Review: Experiencing Comics Will Change the Way We Teach Comics

Cover Experiencing Comics by Rachel Cruz, 2018

Experiencing Comics

Written and edited by Rachelle Cruz

I can say, with confidence, that there has never been a better time to be a comics studies scholar than now. The Comics Studies Society hosted its first annual conference this past summer, and the International Comic Arts Forum is getting ready to have its 20th annual meeting in 2019. Every Eisner for Best Academic/Scholarly Work awarded in the last five years has recognized research done on comics produced by or about people of marginalized identities. The field of comics studies, like the medium with which it is concerned, is rapidly growing, having found footholds in more traditional areas of study (like English and American Studies, the latter of which I call home) and carved out some of its own (like CSS and ICAF). Increasingly, as both comics and comics studies make their way into classroom settings, there is a need for texts like Rachelle Cruz’s Experiencing Comics: An Introduction to Reading, Discussing, and Creating Comics (available now from Cognella).

Experiencing Comics is primarily targeted to undergraduate students, like those that Cruz teaches. In her introduction, Cruz writes, “The idea for this textbook arrived in the second week or so of an introductory course to the graphic novel when one of my students sheepishly asked, ‘Wait, but how do you actually read comics?’” Despite being a textbook, it is accessible to independent scholars. Those looking for an introduction to comics theory might very well begin with this text. It is, as advertised, an introduction to critically reading, talking about, and making comics. The first, second, and fourth chapters address each of these subjects in turn, while the third chapter gives a history of comics.

“Reading Comics,” the first chapter of the text, isolates key terms and texts from the comics studies canon, terms like “comics” and texts like Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, works by scholar-practitioners (and auteur cartoonists) that are required reading for any comics studies scholar, university-affiliated or independent. Cruz’s distillation of the canon of comics studies makes it accessible to students who might not have ever read a comic book, let alone a text on the production or consumption of comics. At the same time, her citations can be read as a bibliography that can be mined, if those texts are not already assigned alongside Experiencing Comics, by those more familiar with the literature. The text does not replace readings of Einser or McCloud, but supplements (and complements) them. Further, “Reading Comics” provides instruction on how to read a comic not recreationally, but critically.

Chapter two, “Discussing Comics,” shifts the reader’s attention from reading comics critically to talking (and writing) about comics critically. It includes essays by scholars Jeffrey A. Brown (Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, And Popular Culture) and Ramzi Fawaz (The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics). Cruz’s discussion questions ask for definition and contextualization of elements of each essay, guiding the student as they essentially annotate the assigned works. On Fawaz’s “Introduction: Superhumans in America,” excerpted from The New Mutants, Cruz asks questions like, “What is Fawaz’s analytical approach to comics?” and “Why did he choose this method?” These could very easily turn into: In what ways is Fawaz’s analytical approach similar to and different from those illustrated in the first chapter of this text? How would you approach the same texts? Cruz draws on the previous chapter by reminding the reader to use key terms and concepts introduced there.

“History and Background,” the third chapter, does not provide an exhaustive history of the medium, nor does it try to do so. Instead, it calls attention to lesser-told histories of comics, especially those concerning creators of marginalized identities and forms (like webcomics) that have not yet been as widely recognized by the canon. As a result, Experiencing Comics offers an alternative to the predominantly white, male canon. The history and background of Cruz’s more inclusive canon is not exhaustive, because it is still being written (and drawn). Cruz’s interviews with contributors (here, especially, but also in other chapters) serve both as a model for primary source research and as secondary sources on the works that are discussed.

The final chapter, “Creating Comics,” encourages students to experiment with the comics medium regardless of artistic talent. Each exercise is low cost, usually requiring no more than writing utensils, paper, and a smartphone (with an application for a timer). Cruz encourages collaboration, which draws attention to the fact that, although many of the contributors to Experiencing Comics are cartoonists who both write and illustrate their own works, comics is more often than not a team sport, involving not just the auteur cartoonist or writer/artist team, but also editors and publishers among others. Experiencing Comics is a product of collaboration.

Throughout the text, Cruz foregrounds the work of scholars (those who study comics), practitioners (those who make comics), and scholar-practitioners (those who do both) of marginalized identities through essays, interviews, and spotlights by, with, and on contributors to Experiencing Comics. Contributors to the text include scholars like Frederick Luis Aldama (Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics), practitioners like Taneka Stotts (Elements: Fire—An Anthology by Creators of Color), and scholar-practitioners like John Jennings (The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, co-edited with Frances K. Gateward; Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, co-created with Damian Duffy). Cruz also credits student contributors whose works appear as examples for the assignments that Cruz delineates in the fourth chapter on making comics.

While many of the contributors to the text represent marginalized groups, they are also an extremely accomplished group of scholars, practitioners, and scholar-practitioners. Aldama, Stotts, and Jennings all won Eisners in 2018. Even as Cruz acknowledges their distance from the historical canon, she brings them and their work into a contemporary canon. Cruz is cognizant of the privilege associated with academic publication, asking—through an activity titled “Students as Historians—Creator Profile”—students to seek out those not represented in Experiencing Comics. She encourages the use of MariNaomi’s databases: the Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database.

Experiencing Comics is a text that will very easily find its home in undergraduate classrooms at English-language academic institutions. It, and the texts that it surveys, might constitute an introductory comics studies syllabus for first time or early career educators (or for professors who have not taught a comics studies course yet in their careers). It might also serve as a tool for scholars outside of the academy, conducting their own research or teaching comics and/or comics studies in different settings. At a time when comics are increasingly recognized as viable subjects of study within universities and when comics studies is exponentially growing as a field, Experiencing Comics is an important addition to the canon: both expanding and reshaping it by drawing on the margins.

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