Teaching literature at a regional university in South Carolina can be a daunting task. As professors, we know that the success of a course is based, in part, on getting students to do the reading. When teaching Spanish literature, the language itself can be another factor that can put students off the reading. Now they have to read in a language that is not their primary language and which, most likely, they have only been studying for a few years. In my experience, students usually find reading easier than writing or speaking (input is generally found to be easier than output). However, I have discovered that even short stories appear to be difficult or overwhelming for the average student.
In the Spring of 2014, I decided to change my approach to a literature survey course that we offer, in the hopes that it would get more students reading, get more student interest, and also get the students participating more. Along with the normal poetry, short stories, drama, and novel, I included a Spanish comic in the required texts: La Casa de los Susurros by David Muñoz, Tirso, and Javi Montes.
Every week, the students had to write a response to different questions posed to them every week about the texts that they have read. Whereas previous posts had often seen lackluster responses, responses that frequently did not meet length requirements, and even had 1 or 2 students not responding at all, these issues were not as present for the posts on the comic. It became clear quite early on in reading La Casa de los Susurros that the students, even those that has never read a comic before, were intrigued by the text and truly enjoying what they were reading. And they were reading. They were reading, looking at the artwork, and they were finding symbols, clues, and other patterns that the writer and artist have included. There were students who were so enthralled by the comic that they were reading ahead, discussing the comic excitedly in class, and searching for symbols and clues–even finding some that I had missed.
I discovered that the students found the comic to be both interesting and fun to read. It was also easier for them to read than texts that they are used to, such as short stories, poems, novels, etc. due to the artwork giving them clues as to what was going on if they didn’t understand everything that was written. While I am relatively new the field of research of comics, this was even newer for my students, reading comics as literature, or reading comics at all. For one of their response prompts, I asked them if they felt that comics could be considered Literature, like the poetry, stories, and other forms they had read that semester. Their answers were resoundingly in support of declaring comics a form of Literature.
The experience was so positive, that the following Spring, I taught Spanish 497, a Special Studies course titled “Spanish Comics and Graphic Novels.” This gave the students the opportunity to read several full length texts, something that many of them feel they cannot do due to self-doubt and insecurity. This also provided me with the chance to expose the students to different genres of comics, a fact which was a surprise to almost all of them. The class ended up being very successful, with the students participating regularly, enjoying the texts that they were reading, and even proposing which one they would include in a literature course if they could only pick one. This led to a lively discussion of the merits of each comic; why they liked it, what its pros were, and why it should or should not be used.
The class turned out to be such a success that I decided to propose and teach a Special Topics course in which I could teach solely graphic novels. The students who had been in the Contemporary Peninsular Literature class were more than excited that there would be a class focused primarily on the graphic novel, while students who hadn’t taken that class were intrigued and eager to read to be exposed to a type of literature to which they have never been exposed before. My intention with this course was to expose the students not only to graphic novels as a form of Literature (big L), but also to the fact that they come in different genres and that they allow for discussions as serious as illness and socioeconomic issues to dialogues over cartoon-like representations of real-life people and literary characters.
My intention with this course was to expose the students not only to graphic novels as a form of Literature (big L), but also to the fact that they come in different genres and that they allow for discussions as serious as illness and socioeconomic issues to dialogues over cartoon-like representations of real-life people and literary characters.
I used the following graphic novels: Frankenstein by Sergio A. Sierra and Meritxell Ribas, Yokǎi by Sergio A. Sierra and Alex Sierra, El joven Lovecraft #1 by Josep Oliver and Bartolo Torres, and Arrugas by Paco Roca, Españistán by Aleix Saló. The first three texts were comics that I found while searching for comics that I personally would find interesting. Obviously, Frankenstein, being based on the novel was going to be a good start, and it was my first purchase after La casa de los susurros. Yokǎi, by the same author but illustrated by his brother Alex instead of Meritxell Ribas, has a supernatural/demonic theme and storyline. And finally, El joven Lovecraft #1 is about an imagined youth for H.P. Lovecraft. Arrugas and Españistán, these are comics that I purchased from comic book stores in Spain. Arrugas was chosen because it is by one of Spain’s foremost comics writer, Paco Roca, is about a man going through Alzheimer’s disease. Paco Roca is an award-winning author – three awards for his comics and one award for Best Adapted Screenplay (for Arrugas). The other comic, Españistán, intrigued me because it was about the economic crisis that Spain had gone through (as well as the rest of Europe, but Spain went through especially difficult times), but it was told through characters learning about it as if going through the plot of Lord of the Rings.
