Thursday, September 29, 2011

"If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely. Are you ready to begin?"

The students have been doing a lot of handouts lately so I wanted to mix it up and show them a movie. The animated movie of Batman Year One is coming out October 18th. It is not, however, out today, so we started watching Batman Begins. You know, this one:

The students are watching it and taking notes on how it is similar to and different from Batman Year One. Batman Begins is not an adaptation of Year One, but it does steal various concepts, characters, and themes from the book. Corrupt cop Flass and mob boss Falcone are in the movie, for instance, and so is the SWAT-team-coming-after-Batman scene. The James Gordon in the movie is similar to the one in the book, though the movie version has been in Gotham for years, instead of just transferring in from Chicago the same day Bruce Wayne returns. And while the book starts off with Bruce returning from his travels abroad and never gives even a flashback to show where he's been, the movie spends a great deal of time on his training.

But you don't have to do this assignment, so I'll stop giving you the answers. Batman Begins is a fun movie and I think they'll enjoy it. Also important, playing a movie is something easy for the sub to do. That's right, I will be going out of town tomorrow, so my class will be in the hands of a stranger. I hope everything goes well.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Someday I Will Write a Blog Post That Is Not about Batman

Now that we've read all of Batman Year One, we're looking at the relationships in the book and how they develop over time. Tracking, for instance, how James and Barbara Gordon's marriage changes, and how Batman and Gordon's respect evolves, and so on.

This is going to be a short blog post, due to child care reasons.

I would like to add, though, that I liked the change the filmmakers made in Batman Begins, where Joe Chill, the guy who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne, is caught and tried and, most importantly, murdered right in front of Bruce. Unable to get revenge on his parents' killer, Bruce Wayne has to come up with a new goal, so he travels the world training to become the ultimate crimefighter.

I just heard that DC is planning on changing the Official Batman Backstory (which changes every week or so) back to its Frank Miller setting, wherein Bruce never knew the name of the guy who killed his parents, and the guy was never caught. That seems like a step backwards to me.

But I don't have time to develop that thought . . .child care duty calls. Have a great day!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Merkel. Get Dent. Forget to tell the Commissioner."

And so we made it to Chapter Four, the conclusion to Batman Year One.

Back in the heyday of the Comics Code, government officials had to be shown in a positive light, criminals had to be depicted as conspicuously evil, and criminals always had to go to jail in the end.

Throughout this book all aspects of Gotham City--especially the police, but also the mayor--are shown as being ridiculously corrupt. This corruption is, presumably, why the city needs a vigilante dressed like a bat. At the end of the story, none of the criminals really go to jail. Dirty cop Flass works out a deal and rats out the equally dirty Commissioner Loeb. Loeb resigns, but Gordon says, "I don't think Dent has a chance of putting him behind bars." Loeb is going to be replaced by Grogan, "who's worse." The big mob boss, The Roman, is still at large. This a whole new world, profoundly different from the one Batman used to inhabit in the sixties. Evil isn't something that shows up out of nowhere, dressed in a funny costume. It's systemic. You can't defeat the evil of the world; you can make a stand and inconvenience the people in charge, but they'll only be replaced by more.

That sounds kind of bleak, but when you look at Jim Gordon on the next-to-last page, standing there smoking his pipe, he looks so happy. Sure, the never ending battle against evil is tough work, but having a pal on your side makes it all worthwhile.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Whoever told her she was masculine must've been blind, deaf, and dead."

Today we started on Batman Year One Chapter Three. Batman punches a guy through a wall! Selina and Holly get rabies shots! Gordon begins an affair with Essen (shown above)! I can't get over how much happens in each chapter. And I keep noticing new things . . . I'd never realized before that almost a month and a half passed between Selina leaving Stan's employ and getting her Catwoman costume. So much time can pass in just a couple of pages; you almost never see comics paced like this.

Class today went fine. I gave them handouts to go along with Chapter Three. Nothing unusual to report.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Man of Muscle Mystery

Occasionally someone asks me what my favorite comic book is. That's a difficult question--it's like asking a regular person to name their favorite song, or movie. I like a lot of different comics. When forced to name just one, though, I usually say Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.

(That's the cover to issue four; I already posted the cover to issue one back in my very first blog post.)

