Every once in a while something comes along that takes what you understand about a medium, challenges it, and makes you look at it from a completely different angle. For me and comics, this happened when I first read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics a year or two ago, and happened again the night of February 6 when I attended the Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel. It was the panel I was most looking forward to (preempted earlier in the day by another panel), and did not disappoint.
The panel consisted of Greg Urquhart (Alexander Street Press), Bill Savage (Northwestern University Professor), Jonathan Hickman (The Nightly News, Secret Warriors), Gene Kannenberg, Jr. (ComicsResearch.org), Kent Worcester (Marymount Manhattan College Professor) Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma, Street Code), Peter Kuper (World War 3 Illustrated, Spy vs. Spy, Stop Forgetting to Remember), and moderator Karen Green (comiXology.)
First Ms. Green asking the panelists to introduce themselves, and each of them had an interesting story regarding their comics experience. The first spark of conversation came when Kannenberg, not a creator but an author and general researcher of comics culture, talked about creating a mini-comic for his wife’s zine. There’s so much you need to think about when drawing; his simple example: “how do you draw someone sitting in a chair?” This was an interesting observation. It isn’t so much the idea that “drawing is hard”; yeah I get that, but why is it hard, and why especially in comics? Graphic storytelling is often overlooked by academics because of its presumed simplicity, but as Kannenberg said, when you’re used to objectively looking at something and tearing it apart it becomes difficult to now do the opposite — build from nothing. While this isn’t necessarily specific to comics, the world of comics is in some ways so much more complex than any other art form because it combines so many storytelling elements in one.
Kannenberg’s point of the chair brought Dean Haspiel into the conversation: “My godmother is Shelley Winters,” he began. “One day I asked her, ‘what is acting? What do you do when you act? She said, ‘ok, go over to that chair, pick it up, and bring it over to me.’ So I was like, all right, and I walked over and I brought it to her.”
“Then she said, ‘Now go act it.’ Suddenly I didn’t know if I should be sad, angry… there’s so many choices.” He compared this to the art of storytelling in graphic literature. When drawing Kannenberg’s man in a chair there are so many ways to show it, so many angles and attitudes and positions, and each of them tells its own story in its own way.
Peter Kuper talked about doing an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The process of reducing the text down to what you need to say, and what words need to be there, was instructive to him, because it forced him to stop himself and say, “this is a forum that should take advantage of what the image can do”; he said whenever he could he tried to have the artwork do all the heavy lifting, with the text doing as little as possible in order to convey the story.
These were all fun anecdotes, and it was incredibly fascinating to look at the process of the creator, but it took an academic to put the panel in perspective. “It seems we’re having two different conversations,” Bill Savage interjected. “One about teaching comics as creative writing, versus the concept of comics being used as a subject to be taught and studied.”
Earlier in the introductions someone mentioned the term “graphic novel” which received universal scorn (including some by this blog’s author). Savage opined that the reason why the graphic novel label doesn’t bother him is because comics needed that kind of gesture toward respectability. The novel, after all, was at one point an illegitimate genre that wasn’t taught at universities either, but has come over time to be the dominant literary form in our culture. “When Eisner coined that term,” he said, “he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Bill’s approach to teaching comics is twofold. First, what he has tried to do is never put a class together that was “just comics,” because it turned into a niche course students took to have fun, which wouldn’t have any real academic merit and, as Savage said, “would get me fired”; thus, he picks his battles carefully.
“There are some faculty members that will never admit that comics are a worthy subject of study and…. fuck ‘em. I won’t even engage them in conversation about it, because I know, ok, Shakespeare’s better. Whatever.” This point is of course valid. There’s something to be said about just ignoring those who are too ignorant to even listen to you. Though I wonder what the harm could be in engaging in conversation? At best you might change someone’s mind, or get a non-comics fan to at least start thinking about comics in a critical way rather than being dismissive. At worst, well, they still hate comics. As long as you don’t get too worked up about it no harm done (though I suspect the frustration of having a person ignore your points completely might be a bit overwhelming).
