On Teaching the Graphic Novel

About once a month, I get asked by a colleague or friend for the syllabus I used to teach my seminar on the Graphic Novel at Amherst. Included below is a list of the texts that I used to teach students. In that seminar I allowed optional creative exercises and finals, and that led to me teaching tutorials in the making of comics, which led to me advising two graphic novel theses to summa honors. I’m very proud of those students, who were both also awarded the English Department’s prize for best thesis. Amherst’s English department was very generous and supportive in the teaching I did there throughout, and I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work of all of my students.

I taught the class as an experiment, even an expedition of a kind, and so it was never the same every time. I began teaching it because more graphic novels have been published in the last ten years than in the 30 years prior to that—it is without question an explosion and so I had questions about this explosion. I’d been reading into the history of comics just on my own (as a fanboy going back to age six), and found that the German Expressionist Picture Novel, an important forebear to the modern graphic novel, came of age in Germany in the age leading up to the Nazi Party’s takeover of the government. I wanted to know if there was a relationship.

We live in an anxiety about language now, I think, that has created this boom, an Age of Euphemism, and I do think there’s something about the comic that can move through the lies and subvert the euphemism in what we as readers experience as victories for truth. Linda Barry, in her masterpiece, What It Is, included here, describes an idea of art, the making of it and the experiencing of it, as part of our immune system, and I like thinking about this idea. It’s part of why I introduced the making of comics into the teaching of them.

The above, an Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Kuniyoshi, is one of the pieces of art that led me into my interest in the graphic novel. The visual pun at its center emits a narrative force, a dramatic irony—you are drawn into the story about to happen, the idea that the fox has cast this illusion around it and has not yet been caught by anyone except the artist and the reader. Comics and graphic novels at their best play with this and the other forces a visual pun brings to bear. It’s one of the things a comic or graphic novel can do that prose alone has to play catch-up with—creating in the mind of the reader simultaneous contrasts, the fox as woman as fox as illusion.

I mention this because I am frequently challenged on the idea of teaching the form, much less reading it. Also, some of my students mistakenly think of graphic novels progressively, i.e., they will write papers for me saying why they are “better” than prose literature, as if that is our class mission. But it isn’t and wasn’t. My sense of the form is that it is capable of uniquely expressing something, in a way that sets it apart from either prose literature, poetry or film. Discovering and articulating that capacity is among the class missions. There was never only one mission.

For me, Marjane Satrapi explained “why comics” best, when she said, at an appearance at Smith College, “I write what I can’t draw, and I draw what I can’t write.” This struck me as an important way to think about the artist-writer creator (a clumsy way to say “someone who can do both”). Most of the texts I taught were written by people of this category, but there are writers for the form, like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, who do not do their own drawings and it would be disingenuous at best not to include their cooperative works with artists, in terms of their cultural impact, but the distinction does ask important questions.

While the field is considered new at best (it is routinely dismissed as unserious by many) the boom also means that I could have easily taught the course as a year-long class, with a “History of Comics” first semester and a “Graphic Novel” second semester, and if the post I had at Amherst had been tenure track, I might have considered it, and could easily have filled it. Teaching the graphic novel typically means you’ll be popular with students but potentially controversial with colleagues, to be clear—and on the job market, it has been both a plus and a minus, with faculty both intensely interested and intensely repulsed. It is a polarizing form to teach right now, more so than creative writing, which still suffers in the esteem of many academics, despite its popularity.

Of course, in my experience over the years, there are few things more politically dangerous within an English Department than teaching something popular with students. It makes whatever it is both valuable and suspect.

Having said that, for those interested in teaching this sort of course, or in just reading more of the form, here is…

The ENGL 74 Amherst College Memorial Reading List:

American Born Chinese, Gene Yang
Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine
Mother Come Home, Paul Hornschmeier
Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware
Pyongyang, Guy Delisle
Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan
Aya, Margaret Abouet
Blankets, Craig Thompson
In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman
Maus, Art Spiegelman
Lucky, Gabrielle Bell
Jar of Fools, Jason Lutes
Curses, Kevin Huizenga
Life Sucks, Jessica Abel
La Perdida, Jessica Abel
Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, Jessica Abel & Matt Madden
Ghost World, Daniel Clowes
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller
Ronin, by Frank Miller
Night Fisher, R. Kikuo Johnson
Watchmen, Alan Moore
Top Ten: The 49’ers, Alan Moore
Black Hole, Charles Burns
McSweeney’s 13, edited by Chris Ware
Scott Pilgrim 1, Brian Lee O’Malley
Battle Angel Alita 1, Yukito Kishiro
Banana Fish vol. 6, Akimi Yoshida (Volumes 1-19 exist)
Lone Wolf and Cub Vol. 1, Kazuo Koike
Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1, Joss Whedon
The Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot
Blue Pills, Frederik Peeters
Ordinary Victories, Manu Larcenet
Prosopopus, Nicolas de Crécy
Dogs and Water, Anders Nilsen
Monologues for Gauging the Density of Black Holes, Anders Nilsen
Poor Sailor, Sammy Harkham
Persepolis, Marjan Satrapi
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Epileptic, David B.
Powr Mstrs Vol. 1
What It Is, Lynda Barry
The City, Franz Masereel
Incognegro, Mat Johnson
7 Miles A Second, by David Wojnarowicz
MOME, various issues (a quarterly journal of comics)

