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August 19, 2013

Beyond The Pages: Comic Books and Graphic Novels as Literature


This summer, Columbia librarian Karen Green has been teaching an interesting class: Comic Books and Graphic Novels as Literature, meeting twice a week for six weeks. It’s a recognition of the literary value of the format, and an expert like Green is the perfect teacher for it. We talked with her to get an inside look at the class, which includes some first-rate required reading (like Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer; Gabrielle Bell’s The Voyeurs; Will Eisner’s A Contract with God; Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics; Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen; Art Spiegelman’s Maus; and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth).

How did you come to be teaching this class?
This course was created by a Columbia English Department grad student named JC Cloutier, who is a huge comics fan. He's taught it for the past three summers, but now he's defended his dissertation, graduated, and gotten a job, so a comics-friendly English professor contacted me and asked me if I would step in. I was asked to stick fairly closely to JC's syllabus, so I only made a few minor changes --- I added Peter Kuper's Sticks and Stones, because I wanted the students to experience a wordless graphic novel, I swapped in Derf's My Friend Dahmer for Bechdel's Fun Home, because I think it's a brilliant and important work that uses the medium as well as anything I've read, and because I wanted something less well known, and I subbed Gabrielle Bell's The Voyeurs for Pekar for several reasons, not least because I realized that losing Bechdel made the entire reading list male. Also, I really love Gabrielle Bell's work.
How did you prepare to start teaching the course?
Well, no. I did a lot of reading. I made a lot of notes. My graduate work was in the History Department, not the English Department, and literary theory isn't my strength, so I tried to reread these works with a different sort of critical eye. I poked around for other articles about the works, so that I could get other perspectives to balance my own.
Each week deals with a different theme. How is the class broken down?
I did change the order from JC's a bit, making it more chronological and assigning the themes. I wanted them to read McCloud first, to get a sense of the terminology and the theory underlying the medium. And, since I'm not trained in literary theory, I wanted to try and gather my resources around a series of genres -- really, if I can get these 14 students never to refer to comics as a genre, rather than as a medium, I feel I'll have fought the good fight --- so I regrouped JC's texts around obvious genres, like superheroes, memoir, social commentary, etc.
So far, what’s been your favorite book to teach? Have there been some surprises from any of the books?
Well, I've really only taught two full graphic novels so far -- A Contract with God and Maus --- so I don't have a favorite. But one of the happiest experiences was reading the students' response papers after that first week, when they read McCloud, and seeing how these new comics readers (very few were already fans) had had their preconceptions and expectations of the medium utterly up-ended. McCloud instilled in them a respect for comics that is making everything that comes after that much easier.
Are the students mostly new to the format? How do they seem to be taking to reading comics?
I have 14 students, and none of them are really serious fans, although some have superhero reading or the occasional newspaper strip under their belts. They are all wonderfully engaged with the material and have a lot to say in every class session. They don't always like the works themselves, but it isn't the medium that's hindering their enjoyment.
So far, what’s been the hardest book to teach?
It’s too early to say. But I can tell you that I am incredibly nervous about teaching Jimmy Corrigan, because Chris Ware intimidates the hell out of me.
If the class were extended, are there books or themes that you would like to add to the class?
Lord, absolutely. One of my students has already lamented the absence of strong, positive female characters in any of what we've read thus far. I'd love to add in Persepolis, for example. And I feel that the undergrounds are somewhat overlooked --- we read some Crumb, but I'd love to have them read work from Wimmen's Comix or Twisted Sisters. And we don't really look at anything outside the Anglophone world --- I'd love to add in some Tardi or some Moebius, some Tezuka or Mizuki.
Which book has led to the most intense or interesting discussion?
So far --- again, early in the term! --- Maus has sparked a lot of discussion, not least because we spend two straight sessions on it. The students have been able to link their reading back to McCloud, so, for instance, recognizing the simplicity of the mouse faces as an example of McCloud's notion of the universality of the simply drawn face. It's also been interesting to see how much more sympathetic the students are to Vladek as a human being, as opposed to most of the critics, who see him as a fairly unpleasant fellow.
Are there aspects of the class that you think you’ll change when you teach it again?
*sigh* I don't know. When I got the syllabus from JC and saw it had both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, I thought, That's a lot of revisionist superhero material for a six-week class. But, seriously, which one of those do you drop? They're both so important. It is pretty funny, though, that those three books from 1986 (along with Maus) take up one-third of the term.
After I was cleared to teach it, I posted about it on FB, asking for advice and was deluged with suggestions of books to add to the syllabus. And, honestly, there wasn't a single one I wouldn't want to teach. No Los Bros Hernandez on the syllabus? No Kirby when discussing superheroes? No Clowes (although one student wants to write her paper on Ghost World)? Literary adaptations/reinterpretations like Prince of Cats? Seminal works of social commentary like Stuck Rubber Baby? Postmodern tours-de-force like Alice in Sunderland? Post-colonial meditations like Vietnamerica? Just an amazing list, and every one of them more than worthy. But --- six weeks! There's only so much time, and overload is no good to students or instructor. So my list is shorter.

-- John Hogan