Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Status Report!

My syllabus for the class started out like this:

What is Comics? (weeks 1 – 3)
*Comics vocabulary
*Understanding Comics chapters 1-4
*The early history of American comics (newspaper comic strips, early comic books)
*Analyzing short comics

Now we're approaching the end of week 3, and we're mostly on track. The only thing we're behind on is reading Understanding Comics--instead of finishing up chapter 4, we're finishing up chapter 3. I don't think we're going too slow, so much as I misestimated how long it would take to get through each chapter (as I keep mentioning, it's really dense.)

Today I gave them a handout over the second half of chapter 3 and the Stardust analysis assignment. Tomorrow we review chapter 1 - 3 and work on writing their analyses. Friday the Stardust analyses are due and they take their test. And that will end Unit 1.

So far, grades are mostly good, and morale is okay. There have been no disasters. I am not a failure.  No, I am mighty like Samson.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Behold the Super Wizard!

Today I had the students read Stardust.

"Oh," you say, "you mean Stardust, the fantasy story by award-winning author Neil Gaiman, lushly illustrated by Charles Vess?"

No, no. That's an illustrated novel, not a comic. I mean STARDUST THE SUPER WIZARD.

Back in the early days of comic books, when Superman was a sudden hit, every publisher wanted to come up with their own Superman. Stardust the Super Wizard is what you get if you try to copy Superman without understanding anything at all about the character.  Stardust is not about protecting the innocent; Stardust waits until evil-doers have committed some horrible atrocity, then swoops in and deals out a gruesome punishment.

The other day I showed the class the original two-page origin of Superman from Superman #1 (which is really charming). So once they've seen Superman, they should see an example of what Superman inspired, right? Many of those early super-hero comics are fairly boring in execution. But Fletcher Hanks, creator of Stardust, was far from boring.

There are generally three reactions to the work of Fletcher Hanks:
1. "This is terrible!"
2. "This is so bad it's good!"
3. "This is awesome."

I'm in the third camp. I can, however, understand the other two viewpoints. Hanks's work is . . . unconventional.

Anyway, we've been reading Understanding Comics, and we're on chapter 3. We've been talking about the six kinds of panel transitions. It's good stuff, but we need a break from it every now and then. So I promised them that we would read an actual story.

I got out my copy of I Will Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, flipped through it, and chose the second Stardust story in the book. This one has everything you want to see: mass destruction, bodies floating in space, cruel ironic punishment, and, most importantly . . .

Stardust crushing a man with one hand.

Tomorrow I'm going to give them a writing assignment based on this story.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Happy Jack Kirby Day!

Today would be Jack Kirby's 94th birthday. Every year I find out it's Kirby's birthday on the day of, and vow to remember the date and plan some sort of celebration.  And I always forget. This has been happening for several years now.

Jack Kirby, as you may or may not know, was the greatest American comic book artist of the 20th century. That's my opinion--some people may argue with the "greatest" part, but no one can argue that was one of the two or three most influential comic book artists. As with George Herriman, of Krazy Kat fame, the average person who sees his art for the first time will probably find it strange and possibly even ugly. When you invest yourself in the story, though, and get in the right mindframe, it becomes glorious and even addictive. Here's a sample of his artwork.  Look at that stuff! Once you accept the Spirit of Kirby into your heart, each drawing is like a mystical revelation.

Years ago, a few days after I started a new job, my manager Matt saw me reading a graphic novel. He asked me if I liked comics, and I said yes. Nothing unusual there. Then he said, "Have you read Jack Kirby's New Gods? It's one of the greatest things I've ever read." At that moment I knew Matt and I would get along great. Sure enough, he ended up becoming one of my best friends. (He's a talented artist, too.)

I decided to celebrate Jack Kirby Day by re-reading a couple of  favorites. One was "The Glory Boat," the climax of which can be seen above. The other was "Himon" from Mister Miracle #9. I've read it several times and I thought I knew what to expect, so I surprised by how much the story spoke to me, and how relevant it is to my life and my job.

