Thursday, March 13, 2008

Back home

Good to see nothing really happened last week. I return home with a much heavier suitcase (or duffel bag, to be more accurate) filled with books: some I bought, some were Christmas presents I never picked up, some were old comics my brother had been holding for me, and a few were advance copies of upcoming releases. I'll be reviewing the latter here in the near future. Also, I saw Ric Flair drinking at an airport bar sometime around 9 AM on a Wednesday morning. He's shorter than I would have expected; also, his hair isn't so nice anymore.

I only managed to conduct one interview, but it's one that might be of interest in light of the recent Bookscan thing. I'll post it once my brother emails me the relevant photographs. I did get a chance to visit a couple of comics shops in the upstate, allowing me to update my mental "best comics shops in South Carolina" list. I won't try to incorporate this list into the blog, though, since there are a few prominent stores I haven't visited in the last two years. I can give rough recommendations, but I'm not comfortable doing much else.

As far as internet-related stuff, I'm trying to catch up on my enormous RSS backlog. I did find this comments thread rather amusing. Bill Reed asks readers to submit 6-8 graphic novels for a comics lit class, with the following stipulations: quality matters above all else, and no superhero comics. The latter causes some degree of grief, but nothing especially rude or stupid. Well, there is this:

Don’t understand why no superhero comics. Personally, I wouldn’t take a class that claimed to be about Comics as Literature that left out Superhero comics.

2 reasons:

The Death of Captain Marvel

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
What is it with this obsession with The Death of Captain Marvel? I've seen this cited over and over as the great, shining example of superhero comics as literature, but I don't remember liking it that much even back when I was young and dumb. I actually have a copy at hand, and it looks like the predecessor of all the mopey superhero comics which seem so popular today--if you find Drax the Destroyer's ruminations on the afterlife to be especially poetic, or the irony of the Skrulls honoring the dying Captain Marvel especially profound, then this is the comic for you. There's also a lot of angry destruction of inanimate objects to convey the sense of rage/impotence various characters feel. And yes, there is a fight scene at the end! Maybe I should try actually reading/reviewing this thing, just for psychological profiling purposes.

Other than that, many commenters are suggesting much of the Vertigo back catalog, with a few ground-level books (even one vote for Cerebus!) and the odd memoir. One dude would assign multiple volumes of Grendel. I'm glad that at least one comment lists the titles assigned in an actual, real-world version of this class. I can't figure out how to link to individual comments on CSBG, but it's #9 if you want to see it for yourself. It's probably the best list submitted, which is somewhat gratifying:

-Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

-An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories by Ivan Brunetti (ed)

-American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

-Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

-Kafka by Robert Crumb and David Mairowitz

-City of Glass by Paul Aster, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchellil

-Persepolis vol. 1 by Marjane Satrapi

-Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware

-Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Kim Deitch

-Maus vol. 1 by Art Spiegelman

-American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

-Buddha vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka

Not a bad list, though maybe a little heavy on the memoirs/autobiographies and literary adaptations (though the latter might be for comparative purposes). Otherwise, it's a pretty solid group of readings. It's not what I would hypothetically assign, but I've never had to teach literature to college students.

Like almost every list, this one includes McCloud's seminal Understanding Comics. I'd be a little hesitant to assign that, simply because it's likely to be most students' sole exposure to comics criticism. What none of the commenters mention is that college teaching, at least in the humanities, is trending towards assigning bits and pieces of larger works. In the past (like when I was a youngster), these readings were collected in photocopied readers, which were often only quasi-legible. In the last seven or eight years, however, such collections are generally scanned, put into .pdf form, and placed on websites which require students to log in for access. Some folks might disagree with this approach, arguing that comics should be read in paper form. Even so, it might be worthwhile to pick and choose bits from other volumes of comics criticism, rather than relying exclusively on McCloud. Since most of these books are written in prose, reading off a computer screen might not be such a bad alternative (and students can always print off hard copies--although very, very few choose to do so). Hopefully in another decade's time there will be more options for comics criticism, maybe even a synthesis. For now, I would think a piecemeal approach is best.

Personally, I wonder if the advantages to be gained by using an online reader offset any question of presentation. I would (again, hypothetically) likely assign something by David B, but I wouldn't want students to have to pay $15 for a volume of MOME with one of his short stories. Putting it online cuts the students a break. The major disadvantage I can discern would be in trying to discuss online-presented works in class; I suppose this could be averted by limiting classroom discussion to longer works bought in hard copy. In such a case, it might be better to limit online readings to giving students an idea of influences (like assigning a .pdf of a Bob Bolling Little Archie story to students reading something by Jaime Hernandez).

I guess I'm not prepared, however, to offer a list of titles I would assign. I'd probably tend to pick out books which feature the specific advantages of comics as a medium (which is why I specifically mentioned David B), but I'd also probably try to emphasize history. Reed stipulated no superhero comics, but I'd find it difficult not to devote a week to Jack Kirby. But I'd also be interested in emphasizing non-English works, and I don't really think there's time enough in a semester to incorporate the history of Japanese, European, and American comics into a course about comics as literature. That's a somewhat heartening thought, though. Devising a comics curriculum 10 years ago would have been much trickier--not just because of the lower quantity of quality North American comics, but also the lower number of good translated comics. It's not like one would have been forced to assign The Death of Captain Marvel or anything, but options were limited.