Second, he tries to integrate comics into courses he teaches based on subject matter (100 Bullets in a course on crime fiction, The Golem’s Mighty Swing in a course on baseball) in order to make some change toward teaching comics. And he says it has worked. A lot of his peers have begun to teach books like Maus, which besides being a useful text for a class on WWII and the Holocaust, helped bring comics toward respectability by taking on such incredibly serious subject matter in an art form that was considered unrespectable. Now he has students that write masters theses on comics. Academic respectability is on a certain level a matter of “just doing it”.
Haspiel was shocked at the notion that there were some people who just didn’t like comics, which is in stark contrast to the perceived idea of comics’ unpopularity. “I don’t understand, everyone likes comics. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like comics. Even if they don’t read comics, give them one and they will like it.”
“What’s that quote about Frank Sinatra, not trusting anyone who doesn’t drink? I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like comics.”
However, Kent Worcester had a tale to illustrate Savage’s point. He was asked to teach a course on comics, and requested permission from his department chair, who agreed. At the end of the semester she went up to him and said, “You will never teach that class again!” This led Savage to talk about the generation of people who were brought up to believe comics were inherently juvenile, and how these people will eventually be “aged out”. This idea is one that I’ve reflected upon often; that no matter the opinion of the older generations, and whether it can be changed or not, it doesn’t really matter. They’ll be gone and change will come. This applies to many ideas, whether it be racism and sexism, or film and television. The irony, as the panel pointed out, is that those who are against teaching comics — again, generally the older generations — should be the people most open to historical argumentation. Courses taught in English, courses about American literature, even television in the classroom — these are all elements of academia taken for granted now which for a long time were unthinkable. Unfortunately this group is generally the hardest to convince, and thus Savage’s point is reiterated: “just do it”. Just teach the subject matter, get the ball rolling.
One big step, according to Greg Urquhart, is the trend of traditional novel writers who are comic fans, i.e., Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have this sort of academic pull, and help legitimize the medium (it was here that Savage chimed in, talking about how E.E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway loved Krazy Kat). For a professor to see a creator in a genre that they can relate to embrace comics gets the point across: “Maybe these aren’t just kid stuff.”
On the other side of the token, there are still things that continue to hamper the progress of the medium into academic acceptance. One example given by Kannenberg is the niching of the comic book as “superhero stuff”. Movies can say anything they want, can tell any kind of story, but when people think about comics they think superheroes. Comics aren’t thought to encapsulate other genres. His dissertation was on comics, but before he could present it his proposal had to be passed. When he got to the panel he brought in a bunch of comics and passed them around, and the professors couldn’t understand them; the way the panels were laid out, how to pace them, whatever it was — it was too difficult. Thus, according to Kannenberg, what needs to be done is to let “the scales fall from their eyes”; it’s not so much that it needs to be academically accepted per se, but they need to know smart graphic literature is out there.
Continuing on this point, Worcester spoke about the difference between simplification and encapsulation. When he worked on the symposium on the editorial cartoon half of their submissions talked about how the work they were discussing “simplified reality”. The problem there is that comics generally do not simplify reality, but often are very conceptual and can reach you in different ways. Haspiel chimed in, agreeing that conveying your point in comics is decidedly un-simple, which brought him back to his point of the incredible amount of choices you can make in order to convey one idea in a multitude of ways.
After a while Green opened the floor to questions.
The first question was one I had considered throughout the panel: with all the talk of teaching comics, is there a fear that some professors teaching comics can be doing it a disservice; that is, teaching them incorrectly? Is there some kind of personal responsibility?
“First of all,” Savage began, “just because a subject is taught doesn’t mean it’s going to be taught well. Secondly, better taught poorly than not taught at all.” Urquhart added to this: “The trend is too strong for one instance to kill a whole movement. It might happen on one campus, but even there, after some time, it takes just one faculty member to champion it again.”
Its been said kids experience reading and art differently than adults. Are there specific differences you’ve seen?
