Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday is Epilogue Day

Since Creative Reading class ended, I have been unsure whether I would continue this blog. What good is a blog about your comics class when you're not teaching a comics class? I wrote a few posts about Film Studies but I didn't feel committed to it.

Yesterday, when I finally got around to writing my personal reflection on how Creative Reading class went, I realized that it felt like my last blog post. I thought it over and decided that, yes, this is a good time to go on indefinite hiatus. Consider yesterday's post the sense-shattering conclusion to Comics Class GO!, and this post the epilogue. 

I've been posting a comics page every Sunday, so here's one last entry (at least for now):

That's chapter 1, page 13 of my comic Laser Brigade. You can read it here. Once I resolve some technical issues, I will be updating it regularly. There's robots! Aliens! Spaceships! Fighting! You know, cerebral stuff.

Thanks for reading! If I get to teach this class again, I will resume the blog. If not, we'll always have our memories, and these 118 blog entries.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Personal Reflection GO!

So how did Comics Class go, overall? That's the question I've been intending to answer on this blog ever since class ended back in December. I wrote about the planning stages, and the day-to-day activities, so it only makes sense that there should be some kind of self-evaluation at the end. But it's taken me awhile to figure out what I think. As with most human endeavors, the end result is hazy and ambiguous.

Over the last few weeks people have asked me if the class went well and I have said yes, the class was a success. I meant that. The students did their work and most of them passed, many of them with good grades. I followed through on my plans, with some tweaks along the way, and covered most of the material I set out to cover. I learned what worked and what didn't.

So, hurray!

But I also have a sense of disappointment. Even though it's important for teachers to focus on realistic, achievable, and measurable goals, we usually can't help ourselves. We don't just want kids to earn credit toward graduation; we want to Change Young Lives and Resculpt the Face of the Future. In my case, I wanted to change the students' perceptions of comics.

That's not a huge deal, in the grand scheme of things. At certain points in my life I have changed my mind on much bigger matters, after being convinced by a conversation, by a life event, or by something I read. I have, in the past, said, “Oh, I never thought of it that way; I guess I was wrong.”

That always seemed natural to me, so it took me years to realize that this was a fluke; most people don’t change their minds. And most of those people who don't change their minds consider their consistency to be a virtue. Studies at the University of Michigan show, in fact, that when you demonstrate to people that their beliefs are based on incorrect information, they entrench themselves more. If you show people that they are wrong, they become wronger.

This is devastating to the Enlightenment ideals I came to cherish through my liberal arts education. People are not enlightened individuals ruled by reason; they are brute savages, ruled by emotions. Rather, we are brute savages ruled by emotion.

To me, the idea that comics is a legitimate artistic medium is incredibly straightforward. Narrative is accepted as art; pictures are accepted as art; accepting pictures used as narrative as art should not be that big a stretch. The reason comics are generally considered juvenile trash is basically an accident of history, having more to do with pulp fiction publishers of the early 20th century than with any inherent values of the form itself.

(For a detailed look at those publishers who defined what we think of as American comic books, I highly recommend Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book.)

Most Americans think of comics as junk for kids, but most don't think about comics at all. It's an uninformed kneejerk reaction. So, on some level I have always believed that if you took the time to explain that comics is a perfectly valid medium of creative expression, and you made your argument clearly and reasonably, people would see the truth. Scott McCloud demonstrates, step by step and in great detail, the vast potential of comics. I can't imagine making it through a few chapters of Understanding Comics and still clinging to an anti-comics prejudice. 

Except that human beings don't respond to reasonable arguments, and prejudices are generally immune to logic. And my students were excruciatingly bored by McCloud. In fact, the whole argument that comics is a valid art form is meaningless to my students. Whether or not an art form is "valid" is a question of interest only to academics. Most of my students, if asked about books in general, would say, "I hate reading." They would evaluate a painting based on whether the subject matter is awesome or boring. My students, like most people, approach works of art with the question "Will this entertain me?" and, based on their immediate emotional response, leave either liking it or hating it.

(That is what normal people are like, right? That's what I've been led to believe.)

Most people who are prejudiced against gay people and then change their minds aren't won over by rational argument, but, rather, by having a gay friend. A respected friend comes out of the closet, and the formerly anti-gay individual comes to realize that, hey, my friend isn't so bad, so I guess other gay people aren't that bad either. An individual experience is more powerful than rational argument. We are ruled by emotion, after all.

Fortunately, I was able to provide personal experiences. I showed my students great comics. They read great comics. They saw with their own eyes what comics can do. And most of them enjoyed at least some of what we read. And yet . . . and yet, and yet, and yet . . .

