Sunday, December 15, 2013

GO, Mighty Atom!

And then there came the day, way back in November, when we were done with Batman Year One. I put aside my stack of Batman books and got out The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.

Astro Boy could totally beat Batman in a fight.
I got the Tezuka book on sale a few years ago, for super cheap. It's a nice book, with a full-color overview of Tezuka's work, but I mainly got it because of the DVD that came with it. The DVD is a documentary about Tezuka that was made for Japanese television.

Since it's Japanese, the documentary takes for granted that the viewer has some idea who Tezuka is. If you're not Japanese, I think it's hard to grasp how influential he was. He redefined the very nature of comics in Japan (AKA manga), inspiring generations of artists who came after him. I can't really get into much more detail than that, because I don't know a whole lot about manga, but I do know that Tezuka is a top-notch, grade-A, world-class, all-time-master cartoonist, up there with Moebius and Barks and Kirby. And, like Kirby, he was absurdly prolific, so any attempt to sum up his life's work in a few paragraphs is doomed to fail. I won't even try; I'll just mention that Osamu Tezuka's most famous character is Astro Boy (AKA Tetsuwan Atom), the kid with spiky hair shown on the cover up there. He's a lovable robot boy. The Astro Boy comics are all-ages fun science fiction adventures, drawn in a slick cartoony style, with an underlying anti-war message.

The TV documentary was made in the last year of Tezuka's life, though you wouldn't know it by watching him--in the movie, Tezuka is constantly moving, constantly working. It's shocking how much he works. Even though he has a huge, beautiful house, we learn that he spends about five days a week at his studio, a small, mostly-empty apartment. He sits at a desk and he draws for hours, stares into space, naps on the floor for awhile, eats some noodles, and draws some more.

This is where I show movies.
There's a scene where Tezuka is planning on going to France for an awards ceremony. He has a deadline to make, and has to draw a ridiculous number of pages before he can leave. He pushes back his flight, until it's the last minute, and he has to get in a cab to the airport. The cab stops; he asks when the plane is scheduled to take off, stays in the cab, and draws until he absolutely has to leave. He hands the pages over to someone, an assistant or an editor, and promises to fax the remaining pages once he gets to France.

When you think about a top-notch, grade-A, world-class artist at the end of his or her life, you normally imagine them relaxing, reflecting on the work they have done, and enjoying their success. You don't imagine this sort of manic pace. It's both an inspiration that he works so hard, even at the end of his life, and a reminder that even the most legendary cartoonist still has deadlines to make and bills to pay.

Even though Tezuka is always struggling to keep up with an endless series of deadlines--and even though he has to leave a party at an animation convention to go back to his hotel room to draw a few more pages, and he tells an interview "I'm in hell"--at the very end, he says that he has been drawing comics for 40 years and he hopes to keep doing it for another 40. When you realize that he died later that year, it's heartbreaking.

After we watched the documentary, I passed out Tezuka comics for the students to look at. I have a friend who went crazy buying Osamu Tezuka graphic novels, buying multiple copies of each one as it came out, who later gave me a massive pile of Tezuka books. It was a generous gift, and because of it I was able to assign each student their own book to look at, which is something I can't do for any other artist. Thanks, Matt!

And that's what we did for two days in November. I sure did get behind on this blog. Which would be okay if I wasn't doing anything different from what I blogged about the first time I taught this class, two years ago. But I did do something new this year, and it was very exciting. Just wait, and I will tell you all about it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I Don't Want to Get Fired

Dear Parent, 
In Creative Reading class your child will be assigned a graphic novel for independent reading. Your child will need to finish reading this book by Monday, December 2nd.

As you may or may not know, “graphic novel” means a long story told in comics form. While in America we often think of comics as being for children, in fact there are comics for all ages, from the very young to more mature readers.

Your child has chosen to read the book ___________________________ for class. This book is not for children and is written for older readers. The book may contain strong language, mature themes, and other elements that you would find in an R-rated movie. Rest assured, I believe that this is a worthwhile book with serious artistic merit, and it is being read as part of our overall course of study.