Flex Mentallo was a four issue mini-series that came out from Vertigo (the R-rated branch of DC Comics) in 1996. It was written by my favorite comic book writer, Grant Morrison, and starred a character from one of my all-time favorite series, Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol. When the first issue came out, I wasn't too sure about it. I grew to like the series more and more, so that I was excited by the time the fourth one came out. I took it with me to the movie theater where I worked and when I read it on break I felt an indescribable sense of joy, a feeling that I was reading the story I'd waited my whole life for. The kind of feeling you don't get very often, particularly as you get older.

I vowed that, when the inevitable trade paperback collection came out, I would buy multiple copies and give them to friends. That way others could share the love and, by reading Flex Mentallo, come to better understand me as a person. Unfortunately there were legal problems and that paperback never came. After fifteen years of waiting, though, there is good news--the Flex Mentallo hardcover is coming out early next year.  Pre-order your copy today!

As much as I like to imagine other people reading the book and being overwhelmed by its glory, it is a comic book about comic books, and I imagine that most people wouldn't respond to it as strongly as I did. Also, most people would probably find the story incomprehensible. It's very nicely drawn, though, and I connected to it on a lot of levels.

Shortly after I graduated from college I had vague plans to write something academic about Flex Mentallo. I was slow, though, and people beat me to it. I lost my chance to be the world's preeminent Flex Mentallo scholar; but in my heart I know I'm Flex Mentallo's #1 fan.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"I tried to avoid all this but I can't."

One side-effect of teaching Batman Year One every day this week is that I've pretty much constantly had this song stuck in my head:

Back in 1989 we said things like, "The campy old Adam West Batman is lame! This new Tim Burton Batman movie is dark and serious!" And we watched this Prince video, and apparently did not notice how completely ridiculous it is. But maybe all the music videos in 1989 were like that; I haven't really watched any of them recently.

More importantly, in 1989 Batman was popular enough that Batman Year One was offered through my mother's book club, and she ordered me a copy. That copy is now in a pile in my classroom, contributing to the education of America's youth.

No new assignments today; I gave the students time to finish up their Batman comparison, and any of the Year One handouts they may not have finished.

Next week: Chapter 3! The one where Batman has to fight the SWAT team and escape from the condemned building. Remember? They stole that scene in a couple of the movies.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Said the Rolls is in the river. Even told me which pier."

Last week I mentioned that maybe it had been a bad idea to assign the kids to read the surreal wordless story "Frank and the Truth About Plenitude." In retrospect I'm glad I did, because I think struggling through that has made them appreciate Batman Year One more. As a class we're still on chapter 2, but a number of students are reading ahead, which is always nice. A few of them have said, "I actually like this," with shock in their voice.

One of my fellow teachers buys all the Batman comics that come out each month (which is a lot of comics) but doesn't keep them. He donated a pile of 3-4 months worth of Batman to my class. Today I had each student choose a modern Batman comic (options included Batman, Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, Batman Incorporated, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batgirl, and so on), look it over, and write a comparison between that comic and Batman Year One. In particular I wanted them to compare and contrast the art and writing styles. Some of the students were intrigued by the modern comics, though I think the general consensus was that Year One is better.   

(Which is correct.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"How did I screw up so badly. . . to bring an innocent child to life . . . in a city without hope. . ."

And, for the first time, the quote in the title actually matches the picture. That's some impressive blogging, there.

I love the painted sky in that second panel. David Mazzucchelli's black and white artwork is great, and then the coloring by Richmond Lewis adds a whole new dimension. I just found out yesterday that Richmond Lewis was David Mazzucchelli's wife. Frank Miller always used to get his wife to color his work, too. Was that the fashion back in the 80's?

Today in class we started chapter 2, and it went well. Some days it goes well. When that happens it's important not to start thinking that you've got it all figured out and that every day from now on will be great. That's a surefire way to set yourself up for disappointment. Things happen, good and bad, and you never know what the next day will be like until you get there. But today Bruce Wayne dressed up like a bat and committed 78 acts of assault in five weeks, and all was well.

For those of you playing along at home, here are some questions about chapter 2. This assignment is worth 20 points, so be sure to answer each question completely.

1. Based on its use on page 26, what do you think the word “gestapo” means?
2. Compare and contrast Gordon and Branden’s approach to police work.
3. On April 5th, why can’t Commissioner Loeb get rid of Gordon?
4. What does Barbara make for dinner on the night of April 9th?
5. Describe how Batman’s first night out goes. Give specific details.
6. As of May 15th, what has Batman been doing over the past five weeks? Where and at what times? 
7. When a criminal fires point blank at Batman, how does Batman survive?
8. Why do you think Batman singled out Flass?
9. What does Batman do on the night of May 19? Be specific.
10. On May 20th, why has the commissioner changed his mind about Batman?
11. On June 5th, whose car does Batman steal?
12. On June 6th, who does Gordon suspect of being Batman?
13. On the night of June 6th, what does Batman do that leads to him being cornered by the police?
14. Why do you think he does it?
15. Describe the situation Batman is in at the end of the chapter.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"It's been fifteen years since I had to take out a Green Beret."