Even though this school year has been going great so far, I still get frustrated from time to time about how hard it is to get students really interested in the material. They're all dealing with so many distractions, and have so many other concerns, it's hard for them to care about reading The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The story "Himon" is about a man who is a scientist and a dreamer and a teacher, who lives on the hell-planet Apokolips. The young people are, like everyone else, dedicated to the service of the tyrant Darkseid. Thinking for yourself is a crime. But even though the authorities are out to kill him, Himon is determined to show these young people a better way, to expose them to beauty, to free their minds from Anti-Life. It's exaggerated, obviously, but it's a metaphor for the importance of education, even in a society that doesn't always value it.

And if Himon can get shot and blown up for his troubles, and still keep on teaching, what do I have to complain about?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Love Is Like a Brick to the Head

As good as Understanding Comics is, it's a lot of theorizing and explaining, and every now and then you need a change of pace. So I started off today's class with a brief introduction to Krazy Kat.

George Herriman's Krazy Kat, as you may be aware, is considered by many to be the Great American Comic Strip, the Citizen Kane of newspaper comics. It ran from 1916 to 1944, only ending when Herriman died. It's about a cat named Krazy who loves a mouse named Ignatz. Ignatz throws bricks at Krazy, which Krazy interprets as gestures of love.

Krazy and Ignatz and their friends live in Coconino County, which I always assumed was a made up place, like Duckburg or Gotham City, but which it turns out is an actual place in Arizona. When we drove through there a few summers ago I really wanted to get a picture of me in front of a "Welcome to Coconino County" sign, but sadly we did not see one.

Anyway, these animals live in the southwest and they go on about their lives and there's really no way to describe the strip that does it justice. You have to read it, and you have to read several of them to get into the rhythm of the comic and enter into Herriman's strange fantasy world. Unfortunately I am limited on time and resources, so I only showed the students one strip.

Fantagraphics has almost wrapped up their complete reprinting of all the Krazy Kat Sunday strips--and really, if you're only going to buy one comic strip reprint series, this is the one--so I've got 23 years worth of weekly comic strips on my shelf. I wasn't willing to comb through them all to find the perfect strip, so I decided to just go  with the first volume:

I flipped through that and chose the fourth ever Krazy Kat strip, from May 14, 1916. It's 22 panels long, which is a ridiculous amount of content for one page.

Krazy is floating down the river in a shoe box, and goes over a waterfall. Ignatz thinks that Krazy is dead and celebrates. Then, after he sits down to think about it, he starts to cry. Krazy, now underwater, runs into a relative, Krazy Kat-Fish. Krazy Kat-Fish leads Krazy Kat to Mannie Mush-Rat's home underground.  Ignatz is sitting and weeping when Krazy pops out of a tree and says, "Why, li'il ainjil, why weeps thou?" Ignatz is surprised, so Krazy adds, "It's only me dahlink." Ignatz throws a rock at Krazy, and in the last panel Krazy reflects, "L'il lolly-pops, how he loves me." 

Krazy stuff!

After that we started on Understanding Comics chapter 2, all about icons, varying levels of abstraction, and the power of cartoons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Truth About Plenitude

I got four more copies of Understanding Comics in the mail today. Thanks, friends! You are unbelievably swell. I almost have enough for a complete class set.

Tomorrow I'm giving a quiz on the first chapter of Understanding Comics and our vocabulary words.  Today we reviewed for the quiz, and they read a three page Frank comic by Jim Woodring. I already shared the last page of it here. I chose this because it's short and it's wordless. I want them to practice reading the pictures. To make sure they looked at each panel, I had them number their papers 1 - 22 and write a one sentence summary of what happened in each panel.

Jim Woodring is basically a genius, but I'm afraid you don't really get that from reading just three pages. If you ever get the chance, read the slightly-longer "Frank and the Truth About Plenitude." It's one of my all-time favorite comics, a surreal vision of an imaginary but internally consistent world, and oh my god man it will totally BLOW YOUR MIND.

I once met Jim Woodring. Are you impressed? Yeah, the kids weren't, either.

