Month: August 2010

Comics Education: The English Department

isaac cates by tom kaczynski
Isaac Cates by Tom Kaczynski
As I worked on my comics education series of posts (one, two, three, four, five, six), Isaac Cates generously consented to answer a few questions I had regarding comics in the English Department. Isaac is currently an English Lecturer at the University of Vermont and has taught many classes on the Graphic Novel (as well as many other topics including Poetry). He is also the co-editor (with Ken Parille) of Daniel Clowes: Conversations and has contributed an essay to the recent The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. He’s also a cartoonist and some of his work can be seen on his blog.

My questions were pretty general as I’m just trying to get at a broad view of comics in the English Department. Isaac’s thoughtful answers sparked a lot ideas and many further questions. Maybe we’ll do something more in depth in the future?

Tom K: I don’t know that much about comics in the English Department. The only prominent cartoonist I can think of that came out of an English program is Adrian Tomine… which is actually a pretty unusual thing… I can’t think of anyone else of the top of my head…?

Isaac Cates: I don’t know of other “big name” cartoonists who have come through English departments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a fair number of English majors in the cohort or “generation” of cartoonists attending small-press conventions nowadays. Do we know what Sarah Glidden majored in, for example? (For that matter, what was Kevin Huizenga’s major? Or Jon Lewis’s? Or do those guys have degrees? I honestly don’t know.)

But there’s a reason (which I’ll get to) why more cartoonists would do the art major than the English major, even in colleges where the Art Department frowns on cartooning and comics. (Don’t know why that’s the attitude in so many art departments; Picasso and Goya were both kick-ass cartoonists.) But let me address other questions first …

TK: Do you know anything about the history of comics in English departments? When did they start to get studied seriously?

IC: There are a smattering of serious review-essays from earlier in the 20th century (a lot of them collected in Arguing Comics), but those are mainly written outside the academy as appreciations, with different goals from those of scholarly criticism. Academic criticism on comics in America seems to begin roughly around the time that people start writing about Maus. For me, an early landmark book is Rusty Witek’s Comic Books as History (1989). Other people wrote about comics before Witek, of course, but he was one of the first to write about them in the same way you’d write about a novel or a poem, and not merely as products of a particular cultural moment. The real boom in writing about comics happened after the turn of the millennium, I think.

But as far as “when did people start teaching courses on comics”—I’m not totally sure. I was under the impression that not many people were doing it in 2001 when I taught my first comics seminar, and certainly there were fewer books to put on the syllabus back then. But it must vary a lot from school to school. I might have got my idea that comics in the English Department was a new thing because I was in a fairly conservative department at the time. I should say, though, that I never had trouble getting a course approved: every department I’ve worked in seemed to understand that there was a real body of writing there that needed to be taught.

TK: From my (very narrow) experience in CSCL (Cultural Studies and Comparitive Lit) and English classes at the U of M in the 90’s, comics were quite welcome as objects of study, or even as a format for delivering assignments. What has your experience with that been?

IC: I never saw a comic book on a syllabus as an undergrad, but I wasn’t seeking them out. I imagine someone was teaching Maus even back then, and the second volume came out while I was in college. I will say, though, that I increasingly see comics on syllabi that aren’t dedicated to comics—someone teaching Fun Home in a gender studies class, or Blankets in a course on the contemporary novel. I think that’s something that has really changed in the past decade, or maybe the past fifteen years.

TK: Can you describe the type of students that attend your classes? Cartoonists? Comics curious? Writers? Readers? Etc.

IC: The first time I taught comics, several of the students in the class were hard-core comics readers and went on to produce comics of their own. (I think four of the students in an eighteen-person seminar self-published mini-comics later. One of them, Shawn Cheng, is still doing it quite successfully.) Since then, the percentage of would-be cartoonists seems to be dropping, mostly because there are a lot of other students interested in taking a course on the graphic novel. The comics-curious and the devoted graphic-novel readers are diluting the numbers of cartoonists, would-be cartoonists, or superhero fans: the pool of interested students gets larger and larger as the graphic novel gets a firmer purchase on the ordinary student’s college and pre-college readerly awareness.