If you have objections to your child reading this book, we will find another, more suitable book for your child. If, however, you are comfortable with this book, we will proceed with this selection. Whichever way you decide, please fill out the form at the bottom of this letter and send it back with your child.

Thank you for your time.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion!

Enough about comics class, let's talk about me.

Summer is an exciting time for a teacher. What to do with two and a half months off work? Go on a vacation? Learn a foreign language? Sit on the couch and watch TV? What I ended up doing was drawing Bible-based cartoons. That's not how I normally spend the summer months, but after my friend Jana read the story "Sedgwick" that I drew for my comic series Laser Brigade, she asked me if I would draw cartoons to accompany her upcoming book The Twible. And I said yes.

The Twible
is a project that Jana started on Twitter, where she wrote a tweet for every chapter of the Bible. It turns out that the Bible is 1,189 chapters long, so this took her awhile. Now she's written extra material, including sidebars and summaries and a glossary, and published it as a book. Which is on sale now! That's the cover right there.   

Jana originally asked me to draw 20 cartoons for the book, which sounded like a lot, but she ended up hiring me to do 51. Fifty-one! I'd never drawn 51 of anything before.
My biggest obstacle was crippling self-doubt. I am painfully aware of my artistic limitations. There are certain things I feel comfortable drawing, like robots, and things that I feel less comfortable drawing, like things that are not robots. When I first looked at Jana's list of dozens and dozens of scenes and characters she wanted to see illustrated--there is a lot of different stuff in the Bible--it seemed like the job would be impossible. I debated about whether I had an ethical duty to tell Jana that she had made a terrible mistake and needed to hire someone else. My loving wife insisted that I could do it, though, so I soldiered on. 

The great thing about a deadline is that you have only a limited amount of time to doubt yourself. And the great thing about a contract is that you have a legal obligation to follow through. So I drew some cartoons. For those early ones, I did a bunch of sketches, and each one went through multiple drafts. Jana seemed to like those, so I continued on, and slowly but surely started to feel like I knew what I was doing. By the end, it was much less of a struggle, and I no longer agonized over every line. The process felt much more natural. 

And now I'm proud of the work I did, especially Jael hammering the tent peg into the guy's head and Salome squealing with delight at John the Baptist's severed head. 

She's just so happy. 

Friday, November 1, 2013


In my previous blog post, which I made over a week ago, I mentioned that I was coming down with a cold. Then I said, "I don't have a lot of strength for blogging right now. But would Batman give up, just because he was under the weather? Absolutely not."

What I forgot is that even Batman is sometimes overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control. 

Art by the great Jim Aparo, from Batman #497

Sometimes, as much as you want to go about your everyday life, beating up criminals and solving mysteries, a chemically enhanced terrorist is going to come along and break your back. And all you can do is wait until a convenient plot device comes along to magically fix you up again. 

I didn't so much have a magical plot device--in Batman's case, his love interest turned out to have previously-unmentioned psychic healing powers, conveniently enough--but I did take a day off work and sleep a lot. I'm still not feeling great, but I'm better than I was. Class went on, and we finished reading Batman Year One. Today we started watching the animated movie adaptation, which is pretty faithful to the book, and next week we'll take a test. 

If you think about it, it's necessary that Batman gets beaten every now and then. If no one ever beat him, then he would never end up in a death trap, and then he could never escape from death traps. And so it is with life. If we don't get tied up, handcuffed, and then thrown into a tank filled with sharks, how can we really prove ourselves? 

Batman #207 cover art by Carmine Infantino

Thursday, October 24, 2013

You Can't Stop the Batman

This is my sixth year as a teacher, so you'd think I would have developed some kind of immunity by now, but it seems like I am constantly getting sick. In fact my whole family keeps getting sick, and I blame the one-year-old. He continues to bring new and interesting sicknesses home with him.

So my wife and two children are getting over a cold, as I am slowly succumbing to it. Which means I don't have a lot of strength for blogging right now. But would Batman give up, just because he was under the weather? Absolutely not.

