Editor’s Note: Comics Academe is back! This month’s Comics Academe is a feature article by guest writer Gina Brandolino, kicking off a summer series on teaching with comics.
Check out some of our past articles about teaching with comics!
A couple years ago, I revived a comics course that had gone dormant in the English Department where I teach. When I began the work of designing the course, well before I knew which comics I did want to teach, I knew which comics I would avoid teaching at all costs: Fun Home, for one, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Maus, Persepolis, and Ghost World.
I know what you’re thinking: these are great comics! They’re the work of masters of the craft who, with their work on these very titles, did much to elevate the medium. These comics are even, it’s safe to say, medium-defining and helped comics earn a wider readership. They are, insofar as comics have a canon—a list of books widely regarded as the most impressively accomplished, the most important, the cream of the crop—all canonical. These are precisely the reasons I wanted to avoid them. Let me explain.
I’m a literary scholar by training, so I know that a canon can fulfill some useful functions. Most obviously, a canon makes a field manageable to teach and to learn by defining what a student must study to gain expertise. It also is a way to acknowledge truly exceptional works, to set them apart from others. And with the list of works it contains, a canon preserves individual stories, yes, but also tells a larger story of its own, a cultural narrative that has a compelling, even mesmerizing, power. The great short story writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked that “in the long run, a people is known … by the stories it tells.” A canon preserves these stories, is the record of a people.
In my experience, though, often because of the very powers and ideological pull I’ve just explained, canons do far more damage than they do good. They facilitate the snubbing of whole genres considered too “lowbrow” (comics being one, another dear to my heart being horror). They often exclude stories of minorities, thereby alienating not just artists whose work deserve recognition but also audiences who identify with that work. And relatedly and unsurprisingly, with the larger cultural narrative they tell, canons advance a particular agenda, privileging some experiences and denying others.
So the idea of a canon makes me nervous. Any of the issues above would be enough to make me think outside the canon when it comes to my teaching, but there’s more. I am painfully aware that the choices I make about what works I teach have a ripple effect that radiates pretty far out from my classroom. These, the more immediate consequences of hewing to a canon, are what really haunt me.
The tightest ring in the pond, so to speak, is the fact that when I decide to teach a book, I know it will sell 25 to 50 copies, depending on my course’s enrollment. To big publishers, that might just be a drop in the bucket, but for a comic, that’s often pretty consequential, even more consequential for my local comic book shop, when I order books for my students from them. So, as bizarre as it always seems to me, my choices about what books to teach have economic effects.
The next ring in the water involves my students as lifelong readers. We pick up ideas about what to read from a lot of different places, but school is a particularly powerful one. I want to teach books that strike a chord in my students, that they identify, somehow, as their stories and that compel them to keep reading a particular author, or in a particular genre or time period. To put it another way, in my class, I want the stories I teach to carry my students, and when my students leave, I want them to carry the stories with them.
Further out on the pond, I worry about the future teachers in my classroom. I know I was initially (and to a certain extent remain) apt to teach the stories that were taught to me. So I wonder, how will the books I choose to teach influence what choices my students eventually make about what books they will teach? And more generally, how can I empower them to look beyond what’s traditionally taught—indeed, even what I teach them—for their own classrooms?
The widest ring on the water encompasses all that I’ve already said and intensifies it. This last point may seem a little hyperbolic, but it’s still, at its base, true: what I decide to teach helps in at least some small way determine what’s considered worth teaching, worth reading and studying. Potentially many people are paying attention to my choices: publishers, bookstores, my students, some of whom are future teachers, also colleagues. My own choices might literally be able to undo some of the damage a canon does.
These concerns quite literally keep me up at night.
You might be thinking: these are all valid concerns for most literature courses, but not for comics! Any comic being taught in a classroom is such a novelty, such a rare and good thing, that it’s a canon-busting move in itself! I’m not so sure.
It’s surely the case that some comics get taught more than others. A number of these comics make up the list of comics I won’t teach earlier in this post. Why are they so often taught? Because they’re great comics, the work of masters of the craft, genre-defining, and in short, canonical? Probably. But they are also—and this is no coincidence—reliably in print in trade paperbacks or even fancier editions. This is no small feat for comics, which are historically very cheaply printed and for which print runs are often small and reprints far from guaranteed. I’m frustrated that it’s easiest to teach the comics in print, which in large part are the ones the industry has deemed canonical, worthy of teaching, which of course then get help staying in print because they get bought by whole classrooms-full of students.
So, I make a point of not just teaching the best-known, most easily available comics, but doing so comes at a price. My original book list for my comics course this past semester had eleven titles on it. When I ran this list past the local comic book store that handles my book order about four months before students would be picking up their books, six of those eleven titles were not available for order because they were out of print. More than half! And it’s not like I was reaching back through the mists of time with this list. All but one of the titles were published after 2006, and most of them were published after 2010. The folks who work at the store, who know far better than I do the vicissitudes of comics availability, told me to sit tight, and indeed, two months later, three of the previously un-gettable books could be gotten. I made some adjustments to my course and ended up having students buy nine books, though none of them “canonical” comics, all excellent and all—at that moment, anyway—in print.
Trying to teach a whole course of lesser-known comics is, as this anecdote demonstrates and as I readily admit, a chore and a hassle. And the truth is that I’m thrilled anytime that I hear anyone is teaching any comic. But there are a lot of comparatively hidden gems out there, comics that will shine for students just as bright as—maybe brighter than—those well-known titles. Teaching just one of them could represent a significant shift not just in that one classroom, but in so many other ways. So, I urge you to look hard for new comics to teach, beyond just the usual suspects.
Gina Brandolino is a lecturer in the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English at the University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @ginabrandolino.