Kuper saw it as an important element to current acceptance. Kids who grow up reading comics have a special kind of literacy. Visual literacy is an element that turns a lot of people off to comics, because there’s too much information that hits them. However, the new culture is so visual. In the past art schools wouldn’t have comics; in fact they were discouraged. Now they have to teach comics, because its about sequential thinking. If you don’t help them with that you create an ill-equipped student.
But it also teaches juxtaposition. Kannenberg made the point that thirty years ago TV, for example, was very linear. Continuing Kuper’s point, nowadays there’s so much coming at you at once and that’s something which is great about comics. You can read it straight through quickly, of course, but you can’t just do that, because you have to slow down to really see what’s there and understand how the parts work together.
How do the creators on the panel approach the process of creating?
Haspiel started approaching writing from going to film school. He would add so much information to his scripts that it was overwhelming, even for himself. Eventually he started laying out narrative visually before even worrying about what the words were going to be. Echoing Kuper’s earlier sentiments, it’s a very visual medium, clearly, and words are there to support whatever isn’t being said in the visual, as well as adding another narrative aspect to the visual experience. You show the story first, and everything else is a compliment.
The person who asked the question referred to Peter as a mostly wordless creator. But contrary to that he says while he likes doing wordless comics, he doesn’t tie himself down to that, because the form is so vast that you can do wordless comics, journalism, adaptation… so many different facets, that there are so many ways to tell a story. Anything is possible. You can be as serious or as silly as you want to be.
One person commented that when he teaches comics he uses them as a pedagogical tool. For example, he makes his students read Watchmen, which in turn prepares them to read Plato; it teaches them the way they should read. Comics can teach you how to see the world in different ways, yet it’s really easily accessible to a lot of people. This was an interesting point, because first it implies that the way one reads comics is the “correct” way to read. If this statement is true it’s a pretty big step in the right direction for comics as far as academic acceptance, though one suspects this may be a bit of a stretch. Secondly, it presupposes that comics are easily accessible, yet just the idea of it as niche culture, as it is in our society today, creates a sort of inaccessibility that the average person may find frightening.
Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton (who, along with Laura Hudson, writes the incredibly interesting Cereblog) was in attendance, and asked about the critical discourse of comics studies as it grows, where it’s happening, and if we’ve figured out how to read comics.
I don’t know that the panelists specifically answered these questions, but it brought up some interesting discussion. Worcester began by saying that teaching comics involves teaching some amount of specialized vocabulary. Art students probably get it better than history or lit students, sure, but even there certain things need to be taught. So ultimately no one has a real expertise on the matter, which is one of the reasons why it’s so exciting.
Savage said one of the most significant moments in the movement of comics into general mainstream acceptability was when the New York Times book review stopped having the rhetorical gesture of talking about Graphic Novels with an intro paragraph explaining why comics can be serious. Now they’ve gotten passed making excuses, and even have op-eds that are cartoons, as well as adding a reviewer who every few weeks only reviews graphic novels.
Urquhart began his point with a quote he’d once heard:
“If an artist paints something you don’t understand its because you’re ignorant; if a comics artist creates something you don’t understand its because the creator’s ignorant.”
However, that’s now shifting; it’s become more of the argument, as Savage says, of “is this one thing any good” as opposed to “is that kind of thing any good.” Urquhart goes on to talk about giving a copy of Owly to his daughter who is learning how to read. She struggled much more with the wordless Owly than with other books, but at the same time it affected her more deeply. It really drove home the literacy involved.