I don't think I changed anyone's mind. Not one. I had a few students who liked comics going in, and they still liked comics at the end. The kids who said they hated comics at the beginning still hated them at the end, and the kids who didn't care still didn't care. Teachers need to focus on the measurable and achievable goals but, you know, we want to open cracks in the students' minds so that Truth and Beauty can shine in and bring about personal growth and change.    

In the last week of class, one of the students who liked comics at the beginning of the semester was talking about Spider-Man or the Hulk or something. Another student, who had gotten good grades overall, said, in a disbelieving tone, "Man, you like comics? That's kid stuff."

As the responsible adult in the room, I responded with, "You now have an F."

You can never focus on one comment from one student, of course--that's a total rookie mistake--but that comment summed up my frustration, my feeling that I was unable to change even one person's mind. That's all conjecture, of course. You never know what long-term effect you have on a student. It's like your co-workers tell you, during your first year of teaching, when all the joy has gone out of life and everything you try seems like a failure, "We're planting seeds. It will be years before they grow, and you'll probably never see the results." Which is actually comforting.

Talk at my school will soon turn to next year's class schedule. If someone comes to me and asks if I want to teach comics class again, I will definitely say yes. Despite the frustration, I know that you can never predict what students will end up getting out of a class. Who knows? Maybe next time, they'll all learn to love comics. Maybe I'll see students carrying around volumes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman or Jeff Smith's Bone.

That may be an impossible dream, but being a teacher requires some of the self-delusion of Don Quixote and the forever-unrewarded dedication of Sisyphus. We are given goals that are literally impossible, and criticized when we fail to meet those goals. 

But if there's one thing the comics of Jack Kirby have taught me, it's that when you are faced with impossible odds, you always keep fighting, and you never give up.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Film Terms 3: Revenge of the Vocabulary Words

I tell you what, Film class just isn't the same as Comics class. It doesn't have the same place in my heart. It doesn't inspire me to blog every day. But it is, in many ways, easier to teach. I don't have to start at the ground level and explain what the medium is and why they should give it a chance; they already like movies. And they have a basic idea of how movies work. So that part is refreshing.

This week we started on film history. You can't possibly understand an art form if you don't know its history, right? Right. Did you know that the first commercial exhibition of film took place in 1894? It did. Did you know that D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking film Birth of a Nation is unrelentingly racist? It is.

I also gave them their third and final set of introductory film vocabulary words this week. The quiz is tomorrow. See how many you can define.

1. prop

2. costume

3. edit

4. cut

5. fade-out/fade-in/dissolve

6. storyboard

7. take

8. mise-en-scene

9. montage

10. documentary

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday is Comics Day: Robots Today

Here's a page from a comic that I wrote and Loving Wife illustrated, called "Robots Today." You can see the whole thing here, if you're interested.

(Go on, check it out--Loving Wife did some great work on this.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lights! Camera! Vocabulary!

Film class GO!

Here in the third week of Film Studies, we are still in the "What is This Thing Called Movies?" phase. The groundwork must be laid before we can watch entire movies (except Lost in La Mancha, we watched all of that, but it's a documentary about movies, and that's different.)

Tomorrow the students will have their second vocabulary quiz. See how many of these film terms you can define!

List #1:
production designer

List #2:
depth of field
long shot

(Hint: zoom in, pan over, tilt up.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday is Comics Day: The Absolutely Thrilling Adventures of Martino

Here's the first page of a four page comic I drew in 2006. Generally in comics anything more than nine panels on a page looks cluttered. Watchmen, you may recall, is built around a nine-panel grid, and is dense with information. Dark Knight Returns uses a sixteen-panel grid, but back then Frank Miller was young and brilliant enough to pull that off. This comic was an attempt to use a rigid twenty-panel grid. As you will see, you can only fit so much in each panel.   

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lost in La Mancha!

My first goal in Film Studies class is to get across the idea that movies are incredibly complicated and expensive productions that are made by large groups of people. We've learned some film vocabulary, and researched specific movies, and now it's time to see what the process of making a movie is like. So today I started showing Lost in La Mancha.

This is a documentary about the making of a movie called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The movie (spoiler warning!) was never made, but it would have starred Johnny Depp.

I don't know for sure, but I assume that's from a movie where Johnny Depp played a Romantic poet. Keats, maybe? I'm thinking Keats.

Most importantly, this hypothetical movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, was co-written and (almost) directed by my favorite director, Terry Gilliam.

I'm not saying that Terry Gilliam is the best director in the world, just that his personal obsessions match pretty perfectly with mine, so I always find his movies incredibly engaging. All his movies are about the conflict between reality and fantasy. Generally, fantasy is show to be superior, but reality crushes it beneath its iron heel. I totally get that!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Introducing America's Youth to the Wonders of the Internet Movie Database

Here's today's assignment:

Choose a movie you are interested in. Write the name of the movie here: ______________________
Now use the internet to find out more about your movie.