I taught the class using a variety of texts to the side, like Freud’s essays on the Uncanny, Jokes, Screen Memories and Dreams (Freud even made a comic called “Dream of the French Nurse” as an illustration for his work on dreams, without even feeling the need to describe why he thought comics were perfect to reflect dreams), and Simone Weil’s The Iliad or a Poem of Force (Greek gods being the early cultural prototype for super heroes).

Some caveats for those attempting to teach these texts in the classroom: Comics may be thought of as inexpensive, but 4-color art illustrations on good paper means the average graphic novel is expensive. The class was a financial burden to some students, and while some texts can be bought second hand, consider approaching your library with your list in advance and having the books purchased and placed on reserve during the class.

Also, you will attract a mix of students, typically, some who know only a few of the most famous recent graphic novels, and, as a friend mentioned with her trial class recently, a group who may be more knowledgeable than you in terms of comics history. These people may even believe a mastery of arcana is necessary to even teach the class (not true). Comics Arcana is the gang handshake of the “fanboy/fangirl” as these readers are called (and yes, I fanboy). Comics fans are a fierce claque, comparable, I think, only to opera fans in terms of the withering scorn they can bring to bear when you come up short. Just remember that with a seminar you are reading to learn as much as there to teach, and encourage an atmosphere of group discovery. A series of midterm presentations can be informative and also allow those who invariably feel they should really be teaching the class a moment to express their nascent egotism creatively. I.e., to share their knowledge base with their peers (and you). They don’t really want to teach the class—they want to learn something from you. But to do that, they need to respect you, and if you indicate you respect the years of obsessive reading they’ve done to the side of their main course work, unexpressed until this class, it’s usually a win.

Of the student favorites, it appears I made lifetime readers of Ronin, Astonishing X-Men, Scott Pilgrim, Battle Angel Alita and Lone Wolf and Cub. Epileptic was a crowd pleaser, as was Shortcomings. Anders Nilsen’s two books are the absolute favorites of the comics creators students, also Blankets, Poor Sailor and Mother Come Home—the students who wanted to make comics had very specific loves apart from the critical favorites. Student reaction to Jimmy Corrigan was mixed, with some finding it brilliant and others maddening and depressing.

Note to those setting off to teach a graphic novel class of their own: I didn’t teach all my favorites, so they aren’t all on this list. I did that partly because it’s nice to have something that is just yours, as a reader. I did teach what I think of the as the “warhorses” despite personal preferences: The Watchmen, for example, which I find a bit hammy as a reader, is good to teach, though be prepared for to also teach your students something about the Iran-Contra scandal (they won’t initially believe it happened). I teach the book because it was ground-breaking, and much of what followed was heavily influenced by it. It completely changed the way creators dealt with even the idea of a superhero. But that also must be added to, contextually–like many things that are groundbreaking, it doesn’t look groundbreaking now.

Scott Pilgrim was hilarious to teach because students initially believed it to beneath the class’s attention: “All of my friends talk like this,” one of my students said. “Why are we reading this?” But that, of course, was why: Scott Pilgrim was a story created with and even within the vernacular of their generation, something they also want to do, and so I felt it mattered, and included it.

On teaching students to make comics, I found the most important thing to do first was get them over the idea that they needed to be great artists to make comics, and focus instead on how they needed to create a visual vernacular for their story, write a script and do character design.

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  1. Also: I’d add Asterios Polyp, Stitches and My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down to this list if I were teaching the course this fall.

  2. This is excellent, informative and exciting. Thank you.

  3. beyond generous of you to share–your post here will help inspire lesson plans and it will (and I love this) spread the graphic novel love! i try to include at graphic novel every semester and it is an amazing thing for both basic composition students and advanced lit students alike.

  4. Excellent article. It’s great to see how people are using graphic novels in the classroom and to study.

    I work for a graphic novel publisher called Campfire. Feel free to check us out, or contact me for more information.

