Teaching Comics: It’s Not as Hard as You Think (But It’s Different From Teaching Literature)

Here is the lecture I just gave as part of Miami University’s Comics Scholars series. The accompanying Google Slides presentation is here:

This talk is about teaching comics and it’s designed to encourage you to use comics in your courses and to address some of the concerns you may have about your ability to do that. I’m specifically directing this at people who are interested in using comics in their courses because of the McComb Undergraduate Conference in Creative Writing next semester, but who don’t know where to start. And this talk is primarily going to focus on the context of undergraduate college literature and composition courses, because that’s my area of expertise, but I’m hoping that some of my recommendations will be applicable to people who are interested in teaching at other levels. Also, I’m going to be giving a fairly broad overview of comics pedagogy, and I’m not going to make a lot of specific recommendations about how to use comics in particular courses. However, if you do want to know about comics that might be appropriate for the particular class you’re teaching, I’d be happy to talk about that during the Q&A session or after the lecture.

To explain my personal stake in this, I’m a visiting assistant professor in rhetoric and composition at Miami University, and I previously taught at Georgia Tech and I received my Ph.D. from the University of Florida. One of the primary reasons I became an academic in the first place is because I have a lifelong passion for comics and I always wanted to read and write about comics as a profession. SLIDE 2 Since getting my Ph.D., I’ve taught primarily composition, ENG 111 and 112, and I’ve used comics in nearly every course I’ve taught, and most of my publications have been about comics in some way. I also have a book manuscript currently under review which is about comics and the future of the book. And across the various institutions at which I’ve taught, I’ve met a lot of people who are interested in teaching comics but who don’t know where to start, and that’s why I think a talk like this might be useful.

The way I’m going to proceed is to address some common misperceptions that teachers often have about comics, and that create barriers to entry for teachers who are new to comics. Many of these worries are especially common among English teachers whose primary expertise is in text-based literature, but others are common to non-comics readers in general, and many of them apply to students as well as teachers. I want to talk about both how you can overcome these misperceptions yourselves and how you can get your students to do so. There are six of these misperceptions that I want to address, and they can be put into three complementary pairs: SLIDE 3

  • Comics Are Literature
  • Comics Are Not Literature
  • Comics Are Frivolous
  • Comics Are Serious
  • Teaching Comics is Hard
  • Teaching Comics is Easy


  1. Comics Are Literature (SLIDE 4)

This first point is specifically addressed to teachers who are coming to comics from a literary background. In the American academy, comics are typically taught in English departments because that’s where the initial interest in comics came from, and also, I think, because comics look more like literature than anything else. Comics are typically published in the form of books SLIDE 5, and they often include a lot of text, and this leads to the obvious perception that comics are a form of literature. And even comics scholars often describe comics in this way. An example is that one of the central works of comics studies is Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature SLIDE 6, although in the book itself Hatfield extensively discusses the difference between reading literature and reading comics.

The problem is that if you think about comics as a form of literature, you’re missing the point, because comics include an element which is typically absent from literature, namely pictures, and the pictures are just as essential to comics as they are to movies or video games. Comics are not literary texts with illustrations, they are graphic narratives. The function of the pictures is not just to amplify the text, but to tell the story. In an illustrated novel, you can remove the pictures and still understand the novel, and indeed, novels by authors like Thackeray and Dickens SLIDE 7 are usually reprinted without the original illustrations. If you take a comic and just reprint the text without the pictures, it ceases to make sense. And if you read a comic and ignore the pictures, you miss half the point. There is such a thing as a comic book with no pictures SLIDE 8 but even then, the arrangement of the panels is important. Let me show you an example of this, and this is an example I like to use at the beginning of the semester. This is a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson. SLIDE 9 To understand why this cartoon is funny, we have to read the words and the pictures together, we have to understand the relationship between them. The caption tells us that there’s a missing culture of amoebic dysentery that’s been switched with lemonade, and the image tells us what happened to the culture.

