: A+ for art, F for story, for an average of C

Comics read today

While taking a break from grading (i.e. procrastinating), I made a want list for Comic-Con. There probably won’t be reliable wireless access in the exhibit hall and so I’m going to have to carry around a physical list of all the comics I need. When I made this list, it reminded me of a lot of old comics that I love and haven’t read lately, so I felt motivated to read all the following comics.

KORAK, SON OF TARZAN #56 – This issue includes work by two fantastic artists, Murphy Anderson and Michael Wm. Kaluta. The Korak story is written with surprising effectiveness by Bob Kanigher, and Anderson’s page layouts (which Kubert may have been responsible for) are dynamic and exciting. The real attraction here, though, is the Carson of Venus backup, which has such amazing storytelling and draftsmanship that it almost reminds me of Hal Foster, although the writing is nothing particularly great. Grade: A-

IRON MAN #64  – Considering that I don’t particularly like either Mike Friedrich’s writing or George Tuska’s artwork, I found this issue surprisingly enjoyable. It involved a really bizarre and convoluted plot with a lot of entertaining soap-opera interactions between Tony, Pepper and Happy. The story is also an example of Friedrich’s early-70’s “relevant” style of writing, as it  references to urban renewal and African anti-colonialism. Grade: B+

SUPERMAN ANNUAL #9 – The opening story in this issue is a masterpiece by my favorite Superman writer, Elliot S! Maggin, and one of the great storytellers in the history of American comics, Alex Toth. Nearly every page is a showcase for Toth’s dynamic page layouts, perfectly balanced panel compositions, and minimalistic but effective draftsmanship. Elliot’s story is enjoyable enough though the conclusion is a bit contrived. The backup story, “I Flew with Superman”, features Curt Swan as the protagonist. It follows the standard clichéd formula where a character has a vivid dream which turns out to be real, but Swan and his co-writers execute it very well, effectively conveying Swan’s passion for the character who defined his professional career (and vice versa). Grade: A+

WHAT IF? #29 – Steven Grant and Alan Kupperberg’s “What If the Avengers Defeated Everybody” was better than I expected (a common theme among the comics I read today). The story relies on a massive case of Plot Induced Stupidity: the Scarlet Centurion convinces the Avengers that he can turn Earth into a utopia if they defeat all the other superhumans on earth for him, but of course he’s just trying to get rid of all the competition so that he can take over the earth himself. However, this apparently did happen in Avengers Annual #2, the story that this issue is based on, so Grant cannot be blamed for it, and he does succeed in arousing some genuine emotion. A common problem with volume 2 of What If? was that (A) the stories would read like extended plot summaries and (B) the writers would kill off characters left and right because they could get away with it. Grant avoids both these pitfalls and tells a satisfying story without any gratuitous death and violence. The two backup stories are much less interesting. Grade: B+

MS. MARVEL (1977) #14 – This series was one of Claremont’s earliest major works. It’s largely forgotten today, but it showcases the deep characterization (particularly of female characters) that was one of the defining qualities of his X-Men stories. This issue is certainly the best written of the comics I read today. Although there’s a typical superhero plot, it’s really about the conflict between Carol and her dad, an old alpha-male chauvinistic jerk who refuses to accept that women are good at anything. Even after Carol (as Ms. Marvel) saves his life twice, he still has no respect for her. In the last panel, Carol thinks: “All I ever wanted was for Dad to accept me as I am, not as he wanted me to be. And now I know that no matter what I do, or how well I do it, he never will. He won’t change… and, all of a sudden, I don’t care.” This could be read as Carol just meekly accepting her dad’s sexism, but I think it can also be read more positively: Carol realizes that although her dad is never going to change, she is no longer worried about what he thinks of her. One panel before this, Carol’s mother reveals that she’s already figured out Carol’s secret identity, which is a nice touch — it’s something that happens much less often in superhero comics than it would in real life. Grade: A

TEEN TITANS #17 – Now this one was just incredible. “Holy Thimbles, It’s the Mad Mod” is a wild story even by Bob Haney standards, and that’s saying a lot. The Mad Mod would be completely out of place in a story written by anyone else at all, but he fits perfectly with Haney’s bizarre style of writing. The artwork is by Nick Cardy, one of DC’s great artists of this era, at the absolute peak of his powers. His page layouts are amazing and his characters are as gorgeous as ever. I only wish I had a copy of this issue that wasn’t falling apart. Grade: A+

FLASH ANNUAL #8 – Mark Waid is the one writer who’s contributed most to the development of Wally West’s character, and he wrote two other classic stories about Wally’s early life, Flash #0 and “Born to Run”. It’s a shame that this story is below the level of either of those. Besides the terrible art by the justifiably unknown Dave Brewer, this story features a young Wally acting wildly out of character. According to this story, after Barry’s death, Wally goes into complete denial and also becomes reckless and negligent, to the point where Jay and Hal have to force him to stop being the Flash (until he redeems himself at the end of this story, of course). This portrayal of Wally is hard to reconcile with Mike Baron’s version of this same period of Wally’s life, and Mark seems to even admit this at one point during the story. The backup story, taking place right after Wally gets his powers, features much better art by Humberto Ramos but rather poor writing by Tom Peyer — he actually makes Wally and Iris’s relationship seem kind of creepy. This issue would have been better if the two writers had switched stories; then there would have been one good story and one bad one, rather than two that were halfway good. Grade: B-

Quick review of Northlanders #6-8

I went back and read these because of recommendations from Tim Schneider and Aaron King. Brian Wood is still not my favorite writer — I find his writing rather basic and unsubtle, which I suppose can be a good thing but it doesn’t quite appeal to me. Still, this story is quite powerfully written, and Davide Gianfelice’s art packs a definite punch. I liked each of these issues enough to immediately go on and read the next one. Grade: B+