Sunday, July 15, 2007

What some people without blogs are thinking

This summer, I am teaching two sections of English 102, a standard college composition class for which I use graphic books as texts. We have read The Language of Comics as an introduction to scholarly analysis of the form; our texts includes Showcase: Superman, Watchmen, Why I Hate Saturn, and Maus, among others. I have introduced some of Scott McCloud's theory as a basis for formal analysis (since just about every article in TLoC cites him) and we watched and discussed a History channel documentary to get some sense of comics in a cultural perspective.

My morning section of about twenty students includes only one person who has read comics to any degree; to the rest, this might as well be a course in eighteenth century French romantic poetry, for as much as they know about the form. Nonetheless, they are digging in and working it.

The students will write two papers analyzing their choice from among the texts (in addition to other assignments). I thought it might be instructive to show you what they thought noteworthy, or at least interesting enough to write about, for the first paper. here are some tentative thesis statements from our first workshop:

Though most of Watchmen tries to be liberal, there is still a theme of homophobia.


Rorschach and Eddie are both main characters in Watchmen who happen to see their terrible world for what it is. Eddie embraces it and finds pleasure in the sickness, while Rorschach is depressed and lives in misery because of it. Although their outlook is the same, their reaction is different, and therefore compelling.

Dr. Manhattan’s destruction and then regeneration into a presumed perfect, god-like being can be paralleled in the book by a society needing to regenerate itself as well.

Although Superman comics are juvenile, simplistic, and made for kids, adults can also enjoy them. They teach a lesson that everyone can relate to.

That Superman/Clark Kent is not the perfect role model that he is made out to be.

Through the characters and images, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons discusses some issues people face and can relate to.

Even though Dr. Manhattan wants to be with Laurie, Laurie wants to smash and break up with him.

While Superman is often thought of as a paradigm of the perfect being, deep inside this shell Superman reflects society’s fears, creating a parallel world where all these fears are overcome by a paradigm of the perfect being.

These stories in Showcase: Superman show that technology can help create a utopian-like society, but abuse of the planet to assist advancement could lead to our destruction.

Superman is a self-absorbed hero who puts himself first and the universe second.

Although conventionally seen as a psychopath, Rorschach is the actualization of personal reality contained within every human being.

Robert C. Harvey defined comic books as a blend between pictures and word. According to this definition, the pictures and words are vital to each other. Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker is a comic book where pictures and words work against each other and this results in confusion for the reader.

As Superman’s friend, Jimmy Olsen helps Superman with some of the problems that occur, and as a character of the comic, the young readers can relate to Jimmy because of the role he plays.

Alan Moore closes each chapter of Watchmen with a famous literary quote. By using quotes as a template for his writing, Moore transforms the words of others into an underlying theme that helps develop the plot and progression of his characters.

The Superman comics use a narrative caption in nearly every panel; this word-image relationship allows the story to take place quickly and appeals to the younger audience.

Art Speigelman wants readers to be shocked by the strategically placed real photographs [in Maus]; he wants the reader to be forced into seeing the reality of the holocaust if only for a few moments in each book. Seeing these photos is more disturbing than the disjunction between animal characters and the horrifying plot.

Superman is a good role model for the children in teaching moral values.
Maybe about half of these statements are developed enough for a compelling paper, but they do include both formal and traditional literary analyses, as well as a few cultural inquiries; some of them would even get beyond the "no duh" response from jaded, long-time comics critics (well, maybe). I can't help but wonder what approaches I would get if I gave the same assignment to a bunch of fanlings.

I don't think I could have a comics blog without at least one graphic per post, so here's this:

When I was a kid, one of my favorite characters was Hank McCoy, the Beast. Not the furry blue cute-monster (I got the first appearance of the "new" Beast when it came out, and I didn't like it then) but the husky, barefoot X-man with the big vocabulary. (If only he had taken a Humanities major, he never would have gotten fuzzy...) Anyway, I had been hearing some good things about this X-Men: First Class series, so I broke down and picked up a floppy - Volume 2, #1 - hoping to see some old school action.

I was not disappointed: the series has enough youthful vigor, old-style sensibility, and humor to satisfy an old-timer like me. The X-men appear young, and interact like the less-experienced individuals they ought to have been at that point. Professor X is still professorial, but more human and real than Stan Lee or Roy Thomas ever made him. The Hank McCoy I knew and loved is there, with his specs and big words and formal style and warm byplay with Iceman. If this issue is any indication, I need to find the trade of Volume 1.

What was most surprising and worthy of note is that this is a comic book that I would unhesitatingly give to my daughter, if I had one. This particular issue focuses on Marvel Girl and some mentoring she receives from Sue Storm. Although Sue is still going by Invisible Girl, she is presented as a wise, capable professional with a lot to share. The interaction between Jean and Sue is understated, charming, and effective; it says more about nurturing our young women than any half-dozen PSAs combined, even with a couple of Nike commercials thrown in. Given the problematic treatment of women in superhero comics today, I applaud Jeff Parker for writing a story that had intelligence and sensitivity as well as chills, spills, and thrills (and include Roger Cruz for his unexploitative artwork).


Carl Walker said...

I'm teaching English 1C (the last of three composition requirements) and for this reason, your post was very entertaining. I teach a novel and a film and various articles from the anthology textbook, but I am sometimes tempted to teach comics! Nice to be reminded that it can be done, although I do worry that buying all those trades would be pretty expensive for the students. What do you do about that?

Walaka said...


The cost of the books is an issue - when I first designed the syllabus, I priced everything out on Amazon and it was pretty cheap, but of course, most students still buy from the bookstore, and there's no discount there. So I guess I don't have a good answer for that, although a class in the novel would likely be roughly equivalent in cost, and the students don't seem to mind so much owning the comics.

The Fortress Keeper said...

Interesting comments regarding the students, although I probably think higher of the Kyle Baker comic than that one proposed thesis.

I totally agree with you on X-Men: First Class. Jeff Parker is doing a lot to keep me involved with super-heroes these days.

Walaka said...


Yah, I'm going to have seek out some of Parker's other stuff.

And it will be interesting to see how that paper plays out. I read WIHS a little differently since I found out it was part of/heavily influenced by Baker's TV series pitch.

John said...

If you can ethically share them, I'd love to read what some of your students wind up writing about the Watchmen. I consider it the most profoundly interesting comic ever written. I can imagine all sorts of essays worth writing... in fact, I'm not sure how a person could limit their commentary to a single essay, given the epic quality of the work.


Walaka said...

I can post some anonymous snippets, but I will ask the students if I can do more than that.

I agree - Watchmen is multi-layered thematically and formally and lends itself to a great deal of analysis and commentary - most proposals seem to have a pretty good focus and are taking a thin slice - which is great.

Cassie said...

If there is anything I don't need to know about, its new retellings of the original x-men -_- I keep trying to step away and they keep pulling me back in.
The interaction between Susan and Jean sounds especially good. When this gets printed as a GN, I'm definitly gonna have to pick it up.

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