In other news, I'm going to write about Grant Morrison's Supergods one of these days. In the meantime, here's Morrison being interviewed by Rolling Stone. It seems like he tries to avoid expressing his rage at Mark Millar, so I was surprised by the part where he basically said he'd like to hit Millar with his car.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Here You Go, Educators of the World

Questions on Understanding Comics Chapter 1:

1. According to Scott McCloud, “the potential of comics is _______________ and _______________ !” (p. 3)

2. What term did Will Eisner use to describe comics? (p.5)

3. Explain the difference between medium and content. Answer in complete sentences. (p.6)

4. What six other media does McCloud give as examples? (p.6)

5. What is McCloud’s definition of comics? (p.9)

6. When was the pre-Columbian picture manuscript discovered by Cortes? (p.10)

7. What story does the Bayeux Tapestry tell? (p.12 – 13)

8. What event looms large over the history of comics? (p.15)

9. Describe some of the events shown in “The Tortures of Saint Erasmus.” (p.16)

10. Describe the work of William Hogarth. (p.16)

11. Describe the artwork of Rodolphe Topffer. (p.17)
12. When did newspaper comics start to appear? (p.18)

13. According to McCloud, why are many “inspired and innovative comics” not usually seen as comics? Answer in complete sentences. (p.18)

14. According to McCloud, why is a single panel not comics? (p.20)

15. What is the difference between cartoons and comics? (p.21)

16. What are some of the genres McCloud lists? (p.22)

17. What are some of the things McCloud says are not mentioned in his definition of comics? (p.22)

18. Describe the way Scott McCloud draws himself. Be specific.

19. What are the main points McCloud is making in this chapter? Summarize the main ideas. Answer in complete sentences.

20. Do you think McCloud does a good job explaining his ideas in this chapter? Why or why not? Be specific.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Students in Slumberland

Yesterday I said one class was more enthusiastic than the other. That was a total rookie mistake. The minute you start to think of one class as "the good class," things will go terribly wrong, and the class you thought of as bad will go just fine. It doesn't pay to try and predict these things. Today the "enthusiastic" class was painfully bored. So, no more generalizations about the two classes. We all have our good days and our bad days.

Man, I'm tired. I'm not back into the swing of things yet.

Today we read the rest of Understanding Comics chapter 1. In retrospect, it was too much theory at once and, as mentioned above, some of the students were overwhelmed and bored by it. I need to remember that, while I may find this stuff fascinating, I am not an average teenager.

We also talked some about comics history and I showed them some Little Nemo in Slumberland. Fortunately I own a decent sized comics library, so if I need an example of a famous comic, I can usually pull it off a shelf. I've got a couple of books of Little Nemo reprints.

Little Nemo--normal people don't know this stuff, do they? No, I suppose they don't. Allow me to elaborate. Little Nemo in Slumberland, drawn by Winsor McCay in the early 20th century, was one of the first great newspaper comic strips. It ran in the Sunday paper, and each each installment took up a whole page, and so was approximately the size of a beach towel. It's elegant, imaginative, and gorgeously drawn. Here's a random page, about one-millionth of the original size: 

Don't worry that you can't read the words; they're much less interesting than the pictures. Check out those mushrooms!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In Deliberate Sequence

It's quickly becoming clear that one class is more enthusiastic than the other but, overall, things are going well.

This morning (during the more enthusiastic class) I walked around the room and watched as students diligently wrote their responses to Scott McCloud's definition of comics.

That definition, you may recall, is "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer". Some big words in there, but we defined them yesterday and reviewed them today, and then talked about what it meant, so hopefully everyone got the idea.

Anyway, as I walked around, and all the students were writing their thoughts about Scott McCloud's definition of comics, I felt a tremendous sense of peace and satisfaction. At that moment I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Second Day of Class

Day Two! We talked about what the word "comics" means and brainstormed ideas. Then I gave them definitions for comics terms like "panel" and "gutter" and "word balloon." And then I had them look up definitions for the difficult words from Understanding Comics chapter 1, like "aesthetic" and "juxtaposed." Once they were armed with these words, we launched into reading the first chapter. We only made it a few pages in, but tomorrow we'll get to Scott McCloud's definition of comics.