Today in class was Batman Year One, Chapter Two. Because we are now reading Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman Year One, for reasons I attempted to explain yesterday. Even though I've read it dozens of times I continue to be impressed by how fast-paced the book is. You have to move quickly to fit a whole year into four chapters. Many of the scenes are just two or three panels, throwing characters and concepts at you and moving on, yet they imply so much more than they show that the world of the story feels rich and alive.

This is not Frank Miller's Batman.
As I previously mentioned, my current favorite version of Batman is the one from the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon. The extremely competent super-hero who teams up with other super-heroes to fight aliens, robots, and monsters in a crazy colorful world. The old-fashioned, pre-Frank Miller Batman. I want big action and excitement; I don't really want an emotionally dead Batman who lives in a dirty, street-level world of pimps and cocaine and corrupt cops, where Catwoman is a prostitute and the only villains are guys in suits.

So why do I like Batman Year One so much? Because it's soooo good, it transcends my personal biases. In general I would rather read an over-the-top super-hero story than a grounded crime story, but I'd rather have a great crime story than a mediocre super-hero story any day.

Quality, son. It's all about quality.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Try Not to Judge

Two years ago I promised never to mention Batman Year One on this blog again. That was back when I was teaching the book, and blogging about it every day, and I got sick of it. I believe a man's word is his bond, so if he promises to never mention a book again, he should stick to his word, no matter what. And yet I'm going to go back on that promise. Try not to judge me too harshly. 

I bring it up because we started Batman Year One on Monday. Tuesday we didn't have class, and today, Wednesday, we wrapped up the first chapter. 

Will Eisner
Remember how, a couple of weeks ago, we looked at the history of comic books? In class we talked about how people used to think comics were just for kids, until creators like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman worked to advance the medium, and then the undergrounds came along, and eventually there was much more to comics than just super-heroes. And we read Understanding Comics, which teaches us that comics is a limitless medium and that no genres are out of bounds. So after all that it might seem counter-intuitive that, for our first graphic novel, we're reading a Batman story. 

What can I say? The students respond well to Batman, and it's a really good comic. And, as much as I support Eisner and Kurtzman and comics for grownups, I may not be the best ambassador for that cause.

David Mazzucchelli, artist of Batman Year One
Two years ago I was at SPACE, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo in Columbus, and I got into a conversation about my comics class. I told a small press and alternative comics creator that we were reading Batman Year One. He said, "I read part of that, but I never finished it." 

I think about that, from time to time, and puzzle over it. I originally read Batman Year One when my mom got me a copy from her book club. It was 1989, and Batman was big, so they had some crazy deals. If that had not happened, though, I know I would have read it eventually. I can't think of any way you could change the variables, or create an alternate set of circumstances, in which I would have read part of Batman Year One and not read the rest of it. You would have to fundamentally change who I am, possibly on a genetic level. I can read Will Eisner and Chris Ware and any number of cartoonists who write and draw stories about real life, and I can enjoy them, but I guess I can never be a pure alternative comics guy deep down in my heart. I just enjoy seeing Batman beat people up too much. 

Also, and I can't stress this enough, the drawings by David Mazzucchelli, and the colors by Richmond Lewis, are absolutely gorgeous.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Battle of the Superheroes

Today is the end of first quarter. Hurray, end of first quarter! Which also means we're halfway through Creative Reading class, which also means we're behind schedule, but that's a problem for another day.

The students finished up their test on the second half of Understanding Comics, and I collected their books. We've finished the theoretical portion of our reading; now it's time to read some good ol' fashioned fiction. Soon we'll be starting Batman Year One. And since we recently spent some time reading Superman stories, wouldn't it be an effective transition to watch something that includes both Superman and Batman? Yes. Yes it would.

So after we finished the test, I showed the class "Battle of the Superheroes," an episode of the cartoon series Batman: The Brave and the Bold from the Season 2, Part 2 DVD.