Here’s a more sophisticated example that I like to use next. This is a comic strip from Mad Magazine by Antonio Prohias. SLIDE 10 What’s happening here? The fortuneteller looks in her crystal ball and he sees the man standing behind bars. Although this is a confusing image because he’s in prison and yet he’s smiling. So then we continue reading and we discover that when we looked in the crystal ball the first time, we misinterpreted it – the cop is actually outside the bars looking in, not inside the bars looking out, and he’s smiling because he’s gloating that the fortuneteller is in jail. We do have to bring in some contextual knowledge here – we have to know that he arrested her because in New York, where this magazine was published, fortune-telling is a crime. But this is a story that’s told exclusively with pictures. The only word in it is “police” and that word is not even necessary to understand the story, because the shape of the badge already tells you that the man is a policeman. Now this is a very short comic, but it’s possible to tell an even longer story using just pictures with no words. The wordless novel in woodcuts is a genre that goes back to 1918 and a famous example of this genre is the work of Lynd Ward. SLIDE 11 And even in a more typical comic, the pictures still cannot be ignored because half of the point of comics is interpreting how each picture relates to the words and the other pictures, and I’ll explain this below.

  1. Comics Are Not Literature (SLIDE 12)

However, the reverse of that is no less false because even if comics are not exactly the same thing as literature, they do have a lot in common with literature, and if your background is in the interpretation of literary texts, a lot of the skills you already have are translatable to teaching comics. Comics have plots and characters and themes and messages, which are often similar to those of literary texts, and it can be productive to teach comics and literature together in order to explore both the similarities and differences between them. And many of the comics that are most frequently taught in university and high school classes, like Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home, which I’ll discuss later, are popular teaching tools because they’re similar in many ways to literary texts.

Furthermore, and this is kind of the argument I make in my book that’s currently under review, comics help us understand how literature in general is a multimodal phenomenon, especially in the 21st century. For most of the twentieth century we’ve had this notion that books with pictures are only for children and that serious books for adults have no pictures. This is a historically recent phenomenon. In Victorian times, it was common for novels to be illustrated, and Thackeray, for example, was both a skilled novelist and a skilled illustrator, and he did the illustrations for his own work. SLIDE 13 Even before that, pattern poetry, like the work of George Herbert, is a significant tradition in English literature. SLIDE 14 And if you go back far enough, in premodern times, literature was almost always a multimodal phenomenon, because manuscripts were illustrated SLIDE 15 and because readers tended to read out loud even when they were alone, so reading was typically accompanied by visual or auditory input or both. The notion that literature is a purely mental, nonvisual and nonsonic experience is a recent invention. And this notion is gradually becoming less valid. It’s becoming increasingly common for literary works to include photographs or drawings or creative typography or publication design. Examples of this include the work of Mark Danielewski SLIDE 16 or Jonathan Safran Foer or Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer Prize. SLIDE 17 The basic argument I’m making in my book is that the future of the book is multimodal, and to that extent, comics are sort of the paradigm for what literature in general is becoming.