1. What year did the movie come out?

2. What genre is the movie?

3. Who directed the movie? What else has he or she directed?

4. Find out who filled each of the following roles in the creation of your movie:

Executive Producer



Production Designer


Key Grip

5. List the five main actors in your movie, and the names of their characters.


6. How much did it cost to make the movie? How much money did the movie make?

7. Was the movie based on a book? If so, who wrote the book?

8. Was the movie a remake, sequel, or prequel? If so, what was it based on?

9. Go to What is the average rating critics gave your movie (as a percentage)? What is the average rating audiences gave it (as a percentage)?

10. Find a review, written by a professional reviewer, about your movie. On the back of this paper write down the name of the reviewer, the website where you found the review, and a couple of sentences from the review. Do you agree with the reviewer? Why or why not?

Saturday, January 7, 2012


On Wednesday, the second day of Film Studies, I showed the class a clip from Them!, the film that has been called "the Citizen Kane of giant ant movies." I think my friend Xan said that. It really is a movie about giant ants, and it is one of the better horror/science-fiction/unlikely monster movies of the fifties. I believe it was nominated for an Academy Award for its special effects.

Anyway, I told the class to watch carefully, and I played the clip, and then asked them what they had seen. "Giant ants!" someone said. "Soldiers rescuing kids from the ants," someone else added. "Two boys," someone else clarified.

"You're wrong," I said. "There were no ants, and there were no soldiers. There were only actors, on a set, with special effects." Some of the kids groaned. "But that's not true, either . . . you never saw those actors. Most of them have probably been dead for a long time. The actors performed their roles, and someone filmed their performances, and you saw the film, right? But you didn't . . . the film was digitized, and burned onto a DVD. What you saw were lights flashing on the television screen, tricking your brain into thinking you were seeing moving pictures. The whole thing was an illusion. When you go to the  movie theater, or watch a DVD at home, it's good to accept that illusion, get pulled into the story, and imagine that what you're watching is real. But here, in this class, we will peer behind the curtain and analyze what's really going on."

Or words to that effect. It was a nice bit of rhetoric, I thought. Nice bits of rhetoric only go so far in the classroom--I doubt I made a dent in any student's thinking about movies--but you have to indulge yourself every now and then.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

It's 2012, and my comics class done got up and went. Now I'm teaching Film Studies. I previously mentioned some of my concerns about teaching a movie class (and, when commenting on how I can never remember the difference between "pan" and "zoom", still managed to get it wrong). Students always say they want to watch a movie, but when you show them a movie, many of them suddenly have trouble paying attention.

On Tuesday, the first day of class, I started with a writing assignment: write about the last good movie you saw, and explain what made it good. After they shared what they had written, I showed them two clips--the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, which is a ten-minute scene of some guys waiting for a train. I love Sergio Leone but, man, that scene is excruciatingly slow. Then I showed them the scene from The Matrix where they run through the lobby and shoot a lot of guys. The message behind this was simple: Do what I say, and pay attention in class, or I will only show westerns.

Sample Syllabus, if the students don't behave:
High Noon
Rio Bravo
The Searchers
Fistful of Dollars
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Great Silence
Once Upon a Time in the West
Hang 'Em High
The Wild Bunch
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Quick and the Dead
Dead Man
True Grit

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Gigantic Fluid Structure

“Time is a reiterating program fed into a gigantic fluid structure. The actual substance of time can, apparently, be manipulated using a binding agent. In our case, language . . ."

My original plan was to name this blog "My Comics Class" or something similar. My Loving Wife pointed out, correctly, that this was very boring, and encouraged me to come up with something catchier. I brainstormed a list of possible names, and we both liked "Comics Class GO!"

What you may not know is, that name was inspired by the story "Time Machine GO" from Grant Morrison's comic book series The Invisibles. Grant Morrison is my favorite comic book writer working today, and The Invisibles is one of my all-time favorite comics. It was part autobiography, part magic spell, and part adventure story about a team of heroic anarchists dedicated to saving the world from the evil archons of the Outer Church.

I tend to think of The Invisibles as a fairly recent series. But lately it occurred to me that, in that "Time Machine GO" story, we were treated to a glimpse of the future, of the far-off year . . . 2012. Morrison went on to show us what the world of 2012 would be like, with its future slang, and its liquid technology, and its crazy fashions, and what do you know, we're here, and it's nothing like he imagined.

The Invisibles wrapped up in 2000. The last issue jumped ahead, all the way to 2012, and showed us what the main characters would be like when they were old . . . old . . . how did I get so old? How can it be 2012 already?