The objectives of the course were to discuss Scott McCloud’s definition of comics as “sequential art narrative,” analyze issues of race, gender, sexuality, and alternity that may appear in the graphic novels we would be reading, explore the debate about “comics” and “graphic novels.” Since almost all of the students were new to the concept of reading the medium we had to start with how to read a graphic novel. We began the class reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics so that they could understand how to read the texts that we were going to read, and so that they could understand the way to go about it. Students also noted interesting things happening in the artwork. So, while I wanted the students to look at the artwork to discuss some of McCloud’s concepts such as whether the artwork was complex vs. simple, realistic vs. iconic, or specific vs. universal, we were also discussing other concepts of his such as: closure, transitions, time and motion (especially with motion lines), sound, making emotions visible, and the importance of the use of color.
When I taught Spanish 402, the “Survey of Peninsular Literature from 1700,” for the second time. I now had some repeat students from the previous semesters. This was a problem that I had not anticipated, and I felt the need to select a new comic. This time, I chose to use Fraternity by Juan Díaz Canales, who is very well known in Europe, but also known in the US for his Blacksad comics. Fraternity is historical fiction based on the town New Harmony, Indiana. In the comic, the town is called New Fraternity and has been started by Robert McCormack (instead of Robert Owen) to become a utopian society. The comic introduces a supernatural element helps bring about the destruction of the utopian society.
Including comics in my Spanish literature courses has changed my teaching in a huge way as well as my scholarship. Since I started reading comics and interviewing their creators, all of my conference presentations and research has been about comics, using them in the classroom, and about the ever-changing genre. When I teach an upper-level class that allows for the introduction of a comic (Introduction to the Study of Hispanic Literature, Survey of Hispanic Literature from 1700, or one of our Special Studies class where I can create the topic), I try to bring in at least on topic. I was actually lucky enough to propose an Honors Course at my university, and it has been accepted. I hope to teach it within the next year or two (it depends on scheduling). This reaches out to a broader audience, but the title is “Banishment, Racism, and Oppression: International Comics and Graphic Novels Dealing with Race and Social Issues.”
Including comics in my Spanish literature courses has changed my teaching in a huge way as well as my scholarship.
If there are other instructors thinking about including Spanish-language comics in their courses, I will say that there are logistical concerns when asking students to purchase comics that aren’t available in the US. All of the graphic novels had to be shipped from Spain or the UK, even if they were available for purchase on Amazon.com and so I felt the need to email the students who registered for the Spring course in the Fall semester to warn them that books might take a month or more to arrive. Although students could purchase some of them from Amazon.com, I advised them to order directly from Amazon.es (Amazon’s Spanish site), where the comics would almost always be in stock. Still, there were some cases where the comics came late or students ended up cancelling the order, because we had finished the comic, and it still hadn’t arrived. Some of the comics do now have Kindle versions, but very few of them have made it to a digital version. I would love it if my students had easier access to these comics, because it gets expensive for them to order their comics from the UK or Spain.
But I still found the inclusion of comics from the Spanish comics scene to be worth the logistical headache, and one major reason is because the creators themselves have been so willing to be interviewed about their work by myself and my students. After choosing the comics for my course, I reached out to as many creators as I could by email. To my surprise, every creator I reached out to was extremely friendly and very receptive to meeting in person for an interview if I came to Spain.
I planned my trip to Spain to include the cities where the creators lived. I met Paco Roca in Valencia, Juan Díaz Canales in Madrid, and Bartolo Torres in Barcelona. I was also able to meet with some creators who had collaborated together at the same time. For example, in Barcelona, I met with Sergio A. Sierra and Meritxell Ribas about Frankenstein, and then with Sergio Sierra and Alex Sierra to discuss Yokǎi. I also met with David Muñoz and Tirso Cons together in Madrid to discuss La Casa de Los Susurros. The creators were happy to discuss their works, and answer direct questions about what my students had noticed. For example, in La casa de los susurros, one student notice that in Simon’s eye, there appeared to be a tree. Tirso Cons, the illustrator confirmed the reflection to be the memory of his past before be was turned into the monster that he became. Several creators also gifted me with one of their works that I had not yet purchased or even knew about! It was an amazing experience, and the gift of a new, amazing comic was an added bonus.
Increased student engagement was my goal when I began incorporating comics into my courses, but I walked away with new friendships. I keep in touch frequently with Sergio, Alex, Meritxell (who goes by Meri), and Tirso. Through them, I also have met other authors through them, such as Enrique Corominas, author of the comic Dorian Gray and Javier Olivares author of Las meninas, although I have not had the good fortune to have met them in person (yet!). It’s because of this community that I feel compelled to share my story, in the hopes that Díaz Canales, Cons, Muñoz, the Sierra brothers, and Ribas Puigmal become more well known here in the United States.
Kristin Kiely is an Associate Professor of Spanish in the Department of English, Modern languages, and Philosophy at Francis Marion University. While she started with an interest in literature during and after Franco’s dictatorship, she soon found herself in love with comics and graphic novels from Spain. She has never turned back. You can reach Kristin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.