SAMLA paper on teaching comics

The following is the text of the presentation I gave at SAMLA the weekend before last, on a panel about teaching comics. I’m preparing a longer and more formal version of this material for an anthology edited by Professor Matthew K. Miller of the University of South Carolina at Aiken, who also organized the panel. The paper was accompanied by a slide presentation which can be seen here.

SLIDE 1. Thank you all for being here today and for your interest in teaching comics, which is a topic of great importance to me. I’m a comics scholar and I use comics in some way in every course I teach. And I’m also a lifelong comics fan. Therefore, it thrills me that so many people are currently using comics as teaching tools and that a panel on the topic of teaching comics has been included in this major interdisciplinary conference.  However, my paper is partly motivated by my sense that in the contemporary academy, comics are often taught in a way that does not fully exploit their potential. My impression is that the use of comics in English departments is limited to a few specific texts – primarily Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home SLIDE 2 – and that English teachers use these texts as ways of addressing a limited set of issues, including trauma, memory and queer identity. Now clearly all these texts are important and useful teaching tools; I use Fun Home in my teaching and research myself. But the problem is that when people think about comics exclusively through the lens of this small academic canon of texts, they develop an overly limited understanding of the medium and end up thinking that nonfiction graphic memoirs are the only important genre of comics, or that telling autobiographical stories is the only thing comics are good at. And this approach misses the forest for the trees; it confuses a particular genre of comics with the medium as a whole. Instead, I want to argue today that comics are useful as a teaching tool not simply because of their content, but also because of their formal, medial and material properties, and because of the way these properties interact with their content. Comics are valuable as a way of encouraging students to think about the operations of media and about the property that Katherine Hayles calls materiality, and in some ways, comics encourage this sort of thinking more effectively than word-based texts do. And I hope this paper will be useful in particular to people who are interested in teaching comics but who don’t consider themselves comics experts. I hope to suggest some approaches to teaching comics that you may not have considered.

To provide some necessary background, I am a Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech, and what we Brittain Fellows do is we teach introductory English courses from a multimodal perspective, incorporating not only written but also oral, visual, electronic and nonverbal rhetoric – we use the acronym WOVEN for this, and you can see examples of how we do this by attending our poster session. So we typically have our students do creative projects like posters, infographics or videos as well as traditional prose essays. The point of this is to enable our students to communicate multimodally, that is, to use multiple channels of communication both simultaneously and sequentially. And incidentally, comics are absolutely perfect for teaching multimodal composition because they necessarily incorporate verbal and visual communication and often digital communication as well, and that’s why I and many of my Brittain Fellow colleagues use comics extensively. Now I think that one important part of multimodal awareness is an understanding of the effects of media upon communication. I want my students to understand how the medium they use to read or write affects how they read or what they write. And even more specifically, I want my students to be aware of how communication is conditioned by materiality. For Hayles, “materiality” means “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies.” Materiality describes the embodied, physically situated aspect of reading, the fact that reading always occurs in and is conditioned by a particular physical context. As a very simple example of this, Persepolis was originally published in four volumes that looked like this SLIDE 3 and was republished in two volumes that looked like this SLIDE 4 and then in one volume that looks like this, without the little bunny. SLIDE 5. Each of these versions of Persepolis has a different size and weight and different graphic design and therefore makes a different impact on the reader, even before the reader picks up the book. And this is just one example of how materiality is an important factor in our experience of comics. A more dramatic example is something like Chris Ware’s Building Stories, where the physical form and appearance of the text is just as important as its content. SLIDE 6

Now materiality is always a crucial component of our experience of a text, because the particular circumstances under which we encounter a text necessarily shape the way we read it. And this is true of other types of texts as well as comics. The trouble is that when we read a novel, for example, we tend to ignore the effect of materiality because we concentrate exclusively on what the text says and not what it looks like on the page. We typically read prose texts in an attitude of inattention to materiality. And most printed books are designed in a way that encourages this attitude. Beatrice Warde, a historian of typography, said that typography should work like a crystal goblet. SLIDE 7 When you drink wine out of a gold or silver goblet, the beuaty of the goblet distracts you from the tate of the wine. But when you drink from a crystal goblet, you notice only the taste and appearance of the wine and you completely ignore the vessel that contains the wine, and similarly, when you read printed text, you should concentrate on its meaning and ignore the appearance of the text. Also, in most printed texts, the visual appearance of the text is not an integral part of the reading experience. You can take, for example, Great Expectations and reprint it with a different cover and different paper and a different typeface and it will still be recognizable as the “same” novel. SLIDE 8 The identity of a literary text is the words it contains and the order of those words, not the specific physical form in which these words are embodied. Of course there are exceptions to this, such as concrete poetry or novels by authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and Mark Danielewski SLIDE 9, but in general, literature tends to make us unaware of materiality.

Comics, however, cannot work this way because comics reading is an experience of looking at the text as well as decoding its meaning. When reading a comic, you cannot be unaware of the fact that the images are drawn in one way instead of another, or that they are arranged on the page in one way and not another – or if you are unaware of these things, it is a sign that you’re not reading the comic attentively. Moreover, the physical and visual appearance of the comic is an integral part of its meaning. The identity of a graphic novel resides in the particular drawings it contains. If a graphic novel is redrawn in a different style, it becomes a different graphic novel. When a comic is reprinted with different lettering or coloring, the difference is immediately obvious. My favorite example of this is Neal Adams’s ‘70s Batman stories, which were later reprinted with computer coloring which I think was completely inappropriate. SLIDE 10 And because of the fact that the physical appearance of a comic is an integral part of its meaning, features such as typography, lettering and publication design take on an importance in comics that they usually don’t have in text-based literature. SLIDE 11 So in the first place, comics are a good way to make students aware of the way our experience of a text is always constituted by its physical and technological features. But comics can do more than that; they can also help students understand how the material and technical properties of a text can help shape and interact with its content. And now let me discuss an example of how I’ve used comics in this way.

