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.

The personal in comics is not as surprising, due to the prevalence of memoirs as a popular form of comics to teach, whether Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese. Reviewing her abstract for our roundtable, I noticed Elizabeth Losh emphasized that, in many courses, “these curricula are often constrained by excessive reliance on memoir formatted works that do little to address the needs of students who might be doing different kinds of world analysis, identity work, or iterative design.” When Joel Simundich and I hosted Elizabeth on a panel to discuss, with co-author Jonathan Alexander, their comics rhetoric textbook, Understanding Rhetoric, memoir was a point of discussion, as it was common to that book. However, returning to Elizabeth’s abstract, the problem she identifies with excessive reliance on memoir is when it fails to address world analysis and identity work. I do not see that problem in her textbook: Understanding Rhetoric is focused on students’ own engagement with the comics medium to tell their stories.

A helpful example that Elizabeth and Jonathan use to make the comic personal is, granted, through memoir, but to show how comics changes that account.Heck, the textbook itself is told through two-dimensional comic book caricatures of Elizabeth and Jonathan speaking directly to readers, because they as teachers are making the process of comics creation, along with artists Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, personal. In addition, in Understanding Rhetoric, Elizabeth and Jonathan excerpt  from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography to demonstrate how a story gains different dimensions when told through illustration alongside words.

And this is a point emphasized as well by other roundtable participants. Comics, particularly memoirs, are effective at making the subject matter personal. In her publishing on pedagogy and comics, Elizabeth Nijdam argues that, in comics about the Holocaust, the visual text format lends personal details to historical events. While the “eye” of the comics panel can risk turning readers into voyeurs, I think that eye is different from the camera eye of television or film because it is a process of extended engagement. These panels are not moving images but moments frozen in time, ones we can skim through quickly or slowly analyze for each detail in the image.

Many of us, including Nick Sousanis, guide students to make comics personal by creating their own. Speaking frequently with Keith over the last few years, a point we both address is the challenge of guiding students to feel more comfortable writing. By assigning students to make their own comics, Keith emphasizes the value of practice, which includes trying and failing to communicate their thoughts to an audience, often to tell their own stories or stage their own arguments.

My own approach to making comics personal tends to be challenging. I think my contributions to this roundtable is a focus on the fan communities that emerge around popular comics, especially those coming from Japan. My engagement with fan communities is not only to recognize what many students are reading; rather, it is my own personal interest, my Twitter profile emphasizing three of my top fandoms (Fullmetal AlchemistSoul Eater, and Joss Whedon’s works). It is not a simple case of jumping into fan communities arbitrarily: it is thorough enjoyment of the text, to a point of almost encyclopedic knowledge on some topics. It is also passionate; Keith can attest to me being apoplectic in my disdain for Sword Art Online, for example.

I think that tapping into what students find interesting in certain comics helps them to lower the stakes and engage with comics in the ways many fans do. My own approach is to toss in a reference or supplemental material that comes from popular comics, to give an example for some difficult topics. A discussion about what is transcendentalism in a nineteenth-century United States literature course can be made clearer with a quick reference to Fullmetal Alchemist–and having at least a few students raise their hands with knowledge about the manga. (The challenge I find each year, however, is that as popular as certain comics remain, the fandoms in Japanese comics keep changing: Attack on Titan can be outdated by the time I can bring it into a class syllabus, while United States distributors have yet finished translating newer comics like One Punch Man.)

My approach is not to suggest comics serve in class as a palette cleanser or are somehow a less complicated text to approach. Rather, it is to emphasize that my work with students tends to look at approaches that they can be creators responding to comics, even if that response is not in the form of comics themselves: alternative practices can include fan fiction, cosplay, and online roleplaying. These techniques in the classroom, like making comics, present their own challenges and can be just as intimidating for students. However, I find they are valuable fan responses in order to identify what is missing in a comic that we read:

How does a fan fiction identify how unrealistic is the source material in representing diversity in relationships beyond heteronormative opposite-sex relationships?

How does cosplay make a visual statement to comics creators at major publishers that there is an audience for more protagonists other than white men, especially when genderbent and race-bending cosplay can help publicize Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales?

How do these fan responses introduce the differences moving across media and understanding how comics work differently from other media?

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