Brave and the Bold is a lighthearted series aimed at young viewers that ran from 2008 to 2011. Every episode features Batman teaming up with another super-hero, like Green Arrow or Aquaman or Blue Beetle. It's over-the-top, with extensive fantasy and science fiction elements, basically the opposite of the Dark Knight style Batman.

I don't know that I would have hated Brave and the Bold when I was a teenager, but I definitely would have disapproved of it. There is a time in a young man's life when he wants a grim, serious Batman who deals out brutal vigilante justice and then goes home and cries over his dead parents. And then there comes a day when that young man must put his adolescent angst behind him, and admit that maybe, just maybe, fun is not such a bad thing. I used to think that Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns was the definitive version of Batman. Now I think that Batman was invented to entertain children, and while there may be a certain dark edge to the character, he shouldn't necessarily be a brutal sadist. Now that I'm old and wise, the Brave and the Bold Batman is my favorite Batman.

(I guess I should mention that there is no one definitive Batman; I'll talk about that more in the days to come.)

Anyway, there were legal issues that kept Superman from appearing on the show, until this episode. And the creators went all-out to cram in as much Silver Age Superman lore as possible. If you watch this episode, you get all the essential elements of Superman circa 1964, including:
  • Lois Lane trying to get Superman to marry her
  • Jimmy Olsen's signal watch
  • Jimmy Olsen undergoing strange transformations
  • Superman doing random, seemingly evil things
  • Krypto the super dog
  • The Fortress of Solitude
  • The Bottle City of Kandor
  • Green kryptonite
  • Red kryptonite
  • Toyman
  • Lex Luthor
  • Mr. Mxyzptlk
  • Brainiac
Superman inside the Fortress of Solitude, holding the Bottle City of Kandor. 

It's also funny. After Superman seemingly turns evil, there's a scene that goes like this:

Jimmy: "Superman's acting like a di-"
Lois: "-fferent person!"

My students found that wildly amusing. They were engaged throughout, and laughed in the right places, so I guess they're not as snobby about Batman as I was when I was their age.

That said, we'll be starting Batman Year One next week, which my teenage self would totally approve of.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Brief Shining Moment

When we've read Understanding Comics in class, I've had student volunteers read the first couple of pages out loud, while everyone else followed along, and then had the students read the rest of the chapter themselves. I also pass out questions for them to answer as they read the chapter. We need the questions, just like we need class discussion and note-taking and quizzes, because Understanding Comics is a challenging text. And I'm told that, if you're not interested in comics, it is somewhat boring. 

The inevitable result of giving them questions, though, is that most of them dig through the text looking for answers to the questions, without so much "reading" it in a linear way. This is not a criticism of my class in particular; it's just human nature to want to get the work done so you can move on with your life.  

But we have finished Understanding Comics and we are ready to move on. I want the class to do some good old-fashioned start-at-the-upper-left-hand-side-of-the-page-and-continue-to-the-bottom-right-hand-side reading, so today I had each student choose a book from the big pile I've brought in to class and start reading. When I went to a Curriculum Council meeting the other night we were told that students should not read silently in class for more than ten minutes at a time, so I set a ten minute time limit. 

It was a very peaceful ten minutes. It was also a rewarding experience, walking around the classroom, watching 21 teenagers reading comics in a wide variety of styles and genres, including Little Lulu, Arkham Asylum, Tintin, ABC Warriors, To the Heart of the Storm, Bone, Thoreau at Walden, Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus volume 1, and more. The kids seemed to enjoy themselves. Was it because it was an easy grade, to sit and read a comic for ten minutes? Maybe. But I like to think they were actually engaged by the material. 

Some days I have my doubts, but today it felt like Creative Reading class is working.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Word on Masterpieces

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville makes some basic mistakes that anyone in a beginning Creative Writing class would recognize. If the whole story is being told by Ishmael, why are there scenes where Ishmael is not present? How did he know what other people were thinking? Losing track of point of view is a rookie mistake, to say nothing of the rambling nature of the book, and the truly staggering number of pages that are devoted to minutiae about whales. 

