Course Proposal for Spring 2007 (and beyond)

Comics in Context: The Graphic Narrative

Course Number 42.286

Susan Kirtley and Bridget M. Marshall



ISIS Course Description:


The course will focus on texts that combine words and images to make meaning, including comics and graphic novels.  History and theory of the genre, as well as a focus on critical reading and writing will be central to the course.


Detailed Course Description:


Comics, graphic novels, comic strips, cartoons.  There are many terms for them, but they are all names for innovative story-telling done through some combination of words and images.  While picture-images date as far back as the Egyptian tombs, or the caves of Lascaux, our course will consider the development of the modern comic in twentieth- and twenty-first- century America.  Our readings will include not just comics, but also the history of comics, art and literary theory, a novel about comics, and articles that consider the legal, political, and social issues surrounding comics.  We will also look at traditional and contemporary comic strips and graphic novels to explore what we can learn from them about American Popular Culture.


The academic study of comics is on the rise, with many major literature conferences including at least one panel of papers on comic arts.  The 2001 publication of Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America by Bradford Wright (published by Johns Hopkins University Press) also indicates the importance of this growing field.  A growing list of academic press books and dissertations also indicates a growing acceptance of the study of comics in academia.


Comics are on the cutting edge of contemporary literature, and there are many avenues to pursue in the study of this narrative form.  This course will include intensive reading and writing, and will ask students to engage with demanding theoretical works, in addition to incorporating a considerable amount of research.  While the subject matter can be lighthearted, the course takes these texts seriously, and asks for intellectual engagement with the issues and concerns of culture depicted in these words and pictures.


Learning Objectives:



Major Assignments & Projects:


1.       Defining Comics and Comic Autobiography.  Students will need to develop a working definition and talk about their own experience with and relation to comics.  Part of this assignment will take the form of a comic itself, written and/or illustrated by the student.

2.       Biography of a comic artist.  Students will research the life and work of any comic artist (writer or artist); contemporary or historical.  They will seek out a variety of sources (traditional and online) as well as create a small portfolio of the artist’s work.  This focused research project will orient the students to the resources available, as well as begin to hone writing skills.  For each comic chosen for inclusion in the portfolio, students will be asked to write a brief explanation of the comic. 

3.       A short research project on a comic strip or comic character pre-1980.   This will require work with archives, many of which are available online, as well as engagement with history.  Students will need to connect the themes and motifs of the comic with what’s happening historically.  They might look at the ways that comics draw attention to issues of political and social concern, how they portray everyday or fantasy life of the time, or how they spoof particular individuals or stereotypes.

4.       A final project of the student’s choosing, in most cases resulting in an 8 to 10 page paper with a focus on a specific comic artist, comic movement, or period.  Engagement with social issues (censorship, sexism, racism, etc.) will be necessary.  The paper should also indicate familiarity with theoretical and technical terminology, as well as a clear historical grounding in the subject matter.


Semester Reading Plan


Week 1:  Definitions: What are comics?

Š          Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Scott McCloud): This is a chapter by chapter guide on how to read comics and the history of comics, written in the form of a comic book


Week 2: The Comic Strip

Š          Collection of strips including “The Peanuts” (Charles Schultz), “The Far Side” (Gary Larsen), “Calvin and Hobbes” (Bill Watterson), and strips brought in by students from various sources.


Week 3: Making Comics

Š          The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay (Michael Chabon): 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of two cousins brought together in the shadows of World War II, parallels the beginnings of Action Comics and a timeline of the comic book industry.   We will also use this novel as a point of comparison:  how does this novel, which has no pictures, tell its story compared to the many comics that we will read in the course?


Week 4: Comic History

While Understanding Comics provided a great introduction to the history of the genre, these books will focus on particular rises within comics, particularly the dynasty of Marvel comics and the rise of underground comics.  These are two huge forces within comic books.

Š          Marvels (Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross): This comic book tells the history of the Marvel Universe over the past 50 years, told through the lens of a human photojournalist without superpowers.

Š          A History of Underground Comics (Mark Estren)


Week 5: Superman

Superman is perhaps the first character anyone thinks of when they think “comics.”  We’ll spend considerable time looking at the legend of superman – his creation, his various incarnations in a variety of media, and some of the larger concerns (sexism, racism) that arise from the study of this and other comics.

Š          Superman: Archives Volume 1 (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster): These are the first five comics featuring the now mythic Superman.

Š          Icon (Dwayne McDuffie): Comic book portraying a black man, Augustus Freeman III with powers that rival those of Superman

Š          “Superman and Japanese Internment”

Š          Screening:  Superman in the movies (excerpts) and on television in Lois & Clark and Smallville


Week 6: Dark Heroes

Not every superhero works for good.  These books consider the darker side of heroism – what might be at stake when we turn our attention to the dark side of human (and superhuman) nature?

Š          The Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)

Š          Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller)


Week 7: Everyman to Everyday Man

After dabbling in heroes and dark heroes, we will turn to the more recent development of non-heroes as the subject matter of comics.  What happens when the lead character has no super powers, dark or otherwise?  What happens when he has a normal job and does normal things?

Š          Our Cancer Year (Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack)

Š          A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (Will Eisner)

Screening: film American Splendor


Week 8: Everyday People: Adolescents

Since many comic readers are young people, the focus on the everyday sometimes turns to portrayals of teens, either by teens, or retrospectively by adults.  We’ll consider how teens are portrayed and their reaction to these portrayals, as well as considering questions about general comic book readership.  In addition to the comic books, we’ll read tracts that argue that comics are dangerous for teens and young people.

Š          Seduction of the Innocent [from 1954] (Frederic Wertham)

Š          Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Š          Screening: film Ghost World


Week 9: The Graphic Novel

We will consider the “upscale” comic of the graphic novel, which has become a major text in all kind of literature courses over the past few years.

Š          Maus I & II (Art Speigelman)


Week 10: Comics and Politics

Comics have a long history of engagement with politics.  We will look at early examples of “propeganda” comics (made for WWII) and more recent comics created as a means to protest U.S. engagement in war.  What can comics do in the political realm?  Are they an effective means of protest?

Š          Captain America: The Classic Years (1941) (Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Š          Get Your War On (David Rees)


Week 11: No Words

Some Comics focus more heavily on images, completely eliminating words, or having a bare minimum of them.  This unit will consider how these comics differ from their worded brethren, how to categorize, and what kinds of stories they tell.  Is there more room for interpretation here?  Is this art?

Š          Frank (Jim Woodring)

Š          Acme Novelty Comics (Chris Ware)


Week 12: Theory

Š          "Rhetoric of the Image" (Roland Barthes)

Š          Molly Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work (Molly Bang)

Š          Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (W.J.T. Mitchell)

Š          Images by Roy Lichtenstein



Week 13: “Other” Comix: Women and Minorities

Š          Lynda Barry, One Hundred Demons

Š          Marvel’s Black Panther

Š          Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks



Week 14: Developments and the Future of Comics

Š          The New Comics Anthology (ed. Bob Callahan)

Š          Manga! Manga!; the world of Japanese comics (Frederik Schodt)