So far the class is going well. One thing I notice is that my students don't have a strong prejudice against the subject. I can easily imagined someone saying, "Comics class? That's a waste of time! I demand to be transferred to a class that deals with significant intellectual content!" But my students are, you know, teenagers. Some of them love comics, some of them dislike comics, some don't care, but at the end of the day it's another class, and writing down definitions for comics terms is about the same as writing down Spanish vocabulary or facts about World War I. It's all just stuff to them. I appreciate that.

Speaking of things I appreciate . . . when I got home today there was a box on my porch. Inside the box were two copies of Understanding Comcis. These books were generously donated by a friend. I'm not 100% sure which friend, because two people emailed recently to ask my address so they could send me some books, but both of them are upstanding gentlemen. When I wrote on here about my difficulties getting books, that was not meant as a subliminal hint that people should mail them to me. I know that the guy who sent me books--whichever one he is--did it because he genuinely wanted to help out, and I am extremely grateful.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day One: And So It Begins

This is my fourth year as a teacher. If I remember correctly, a staggering number of new teachers quit after three years. Do you know what that means? I have beaten the odds. I am a survivor!

I said before that I had no idea how the students would react when they found out what the class was about. I have two Creative Reading classes, and they reacted differently. When I explained to the first one that I had been asked to come up with a new elective, and I had suggested a class about comics, there were sudden gasps of delight and cheers. There was also disbelief, and at least a couple of sad faces, but mostly delight. After that word got out, so the other Creative Reading class was not so surprised. They didn't seem too excited or upset about it. That class was at the end of the day, though, and we were all tired by then.

As I mentioned before, I had students write down thoughts. The specific prompt was:

What do you think of when you hear the word "comics"? What are your thoughts and feelings about comics? Answer in complete sentences. Write at least 100 words.

That second paragraph up there is over 100 words. In the grand scheme of things, 100 words is not much at all, unless you are a high school student, in which case it is apparently a treacherous ordeal. They all suffered through it, though, counting the words as they went. The responses covered the whole range, from "Comics are amazing!" to "Comics are lame kid stuff," from Garfield to Watchmen. Only a few people expressed outright contempt for comics. Hopefully they'll change their minds before the semester is over.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Night Before the Day the Earth Stood Still

Even though we didn't have any students, today was a busy day at Riverdale High. I had forgotten how tired I usually am when I come home from work, which makes me wonder if I'll be able to keep up with the regular blogging schedule I've been trying to follow. When I feel tired and ready to quit, I just need to remember all of you clamoring for more details about this class. Okay, maybe not "clamoring" . . . demonstrating polite curiosity?

Actually, people have been really great. Over the last few weeks I've had numerous people tell me that they're keeping up with the blog and that they're interested in how the class turns out. Several people have given me helpful feedback and suggestions. I appreciate everyone's support. I'll try not to let you down.

(I'm working on being less negative. "I'll try not to let you down" may not sound very confident, but it's a big improvement from "I am doomed to failure" and another step closer to "I will certainly succeed!")

Tomorrow's the first day of class. The first day is usually devoted to introductions, rules, procedures, and that kind of thing, so there won't be much content. After we've discussed the syllabus I'm going to have them write down their thoughts and feelings about comics. That should give me an idea of where they stand.

What I'm most curious about is the students' reaction to finding out what the class is. They will receive their schedules tomorrow morning and will have no idea what Creative Reading class is about until I tell them. Will they be relieved that I'm going to give them books with pictures? Or will they complain that comics are dumb kid stuff? I'm sure I'll hear both opinions expressed, but I'm really not sure which will be the majority view. Tune in tomorrow to find out!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

So Long, Summer

I go back to school tomorrow, students come back the day after that. I've got about ten hours of summer left.  And there's still so much to do . . .

I'll post more tomorrow.

In the meantime, here's a drawing by Jack Kirby.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Teaching Life

The clock keeps ticking and Tuesday gets closer and closer. I've been getting ready, but not by doing anything cerebral or interesting. I bought some supplies at Target today--Kleenex, hand sanitizer, pencils--and some clipboards at Office Depot.