  1. Comics Are Frivolous (SLIDE 18)

But the perception that comics are not literature is also related to another misconception, which is that comics are not serious, that comics are a frivolous entertainment medium. In America, comics have traditionally been seen as a source of lighthearted entertainment. There are valid historical reasons for this. Both in America and elsewhere in the world, comics originated as a mass entertainment medium. The genres of comics that most people are familiar with are superhero comics SLIDE 19 and newspaper comic strips SLIDE 20, and when we think of comic books specifically, we think of genres like superheroes and humor, which are not the sort of literary genres that are typically taught in university English courses. A more specific version of this prejudice is the notion that comics are specifically an entertainment medium for nerds. As I discussed in my lecture in this lecture series last semester, superhero comics are typically seen as a genre specifically targeted at adult straight white male nerds SLIDE 12, and to the extent that the superhero genre tends to be seen as coextensive with comic books in general, there’s a perception that comics are only for nerds. Now all of this means that both teachers and students might have a certain amount of resistance to comics if they don’t belong to the demographic to which comic books are typically marketed. I discovered this myself when I moved from Miami to Georgia Tech. At Georgia Tech the majority of my students were people who could be categorized as nerds or geeks – they were majoring in science and engineering and even if they didn’t already read comic books, they were interested in related hobbies like anime and video games, and English was often not their favorite subject, so they were excited to have the opportunity to read comics in an English class. Many of my Miami students are the opposite: they don’t consider themselves nerds, they enjoy studying literature and they expect that in a college English class they’re going to be reading Milton or Chaucer or Shakespeare SLIDE 22 or whatever, and they may be somewhat surprised to discover that they’re going to be reading comics instead, a medium of which they do not have a high opinion. SLIDE 23

So the important move to make here is to realize that you probably read comics already and your students do too. You just may not realize it. If you ask a random domestic Miami student what his or her favorite comic is, the most likely answer will not be a comic book like Superman or Batman or Watchmen, but a comic strip like Calvin & Hobbes or Peanuts or Fox Trot. SLIDE 24 It’s just that students don’t always identify comic strips and comic books as the same thing – they don’t realize that Calvin & Hobbes is a comic book in the same way as Superman is. Also, they believe that comic strips like Calvin & Hobbes are only for kids, even though empirically this is not true. And I think this is a common cultural prejudice. SLIDE 25 In Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical YA comic Sisters, she includes a scene where she at fourteen years old is talking to her cousins Josh and Jeremy, and she says she likes comics, and Josh asks “Yeah? Like Batman, Hulk, X-Men?” and Raina says, “I like Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or for Worse, Fox Trot” and Josh replies “Pssh. Those aren’t real comics.” So her cousin believes that only superhero comics like Batman and Hulk are “real” comic books, and comic strips like Fox Trot or For Better or for Worse are fake comic books, they’re just for girls. And many people have internalized this mentality, which is an example of a fairly widespread mentality which says that only the types of popular culture that appeal to men are truly valid. This is the same logic that says that chick lit and chick flicks are not “real” literature or “real” films, as Elana Levine discussed in her Cupcakes, Pinterest and Ladyporn lecture earlier this semester. SLIDE 26 I think this perception is going to change because currently young adult comics are extremely popular, and in a few years, many students will have grown up reading YA comics by authors like Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi and Cece Bell. SLIDE 27 And even superhero comics are becoming much more diverse, as I’ve talked about elsewhere. SLIDE 28 But for now, there is still this prejudice that “comics” only means superhero comics which are only for boys. So the important thing to do here is make students realize that they already read and enjoy comics, and that the comics they already read are just as valid as what they think of when they think of comics. And that the analytical skills they already have from reading Calvin & Hobbes or Garfield can be applied to longer examples of comics. Similarly, lots of students read webcomics like xkcd or Cyanide & Happiness SLIDE 29, or websites like The Oatmeal or Hyperbole and a Half that blur the lines between comics and other kinds of texts. SLIDE 30 I would guess that far more students read webcomics than printed comics, and even if they don’t intentionally seek out webcomics, it’s basically impossible to avoid seeing webcomics on social media. And again, these students need to realize that those are just as valid examples of comics as anything else, and as I was just discussing, the skills that it takes to analyze a cartoon on an office door are the same as the skills that it takes to analyze a more sophisticated graphic novel.

