Month: January 2016

Reflection on “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” MLA 2016 roundtable

It has been almost a month since Keith McCleary and I co-hosted our MLA 2016 roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy.” Thanks to the quality of our presenters, and the contributions they have made to the teaching of comics, we were able to have a packed room even at 8:30 in the morning.

I have been trying to wrap my brain around what worked so effectively for the session–and participant Liz Losh already wrote an excellent summary of the session for Macmillan/Bedford. Until I have more to add, I think her remarks clarify what each of our contributors brought to the roundtable, as well as the topics considered by our audience members in-person and online (which I have archived in this Storify link).

Thanks to MLA executive director Rosemary Feal and head of convention programs Karin L. Bagnall for giving us the opportunity to bring a successful roundtable on teaching comics to a national platform, after Keith and I co-organized such a session at the Northeast Modern Language Association.

Thanks as well to the Comics and Graphic Narratives Forum of the MLA for continuing to host a variety of well-organized, informative sessions at the yearly convention, including publicizing our own roundtable.

Thanks to our audience members who showed up for our early-morning session and who contacted us online with their questions and comments via Twitter, especially A. David Lewis, one of our participants in the NeMLA version of this roundtable and an involved voice in the online discussion surrounding our MLA roundtable.

Finally, thanks of course to our presenters: Liz Losh, Nick Sousanis, Susan E. Kirtley, Maria Elsy Cardona, Joe Sutliff Saunders, and Biz Nijdam.

I know all of us look forward to see where we next take this discussion about teaching with comics!

MLA 2016: Days 2, 3, and 4

I’ve been delayed writing more about the 2016 meeting of the MLA in Austin, including the success of co-leading the roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” on Day 2 (to a no-seats-left audience at 8:30 AM–and a synopsis post to write later this week), working for the Northeast Modern Language Association all three days, and flying back late.

I’ll summarize a bit about Days 2, 3, and 4 here, then write about those aforementioned topics in subsequent posts.

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MLA 2016: Day 1

It is depressing that the MLA has to tell people not to openly carry firearms into a place that does not need people’s gun fetishizing. This is where we are, when guns are more important than logic and pragmatism. But after the Governor of Texas, in this very city, says something this asasine to the President of the United States, yeah, the MLA really does have to be this blunt.

Well, onto more pleasant topics:

  • The MLA provided a great space this year for the Regional MLAs, including a sign and significant support for NeMLA, South Central, and more.
  • Gus’s Fried Chicken is a satisfying meal.
  • The presentation is ready for tomorrow. Stop by our roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy,” Session #222, starting at 8:30 AM in 8A, Third Floor, Austin Convention Center. If you have questions for our roundtable participants before tomorrow’s session, tweet them at us at #S222 #MLA16.

 

Primer for “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” (MLA, January 8, 2016): What are comics? Are they for children? For all ages? Are they always visual?

On Friday, January 8, Keith McCleary (UC San Diego) and I will be leading the roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” at the Austin, Texas, meeting of the Modern Language Association.

For the next few days, in preparation for our discussion, I will be writing about what led to this roundtable, recent approaches in the teaching of comics and graphic novels, and my own contributions to this discussion about pedagogy and visual texts. Abstracts and bios for all roundtable participants are available here.

Yeah, this post is very much a collection of loosely connected topics.

Recently, Glen Weldon tackled the well-worn history of Fredric Wertham’s nonsense about the corruption of youths by comics, “Comics: They’re For Kids Again!” His thesis is based on Gene Yang becoming National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, demonstrating how far along we have come since the days fearful of comics as being inappropriate to give to children, for various reasons: they are violent, full of sexual subtext or text, full of antiheroes who disrespect authority. It feels like there is this tear for comics, pulling it in one direction to as adult as possible (not necessarily mature, so much as very violent, very sexual), or in another direction to be what is imagined as appropriate for children, purging not only imitable content but content that is not suited to a heteronormativity (because heaven forbid a same sex relationship be showed in, I don’t know, an animated series…but what do I know: I’m still bitter about the finale to The Legend of Korra not including a big damn kiss).

Our roundtable participant Joe Sutliff Sanders approaches this argument in his publications regarding how picture books and comics are closely associated with each other as if they are intended for only children. As Joe points out, our college courses are about teaching students the value of literature in numerous forms. And if we are teaching to students of various age groups–preschool to graduate school–it is even more vital that we understand how we are treating comics–as literature, as something not quite like literature; in words and in images; intended for young readers, older readers, and all readers.

