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.

In her article, “El humor de Maitena: autocrítica y autovalidación en sus tiras cómicas, y su potencial valor pedagógico en un curso para estudiantes de pregrado en español,” Maria points out the value of laughter in teaching. As her course readings include comics by illustrator Ines Burundarena, who draws under the pen name Maitena, Maria guides students to heighten a feminist education around body images and women’s political positions in society, and to subvert prejudices and stereotypes. Much as our fellow roundtable participants encourage students to create their own comics or content based on those comics, Maria offers students a chance to share and perform their own comedies as based on Maitena’s themes.

I’ve tried a similar approach by encouraging students to create their own content that mocks prevalent, often sexist themes in comics. Some of these cases can be rather obvious, such as the problem in many United States superhero comics with a double-standard: male superheroes tend to wear more functional outfits that, while emphasizing their muscular physique, are far less revealing than the often impractical outfits worn by female superheroes. Marvel Comics has made improvements with designs for Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Gwen, and it is not to ignore the extensive scholarship on ownership of sexuality by many superheroes, especially recent publications on BDSM content in Wonder Woman. But it is a long history of back-breaking, impossible poses assumed by largely female superheroes that has given way to mockery online, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which re-imagines such cheesecake poses and revealing outfits as originally portraying female characters but re-drawing those images to feature male characters in the same poses and the same outfits.

In my work with comics, to provoke a discussion about representations of gender, I have compared with students two iterations of the same Japanese comic and its animated adaptation: the action series Soul Eater (2008) and its slice-of-life romance prequel Soul Eater NOT! (2014), both by Atsushi Okubo.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 9.54.27 PM

Same character–different genres.

Whereas the protagonist Maka Albarn appears in Soul Eater with a more gothic design (her profile shaped to look like that of a human skull–notice the nose jutting back like a skinless skull), Soul Eater NOT! has her and almost every female character with permanent blushing (“blush stickers”).

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 10.03.33 PM

Again, same character.

It is a bit surprising to see Okubo revise Maka’s design so sharply to suit the genre, moving from gothicism to slice of life, and from a violent albeit slapsticky anime to an animated series where characters have much softer features. The image above, showing both iterations of Maka in combat, demonstrate how the original series (left) will present her as a terrifying opponent, while the prequel (right) has a brighter atmosphere. 

Soul Eater NOT men blush stickers

PhotoShopped “blush stickers” for the boys and men.

For the heck of it, I used PhotoShop to images of the male characters to show how the artwork changes with permanent blushing, to provoke a discussion about how these changes in gender-based body imagery may or may not affect these characters.

I think having the male characters, many of them the same age as the female characters, with permanent blushing would be a stylistic choice and one that suggests the innocence of all these characters. However, discussion on this topic at conferences–such as one on “Comedy and Comics” at the Northeast MLA–identified pitfalls to this teaching approach, such as perpetuating stereotypes surrounding conceptions of masculinity and femininity.

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