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.

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