Author Bio

Learning from the Pros: Interview with Graphic Novelist Keith McCleary, Part Two

posted: 6.4.12 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander


My last post offered some ideas from graphic novelist Keith McCleary for teaching composition with “constraints” and “criticism” in mind. Here is the second part of the interview, with more of McCleary’s challenges and provocations.

During the past year, McCleary has been teaching freshman composition at Sixth College in U.C. San Diego in two different courses that highlight graphic novels as a literary form: “The Graphics of War” with Professor Emily Roxworthy and “Worldmaking” with Professor Wayne Yang.  (Here is my earlier post about Wayne Yang.) Both Roxworthy and Yang have won campus-wide teaching awards but do not come from the literature department, so McCleary’s work with these faculty members already tests some of the traditional disciplinary boundaries of first-year writing courses.

When we asked McCleary what he thought about “courses in freshmen composition that teach the genre of the graphic novel,” he understandably bristled at the phrasing of the question. “They are a FORM, not a GENRE,” he asserted. “We wouldn’t call a book a genre. Labeling all things the same way interferes with basic literacy. The graphic novel is a form that offers a way to create a narrative or thesis but does so graphically.”

Although he noted that many different genres flourish in the form of the graphic novel, he bemoaned the fact that certain comics were stigmatized or sanitized by curricular decisions that privilege what he calls “smart comics” that are already “heralded as literary or those of non-Western origin.”  As he pointed out, “we start with the assumption that all people are equal” as we try to teach students to challenge their own assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability, but we are a lot more hesitant about accepting “all media as equal.”  He observed that superhero comics are an incredibly influential genre, and yet they are rarely taught in college classrooms, where fear of the lowbrow dominates the curriculum.  (In my own teaching, I do work with horror comics, as I noted here.)  

In response to the accusation that teaching comics might seem to “dumb down” college writing, which is already treated by some faculty as a remedial subject, McCleary noted that in Yang’s course, “students have to write extensive critiques of their work that rivals–in fact surpasses” the workload of a more conventional expository writing course. In Yang’s research-oriented course, McCleary argued that “the comic book is actually the icing on the cake; the meat of the course is creating a very large document that builds on a process of writing journal entries.” Such students end up writing “long, complicated fifteen-page papers,” which may be “still convoluted with a lot of the basic problems that freshmen writing has.” Nonetheless, this process gets them to do “heavy analysis without knowing it.”

McCleary both writes and illustrates comics, so I asked him to comment on students’ concerns that they aren’t competent image creators, especially given the fact that they have had so much more practice generating written texts.  He responded that he was “more concerned about talking to them about visual storytelling, design, and composition rather than how well they draw a figure” or reproduce representational art.  For example, he encourages students to think about the scenes that they create and “using what you could show” with a focus on “what the audience needs to know.” He also has them think about layout on the page and “what kinds of shots tell the story effectively.”

As a professional who has invested many hours in creating visual work, McCleary is skeptical about assumptions that focus on “talent rather than labor,” especially since so many students start with the discouraging assumption that most of them just aren’t creative. Sometimes creativity comes down to making lists and just mashing up stuff you like, McCleary insisted, “like a stuffed panda with a rocketpack fighting a dinosaur.”  Furthermore, “both sides can be taught,” and students often appreciate learning simple compositional techniques that anyone can teach, such as the rule of thirds.

To help composition instructors think about the relationship between persuasion and visual media, McCleary recommends the work of Chip Kidd, particularly his novel The Cheese Monkeys, in which a character who is a graphic design teacher explains how visual media can “tell people how to think.” McCleary describes it as a genteel form of “public mind control” that can also help students analyze print advertisements and commercials.

McCleary thinks that those who plan composition curricula may be trying to do too much in too short a time with too little support. “Are we trying to teach them to write, to sell their own work, or to talk about ideas in public forums?” McCleary asked. All of these might be legitimate goals, but it can be challenging to serve so many potentially competing interests.

Furthermore, instructors have to find the right balance between practice and critique. This often means that they have to navigate between the benefits of “making students write a lot every week” and the risks of having them produce “too much to evaluate effectively,” particularly if students “need guidance and feedback on a more consistent basis.”

“I’m still trying to get all of them to understand what it means to write for an audience that doesn’t already know what the author knows,” McCleary laughed.  “A student may write ‘like in Blade Runner,’ and I have to mark on their papers like an idiot ‘What is Blade Runner?’”



Categories: Uncategorized
You might also like: Poet of the Month: Rainer Maria Rilke
Read All Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

One Response to “Learning from the Pros: Interview with Graphic Novelist Keith McCleary, Part Two”

  1. Bill Torgerson, St. John's University Says:

    A lot resonated with me at the end of this post.

    If you teach a course, I love the challenge of answering, “What are you trying to do?” As someone who teaches within a writing program, I look forward to discussing, “What are we trying to do?”