Day two of Chapter One of Batman Year One.

Say you're an English teacher. All you really want is for students to read the book. Okay, you want them to understand it, and then you want them to analyze it, but at a minimum you want them to read it. The dilemma is this: if you tell them to read the book, and give them time to read, it's easy for them to stare at the pages and not really read anything. And this is a tempting option for many of them since reading is, you know, lame. But if you give them a handout with questions so that they have to read the chapter, there is a good chance they will zero in on those questions, flip through the pages looking for answer, and not get any sense of the story being told.

Today after the students finished their reading comprehension questions we reviewed the chapter. Then I gave them another handout, with higher level questions, asking them to analyze the main characters. This strategy did not completely circumvent the problem described above but I think it helped.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Cops got it made in Gotham."

Today we started reading Batman Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. A number of the kids requested that we read Batman and this is probably the best written and best drawn Batman story of them all. Mazzucchelli's artwork . . . man, Mazzucchelli's artwork. I don't know where to begin. Kids today like really busy artwork with a lot of detail and plenty of lines. They're wrong; this is the stuff, right here.

The first chapter (AKA the first issue; Year One was originally four issues of the Batman series back in 1986) tells how police lieutenant Jim Gordon first comes to Gotham City, on the same day that billionaire Bruce Wayne returns home after years abroad. At the end of the chapter, one of them has his life changed by a bat that comes crashing through his window; the other is mostly depressed.
As you would expect, some students enjoyed this and some grumbled about it. If you're not big on super-heroes, this is probably your most accessible option, as it's basically a crime story where one guy dresses up as a bat. I'm hoping the skeptical students will give it a chance. So far, though, it is at least more popular than "Frank and the Truth About Plenitude."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Have Regrets

Yesterday I was out of town for a family commitment and so, unfortunately, I missed the Cincinnati Comic Expo. It would have been nice to see the fine folks of Arcadian Comics and Games as well as celebrated comic book power couple Chris and Xan Sprouse. Chris Sprouse is a talented artist with a clean-lined art style and a heckuva nice guy.

Here's a picture of him with his shirt off:

Sorry, actually that's Batman with his shirt off, drawn by Chris Sprouse. I am pretty sure Chris also has a utility belt, however.

In other bad news, I feel constantly tired no matter how much sleep I get, which implies that I am coming down with something, which is extra frustrating because I was sick two weeks ago and was gradually getting better. I don't really remember what it is to feel energetic, though my daughter certainly does.

I should probably focus on the positive. It was good to see my family yesterday. By not going to the comics expo this weekend, I saved money. And in a few hours I will be going to bed.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It Looks Good and I Like It

In yesterday's post I listed some of the artists I showed the class but I couldn't remember all of them. For the sake of thoroughness, here are the ones I left out: Sonny Liew, Scott Mills, Tony Millionaire, Jay Hosler, Eric Shanower, Jeff Lemire, Steve Lieber, and Charles Vess. If you're familiar with comic book artists, you have to agree that that is a decent range of art styles. If you're not familiar with comic book artists, you probably already got so bored that you stopped reading this post, so never mind.

Art appreciation is a nebulous skill that generally takes years to develop and only comes as an outgrowth of a personal interest in the artform. Still, I wanted to get the kids at least thinking and talking about different art styles. Today each student chose a different book and gave a short presentation to the class, describing the art style in that book, how the artist used line and color, what kind of emotional state the art seemed to convey, and what made the art good. They didn't get into a lot of depth, but I like to think that these activities got them noticing the art in a way they didn't before.

The surprise hit of the day was The Last Lonely Saturday by Jordan Crane. It's a small comic, 80 pages with two panels a page, so unlike most of the other books you can read it in just a few minutes. A few of the kids did read it, and were surprised by how emotional they got. "It looks like it's going to be funny," they said, "but it's so sad!"

That's an effective choice Mr. Jordan Crane made, to use a charming cartoony art style to tell a melancholy and ultimately kind of creepy story.