More on the budding cartoonist in a second.

TK: How much do you focus on comics writing as opposed to the art in your classes? Other classes? How do students deal with the fact that some ‘writing’ is done without words?

IC: I don’t know what other teachers do, though I imagine there are quite a few English profs who talk about characters and story and text without “close reading” the visual aspects of the book, whether those visual aspects are layout, storytelling, or drawing. Actually, part of what I’m trying to accomplish with the book I’m writing for Yale is a sort of “how to read comics carefully as comics”: starting to see how decisions about visual storytelling affect the reading experience.

But yeah, I spend a lot of time talking about things like layout, perspective, the interrelation of text and image, drawing style, cross-hatching, and so forth. Probably it bores some of my students, but I think for most of them it makes them conscious of a layer of intentional meaning that they were receiving at best unconsciously before. I think it’s important to make them aware of stuff like perspective, which can influence the reading of a panel very subtly, for the same reasons I want poetry students to be aware of things like meter and etymology. In that way, I’m lucky to have some cartooning experience, though I mainly started cartooning so I could figure out how to talk about comics in this way.

TK: What are some of the essential comics you guys study? Does it change a lot year to year?

IC: I don’t know what goes in the “canon” for other people, but I know I have never done a course without Maus, Understanding Comics, Ghost World, something by Chris Ware, and something by Will Eisner. I used to insist on Jimmy Corrigan, but I’m experimenting to find a Chris Ware book that every student will actually finish. (Jimmy Corrigan is tough, and long, and it always comes at a difficult point in the semester.) I can report that Quimby the Mouse is not that book. I used to always teach To the Heart of the Storm, but lately I’ve switched to Contract With God, so I can show students the “first” “graphic novel.”

And now that it’s published, I will probably never do a class without Fun Home. Maybe more than any other graphic novel, that one begs to be read in the English department.

I have to change the syllabus a bit from year to year because things don’t stay in print. I love teaching [Posy Simmonds’] Gemma Bovery, for example, but I switched to Tamara Drewe for the fall because for some reason Gemma is out of print. Also, Tarama Drewe has a movie adaptation coming out, and that’ll make for some interesting conversation, I suppose.

And I try to swap a few things out here and there to keep my own teaching fresh. Probably I’ll try teaching [David Mazzucchelli’s] Asterios Polyp once it’s out in paper. I’m teaching Jason Lutes’s Berlin for the first time this semester, finally lifting my self-imposed ban on teaching isolated parts of larger projects.

TK: What are the essential texts on comics criticism you use?

IC: Other than Understanding Comics, I don’t use criticism in the classroom much. Maybe that’s a shortcoming on my part, but I don’t use much criticism in my other literature courses, either. I’d rather keep the experience of the students focused on the “primary” reading, rather than secondary materials and tertiary arguments, if that makes sense.

And what I do with Understanding Comics has grown more and more contentious over the years. Now I think I’m mainly going to assign parts of it in order to get the students to argue against McCloud, to get them thinking about navigating their own answers to the questions he raises. (“What defines comics?” “What is the essential thing that makes comics work?” “What goes on between panels?” “Why do we like cartoons?” “What is art?” Well, probably not that last one.)

TK: Feel free to add anything else that you think is relevant.

IC: Okay, here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately:

English departments are getting more and more comfortable having courses in which we study comics the way we do in other literature courses. And many English departments also have creative-writing courses, in which students write short stories or poems or non-fiction essays that approximate the creative work they’re reading in their other courses. I wonder whether anyone has taught a creative writing course on making comics, within the English department.

Or, rather, I wonder whether it’s been done more than twice in college English departments. Matt Madden did a “creative writing: comics” in the Yale Summer Programs, when I was organizing creative writing for them, and I did it myself once at Long Island University. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be done more, except that most English Departments don’t have cartoonists working for them and wouldn’t hire a cartoonist for this purpose. I actually think that many English departments would be more amenable to teaching comics-making than most Art departments.

