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?

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