  5. “Most of the texts I taught were written by people of this category, but there are writers for the form, like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, who do not do their own drawings and it would be disingenuous at best not to include their cooperative works with artists, in terms of their cultural impact, but the distinction does ask important questions.”

    I know you know this, Alex, and it’s just a simple mistake: Frank Miller does his own drawings, most of the time. Alan Moore is also an occasional visual artist. But most of Moore’s work, and all of his best work, is drawn by other artists; most of Miller’s work, and certainly the work he’s best known for, is not.

    See? Operatic fanboys are everywhere.

    I thank you for sharing this list again (and for sending to to me last year). The new commentary is compelling.

    • Andrew, I disagree. The drawing matters, but we cannot discount the work of his ex-wife Lynn Varley on all of his legendary titles: as the colorist to Ronin, the Batmans, 300. The colors of Ronin are elemental to the experience. He approved them but they came from her. He is simply not the same as David B or the rest on that list, no matter how influential. And I say that as a fan.

  6. Alex — This is the best piece on teaching the graphic novel I’ve ever read! It’s wonderful and what a brilliant reading list. So incredibly generous of you indeed to share it. To the list I suggest adding the work of Joe Sacco, especially his books “Safe Area Gorazde” & “Palestine,” and maybe some of the books from Los Bros Hernandez “Love and Rockets” series. Hope to get to your reading at Temple U. next month.

    • Thanks, Sue. Also: I hope you get there too. It’d be nice to see you.

      I amazingly still haven’t read Joe Sacco, and I know it’s a problem. Los Bros Hernandez I touch on in the class in the anthology edition of McSweeney’s, but during the time I was teaching the class they went from affordable paperbacks into large, hard-to-assign editions that were also expensive, and while I love them and of course want everyone to read them, I found them hard to include. Maybe this is why I love them. Also, I didn’t want to teach all my old faves. I didn’t teach Mage, for example, or Grendel. Of course, I could also teach a seminar just on their work, and maybe that would be more fun.

  7. I post this with some trepidation, but also a genuine interest and desire to learn. I’ve bought some of the books named here. I’ve enjoyed them… but they seem like such quick reads. The quite long list here reinforces my (I’m sure mistaken) impression that these works are more like short stories than traditional novels. I want to be educated: tell me how to read and appreciate these works more fully. Does one linger on the page, noting drawing styles in conversation with text? Do people who have this deeper understanding read, reread, over and over again? And if so, what is gained? In these questions am I trapped in a paradigm of reading that I should let go, and if so, what should replace it? Thanks.

    • Grant, no worries. Your sense of things is interesting and speaks to some of the ways formally that the graphic novel, film and short story all relate.

      Also, I’d say as a rule I do not try to get people to subscribe to a single experience of reading comics, because it would be like telling people how to dream at night.

      There are probably only a few books called graphic novels that would give you the experience you associate with a novel. All read very quickly, with few exceptions. Without knowing what you’ve read that has you saying this, it’s hard to respond accurately (feel free to tell me) but I think Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, David B’s Epileptic, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, V For Vendetta, as well as his 49ers, Sammy Harkham’s Poor Sailor—all of these books work with some of the techniques you’d know from a novel, though technically Epileptic and Fun Home are memoirs. But the interesting thing with memoir is, in comics, it is more of a fiction than it is in prose, as the stories are told in frames that give the reader a third-person view of the story, which is not at all how the artist would have experienced it and that requires the artist to engage in character design with this figure that represents them as they used to be—something that much prose memoir fails at. It’s academic to point this out, of course, but then…that is what we’re up to here, yes?

      And this was another problem I faced: How to teach memoir in a class titled “Graphic Novel”? Did it have to be fiction? I couldn’t brush aside the epistemological concerns blithely, despite the distaste many of my students had for engaging with them.

      As the form is so new, it couldn’t possibly have the depth of field that prose does, but as my boyfriend pointed out in the car today as we talked about this post, it is increasingly the dominant mode. If we have a common text ahead of us, it will very likely be a comic or a graphic novel. When something as powerful in our culture as Twilight, for example, is given a graphic novel treatment, well, that says a great deal to me.

    • Grant: Also, Asterios Polyp, recently published, is, I think, at least for now, the Great American Graphic Novel.

      Also, American Born Chinese, by Gene Wang, is a brilliant example of a graphic novel executing something formally at the level of narrative that I don’t know that prose could do, and using visual pun to do so.