In the fall of 2012, I taught a first-year composition course on the topic of “The Future of the Book.” The idea of the course was, first, to think about reading as an embodied experience, to think about how the experience of reading a book is conditioned by the physical properties of a book and by the physical environment in which we read the book. And second, to explore how the embodied experience of reading is changing now that reading is increasingly becoming a digital experience and e-books are starting to challenge the cultural dominance of printed books. So a perfect text for this class was Carla Speed McNeil’s Talisman. Does anyone know this book? It’s a graphic novel that was originally published in three parts as issues 19 to 21 of her self-published comic book Talisman and is now available in various other formats. And it’s appropriate to this class because it’s all about the physical and affective experience of reading. The protagonist is Marcie, who in the first part of the story is seven years old but can’t read yet because chronic illness has kept her out of school. So her mother’s boyfriend, Jaeger, reads to her from a book which looks like this. SLIDE 12 And for Marcie this book becomes the ultimate book, the greatest book in the world. It absolutely fascinates her and it seems to contain every story there is in the world, because Jaeger never gets to the end of it. And the main character of this book is also named Marcie, so it seems to have been written for her alone. So Marcie learns to read so that she can read the book herself, but before she can do so, her mother throws the book away. And in the second issue, we see Marcie searching for the book and reading every other book she can get her hands on and writing her own stories, all in an attempt to recapture the lost book. And finally by a bizarre coincidence she does find it again, only to discover that it’s not the book she thinks it is. Jaeger was never actually reading the book to her, he was actually just making up all the stories and pretending they were in the book. So in part three, Marcie decides the only way to recover her lost book is to write it herself, but before she can do that, she needs the perfect blank book to write it in, and that blank book will be her talisman, the magical object that will unlock her creativity. SLIDE 13 The point of all this is that Talisman is all about the material, embodied experience of reading. Throughout Talisman we see that books matter not just because of their content but also because of their physical form. The title Talisman describes the way in which a book can operate in an almost magical way as a tool for activating creativity. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Talisman depicts e-books  in a very negative light. In part three, Marcie says: “Environmentalists hate paper books. They say it’d be better if all books were digital files. But people like books…” And she continues: ”I don’t want a fancy digitla day planner… I want a book.” At the end of part three, in order to create her perfect blank book, Marcie buys an expensive electronic reading device just so she can cut off the design on its cover and paste it onto the cover of a blank paper book, and she throws the e-reading device in the trash. And that seems to summarize how the author, Carla Speed McNeil, felt about e-books in 2001. And privately I sort of agree with her because I still don’t like reading comics on my Kindle Fire, I prefer to have the physical artifacts, but that’s beside the point.

But here’s the strange part. As I mentioned before, Talisman was originally published as three comic books, then collected into a trade paperback and a larger omnibus edition, and now Dark Horse has reprinted it in a special hardcover edition which is designed to look like the book that Jaeger reads to Marcie. SLIDE 15 But Talisman is also now available in electronic form, through Dark Horse’s digital comics app, and that means that my students could have been reading Finder on exactly the same sort of e-reading device that Marcie throws in the trash at the end of the story. Which was obviously not an option in 2001 when the comic was initially released. And the question I asked them was, if we read Talisman in digital form, does this change our understanding of the book? Do the changes that have occurred to the materiality of Talisman since its initial publication have an effect on the way we read the book? And I feel that this was a moment when the students got it, or at least some of them did. Thinking about Talisman this way made them realize that there is a connection between the physical context in which we encounter a text and the way we interpret the text.

But an even more important way in which comics can serve as a useful teaching tool is that they can enable students to apply this sort of perspective on materiality to their own writing. As I suggested before, I want students to show awareness of materiality in their writing as well as their reading practice, and a great way to have them do that is to ask them to actually make comics. So in my first year composition class last spring, which was specifically about comics and modern media, for my students’ final project, I asked them to collaboratively produce an essay in comics form, in which they would predict the future of a specific type of comics. I’ll show you a couple of the most effective responses to that assignment. SLIDE 16 Now I didn’t emphasize the element of materiality here as strongly as I could have, but in order to succeed at this assignment, the students had to show awareness of how to communicate using comics, and because many of them were using digital comics creation programs like Bitstrips or Pixton, I wanted them to show awareness of how creating comics in this format is different from drawing comics on paper. And I think that the best of the student projects successfully demonstrated this. And incidentally, in some of my own current research I’m trying to use comics to theorize comics in a similar way, as you can see in this image SLIDE 17, which is from a paper that’s currently under review for a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly on comics as scholarship. So we can use this method in our own work as well as asking our students to use it.

Now clearly there are some possible pitfalls to teaching comics in this way. This method of using comics may not be attractive to teachers who are themselves primarily comfortable with word-based literacy, although that does mean it can be a way of getting you out of your comfort zone. And also, asking students to actually make comics can unfairly disadvantage students who have less artistic skill, and therefore, when I explained the assignment in class I was careful to stress that I would be grading the comics based on effort and not based on their artistic quality. Still, I think that the approaches to teaching comics that I’ve described in this paper represent effective ways of exploiting the revolutionary potential of the comics medium. Comics should not be taught as if they were just literary texts with pictures added, because comics represent an entire way of thinking about media and about communication.

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