That’s one change that would probably make a big difference in the direction of comics in the coming generations, don’t you think? On the other hand, if creative writing courses did for comics what they’ve done for poetry in America, making them more insular, more professional, and more “academic” in the worst senses of that word, then I’d rather not start walking down that road.

Maybe the ideal thing in college would be a two-course sequence (or even a simultaneous two-course “block”) that had someone in the English department teaching story structure and storytelling, and someone in the art department teaching figure drawing, perspective, inking technique, and so forth. I’m not trying to suggest that everything about cartooning is the province of the English department, but I would certainly want to challenge anyone who thought it all belonged in the art department.

TK: Thank you!

tom k by isaac cates
Tom Kaczynski by Isaac Cates

Marvelous Melodrama

I’ve been enjoying Frank Santoro’s discussions on Marvel’s late 60’s and early 70’s romance comics. But, it seems to me that the key missing term in Frank Santoro’s discussion of Marvel romance comics is ‘melodrama.’ Only one commenter (Nate) used the term as he pointed out that Marvel’s 60’s super-hero renaissance depended largely on the drama that occurred in the heroes’ private life. Since large parts of the comics were devoted to super-heroics, the tension in the private life of say, Spider-Man, was heightened by deploying melodrama.

But the term doesn’t appear anywhere in the two posts Frank’s done so far and is only mentioned once by the above mentioned commenter. The lack of the term makes it makes it more difficult to discuss & distinguish the romance comics from other kinds of comics about relationships. Frank names the work work of the Hernandez Brothers as the direct heirs to the Marvel Romance tradition. But some of the commenters are trying to wedge other comics in. For example a commenter says:

“aren’t there a plethora of ‘alt’. and ‘art’ comics than focus on relationships, but don’t utilize the los bros. level of craft? or employ ‘craft’ in a different fashion?
this might be the gap where we can celebrate ‘clumsy’ or kochalka’s ‘kissers’ for it’s romantic heft.
i totally appreciate the notion of ‘rarity of romance’ within mainstream comics, or celebration of such expressions when they occur (or are un-earthed), but the variable revolutions that ‘alternative’ comics brought about are often under-discussed hereabouts.
romance, on some level, was one of those forces, to be sure.
were highwater or alternative under-celebrated publishers of ‘romance’ comics to a greater or lesser degree? i would argue, yes.”

The difference between Kochalka or Brown’s comics that focus on relationships and romance, and the Marvel Romance comics from the late 60’s is… melodrama. The drawings of Kochalka and Brown may be more cartoony and less realistic than the Marvel equivalents, but they tend to have a more realistic take on the actual relationships they describe.

The framing of the Marvel books recalls the classic framing devices of the melodramas of Hollywood. Douglas Sirk comes to mind, especially for Marvel’s earlier foray into the Romance comics in the 50’s. They’re full of dramatic close-ups, moonlit silhouettes, crying eyes, (kisses) etc. The 70’s romance that Frank is describing has plenty of that, but it also has a frenetic energy imported from Marvel’s super-hero line. If we were to look to a cinematic analogue, perhaps it’s the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (?)… although most of the comics in this case predate the films.

Frank is right that the Hernandez Brothers are the true inheritors of this tradition. Their stories are full of melodrama and they deploy similar visual techniques and effects. The title itself, Love & Rockets, could very well be the title for an 8 page romance comic during the height of the space age. Jaime’s work seems more classic, harkening back to Sirk hollywood mashed with pulp & science fiction. Gilbert’s influence is weirder, like Steve Ditko drawing a Fassbinder script. Anyway, looking forward to more romance post from Frank.

from My Love #14. Art by Don Heck & John Romita.

Comics Education: Understanding Comics

If you’re wondering, other posts on Comics Education are here: one, two, three, four, five.

Today I want to talk about comics in areas of study other than Art and specialized comics programs. English, Cultural Studies, and other programs have since the 90’s started to integrate the study of comics into the curriculum. When Art Spiegelman’s Maus was awarded the Pulitzer 1992 most rationales to ignore comics in the academy melted away. A year later Scott McCloud built on Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and released Understanding Comics. Whether you agree with McCloud’s thesis or not, the book quickly became a staple text for the academic world. It created a common language for talking and writing about comics. It was the perfect comics 101 text.