I also got the September issue of Harper's. The cover story is "Getting Schooled" by Garret Keizer, who returns to teaching after 14 years away. It's a good article. I particularly enjoyed this:

"My goal here is to point out that even under ideal circumstances, public-school teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can do. Most sensible people know that. Anyone who claims not to know that is either a scoundrel or a nincompoop; or, to put it another way, a typical expert on everything that's wrong with American public education and the often damaged children that it serves."

Later Keizer writes about "the encroachment of the totalitarian 'business model' that has destroyed family farming as a way of life", a model that focuses less on "issues outside the school" and "lone wolf teachers." He goes on to say:

"The notion that the very same teacher who made the greatest difference in my life need to be purged from the ranks is dispiriting enough, but the outrageous suggestion that the 'brutal facts' of education have more to do with the schoolhouse than with the larger society in which my students live is enough to make me want to spit. Or teach."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Return to Riverdale

You know, I haven't told my colleagues about this blog yet, and I don't know if they would want me to refer to the school by name, so I should probably come up with an alias. Since this is comic book class, I should use something comics-related. I'll go with the most famous school in American comics, Riverdale High.

So I went to Riverdale today and set up my classroom. It took about three hours. I'm happy with how it looks, particularly the bulletin board collage (I always cover one small bulleting board with random pictures I've accumulated over the years.) Loving Wife tells me that, since I'm teaching a comic book class, I should put my giant Crisis on Infinite Earths poster up in the classroom. I've got pictures of Superman and Captain America up but, I dunno, that Crisis poster is 65" x 28". That is a lot of space for one poster, particularly one that really undercuts that whole "there's more to comics than super-heroes" argument I'm going to be making.

I've still got to figure out the details of the first week's lesson plans, and some stuff like that, but I'm much farther along than I was this time last year. The last days of summer are usually a desperate scramble as I struggle to make the transition back into teaching. Creating this blog, and thinking through the details of this class, made the transition much smoother this year.

After writing about this class for the last few weeks, I'm feeling excited and optimistic about actually teaching it. Will my optimism survive contact with the students? Only time will tell. They say that students can sense when a teacher is genuinely enthusiastic about the material, and there is not much I am more enthusiastic about than comics.

Here's something students have to look forward to in the first week:
(from The Portable Frank, by Jim Woodring)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

McCloud & Morrison

I haven't heard back on whether the class title has been approved, but class starts on Tuesday, so I'm operating under the assumption that comics class is indeed go.

I also haven't heard when I'll be getting textbooks. I've ordered a few copies of Understanding Comics so I'll have some on hand when we start the year. Students can share them as needed.

You may recall that I emailed some comic book publishers to see if any of them were interested in donating books to the class. Since the initial "no" and "maybe," I haven't heard back from any of them.

So all that is still up in the air, which could be very frustrating, but I am trying to be positive. I'm about to start teaching the class of my dreams, right? How many people get to live out their dreams? If I had to guess I'd say not very many.

Recently I've been reading Grant Morrison's Supergods and rereading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Scott McCloud reminds us that comics is a medium, not a genre, and we should not make any assumptions about content. That's an important point that people often overlook. There’s so much more to comics than super-heroes--comics come in every genre, including humor, crime, science fiction, romance, autobiography, and non-fiction--that it would be wrong to focus too much on super-heroes.

Which is a shame, because Supergods makes me want to teach the history of super-hero comics. Grant Morrison is my favorite comic book writer and a nonfiction book about super-heroes from him is like a candy-coated treasure trove of riches.

Here's what is, in effect, his mission statement from the Introduction:

"They're about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provacative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us."

I would say, yes, superhero comics have helped me resolve deep existential crises. Is that weird? Maybe, but it's probably more common than you would think.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Read Supergods, On Sale Now

"I chose to see some [comic book] writers as missionaries who attempted to impose their own values and preconceptions on cultures they considered inferior--in this case, that of the superheroes. Missionaries liked to humiliate the natives by pointing out their gauche customes and colorfully frank traditional dress. . . Anthropologists, on the other hand, surrendered themselves to foreign cultures. They weren't afraid to go native or look foolish. They came and they departed with respect and in the interests of mutual understanding. Naturally, I wanted to be an anthropologist."