Next week: Batman!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sopwith Camel Vs. Camel on a Magic Carpet

We continued on with our focus on art today. I brought in 20 or so graphic novels and then had the students compare the different art styles. Some of the artists represented were Carl Barks, Herge, Stan Sakai, Mark Schulz, Andy Runton, Chris Sprouse, Craig Thompson, Lewis Trondheim, Manu Larcenet, George Pratt, Jordan Crane, Dave McKean, David Mazzuchelli, Walt Holcombe . . . I forget who else. Writing them down, I realize that they were all men, like every other artist I've spotlighted, which is an inequality I really need to address one of these days.

Pop Quiz! Can you tell the difference between these art styles?

A. Walt Holcombe

B. George Pratt

Bonus points if you can place both artists on McCloud's Representation/Picture Plane/Idea pyramid.

Anyway, my criteria for selecting books were that they be non-superhero comics, preferably self-contained, and that they not contain profanity or nudity or other R-rated content. That last requirement knocked out a bunch of big name cartoonists like, say, Robert Crumb. 

If you had set yourself the goal of finding 20 different cartoonists with 20 different art styles you might have a hard time of it. I, on the other hand, could just stroll into my dining room and look over the bookshelf for a few minutes. You see, world? It's a good thing I've bought all these comics over the years! My obsession has paid off. Who's laughing now?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Expressionism of Rob Liefeld

Since the first day of class students have asked me when they were going to draw comics. Every time I've told them that this is an English class, not an Art class, and that our focus is on reading. But yesterday I gave the students pages with nine panel grids of empty panels (lovingly hand drawn) and assigned them to draw a comic that explains how to do something, using at least one moment-to-moment transition, one subject-to-subject transition, and one action-to-action transition (see Understanding Comics chapter 3 for more details on panel transitions.) The results were pretty entertaining, ranging from "How to Make a Sandwich" to "How to Assassinate Someone."

I hope that drawing their own comics gave the students a little more insight into how many choices a cartoonist has to make, from drawing a character, to composing a panel, to making the panel transitions work, to pacing the narrative, to composing a page, and so on and so on. It's harder than it looks.

My goal now is to get them to pay attention to the art. I've known plenty of comics fans who focus solely on the story and, unless the art is terrible, don't really care what it looks like. To them the art is just a system for delivering important updates about the life of Batman. But comics is a visual medium, and if you ignore the art you're missing the point. 

Today we talked a little bit about Impressionism and Expressionism (only a little, because my knowledge of art history is much weaker than my knowledge of comics trivia) and then read chapter 5 of Understanding Comics. Chapter 5 is about how cartoonists can express emotions through their drawing styles and appeal to different senses.

There's a great page in Chapter 5 that shows samples of different cartoonists' work and explains how their different use of line conveys different emotions. McCloud writes something to the effect that Rob Liefeld's jagged scratchy lines strike a chord with adolescent readers. He wrote that back in the 90's, when Liefeld was at the peak of his popularity (drawing comics like X-Force, pictured below). While reading that page today, one of the boys in my class pointed to the Liefeld panel and said, "I like that one best!" Apparently McCloud was right, and the appeal of Rob Liefeld's art to teenage boys is timeless.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Amidst the Jivas

It's midterm week! Time to make sure all the grades are in the computer. Some of my students will be happy with their midterm report cards, and some will be significantly less happy. But the grades are fair, so don't feel too sorry for those unhappy folks. And it's just midterms; it's not like it's a real quarter grade.

Yesterday the students read "Frank and the Truth About Plenitude" and wrote about it.

The floaty things are called jivas.

Loving Wife was right; most high school students are not crazy about Jim Woodring's surreal wordless stories. As I always say, though, you don't have to like it to write about it.

I'm hoping they like Batman: Year One more.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Some Days You're Frustrated . . .

. . . and then some days a kid asks if he can borrow a graphic novel for the weekend, just because, you know, he wants to read it. And that makes everything better.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

That Certain Wistful Quality

Some days I despair.

And some days I neglect to update the blog. But, here I am!

As promised, my class read some Peanuts comics and then "The Girl From Superman's Past." That's the story about Superman's college sweetheart Lori Lemaris, remember? I mentioned it the other day, but I didn't say what made Lori different from Superman's other love interests like Lois Lane and Lana Lang (notice a pattern?) because I didn't want to spoil the surprise revelation at the end of the story. The story is from 1958, though, and it has been followed up on many times, and if you do a Google image search for Lori Lemaris, you'll see her shocking secret immediately. Probably everyone who cares already knows. But, on the off chance you'd like to find out for yourself, this is your 1958 Spoiler Warning. Secrets below!