Maus would have been mandatory. Tezuka's Adolf was probably the overwhelmingly best choice for manga. There were recently-published comic strip collections, but bookstores might have struggled to round up sufficient copies for all the students in the class. Dan Clowes did not have many collected editions yet (at least I don't think Ghost World was quite out yet in 1998), and college bookstores also might have found it too difficult to stock single issues of Eightball. Robert Crumb seems like a good bet, but I don't think The Complete Crumb Comics had reached his mid 70s-to-mid 80s peak. The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book is an excellent overview of his career, but might have been a little too expensive at the time (though it's not so steep given today's textbook prices). It's also somewhat unwieldy. Thankfully, one could easily assign something by Chester Brown or Seth. City of Glass probably would have been a good bet as well. There might have been an American Splendor collection in print as well (possibly the wonderful Bob and Harv's Comics?). Maus, Adolf, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, The Playboy/I Never Liked You, Bob and Harv's Comics, whatever comic strip collection was available, maybe a volume of Tintin, maybe some Kirby reprint, possibly single issues of Eightball or Acme Novelty Library--that's kind of a meager list.

And it probably goes without saying that one might have encountered greater difficulty in getting this course on the timetable back in 1998. I mean, professors with enough juice could do it, but those folks generally weren't championing the graphic novel ten years ago. It's a different world now, however, and I feel pretty confident that the overwhelming quality of available material will stand up to any popular or academic backlash. Just so long as one doesn't get the impression that Sin City and Transmetropolitan are the best comics have to offer.


Chad Nevett said...

Back in the fall, I read and blogged about/analysed pretty much all of Jim Starlin's cosmic work at Marvel and, yeah, The Death of Captain Marvel was alright, but not that great. It wasn't even close to Starlin's best work from what I looked at (nor was it the worst). The only reason I can think of that it gets so much praise is because, at the time, it was shocking that a character would die like that. But, that doesn't make it a great comic or one worth teaching.

Caleb said...

Oh man, I hope the BookScan related interview was with Ric Flair...

Jason Michelitch said...

I would include Understanding Comics if only because many college students are going to need a ground-up view of how to look at comics and read them, period. True, it might skew some views of comics criticism, but any worthwhile student will recognize and any worthwhile professor will note that McCloud's book is a starting point, not a finish line. Now, granted, worthwhile students and professors are few and far between, but that's a problem regardless of assigned material.

Martha Thomases said...

Howard Cruse's STUCK RUBBER BABY should be on the list.

Isaac said...

I have taught Understanding Comics every time that I've taught a college-level comics course (which means, I think, ten or eleven times now). It's useful for establishing some of the vocabulary for close-reading a comic, but I have two problems with it: (a.) students don't tend to read it very carefully or critically, and (b.) McCloud's arguments often need some qualification or challenging in the classroom, so it seems like I've brought him up only to tear him down. That's a weird way to start the semester.

I've tried to address the first half of that problem by having students write critiques of McCloud as they read him, and to an extent that's working. But the students I'm teaching in my current job (you may not believe this) really do have a hard time following his arguments.

Another problem has arisen, too, which is that many of my current students have read so few comics when the semester begins that they don't have a baseline or groundwork for McCloud's claims -- they don't recognize any of the faces on his big globe.

By the way, if you want a syllabus or two, I'd be happy to send you some. You can also get copies of some syllabi from the NACAE website.

Isaac said...

P.S. My first comics course happened in 2001, and it was actually not that hard to get it onto the books, but probably half of the things I teach now hadn't even been published then. That first syllabus had a couple of superhero books on it, because I didn't have a ton of other stuff I could teach.

Dave Carter said...

Here a link to the syllabus for the Graphic Narrative class being taught this semester here at Univ. Michigan:

Cole Moore Odell said...

I taught an intro course last year that was under the auspices of the college's American Studies Dept., so I felt obligated to 1) devote quite a bit of time to the history and 2) look at some superhero work. I started with lots of smaller pieces, then moved into full-length books, supplemented by excerpts. Most of the recent literary anthologies I find too annoyingly one-note to be useful.

Things we studied included Little Lulu, Krazy Kat, EC horror & war stories, Lynda Barry, a Lee/Kirby monster comic, lots of Crumb, two whole days breaking down "Master Race", Kevin Huizenga, the first year of Siegel/Shuster Superman--along with the old stand-bys (Fun Home, Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan, Our Cancer Year, Contract w/God, etc.) I cop to using the McCloud as a something of a spine for the course, but we also read criticism by David Carrier, Charles Hatfield, and others. Heer and Worcester's "Arguing Comics" anthology is probably my favorite secondary source.

If I get the opportunity to do it again, I'd find a way to work in some Hernandez brothers, at least a chapter of Stuck Rubber Baby, John Porcellino, on and on.

Ben Towle said...

For comparison's sake, you can check out some comics as lit (and other class) syllabi here:

Bryan said...

Ghost World was first collected in 1997.

There are quite a few syllabuses of comics courses online.

Timothy Callahan said...

When I teach comics and discuss them in a class, I use a data projector to focus our discussion on scanned pages anyway. So I don't think the lack of a hard copy would be any real impediment to discussion.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Dude obviously picked "Death of Captain Marvel" because it's Cancer Comics.

That said, most of that thread isn't as retarded as it could easily have been.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Geez, I should have caught that. Is The Death of Captain Marvel the first Cancer Comic? Did Jim Starlin found both it and the Superman Crying schools of comics?

Thanks to all for the links to various syllabi. I haven't had the chance to look at any yet (we're in the middle of trying to buy a car), but I'm eager to do so. And yeah, I should have remembered that document cams are available in many (most?) college classrooms these days.

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