--Grant Morrison, Supergods

Monday, August 8, 2011

Syllabusizing, Stage One

School starts in one week. Time to get cracking on the ol' syllabus. Here's what I've got so far.

Requirements: Over the course of the semester, you will be required to:
*Listen and take notes during lectures
*Participate in group discussions
*Demonstrate an understanding of material covered by taking quizzes and tests
*Write multiple analyses of shorter comics works
*Read multiple graphic novels, such as Persepolis
*Write a literary analysis of a major graphic novel
*Research a significant American comic book writer, comic book artist, or cartoonist, evaluate his/her strengths and weaknesses, and present your findings to the class

Structure: This course is divided into four units:
What is Comics? (weeks 1 – 3)
*Comics vocabulary
*Understanding Comics chapters 1-4
*The early history of American comics (newspaper comic strips, early comic books)
*Analyzing short comics

Reading Pictures (weeks 4 – 6)
*Understanding Comics chapters 5-9
*The continuing history of American comics (comic books to graphic novels)
*Comparing and contrasting different art styles
*Analyzing & evaluating longer comics

Mastering Graphic Novels (weeks 7 – 15)
*Read significant graphic novels, discuss, analyze
*Write a literary analysis of a major graphic novel
*Begin research project on a significant American comic book writer, artist, or cartoonist

Evaluating Graphic Narratives (weeks 16 – 18)
*Finish research project
*Use findings from research project to give a presentation to the class
*Semester exam

So, what did I miss?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Books & Books & Books!

Yesterday when I mentioned a step we were taking toward getting Creative Reading class approved, I wrote, "I have no idea if this is just a tiny formality, or the End of the Dream, but hopefully I'll find out soon." A few hours after that I got an email reassuring me that it was just a formality. So that's good, though I'll be happier once we get officially approved.

Anyway! As part of the approval process, I put together a list of texts for the class. Check it out and let me know what you think--what did I leave out? What should I have left out? What frightens and confuses you? Let me know in the comments!

We will read, discuss, and frequently refer back to:
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud

Graphic Novels
We will read at least two of the following in their entirety:
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
American Born Chinese, by Gene Yang
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Batman Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli

Supplemental Reading
We will read excerpts from the following:
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones
The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams
The Smithsonian Collection of Comic Book Comics, edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams
Kirby: King of Comics, by Mark Evanier
The Great Women Cartoonists, by Trina Robbins
I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! The Comics of Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik
A Contract With God, by Will Eisner
The Portable Frank, by Jim Woodring
Paul Auster’s City of Class, adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli
Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay
Krazy Kat, by George Herriman
Peanuts, by Charles Schulz
“A Dream of a Thousand Cats”, by Neil Gaiman and Kelley Jones
“This Man, This Monster!”, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
“The Girl in Superman’s Past!”, by Bill Finger and Wayne Boring

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Mission Statement

For today's blog post I was planning on writing some kind of manifesto on what I want to achieve with this class. The good news is, I got an opportunity to write that manifesto.

The bad news is, I got an email this morning telling me I needed to fill out a form so that we could get the Creative Reading class approved. The bad thing about this is, I thought the class already was approved. If I'd known there was still a question as to whether it was going to happen, I wouldn't have put as much time into planning it, and I certainly wouldn't have created a blog about it. But here were are.

For the record, I'm not criticizing any of the people I work with--when that colleague of mine originally told me this class was happening, she genuinely thought everything had been approved and we were good to go. And it looked like we were, until we rammed into another layer of bureaucracy. I have no idea if this is just a tiny formality, or the End of the Dream, but hopefully I'll find out soon.
In the meantime, here's what I spent this morning working on: a justification for why this class should exist.

Creative Reading is a one-semester course that focuses on reading, analyzing, and researching graphic novels.

According to Reading Process benchmark 2, English students need to “Answer literal, inferential, evaluative and synthesizing questions to demonstrate comprehension of grade-appropriate print texts and electronic and visual media.” It is important for students to “read” a variety of media. In a traditional Language Arts class we study print texts, and sometimes movies, but there is seldom time for students to read and analyze other visual media, such as comics and graphic novels.  

