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The Recursive Modes of Comics: A Dialogue with Two Writing Teachers

posted: 2.22.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

I recently asked Dr. Lynda Haas, a colleague at UC, Irvine and longtime pop culture and comics fan, to talk to me about how she teaches writing with comics.  Lynda has done so much to enliven composition instruction at UCI by showing us pedagogically innovative ways to use pop culture, particularly visually-driven pop culture, not only to engage students’ interest but to prompt critical thinking about the media images and ideas that surround them.  I asked Lynda questions specifically about her teaching of (and with) comics, and she invited another colleague, Scott Kaufman, to join in the fun.

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

Lynda:  I’ve been reading comics ever since I can remember—in fact, some of my first reading memories are of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four. In the summer when I was about 9 or 10, a boy who lived two doors down used to get a package of new comics delivered by mail every Wednesday. It became a custom for quite a few kids in our neighborhood to meet on summer mornings and lay around on the porch or in our makeshift army fort, reading our favorite superheroes.
In the 9th grade, my family moved, and I missed that neighborhood reading ritual. I kept up with some of the comics by going to a library,but also by that time (mid-1970s) there were several TV shows to keep up my interest in the comic-book superheroes—Wonder Woman, The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, etc. In fact, when Wonder Woman became my favorite, I began insisting that my name be spelled with a “y”—Lynda, because Lynda Carter spelled it that way. I guess I’ve never gotten over my initial attraction to superheroes.  I stopped reading comics regularly by the time I got to college, but in the past six years or so, my love for them has rekindled, thanks to my colleague Scott Kaufman—we started talking about using comics in our writing classes and ever since then, he’s exposed me to all kinds of new stuff.  I now enjoy all genres of comics and try to read at least one new title every month—I’m currently reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. Scott–how long have you been reading comics?

Scott: If you define comics as McCloud does, in terms of the word-picture relations, I can safely say that I’ve never not been reading comics so long as I’ve been reading. The first books I was read, and the first books I read, were the duo-specific works that taught me how to read. The first “literature” I read were Illustrated Classics, so the idea that the primal reading experience is purely textual and that the integration of images is a perversion of it always struck me as odd.
As for what I currently enjoy, I’m attracted to the long-form narratives that the serial nature of comic publication encourages. It all goes back to my discovery of Cerebus, which (despite Dave Sim’s unfortunate late-in-life turn to misogyny) was really my first experience with sustained world-building. What began as a parody of Conan and the like became a sweeping, epic narrative that I lived with for the better part of my teenage years. Inhabiting a narrative one month at a time seems to me a perfect happenstance of timing: unlike television, which only gives you a week to digest a story and didn’t (until recently) afford you the opportunity to re-experience previous episodes, comics have always encouraged a recursive mode of reading that I find rewarding. (Then again, I actually enjoy editing, so I’m not sure this generally applies.) As for what works currently fit this bill, the most obvious is The Walking Dead, but no one wants to read a list of things I read so I’ll stop there.

Lynda: I love The Walking Dead too—another great gem that Scott introduced me to. We’ve enjoyed talking about the differences between the AMC series and Kirkman’s comics.

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

Scott: Because I teach composition to mostly freshmen, I face the challenge of dealing with students whose knowledge of literature is inversely proportionate to their hatred of it, which is an unfortunate situation when it comes to writing with authority. Teaching comics is a way to circumvent their prejudices by providing them with material that they mistakenly believe is “easier” to analyze than the Shakespeare they had to write about in high school, but because they believe it’s less complex than literature-proper, they’re much more willing to embrace the critical models required to read them in a sophisticated fashion.
In short, I fool them into acquiring a decent approximation of expertise by providing them with source material that they believe they can become expert in. They’ll happily read eight chapters from Understanding Comics and memorize the 70 odd bits of critical vocabulary contained therein, whereas if I asked them to do something similar with Ciceronian rhetoric their anxiety would preclude the possibility of them ever feeling like they could master the material. Once they acquire this critical vocabulary—and compare how they wrote about comics before and after they acquired it—they come to understand that expertise is attainable, and as important, 
that comics are much more sophisticated than they thought. (Teaching that expertise is a double-edged sword is something that’s just not possible in a class in which students struggle to understand basic concepts for the entirety of the quarter.)

Lynda: I always ask students to write a reflection blog about whatever comic we’re reading and one of the things I ask them is to ponder is how they defined comics before they read for class and what they think of comics after analyzing them as part of a scholarly enterprise. In every class, I have students who describe that light-bulb moment where they realize that comics are, as Scott said, much more sophisticated than they thought. They stereotype comics as something only kids read, or that can only be about guys in tights saving the world. Of all the comics I’ve taught, my favorite is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3, because it’s great for shattering their stereotypical expectations—not only about comics in general, but about heroes.