However, comics are also seen as too violent to give to children. Of all shows, Girl Meets World on the Disney Channel set up a strawman argument that it is not appropriate to teach The Dark Knight Returns, not because of Frank Miller but because it’s not as literary as To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet that plot in Girl Meets World resonates with the history Weldon identifies, since Wertham argued that comics address such topics of gore, sex, and violence that they are considered inappropriate for readers.

Stan Lee bristles at calling them “comic books,” as if that suggests there are only humorous or for children–whereas I tend to celebrate the camp, kitsch, and youthfulness of comics. So as I may mock Weldon a bit for writing in such broad strokes, he’s not wrong: I think I would prefer to use “all-ages” rather than “for kids.” In this regard, it feels like the challenge is addressing what is appropriate content for a classroom: we are stuck with this association of comics being for kids, even as we know that comics will approach material that many of us find uncomfortable. Reading Joe’s syllabi, I am impressed how he approaches trigger warnings, acknowledging that course content can hurt, can offend, and that it is important to feel that the classroom is a space to discuss those reactions.

Going back to Lee’s frustration with that phrase, “comic books,” it feels like there is still this problem with the word “comics,” ignoring that, really, it is an appropriate term: as I think Susan Kirtley is describing them, they are kind of a misfit form of art, so there is something a bit comical about how hard it is to fit them in, how exaggerated they seem to other forms of art, how outside or queer or whatever word to use to describe their failure to fit into certain connotations of literature–no matter how extensively Scott McCloud and Will Eisner persuasively define them.

In trying to define “comics,” I also am talking about the slippage moving from comics to related fields, such as single-panel illustrations (cartoons), moving illustrations (animation), and other forms of visual art.

Those of us who enjoy them still debate the proper phrase: comics, comic books, graphic novels, visual art? Nick Sousanis‘s Unflattening has an impressive layout tracing the various terms, in English and American cultures (sequential art, picture writing, image-text, graphein, commix, and I would add photonovel) and other languages and cultures (manga, bandes dessinées, fumetti). Nick, drawing from McCloud, Eisner, David Lewis, and other scholars, identifies comics’ image-based and word-based doubleness. It is not that comics are only symbols, only representative of an idea. As Nick writes, words are about, images just are. I agree with most of this point, even as there are questions I want to ask. 

As a slight aside related to how we define comics: one topic I hope can be discussed, whether at the roundtable or in future discussions, is how we teach comics when we know we have students with visual impairment? After Joe’s writing about the difficulty describing comics and picture books in words, I am not sure how teachers can present comics in ways supplemental or as substitution for the visual. Is something still a comic when the visual is removed from it?

MLA 2016: Day 0

  • Thank goodness I pack at least one set of clothes for a presentation in my carry-on–which is what I’m thinking as it takes close to an hour for my one piece of luggage to appear on the baggage claim carousel.
  • Otherwise, that was a really quick, easy flight.
  • Two sodas to always have in Texas: Big Red and Big Blue. Same exact flavor, both the same color as cleaning solution. The next soda to find is Big Flash–which is the same color as Big Red, same flavor, but more appropriate for discussions about superheroes.
  • And I am wrapping up preparations for the regional MLA table opening tomorrow at the convention, and final posts before our roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” (#S222 #MLA16), Friday at 8:30 AM at the Austin Convention Center, Room 8A.

Primer for “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” (MLA, January 8, 2016): Comics Studies as an Institution

On Friday, January 8, Keith McCleary (UC San Diego) and I will be leading the roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” at the Austin, Texas, meeting of the Modern Language Association.

For the next few days, in preparation for our discussion, I will be writing about what led to this roundtable, recent approaches in the teaching of comics and graphic novels, and my own contributions to this discussion about pedagogy and visual texts. Abstracts and bios for all roundtable participants are available here.

Just yesterday, I came upon one article on Gene Yang’s new title as National Ambassador For Young Person’s Literature, then I heard an interview with him on NPR. Yang’s comics output includes original productions, such as American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints; writing for corporate franchises such as Nickleodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and DC Comics’ Superman; and developing that genre so long held with the comics medium, the superhero genre, with his comic The Shadow Hero.

Yang therefore navigates between new, independent productions and contributing to mainstream publications.

I think his output reflects the sometimes confusing path comics studies assumes, at times feeling like it is at the frontlines of innovations in art and education, at other times at risk of becoming mainstream, losing some of its strengths as it is absorbed into larger departments and disciplines.

As Keith and I have defined the goals of this roundtable, we have been adamant that this is not a defense of comics studies as some new field: it is integral already to studies of art, communication, and language, as well as one of numerous tools used in numerous disciplines. I look forward to our upcoming roundtable to see how far we reach consensus on this point.

