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Advice from a Late Comer: An Interview with a Compositionist on Beginning to Teach with Comics

posted: 12.17.12 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

In this post, I interview one of my favorite colleagues at UC, Irvine, Kat Eason, a veteran writing instructor who is adept at using popular culture in composition courses.  I have had the privilege of training new teaching assistants with Kat, and I have come to admire her insights into using visually rich material as objects for analysis in writing classrooms.  In this interview, Kat offers wonderful advice, particularly for those who might be new to using comics in the comp classroom.  I particularly appreciate her strategies for comparing images and themes across media as a way to fine-tune analyses of complex communicative practices.

1. How long have you been interested in comics and what kinds of comics do you enjoy?

I’m a late comer to comics; about 13 years ago, my future husband loaned me his complete set of Sandman graphic novels, assuring me that I would love them. I did.  I’m primarily interested in a good story than a specific genre, and in self-contained stories rather than “brands.” I’m not a huge fan of superhero comics in general, although I’ve read a few here and there (Mignola’s Hellboy; the two Black Widows written by Richard Morgan, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and of course, Moore’s The Watchmen). I prefer horror or dystopias, as a rule—Walking Dead, 30 Days of Night, DMZ–and cyberpunky high-concept technofutures like Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed.

2.  How do you use comics to teach writing or in a writing class?

Most frequently, I use comics is as a tool for comparison, parsing out the ways in which genre and medium interact with audience expectations. For instance, we might look at the film version of 30 Days of Night or the TV series Walking Dead compared to its original comic. Unlike a comparison of book-to-film, the comic-to-film allows us to look at two visual media. We discuss the different sorts of audiences who might respond to the changes in character or plot (why does Shane die at the end of the first volume of Walking Dead, although he survives in the TV series? Why don’t we see any of the voodooienne subplot from 30 Days of Night in the film?) We also look at the ways in which a film medium borrows from its source comic—for example, the scene in The Walking Dead where Rick rides into ruined Atlanta—and work out why that particular image is so effective that it’s the title image for the TV series.

Most recently, I’ve used individual pages from a Beowulf graphic adaptation to teach my beginning writers about cultural context and specific details.  I have them write the most detailed description they can, based on the image, which we then compare to the text of the poem, and try to come to some kind of understanding about the expectations of the original Beowulf audience vis-à-vis description, imagery, etc.: Look how many lines the poem needs to describe this! Look what’s in this panel that isn’t in the poem at all. Why is it there? What does that tell us about the audience?



3. What are some of the challenges students face when reading comics, particularly in a writing course?

One of the most important challenges is teaching students to read the comic as a complete genre–not just pictures to go with the words, not just words to go with the pictures–can be tricky. Some students tend to think that comics are “easier” to understand than a novel or Beowulf (though not as “easy” as watching the movie) so I find that I need to introduce some basic how to read guidelines, and include specific, focused questions with an assignment if I want them to read with more than a cursory flip-through-okay-got-it.

4.  What advice do you have for first-year composition instructors who are interested in teaching (with) comics in their composition courses?

If you have a class of un-comicy students, include a chapter (or several) from the work of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to familiarize students with the genre, especially if you’re going to work with a graphic novel. If you’re teaching single panels or pages, you can get probably away with a more general approach to reading images (e.g., Look how the artist positions the monster? Look at the ratio of dark to light in the panel?  What is left out of the frame?). Many of the students here at UCI are extremely familiar with manga, so they don’t need as much front-end work on how to read text/image; the McCloud at that point is for the vocabulary, so that when I say “gutter” they know what I mean.

Categories: Jonathan Alexander
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