  1. Comics Are Serious (SLIDE 31)

It’s important to realize that the comics you and your students already read on your own are not qualitatively different from the comics you’ll be reading in class, because this helps you avoid another pitfall. Because what some people do instead in order to counteract the first prejudice, that comics are frivolous, is to go too far in the other direction and insist that comics are serious. The most popular comics for university courses are graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus SLIDE 32, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis SLIDE 33, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home SLIDE 34. If you are not a comics expert and you’re just starting to teach comics, these are the comics you’re most likely to start with, because they’ve become the academic comics canon, they’re the books that are most frequently taught and written about. There are valid reasons for this. Each of these books is a brilliant and complicated work of art that rewards careful study and that engages with difficult issues – respectively, the Holocaust, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and gay and lesbian identity. These books are also highly accessible to scholars who come from a literary background, because they’re very heavy on text and they address topics that are already of interest to literary scholars, including trauma and identity and memory and autobiography. And personally I’ve taught Fun Home three times, including this semester, and I’ve published a peer-reviewed essay about it.

But the trouble is that these books only represent a very narrow subset of the comics medium. All of them are autobiographical graphic novels that engage with issues of family relationships and trauma. And the fact that these books have become the center of the academic comics canon has given people the false impression that comics are only about topics like memory and trauma and parental relationships, and this is just as false as thinking that all comic books are about superheroes. Comics are a broad and diverse medium, as I was just trying to explain. There are comics about practically everything, and it’s worth exploring comics other than Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home.

A related misconception is that “graphic novels” are qualitatively different from comics – that there’s a difference between a graphic novel and a comic book. The term “graphic novel” was invented for marketing purposes. In the ‘70s, Will Eisner had the idea of publishing serious literary comics about realistic topics, but book publishers at the time were not interested in publishing comic books because of the stigma attached to them, so Eisner said, well, this isn’t a comic book, it’s a “graphic novel.” SLIDE 35 That’s an oversimplified account, but it’ll do for now. The term “graphic novel” was designed as a means of circumventing the stigma attached to the term “comic book,” but it gives the incorrect impression that graphic novels and comic books are two different media. If there is a difference, it’s a difference of format rather than medium. A graphic novel is just a longer-form version of a comic book, and the skills that you learn from reading comic books or comic strips are also applicable to reading and teaching graphic novels.


  1. Teaching Comics is Hard (SLIDE 36)

But I think the most basic difficulty that some teachers have in terms of approaching comics is just not knowing where to start. First, there is an extraordinarily wide variety of comics available, and it’s hard to know what comics may be appropriate for a particular class, or even who to ask for recommendations. But at a more basic level, I think teachers sometimes have a belief that the interpretation of comics is a special skill that requires extensive practice, and in particular, a teacher who has spent his or her career teaching prose writing or prose literature may feel that he or she is not qualified to teach texts that incorporate images in addition to text.

I think if you are in this position, the first thing to do is to realize that you probably read comics already. If you just walk down the hallway of any office building on this campus and look at the doors, every other door has some sort of cartoon on it. SLIDE 37 Moreover, we all encounter comics every day on social media, or at least I do. If you’ve looked at Facebook or Twitter today, you’ve probably seen at least one webcomic. SLIDE 38 Interpreting these cartoons requires the same type of skills that are required to interpret a more sophisticated piece of graphic narrative. To read a comic, all you essentially have to do is look at two or more images that are next to each other and understand the relationship between them. This is a skill that takes some practice, but in a way it’s more basic than reading words – I know lots of people who learned to read from comics, because interpreting sequences of pictures takes less specialized knowledge than reading words. And this is also why comics are often used to teach foreign languages, because the images give you a clue to what the words are saying.

So at bottom, reading comics is a simple process of interpreting pictures together with words or other pictures or both, and figuring out the relationships between them. Again, if we go back to the amoebic dysentery cartoon, in order to get why it’s funny, we have to understand the relationship between the words and the pictures. SLIDE 39. Or if we go back to the cop and fortuneteller cartoon, to understand this, we have to interpret the relationships between multiple images. SLIDE 40 Now when we look at this comic, we sort of instantly interpret it and realize why it’s funny, without realizing the acts of interpretation that we’re performing. But there’s a complex mental operation involved here. To understand this comic, we sort of have to mentally piece together a story of which we only receive the most important pieces. This is the operation that Scott McCloud calls closure, by which he means the mental act of filling in the gaps between panels, of figuring out what happened between the panels. In order to do this we sometimes have to make massive interpretive leaps, we have to fill in a lot of information that the creator doesn’t give us. SLIDE 41