Comics—which Scott McCloud defines as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”— is just as valid a medium of expression as print, film, painting, or drama. But because of the accidents of history, comics have not been given the same respect as other art forms in this country. Since Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, however, comics—or “graphic novels,” as longer form comics are known—have won considerable literary and social credibility. For example, in 2005, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best English Language Novels, alongside such classics as The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury.  

Reading comprehension and analysis skills can be practiced with any text. It is up to the teacher to choose quality texts that can simultaneously engage the students’ attention and challenge them. Graphic novels work well for both. In recent years there has been a string of blockbuster movies based on comic books. I have found that discussing comic book-related topics is a way to engage the students. Many students who dismiss reading as “boring” nonetheless find comics interesting. Graphic novels often interest reluctant readers. A rich and intelligent graphic novel, then, is a powerful tool for engaging students and then pushing them to develop deeper analytical abilities.  

Last year I loaned a fellow teacher my copy of Gene Yang’s award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese. A few days later she told me that she found herself reading the words and skipping over the pictures. Even though she was a highly-trained, experienced, intelligent teacher, she did not know how to read comics. Creative Reading class will train students in comics literacy, teaching them to read not just the words but the pictures. Reading comics requires a different way of reading, a different way of thinking, that forces students to expand their minds as they interpret visual stimuli. Armed with these skills, students will be able to view and interpret the world around them in new ways.  

Our students are constantly barraged with information. Advertisers, politicians, and TV networks try to manipulate them with words and pictures. We need to prepare our students to make sense of the texts, both written and visual, that surround them. Learning to interpret visual texts is a valuable step in developing critical thinking skills and becoming an informed, engaged citizen of the 21st century.

This course, then, offers students an engaging curriculum; exposure to literary works they probably would not have read otherwise; an appreciation of a culturally-relevant American art form; a new set of reading skills; a deepening of students’ existing reading comprehension, analysis, and research skills; and increased critical thinking abilities, which can be applied to any other discipline.
Creative Reading is a one-semester course that focuses on reading, analyzing, and researching graphic novels.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Secret Origin

When I was in first grade I got my first comic book, an Archie Christian comic, which I enjoyed at the time even though it was completely terrible. This tells me that I was predisposed to like comics no matter what. Soon after I got my first super-hero comic, Batman #340. There’s nothing special about this comic, but, you know, it’s Batman. What impressionable child doesn’t love Batman?

Later that year my family went to Philadelphia so my father could attend a library convention. Every night we would go to the 7-11, and my parents would buy me one comic book (they were only 60 cents each). I can remember which ones I got--an Archie, an issue of The Defenders, and an issue of Marvel Team-Up that featured Spider-Man and the Human Torch fighting Speed Demon. Those comics are vivid in my memory, much clearer to me than any other part of my first grade year.

I tagged along with my parents or my grandmother on every trip to Food Fair, or Begley's Drugs, or the gas station, then begged whoever I was with to buy me a comic book. I built up quite a collection, for someone with no disposable income. My great aunt thought the comic books were silly, a waste of time. Fortunately for me, my mother did not share this opinion. She believed that comics promoted literacy. And they do. Comic books teach you that reading is fun. They feed your imagination. They even provide SAT prep, by teaching you vocabulary words like "omnipotent" and "inexorable." 

In retrospect, I am amazed by how much my parents encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. I mentioned earlier that in Philadelphia I got an issue of The Defenders. That issue focused on a character called Hellcat, who had learned that she was the daughter of Satan. The story consisted of her traveling through Hell, talking to her father.  I remember lying on the hotel floor, trying to puzzle this out—I was only six, remember. I asked, "What does S-A-T-A-N spell?" Without pausing my mother said, "Satan." Growing up in the Bible Belt, I would come to know plenty of kids whose parents forbade them to read certain books, or play certain games, or watch certain movies, because of imagined demonic overtones. This was the 80’s, when televangelists could find pagan symbolism in My Little Pony cartoons. But I, at age six, could read a story that actually featured Satan as a character, and my parents didn't freak out. I will always be grateful for that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Step Three: Profit!

Nothing new to report about textbooks, so let's look at my first few steps in planning this class.