(You already saw the picture anyway, didn't you?)

That's right, Lori is a mermaid. After the Comics Code Authority came into being in the fifties, comics could no longer fall back on sex or violence as selling points. And since superhero stories are basically about heroes beating up on criminals, what do you do when you have to cut back on the violence? You have to get creative. Superman stories from this period are like fairytales. Mermaids, square planets, flying dogs . . . anything was possible.

In this story Clark Kent goes to a football game at his alma mater, becomes nostalgic, and thinks back to his college days. He remembers the day he met Lori and how he fell in love with her. They dated for awhile, and finally he decided to give up on being Superman so he could marry her. He was shocked, then, when she turned him down. Ultimately it turned out that she couldn't marry him because she was, you know, a mermaid, and she had to go back home to her people under the sea. At the end of the story, sitting next to Lois on the bleachers, Clark is still wistful and nostalgic. Many of the best Superman stories from this time have a sad quality to them, a sense of Superman feeling alone in the world.

Don't we all feel that way, sometimes?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reading Pictures GO!

Today: No school!

Tomorrow: I begin Unit 2 of Creative Reading. And, in a rare instance of Things Going According to Plan, I'm also beginning Unit 2 of Senior English, but that's outside the scope of this blog.

Unit 2 is supposed to go like this:
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

I now know from experience that the plan to read five chapters of Understanding Comics in three weeks is completely unrealistic. The main thing is to read the chapter about different art styles expressing different moods, since one of the goals in Unit 2 is to focus more on the art.

 I also need to decide which "longer comics" we'll be reading. Based on the syllabus, our candidates are:
"Frank and the Truth About Plenitude", by Jim Woodring
“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

In case you're wondering, the girl in Superman's past is his college sweetheart Lori Lemaris. Man, I love that story.

Speaking of Superman, I need to be careful not to bias the class too much toward comic books over comic strips. I'm going to incorporate this Onion AV Club article about the history of the American comic strip and some Peanuts strips to provide balance.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"It's Merkel. Something about a giant bat. Chicken will keep."

Guess what I found waiting for me on the porch when I got home . . . a package from Amazon. I love packages from Amazon! And guess what was inside. No guess? Okay, it was two copies of this:

Now that I have enough copies of Understanding Comics, I have turned my attention to accumulating copies of Batman Year One. The Cincinnati Public Library system can only get me 5 or 6 copies. This weekend I'm going to visit some used bookstores to see if I can turn any up. Now I have a start, though, thanks to this mysterious benefactor (you may not have intended to be mysterious, but your name was not included). Thank you benefactor! Also, let me know who you are.

If you haven't read Year One, check it out. You may have heard that this Frank Miller fellow is crazy and that his writing is nearly incoherent, and that's true, but back in the eighties he was very, very good.

In other news we had our first test today. I haven't graded them, so for now I'm going to assume that it went well.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Stardust Has No Weakness

Yesterday I bought a copy of the brand new Justice League #1. Today I took it in and showed it to my students as an example of a modern comic book. Some of them seemed to find it interesting, which is good, because DC's whole goal here is to appeal to new readers. I found Justice League #1 pretty boring, but I'm in my late thirties and I've read about a million comics, so I'm not the target demographic. And I'm not a huge Jim Lee fan . . . but the kids like Jim Lee, right?

(In my day, a single issue of a comic would give you a ton of story. And if a comic was called Justice League, it would have the Justice League in it. But, again, not the target demographic. I hope this does well for DC.)

I've mentioned the writing assignment I gave, where students have to analyze that Stardust story. Part of the assignment is to compare Stardust to Superman. Today the class brainstormed similarities and differences. Here's what they came up with.

Superman and Stardust are both aliens
They are both superhumanly strong
They both fight crime
They both wear colorful costumes

Superman has a love interest, Stardust doesn't
Superman has a secret identity, Stardust doesn't
Stardust has mind control powers, Superman doesn't
Superman lives on Earth, Stardust lives on his private star
Superman saves people, Stardust comes in after people have been killed and punishes the evil-doers
Superman takes criminals to jail, Stardust kills and/or tortures them
Superman has a weakness of kryptonite, Stardust has no weakness

I thought those were good points. Stardust is like Superman with the relatable human part stripped out, left as just a terrifying creature from beyond.