These are all fairly simple comics. In a more sophisticated comic, it might be more difficult to interpret the relationship between words and images or between one image and another, but relating images to words and to other images is still the basic operation that we’re performing when we read any comic, and this is an operation that’s not difficult to master. And to develop a critical vocabulary for describing how words and images relate to each other, I’d recommend looking at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics SLIDE 42, which is an excellent introduction to the medium although some other comics theorists have problems with it.

So teaching comics does require a certain adjustment, especially if you primarily have experience teaching prose texts or poetry, and I’ll talk about that later, but at bottom it involves skills that you probably already have.

  1. Teaching Comics Is Easy (SLIDE 43)

At the same time, because comics are such an accessible and user-friendly medium, they also lend themselves to the opposite misconception, which is that teaching comics is easy. I’ve often heard people say that they want to use comics as a gentle introduction to some difficult topic, as a way to get students interested in some topic so that they can then read more advanced and serious prose texts discussing that topic. SLIDE 44 There is a related misconception on the part of students. Some students probably believe that a class on comics is an easy A because reading comics is easier than reading Milton or Shakespeare or Proust. The reason this is a misconception is because it underestimates the difficulty of comics. Anyone can read comics, but making comics is harder than it looks – to create an effective comic requires a series of difficult rhetorical decisions. I regularly hear artists say that comics is just a very difficult medium. To understand how a comic works can also be a difficult task, because you not only have to pay attention to the words, which is hard enough, you also have to pay attention to the pictures and to the relationships between the pictures and the words and even things like the typography and the publication design. And some comics, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Chris Ware’s Building Stories, require just as much interpretative effort as any literary novel.

What I sometimes do to illustrate this is to ask the students to take a page from a comic book of their choice and redraw it, and then write a formal analysis of the page that takes into account what they learned by redrawing it. I haven’t always articulated this clearly, but the idea behind this assignment is to get the students to understand the rhetorical and design decisions that went into the original page. I want them to realize that everything about the page – the number of panels, the shape and arrangement and size of the panels, the camera angles, the linework, even the typography – is important, that the artist made all these decisions consciously in order to achieve a particular rhetorical goal. This can be a good way to get your students to realize that comics are not easy, that reading comics and making comics can be an intellectually rewarding experience.

A related difficulty is that not all students come to comics from the same backgorund. This semester I’m teaching a significant number of international students all of whom are from China, and these students also have preconceptions about comics, but those preconceptions are completely different from those of domestic students. My impression is that in China there’s not a lot of domestic comics production but comics from Japan are extremely popular. And Japanese comics are radically different from American comics in a lot of ways, including the narrative strategies they use SLIDE 45 and the publication formats SLIDE 46 and the audiences they appeal to – in Japan there are comics for every demographic from small children to teenage boys to adult women. So it’s important to be aware that in some cases, when your students think of comics, they may be thinking of something very different from what you think of as comics. This is also true if you happen to have students from European countries like France and Belgium, where comics are a much more respected art form than in America. SLIDE 47 On the other hand, it’s also important not to draw too much of a distinction between national traditions of comics, because comics are a global phenomenon, just like literature and cinema, and each national tradition of comics is just a variation on the same basic art form. In my Popular Literature course next semester, I’m going to try to demonstrate this by having my students read a Japanese comic and a French comic, although we’re going to primarily focus on American comics just for reasons of scope and expertise.

So to sum up, there are a lot of reasons why teaching comics may seem like a scary and difficult task, but if you’re coming to comics as a teacher for the first time, you do have resources to draw upon that you may not be aware of. And I think the most important thing is to approach comics with an open mind, because while teaching comics may require different skills from teaching literature, comics are an extremely useful pedagogical tool.

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