This post is the first of two Comics Academe pieces from guest writer Katherine Tanski — I’d introduce her fully, but she does a good job of that for herself.
My name is Kate, and I’m a recovering academic.
Like all good recovering academics, I feel the need to share my experiences and impart (what I hope can be considered) wisdom. While I hope that what I share today about teaching comics is edifying for other academics, I also hope that non-academics can view this as proof that comics have, indeed, penetrated the ivory tower — at least in the humanities.
I taught the university equivalent of “English 101”–the required English course for all university students–at highly reputable R1 institutions for roughly nine years. I designed my first comics-only composition course in 2006, where comics served as the main texts about which students wrote their assignments. Around that same time, I started seeing comics-related workshops and panels at the professional conferences I attended, and meeting other graduate students who included comics on their syllabi.
A few of us started a comics reading group. We’d read a comic and then discuss not only the intellectual work of the comic, but how one could go about incorporating the comic into other academic projects, or in our classrooms. Our group was composed of five graduate students, three men and two women, including myself, who were all doctoral students of English and taught the English 101 course. Three were graduate students in English literature, one was in the comparative literature program, and then there was me: the compositionist.
On more than one occasion our comics group was asked to create presentations, workshops, and roundtable discussions on teaching comics. As one of the “comics people,” the question I got asked more often than any other was,
How do you teach comics?
This question was sometimes followed by a genuine concern about whether including a comic is unfair to female students, since, they argued, male students are more familiar with the genre.
I tried to be careful in my response to not appeal to statistics about female readership of comics, but instead relate the latter question to the former. Comics, I argued, are not a genre, but a medium of communication that no student–male or female–fully understands how to read without instruction. Male students may more frequently have a casual familiarity with comics, and may approach the opportunity to read comics with more enthusiasm than their female peers, but they are not inherently in possession of knowledge that will mean greater academic success.
Unfortunately, although comics are becoming more accepted as texts across all disciplines, when I researched for this article I was surprised to find that, at least in the discipline of English, there is still a lack of textbooks that explain how to read comics, even when they employ comics as the medium. What I used, what my colleagues used, and what the better textbooks use is Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics, despite being written over twenty years ago, remains the best text I’ve found to explain how to read a comic, whether that be to a student or a colleague.
If the department, colleague, or student balks at a 224-page text (although McCloud’s text is also not particularly expensive, especially compared to textbooks generally speaking),
the first chapter of McCloud’s Making Comics, which did its best to condense Understanding Comics into one chapter, is probably sufficient for teaching purposes. (Sidenote: There is really nothing worthwhile to be find in McCloud’s follow up text to Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, except as a historical footnote, since it’s mainly theorizing about the possibilities for comics with the advent of computers and the internet, which did, in fact, happen.) However, the reason I did, and still would today, advocate for using the full Understanding Comics as a supplementary textbook to whatever comic you want to assign is because, in my experience, students take comics more seriously as a medium if there is an entire book they have to buy in order to understand it. It quickly disabuses them of the notion that a comic is going to be easier to read than a novel.
More importantly, one of the best features of Understanding Comics and why it works so well as a teaching tool is that it is written as a comic by someone who created comics. This might be a no-brainer to comics fans, but it’s still something of a novelty to find something that is not a block of text explaining visual media. Not only does McCloud have credibility as a published comics creator, he demonstrates his awareness of the deliberate choices he makes within the medium by breaking the fourth wall more than once to analyze his own work as an example.
But even beyond the fact that it has persuasive ethos as being written in the medium by a legitimate comic book author, and that fact that it is not financially burdensome, Understanding Comics is a comprehensive introduction to the medium of comics. It provides a historical context for comics as a medium for communication, and also provides an intellectual framework for analysis and a terminology, especially in regards to art style and visual narrative. The pages are peppered with references to other works, and his examples run the gamut from historical to contemporary, include both high culture and pop culture, and compare Western traditions to Eastern (although, admittedly, the East is limited to Japan).
Perhaps most compelling for students is the fact that McCloud is not an academic. Academics have embraced him, as is evidenced by his inclusion in textbooks, but when McCloud was writing in 1993, he was just a guy who wanted to talk about how comics worked to other people who wanted to listen. That is not to say that his writing isn’t intellectually rigorous. McCloud often refers and defers to experts on the subject of comics, like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, but also to historians, artists, psychologists, and social scientists. This has the effect of not only elevating the discussion, but normalizing this level of discussion as appropriate for comics. This is particularly useful for modeling purposes, as the students have an example text that incorporates interdisciplinary thought and critical thinking about comics.
Understanding Comics is not without its flaws. It is dated, especially in regards to his descriptions of “Western” vs. “Eastern” styles of comics. Additionally, some of the analysis that McCloud does can feel unnecessary, even pedantic, especially to people not invested. But even if one elects not to engage with all the methods of analysis, their existence demonstrates the level of analysis possible. The best thing that I can say about Understanding Comics is that it is a starting point, a base around which discussion and analysis can be built, and McCloud himself encourages this within the text. Which is why, when asked how to teach comics, it’s my starting point, though not the end.