I think comics are a great way to teach students to become more aware of their reading practices and to introduce them to some pleasure in reading. At UCI, we don’t have Humanities students in our writing classes (they take a specialized Humanities Core), so most of the first-year students in our classes don’t enjoy reading—they see it as a task that must be endured in order to answer a question on a test, for the purpose of getting a good grade. As a result, they read without interest, curiosity, wonder, or pleasure. It was surprising to me at first to realize that the majority of them haven’t ever read comics.
So I like to use some assigned reading of comics as a way to break their expectations about reading—to show them how to use a critical reading methodology on all different kinds of texts, and to show them that reading can be pleasurable. I’ve assigned comics and manga from several genres over the past few years—Maus, In the Shadow of No Towers, Fun Home, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, 30 Days of Night, Hellsing, Hellboy, The Walking Dead, 300, Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns and X-Men.

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

Scott: Teaching them to slow down. In fact, I write “slow down” on so many essays that a former student bought me a rubber stamp of it. I do everything I can to slow them down, from concentrating on the art-historical nature of the composition or focusing on the particular 
juxtaposition of word-picture relations, but their inclination is to “read” the panel as quickly as they’re capable of doing so—and they’re capable of doing so very quickly. So I’ve worked on a few exercises and instituted a few policies designed to slow them down: I’ll devote 
an entire class to teasing out all the possible implications of a given panel, or I’ll limit them to writing about three panels in their entire essays. Once they do that, i.e. once they see the benefit of not just of close-reading, but of finding panels pregnant enough to bear up to one, reminding them that their argument needs to orchestrate their essay almost becomes an afterthought. (Almost.)

Lynda: Another challenge they face is to learn to read the images and the words together. They actually already know how to do this—there are plenty of texts all around them that communicate through a synthesis of image and word—but they haven’t had to do this as a part of critical reading in an academic setting before. They’re used to reading novels, textbooks, and non-fiction essays for school—and they can’t read comics the same way. This challenge is also a great benefit, because being faced with a new modality makes them think about their reading process and understand that they need a methodology in order to read closely (and that their previous reading methods are not going to serve them well if they want to read critically and closely). I will often start with a graphic novel as the first reading assignment in order to bring their reading practices to light, and then we can move on to reading other types of texts with a new perspective about what it takes to read well.

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

Lynda: I find it’s important to give them a vocabulary of comics terms as they’re reading so that they will have ways to talk about and analyze the texts—without these terms, when I ask them to analyze, they fall back on what they know—summarize the plot, or describe what they see in the image. So I assign a few chapters from McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art as supplements to whatever comic they’re reading, and teach them to consider reading rhetorically—each medium or genre that they read requires something different from them, a different vocabulary, a different methodology.
And I recommend that they take what they’re learning from reading and analyzing comics and apply it to their everyday world—how does their new understanding of how comics communicate through the synthesis of image and word effect how they read the billboards on the highway, or a print or web advertisement? We talk about how an artist drawing a frame in a comic makes every choice about what goes into the frame and what isn’t there—every choice is purposeful; I equate that to how they should think when they’re writing an essay—they are like the artist with the blank canvas, and every word and sentence should be purposeful.
I also think it’s important to remember that comics cross several genres and decades, so they’re a great way to give students a rhetorical perspective about how genre and culture shape a text. I’ve often found that reading comics from a particular cultural time period is the best way to get students thinking about what readers from that culture expected or what they valued. There’s a great article by John Trushell from The Journal of Popular Culture that I assign alongside X-Men comics (and films) from several different decades that illustrates how the X-Men and their identity politics have shifted to reflect the cultural values and opinions in each historical period.
Last, both Scott and I have used comics with basic writers in a fully online class—in particular, we picked Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, which turned out to be a particularly useful text for our student population. Language learners appreciate writing about a text where they can interpret the images as well as the words—they feel a bit more confident about reading images. Even if it’s not really easier in the end, it seems less of a mountain for them, and that makes a big difference to their motivation and engagement.

Scott: As Lynda said, I think reminding them that the skills we’re teaching them are portable is essential, otherwise they’re just going to think they’ve lucked out and scored a composition class about comics. Similarly, don’t think that you’ve lucked out and scored a composition class teaching comics. I’ve come across many literature students whose opinion of comics is lower than that of his or her students, e.g. the grad student whose qualifying exams are this quarter and is teaching a comics course in order to lighten his or her workload. If you treat it as an “easier” alternative to teaching “real” literature, you’re going to be reading essays whose commitment to analysis is as strong as yours is to the material. But if you treat comics as a form capable of staging rhetorical situations as complex as any found in “real” literature, you’ll be rewarded with essays that capture your students’ discovery that the world is more complicated than they thought it was. Because if comics are this complex…
Also, it never hurts to teach Watchmen.

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