  8. Alex,

    Thanks for the great post on graphic novels & the teaching of them. If you ever have a second (or anyone else reading this comment), I am curious how you went about teaching the students how to make comics. I am teaching a very similar class and will only touch on the making of comics, as I was worried about student anxiety. They will be making only one page filled with panels, and already they are most all fairly nervous. Any ideas, thoughts, etc. would be appreciated! Thx.

    -Travis

    • Travis: Thank you. Check out, from this list, Jessica Abel’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, a great workbook for teaching the making of comics, with assignments and methods and exercises. There’s a companion website, too.

      Also, look at http://www.stripgenerator.com, a comics blogging site that makes it very easy to make a three-panel comic—and you can use it to teach students to use (and thus understand) visual storytelling in courses that aren’t otherwise about the making of comics.

  9. Can someone offer some information on Franz Ernst’s The City?

  10. What do you think of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics? I’m teaching an undergraduate class in the spring. Thanks for your article–it’s extremely helpful. Your list is so comprehensive. I’m also worried about the expense to students. The idea of adding to the library is great. I’m thinking of giving them a supplemental reading list. It’s difficult to pare down for the class. I like the idea of the McSweeney’s issue, since they can get a wider taste. Thanks again.

    • Victoria, thanks. I think McCloud’s Understanding Comics is great for setting up the terms of discussion (I’m realizing I left it off—I did use it). It can drag on. Some chapters struck me as filler. But it is truly revelatory, and helps a great deal in figuring out how the stories achieve their effects. McCloud’s published writings online take the discussion further—it seems to me he’ll likely do an updated version sometime soon.

      Note the McSweeney’s does have a lot of suicide jokes. I incorporated the suicide trope into the discussion and it became one of the best discussions, as a way to talk about the relationship between comics, the forbidden and the structure of jokes as they relate to understanding comics. If you read Freud on jokes as you read the McSweeney’s, you’ll see an interesting dynamic at play.

  11. […] ‘Of course, there are few things more politically dangerous within an English Department than teaching something popular with students’ […]

    http://www.berfrois.com/

  12. I’m new to graphic novels, I read Fun Home last year and was knocked over by it. I’m definitely going to read a few selections from your list.

    That quote about writing what you can’t draw and drawing what you can’t write struck me as very similar to something Allie Brosh said in an interview about her website hyperboleandahalf.com. She said she did certain scenes in pictures because they were funnier or more powerful that way, and some scenes in words because she either couldn’t draw them or the pictures didn’t add to the narrative.

  13. Thanks for a really interesting article…I was drawn in by the Kuniyoshi image – I’ve always loved the seamless transition between the Japanese manga of the 19th century and the contemporary graphic novel.

  14. what a mesmerizing post. your students are so lucky! i’ve been interested in graphic novels but have been at a loss on how to start exploring. thanks for the road map!

  15. Totally pumped about all of this. I just finished reading MAUS I and immediately went out and had to buy MAUS II, as the first part just ends, and I was so completely hooked on everything that was happening.

    This is the new important form, whether we realize it or not, and English Department’s will eventually recognize the artistic merit inherent in this medium.

    Similarly, but not quite happening yet, the notion of the Role-Playing Video Game as a form of art will need to be studied academically, but I suppose it’s best to pick one battle at a time.

    • I think it’s already changed a lot in the year since I wrote this post. Thanks! As for RPG, well, I did teach a colleague at Amherst how to play Halo so he could teach it in his film class… so who knows what’s next?

  16. Hi there. I teach “American Born Chinese” to my middle school English class. Can you steer me towards some graphic novels on your list that might be appropriate for that age? My students also read Anne Frank, and I’ve steered some interested parties towards Maus…but I know they are hungering for more.

    Last year, I taught ABC followed by a literature circle of regular novels all about modern Asian immigrants to America. I thought, overall, it was successful, but I can incorporate even some of the basic ideas above into my teaching—I love the “I draw what I can’t write/write what I can’t draw”, and that idea is completely accessible to middle school level students.

    Thanks!

    • Well, first of all, thank you for doing that!

      I wonder, meanwhile. Most of what is on there is probably a no, though Night Fisher might be a good one: it deals with high school kids who get in trouble for taking crystal meth. It doesn’t moralize, but it doesn’t glamorize doing drugs either.

      I’ll have to think some more. I’m glad some of them are up to reading Maus! Kids are amazing these days. I think Joann Sfar’s the Rabbi’s Cat, volumes I and II, could be amazing for them. Also his books The Little Vampire are great for kids younger than that. The Rabbi’s Cat is a wonderful way to learn about Judaism and faith–it’s about a Moroccan rabbi’s cat who swallows a parrot and gains the power of speech, and wants to be bar mitzvahed. There’s lots of theological stuff born along on a very whimsical series of arguments that are also serious too, and it’s just a great story. But read it and see what you think. And I’ll see if I can think of some others.

