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.

This may mean collaborating with local comics shops to find the best set of graphic novels and other visual texts, from numerous authors, genres, and styles. It may also mean establishing exhibitions and galleries outside of our departments and universities, perhaps in partnership with local museums. An important example is the Black Kirby exhibition, which combines the styles of Jack Kirby with Afrofuturism and Hip Hop.

For myself, some of my most productive engagements were with the recently closed Bergen Comics in Brooklyn, New York. I went to Bergen not because I was looking for comics to add to my classes. I went because I am a comics fan, the shop was local, and the employees were engaging (with a generous frequent-customer discount). The shop stocked comics for all ages of readership, including comics that assisted with both verbal and visual literacy. Over time, employees at Bergen  helped me find new comics to add to my syllabi: comics for my Edgar Allan Poe course that were adaptations of his texts or in a gothic mode similar to his, and comics for my introductory writing courses that demonstrate key differences in communicating in visual and written narratives.

The strength of Bergen Comics owed to its familiarity with what educators and their colleges sought to include in their courses and libraries. Actually, it was Bergen Comics’ employees who introduced me to Karen Green, Columbia University’s librarian for comics and graphic novels (who in turn has been helpful to me in productive conversations in course construction and conference organizing).

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