Before the Hulk was Green: Pop Culture Literacy in the Composition Classroom

(This article was adapted from a presentation given at the TYCA-Northeast Conference in Fall of 2012)

What is this professor talking about?

I teach at a community college, which means I teach a lot of introductory classes. I can assume I’ll be teaching several sections of Standard Freshman Composition every Fall, and Writing about Literature every Spring. In both of these courses, I regularly teach with comics. So, immediately, I’d like to propose a difference between “teaching comics” and “teaching with comics.” I like doing both, but it is specifically the latter I intend to discuss today. That is, while I do often assign comics as primary texts in my literature classes, here I am writing about something else: how comics can serve well as base material in composition classrooms with course goals other than interpreting them as literary texts.

I’ve used a bunch of popular comics this way, and would be happy to discuss the range and which were successful in which ways, but for the sake of coherence in this discussion I’ll focus on how I use Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, in my Standard Freshman Composition class, and The Incredible Hulk #1 in my Writing about Literature class.

I use gold and silver age “classic” comics from Marvel and DC in my composition classrooms, because I believe this facilitates my students’ development of a convergence of literacies—verbal, visual, cultural—which means that there are many kinds of expertise students can develop and demonstrate. And well-meaning colleagues have sometimes pointed out that my course outlines look “fluffy” to them, because people assume comics set a low bar for ability. However, as I’ll discuss here, that is often because students approach the class already using some of the literacies comics combine. Assigning them and treating them rigorously can help students realize they ways in which they are already bringing a variety of literacies and types of expertise to the classroom, and create a model on which to build more.

How is Hulk appropriate for an introductory Literature class, I mean, honestly?

My college’s Writing about Literature class requires four units: the short story, drama, poetry, and the novel. I teach Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the mandatory “novel” unit. After we read and discuss Stevenson’s short and weirdly organized book, I hand out the first issue of The Incredible Hulk and we spend a class period making comparisons.

Cover to The Incredible Hulk #7.1 by Michael Komarck next to a cover of a pulp edition of Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
Cover to The Incredible Hulk #7.1 by Michael Komarck next to a cover of a pulp edition of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Students notice the similarities right away, that both offer stories of experiments gone awry, leading to scientists with monstrous secret identities and cultures anxious about the unknown, but most semesters the differences turn out to be even more interesting. The fact that Dr. Banner has a teen sidekick and a feminine love interest emphasize just how alone Dr Jekyll was in his own secrets. Similarly, the fact that Dr. Banner was putting himself at risk to save a stranger when he was caught by the blast that turned him into the Hulk emphasizes Dr Jekyll’s own selfish motivations for experimenting on himself to begin with.

Some students choose to pursue some of these comparisons in their research paper for the novel unit, but even for the ones who do not, having the comparisons is a nice way to get a new perspective on stuff in the novel, including the treatment of science, the absence of women, the issue of judging people based on their appearances, and so on.

Furthermore, because students are familiar with recent versions of the Hulk, using the first comic encourages rigorous attention to the text. In the first issue of The Incredible Hulk, the one we read in my class, the Hulk is grey, not green. Also in this issue, Dr. Banner turns into the Hulk at nightfall and then back to Dr. Banner at dawn. It has nothing to do with anger. If a student refers to the Hulk as “a big, green embodiment of anger,” well, that’s just not true of the Hulk in the first issue, the version we read in class, and, therefore, will not work as a basis for analysis of that text.

This is what I mean when I refer to my use of this comic as teaching with comics. Even though this is a literature class, the primary function of assigning this comic is not to analyze it, but rather, while taking it seriously as a text in its own right, it is mainly useful in its ability to throw aspects of another work of literature into the light.

Okay, that’s still a literature class. What about Comp 101? Isn’t that a stretch?

In my English 101: Standard Freshman Composition course, I base our research unit around two historically significant versions of Spider-Man’s origin story, which I’ve written about academically elsewhere. I find this focus works well as a basis for the research unit in this class because it is inherently comparative and interdisciplinary, and because it is offers a surprisingly wide range of possible topics for students to address. For instance, the original 1962 version of Peter Parker invents the webshooters he attaches to his wrists as part of his Spider-Man costume. In one of my favorite panels of the story, he gleefully exclaims about them “only a science major could have invented this!” In contrast, Tobey Maguire in Raimi’s 2002 film version is gifted the ability to sling webs with all of the other superpowers he gets from the spider bite. He stands on a rooftop, trying out different hand movements until he gets the right one, and then swings (also gleefully) from rooftop to rooftop.

Side by side shots of Peter Parker and his webs. On the left, Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man (2002). On the right, Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
Side by side shots of Peter Parker and his webs. On the left, Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man (2002). On the right, Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

In discussing this difference, students have pointed out that the Raimi film consistently downplays Peter Parker’s scientific acumen and instead his feelings and his artistic side are played up in the film; that both scenes are puberty metaphors but different kinds; that viewers now differentiate between “gadget heroes” and ones with superpowers, and many other really astute comparisons.

This conversation is heartening, every semester. Those comparisons require historical awareness, and just in that one scene, can enable students to go in several different directions with their existing interest and expertise. Some pursue psychological studies, some historical, some technological, some industry-specific research on comics and film.

Furthermore, the research project becomes a celebration of students’ cultural expertise both in the focus they select and also the familiarity with pop culture with which they enter the class, often for students who are not used to feeling a sense of expertise in the classroom.

This cultural knowledge is not universal, however. Using these comics can also reinforce awareness of cultural differences. Students from different geographical and linguistic backgrounds grow up with different ideas and assumptions about how comics work. It’s great when students bring these into the class discussion because they make the conventions familiar to the majority of the class strange in productive ways.

History, literature, philosophy, biology, chemistry, psychology marketing, fashion, and sociology are all important in analysis of both the comic and the film. This combination of core texts for the unit offers something for everyone to be interested in/focus on, but with a shared class base text with which everyone can become quickly familiar.

Does this practice serve students beyond doing well in the specific class in which these comics are assigned?

I think these golden and silver age comics help my students be more analytical about the media around them. These comics feel dated in some ways and resonant in others. Paying attention to the ways that technology, class, gender, race, professional ethics, and more either change or stay the same, from the golden age and silver age to today, encourages students to pay attention to how those things are presented in contemporary media as well.

By reading the first Spider-Man story, by reading the first Incredible Hulk story, students can become better viewers of the summer blockbusters they see because after reading these comics, they have enhanced cultural and historical knowledge of pop origins. And that can allow them to experience the world around them in a more informed, more aware way.

Isn’t an essay supposed to have some sort of conclusion?

That’s always the hard part, isn’t it? I guess my overall point is that the comics you use in your classroom don’t have to be the most literary ones, the ones that win awards or accolades for “transcending their medium.” There’s a lot to learn from the ones that are easily dismissed as pop culture, as well, and the very fact that they are not always taken seriously in academia can provide a point of entry for your students. Teaching with comics can therefore offer a perspective on your course’s core material that could offer reverberations of cultural literacy of use to your students in the rest of their lives as well.

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Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She is a former Pubwatch Editor for WWAC, and frankly, there is a lot more gray in her hair than there was when this profile picture was taken.