Step One! After I got the email confirming that I would be teaching a class about comics I got excited and started pulling books off the shelf. “They need to read Jim Woodring!” I said. “And I’ll need some examples of early comic strip art. And it wouldn't be a comics class without Jack Kirby. And Will Eisner. And . . ." And in a few minutes I had a huge pile of books sitting on my floor.

More books than I could realistically work with. Also, I had a tower that would make an extremely tempting target, and a toddler who would be home any minute. So after I took a picture, to document my progress, I put the books back on the shelf. Step One: Not a huge success.

Step Two! Choose a textbook. Step Two was easy--if you need a textbook for a comics class, you turn to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. I got a copy of Understanding Comics back when it first came out in 1993, and it opened my young mind to the infinite potential of the comics medium. Until last week I hadn’t read it in years. When I cracked it open again, I was pleased to learn that it actually is as good as I remember.  McCloud takes full advantage of the comics medium to explain his ideas visually--the sequence with the pitcher, for instance, explains the relationship between form and content in a clear and intuitive way. 

Now we're getting to some actual lesson planning. Assuming I can get the students copies of Understanding Comics, we can start at the beginning. Chapter 1 is all about finding a definition of comics. McCloud arrives at “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” McCloud explains some of those words, but he never defines "aesthetic." I don’t think many of my students will know that one, so I'll need to create a list of vocabulary words. From Chapter 1 I'm thinking aesthetic, form, content, medium, genre, juxtaposed, static, and deliberate.

Chapter 1 also goes into the history of comics. McCloud goes very big picture, focusing on ancient stuff like Egyptian art and the Bayeaux Tapestry.  I get what he’s doing—he’s reclaiming comics’ forgotten history, showing that the artform has been around for a long time. But when he gets to the beginning of conventional comics history, the dawn of the newspaper comic strip, he glosses over it. I want to show students some classic newspaper comics, though, so I’ll need to supplement McCloud with other resources. It's time to pull the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics off the shelf. And some Little Nemo, and Krazy Kat, and, what do you know, we're back at Step One. 

Monday, August 1, 2011


Bad news: I was under the impression that the school had ordered 20-ish copies of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to use as my main textbook. It turns out that the order was never placed, and now it is very unclear whether I'll be getting those books (I don't know if you've heard, but public schools are not currently rolling in the money.) I still plan on using Understanding Comics, even if I can't get the 20-ish copies, but it's an annoying setback.

I currently have one copy:

Good news: I emailed eight major comics publishers (Pop Quiz! Can YOU name eight American comic book publishers?) asking if they ever donated comics for educational purposes. So far I've gotten two replies, one of which said no, but said it very politely, and the other of which said maybe. I'm optimistic about that second one, and there are still six more publishers to hear from.

GO Comics Class GO!

I’ve been a high school English teacher for 3 years and a comics fan for three decades. Now, at long last, these two worlds have collided.

At the end of last school year they asked me what elective I wanted to teach. I had been teaching Journalism, but it’s a small school, and after a certain point pretty much everyone’s already taken Journalism. I said, “How about History of the American Comic Book?” That was clearly a joke, because that’s a name for a college course, not a high school elective. But instead of laughing they said, “Hmmmm, we’ll see.”  

I waited through the summer to hear what my schedule would be for the new year. I tried not to get my hopes up—the minute I assumed I was going to teach comics, I knew I would end up with a class on proper punctuation. But then, on a fateful day in July, I got an email confirming that my fellow English teacher would be teaching Creative Writing, and I would be teaching Creative Reading. Creative Reading, AKA Graphic Novels.

I was immediately thrilled and terrified. Thrilled because, again, dream class, but terrified because I’ve never taught this before, because I don’t want to screw it up, and because I have no idea how to get piles and piles of graphic novels for the students to read.

I’ve still got a couple of weeks to figure out how to score some books, but in the meantime I can get started planning the class. That’s where this blog comes in. I will be recording my thinking process, and hopefully people out there will chime in with suggestions.

In two weeks—two weeks!—class will start, and then I’ll keep a record of how it’s going. My comics class will be your comics class. So let’s get brainstorming.