      • The Rabbi’s Cat sounds perfect—I actually teach 7th grade, and every year, there’s quite a few of my students who go through the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

        I appreciate your response!

  17. Aw man I wish I could’ve taken up your class. Really love the part about write what you can’t draw, draw what you can’t write…When I was younger, I earned extra pocket by making my own comics and selling them in grade school. It was fun to start with, but years later I’ve been at a loss. Where do I begin?

    Bookmarking this for another read, at least one where I’m not cosying up for sleep. Thank for your insights!

  18. elizabethweaver August 2, 2015 — 2:15 am

    Great post & list & consideration re: the polarizing forces when teaching outside the canon. I’m surprised you left out Neil Gaiman. Though most of his stories are a retelling, he’s a good story teller and the art in his Sandman series caught me, a dedicated literary reader who didn’t care for graphic novels. He opened me to the power of the genre. Thanks for your post.

    • One reason, very simple: I hate teaching my favorites, because of when students don’t like them, or say terrible things about them–one memorable class included students who asked, about Jimmy Corrigan, “Why are we reading about this loser?”. There are favorites on these lists, but the more I taught the class, the more I learned to keep emotional favorites off my syllabus.

  19. Really great article on the relevance of graphic novels

  20. Very insightful and a great list. Thanks!

  21. Have you, or even had you, considered using the series Mister X? It’s availability makes it a difficult one to include on the syllabus. However, it has rather unique style and storyline, and came out when independent comics were just gaining their stride and were not yet attracting mainstream creators who wanted to explore darker themes and different styles.

    • You know, I haven’t. I read it a long, long time ago, too–I still have some of my early issues! But I’ve not gone back since. It could be good in a history of the Graphic Novel course–something that is, say, a year long and has some room to get into the early indies.

  22. Also, American Born Chinese, by Gene Wang, is a brilliant example of a graphic novel executing something formally at the level of narrative that I don’t know that prose could do, and using visual pun to do so.

  23. I’ve just started to fully appreciate and delve into reading graphic novels. I’m excited to read some – or all! – the titles from this list! Wonderful, informative post.

  24. I didn’t even know there’s an academic course on graphic novel! Great discovery for me. Thanks for sharing :)

  25. Reblogged this on We Are Star Stuff.

  26. I was a bit surprised to see that Mine Okubo’s 1946 graphic novel memoir, Citizen 13660, didn’t make the cut. Were you focused more on contemporary GNs? A bit of randomness: I’m also wondering if you have specific graphic novels you’d recommend for a writer looking to enter the form? Thanks for a great post!

    • Oh, nothing other than I didn’t know about it. Thanks for mentioning it, I’m glad I do now. The way I selected books was approximately based on a.) their specific values toward the course, b.) their availability and c.) their cost (somewhat related to b). It is very expensive for students, and if you don’t have tenure or tenure track it can be expensive for the professor also to search for books. I was fortunate during my time at Amherst to have had a budget for R&D as well as the support to develop this course, but most institutions I’ve taught at don’t offer that.

  27. Reblogged this on The Worlds Inside Our Minds and commented:
    This is the perfect description of the graphic novel and comics. For anyone who wants to get involved with this genre, take a peak at the list in this post, and look up some of the graphic novels and comics that are covered.

    The one thing that I did not know that I found amazing, is that the drawings are able to provide a visual illusion or pun that prose cannot, and therefore is a medium all to itself.

    This is an incredibly valuable write up by a college professor at Amherst how taught Graphic Novels as a class.

  28. I truly believe you are correct when you state that in this age of euphemism, art goes beyond and speaks to our souls. I am an artist, and a writer. I was considering adding images to my prose, but a graphic novel may be just the thing. Thank you so much for your considerate treatment of the subject matter. It made me look at graphic novels in a whole in light. I only own one graphic novel, called the Fox. It is very high quality, very beautiful. I know that I don’t have the money to produce a graphic novel at that level, but are publishers taking on new talent, or are most graphic novels being self published?

  29. This is excellent 👍🏽

  30. Thanks for a wonderful explanation and introduction to teaching graphic texts. I will be sharing this with the English teachers in my school.

  31. Great article! :D

  32. I am trying my hands at graphic novels, any pointers?

  33. I am teaching a new comics course at Swarthmore College in the spring! Thank you for this write up of your experience; it is very encouraging. Do you have any interest in the emerging academic conference circuit in this area? I used to do these things, I did, and then I didn’t, and now I might…then again, it might ruin something I really enjoy. Again, great write up!

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