In my college experience (mid 90’s) I’ve taken many courses in the English and Cultural Studies departments. In both cases comics as object of study, or comics formatted assignments were welcomed with curiosity and open minds. My professors mostly didn’t have the critical apparatus to evaluate these projects, but at minimum they were interested in the medium. Almost all of them were at least somewhat familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s work. McLuhan famously included comic-books as an example of a ‘cool’ medium (meaning a low-definition medium requiring more conscious reader participation) in his pioneering book on media theory Understanding Media (1964).

Scott McCloud built on McLuhan’s media centric view, and introduced his own hot-to-cool continuum that was comics specific.

from understanding comics by scott mccloud

Of course, McCloud’s title Understanding Comics is a direct reference to McLuhan’s book. It’s an association that I’m sure helped open doors to the academy and cemented the book’s place as an essential text on comics.

This was my limited experience. I’m sure in other places comics weren’t as easily welcomed. Still, this reception was in stark contrast to way comics were received at the Art Dept.

Another potential reason for this relatively generous reception from literary academia resulted from the ‘comics as literature’ model that was dominant from the late 80’s to the present. The work of prominent cartoonists that emerged from that era: The Hernandez Brothers, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Seth, Chester Brown, Charles Burns and many others fits the literary approach (though, of course, not always and not entirely). This work was championed by The Comics Journal and it was this quality that was recognized by the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded to Spiegelman’s Maus. While all of these creators are no slouches in the art department, they all create works that are story driven and deal with many traditional literary concerns.

I want to briefly focus on Adrian Tomine. Adrian earned a degree in English from the University of California in the 90’s. (I wonder if Clowes’ Art School Confidential was in any way part of his decision to not go the art school route?) I can’t locate my TCJ interview with Adrian, but if I remember correctly, at that time he was concerned with learning solid storytelling. He felt he could learn more from say, Raymond Carver, than the average comic-book on the stands. Comics to him were a storytelling medium. Art, though clearly important, was subordinate to storytelling. That attitude is understandable. At the time Adrian attended school, well written comics were a minority (and still are). I’d be curious to know if Adrian he ever brought comics into the classroom and created comics as assignments.

This ‘literary’ component of comics is something that is often overlooked in comics education. The vast majority of comic-books are still stories that people read. But most schools (that I’m aware of) that taught comics focused on the art side of the equation. Students were taught the grammar of comics, clarity of layout, transitions, or simply how to draw or use the correct tools. But the quality of storytelling that was told using these techniques was often an afterthought. Courses on comics as object of study (as literature) have also been proliferating, but courses on comics writing are still relatively rare. This has begun to change since the turn of the century and it’s something I’ll go over in my next couple of posts.

Minneapolis Indie eXpo

I’ll be at the Minneapolis Indie eXpo tomorrow (Saturday, August 21, 9-5). I’m camped out at table 50 with St. Paul artist Dan Wieken and a couple of out of town guests Jon Lewis and Karen Sneider.

the petrified catalogue by dan wieken

Uncivilized Books will debuting two new books during the show. First up is Dan Wieken’s The Petrified Catalogue (pictured above). Dan’s extremely detailed images of decayed and petrified remains of real and imaginary creatures has to be seen to be believed. Here are a few pictures that fail do justice to his drawings. This books needs to experienced in person:

the petrified catalogue by dan wieken

the petrified catalogue by dan wieken

The other book debuting is Structures 1-11. It’s a book of drawings (by me) of imaginary structures. Regulars on this blog may be familiar with some of the imagery. Just check out the ‘structure’ tags on this blog:

strucutres 1-11 by tom kaczynski

We’ll also have the usual Uncivilized catalogue, including Gabrielle Bell’s L.A. Diary.

In other MIX related news, I will have a 4 page Ransom Strange story in The Good Minnesotan #4:

ransom strange by tom kaczynski

and on top of that I’m moderating a panel on comics education. See the program for details.
See you at the Soapfactory!

Minneapolis Indie eXpo