As creator and director of the Comics Studies program at Portland State University, roundtable participant Susan Kirtley identifies how comics studies is still nascent compared to other fields, still struggling at times to be taken seriously. Yet she addresses this point to us not as a deterrent but as a challenge.

We therefore hope this roundtable identifies those strengths she has defined as part of comics studies, including keen attention to the interaction of word and image in arts, history, cultural and American studies, and literature. Even if comics studies is much younger than other fields, there is something exciting about having its strengths obvious at this time–and moving to new opportunities in the field.

(And we are excited to hear Susan offer an account of the methods available for forming comics studies programs in our own departments.)

Another question Susan continues to pursue is whether it is more productive for us working in comics studies to construct such programs within pre-existing departments or as separate programs. I would like to add to her point that it is also important to cultivate relationships with comics communities outside of the university system.

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Primer for “Developments In Comics Pedagogy” (MLA, January 8, 2016): Comics Are Funny

 

On Friday, January 8, Keith McCleary (UC San Diego) and I will be leading the roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” at the Austin, Texas, meeting of the Modern Language Association.

For the next few days, in preparation for our discussion, I will be writing about what led to this roundtable, recent approaches in the teaching of comics and graphic novels, and my own contributions to this discussion about pedagogy and visual texts. Abstracts and bios for all roundtable participants are available here.

Reading the publications of roundtable colleague Maria Cardona has been helpful for understanding another approach many teachers take to comics: a recognition that there is something powerful about the laughter comics, especially comic strips, provide.

I want to consider that idea as it relates to what Maria calls subversion, and what I have tried to do tackling certain Japanese comics, and how I think both of us use these techniques to teach about gender representations. I think Maria and I are in agreement that laughter is a helpful response used by feminist approaches to comics to critique sexism.

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Primer for “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” (MLA, January 8, 2016): Making It Personal–Memoirs, Student-Created Comics, and Fan Communities

On Friday, January 8, Keith McCleary (UC San Diego) and I will be leading the roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” at the Austin, Texas, meeting of the Modern Language Association.

For the next few days, in preparation for our discussion, I will be writing about what led to this roundtable, recent approaches in the teaching of comics and graphic novels, and my own contributions to this discussion about pedagogy and visual texts. Abstracts and bios for all roundtable participants are available here.

When Keith and I were reviewing submissions for this roundtable, I think one detail we noticed among all the participants we eventually chose was a desire to make the teaching personal, whether out of their own research interests or out of their students’ interests.

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Keep Jessica Jones and Daredevil in the MCU

In addition to preparing for the upcoming roundtable at the Modern Language Association, I also am preparing for another roundtable at the Northeast Modern Language Association, this one stemming in part from my recent publication on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Between now and March, I’ll be using posts here to organize thoughts ahead of this MCU roundtable. 

This is in response to Erik Kain at Forbes, who argues that Jessica Jones and Daredevil, two Netflix series set in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, should actually be in a separate fictional universe:

The morally complex, violent, dark world of Jessica Jones has no place in the MCU. It doesn’t fit. Sure, you can have a fairly cheery show like The Flash work well with the darker-toned Arrow but both those shows have about the same level of violence, romance, moralizing and the like. Different heroes with different personalities and problem-solving strategies, but largely the same overall guiding principles.

[…]

A great big shared universe can be terrific for creativity and storytelling, but it can also limit those things, forcing a shared story where none exists and none ought to exist.

Right now, the MCU is holding back shows like Jessica Jones and Daredevil, while those shows are contributing absolutely nothing to the MCU.

Kain’s argument sounds like clickbait to me. I came upon it when reading Oliver Sava’s review of the Jessica Jones season finale, and from the moment I look at the headline to reading these quotations, I strongly disagree with this assessment that seems only to provoke reactions rather than making reasonable, persuasive arguments.

In other words, I’m going to out-hipster Kain on his nonsense.

I apologize that this post is going to be far more snarky than what I tend to publish. Rather, it is because I am irritated when Kain claims that “these shows are contributing absolutely nothing to the MCU.”

First, that use of “absolutely nothing” makes it really easy to undermine his absolutist argument.

Second, Kain is focusing on contributions in terms of how these series move forward the plotlines of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than appreciating that these series are actually more about universe-building: they are to show that there are super-powered protagonists whose struggles are daily, hence much more suited to serialized narratives, and whose ethics are likely more complex than a dualistic good versus evil conceit that has dominated almost every Marvel film, and tends to dominate in blockbuster cinema anyway.

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