I left this panel, thoughts swimming through my head, points and counterpoints rattling around causing a commotion. I guess at the end of the day it gave me a feeling of hope. With all of these intelligent people sitting in front of us giving insight into the world of academia in conjunction with comics culture, it made me realize that there probably is room for intelligent discussion about comics in a world full of scorn for the medium, and that maybe that scorn isn’t so hard to flip on its head. I know that just by writing this blog I’ve had people email me telling me that they don’t read comics but that they liked the idea of discourse in comics. And so this panel most of all showed me that it isn’t ridiculous to care. To care about comics’ future, and to care about how its looked at. Sure I hate the term “Graphic Novel”, but maybe Savage is right; maybe Eisner did know exactly what he was doing when he coined the term, and instead of being such a snob about it I should, if not embrace it, accept it as a method to getting people to accept the medium. I’ve said before that I think the term over-legitimizes something that doesn’t need legitimacy, but perhaps that’s just not true. Perhaps I’ve just been content with that small niche role. But as I said: this panel has certainly made me think differently about a lot of what I had accepted as true in the comics world.
I’d like to finish this the way Karen did, with one final question, inspired by Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman, in a keynote entitled Comics Marching into the Canon, mentioned his comics “canon”. There’s been a “canon” in literature for a number of years, which has been exploded in the last 15 years or so. The question is, what’s the usefulness of having one?
Haspiel seemed to think it was for dialogue only. Savage agreed, but said you can’t open up a canon before you build it first. You create a list of artists who fit the definition — his definition explains canon as those books where if you call yourself educated you either have read, feel guilty about not having read, or can fake having read. You need that for comics. Something where if you see someone at a party you can talk about having read Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, etc. That needs to be built first, and once it is, then you can start breaking it open, so to speak; “hey, I know plenty of stuff that’s way better!”
“Yeah, it’s all just dialogue,” Haspiel concluded. “It’s just used for discussion. And maybe through that you might learn something cool, or different.”
Green used this prompt as the perfect ending to a perfect panel: “And that,” she said, “is education.”
But my real secred hatred with comic book movies goes much deeper: if people love these movies so much why don’t they just read the comics? That’s the thing I don’t get. You like a poor knockoff of a grade-A product, but won’t let yourself enjoy the real thing? Plenty of people went out and bought Revolutionary Road once that movie was announced. Why? Because it’s a “real” book? People who read the new Junot Diaz wouldn’t be caught dead with a Flash comic. Sure, they might pick up Optic Nerve or ACME Novelty Library, but they’re not rushing out to support the foundation the industry thrives on. Mainstream superhero comics may get a lot of shit but its what I grew up on and the fantastic stories I love reading. It’s like escapism. But don’t tell me that The Dark Knight was the best movie of the year and then scoff at the source material. What, you think they came up with that plot out of thin air? Read Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween. Let me know if you see anything familiar.
I know, I know, DC and Marvel are big corporations who honestly don’t really need the help. But for the entire industry to survive that stuff needs to be taken seriously. There’s a majority of people who won’t read the Chris Wares or the Adrian Tomines of the world, because they would have never heard of these creators, and that’s because to these people comics are not a legitimate form of literature. People can’t look at Geoff Johns’ work on Green Lantern and see a sweeping epic, they think of it as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. They won’t see Bruce Lee in Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s Iron Fist, they’ll see Hong Kong Phooey. And, hey, you know Watchmen is getting plenty of people to read the original comic. Great. That’s almost the exception. Almost. Because in their minds it’s not a comic, it’s a “graphic novel”, and that insinuates some sort of higher level of artistry (incidentally, Watchmen originally came out in ISSUE form. It’s a DC comic series collected in trade paperback. Not a “graphic novel”.)
So if that is the case I’d rather they didn’t read it, because ultimately reading Watchmen is not going to get people to pick up an issue of Green Lantern. Sinestro War was the best storyline of last year, and no one I know would read it. But do you know how many people I know are going out to buy Watchmen? Just the other day my friend Theadora, knowing nothing about the story itself, said that she would like to read it based on its standing on TIME’s Top 100 Novels of All Time (they also incorrectly refer to Watchmen as a “graphic novel”; it is not a book-length comic, it is a collection of individual comic book issues.)
What can change this? I dunno. I mean I just write a blog. This is just commentary. But I sure hope someone comes up with something, because sooner or later the superhero movie bubble is going to burst and we’re going to get more stuff like Howard the Duck. Just ask George Lucas.