In terms of padding, though, it's hard to beat Miguel de Cervantes. In Don Quixote, there is a section where the title character goes to a bar and finds a book. The bartender tells him that it's a novel someone left there, and it's pretty good, and he should check it out. So he does. Cervantes includes this (short) novel in its entirety, and it has nothing at all to do with the story of Don Quixote. It reads like Cervantes inserted an unrelated story into his manuscript in order to meet his word count. 

Shakespeare also tries to kill time in Hamlet, coming up with excuse after excuse as to why Hamlet doesn't just get his revenge already, until finally he gets to the end of the play, and everything wraps up quickly in a contrived duel that Hamlet doesn't even initiate. The play is too long and the plotting is fairly lazy. 

Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and Hamlet are all flawed, sloppy in places, and seem like they could have used more editing. They have one other thing in common: they are three of the greatest books ever written. More than that, they are three of the greatest achievements of humankind. 

Masterpieces aren't perfect. They're idiosyncratic, reflecting the quirks and obsessions of their authors. There are thousands of polished, technically proficient writers who have labored their whole lives and never produced anything half as interesting as Moby-Dick. At the end of the day, who cares if the point of view is inconsistent? Rookies in a creative writing class can give you consistent point of view, but they can't change the way you think about the world. 

Which is why it baffles me when people dismiss Jack Kirby's work--the New Gods, for instance--because of his scripting. Yes, Kirby had a quirky writing style. He bolded words for no discernible reason, he used excessive quotation marks, and his dialogue is often awkward. There are countless creators who could write smoother, more readable prose than Jack Kirby. But none of them redefined the nature of comics storytelling like Kirby did. Kirby worked for years, polishing his approach, drawing stories with maximum energy and visual impact. He was better at composing a comics panel than anyone else who ever lived. With the New Gods, he created "An Epic for Our Times."  When you consider those achievements, who cares about some oddly placed quotation marks? 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Savage Art

I had one of those days today where you feel like everything you're doing is useless, as though the whole world is against you, and eventually you realize that you're just really sleepy. I don't know why, since I got about the usual amount of sleep last night, but all day I was in a grumpy haze. And yet I am a professional, so I carry on. Against impossible odds! Like a warrior born!

Last Friday we started working on describing different art styles. This is not a skill most people pick up along the way, so it takes some practice. We brainstormed a list of words that you could use to describe different styles of art, including:

black and white

. . . and so on. I was planning on banning the use of "realistic" and "detailed" this year, because they get so overused that they don't mean anything, but I went ahead and allowed them. They can be useful in small doses; that Barry  Windsor-Smith drawing up there, for instance, is pretty realistic and detailed.

Today we practiced describing art styles again, and I'm happy to report that they're getting better at it. See? Even when I'm tired and cranky, I am empowering students to learn.

After we did an art description activity, we started reading Understanding Comics chapter 8, which is about color. Have you ever given much thought to color in comics? It used to be a lot cruder. Digital coloring has opened up whole new worlds of possibility, but it hasn't always made things better. Check out this article by Thomas Scioli about Barry Windsor-Smith, where he compares the original 70s coloring on Windsor-Smith's Conan comics to the modern digital recoloring.

In the modern version, Scioli writes, "The colors are muted and secondary. This is the color you get when you lay a night time color layer over everything. It’s the comics equivalent of “day-for’night” filming. It flattens the whole scene. It creates a convincing illusion of night, of rods and cones kicking in, but it is not inviting. It makes you view this as a photo rather than a tableaux you can wander around in. The reader is less likely to linger, more likely to quickly scan over."

I agree with him. Do you?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What a Week It Has Been

It seems like only yesterday I was proud that I had completed two full (work) weeks of daily blogging. But it was not yesterday; it was nearly a week ago.

Monday I was not at work. Don't worry, there was no emergency, I requested the day off weeks ago. On Monday the student finished up their assignment from Understanding Comics chapter 5 and started chapter 6.

Tuesday I came back, and we reviewed what they did while I was gone, and I gave them the second handout for chapter 6.

Wednesday we finished up chapter 6 and talked about Scott McCloud's seven different types of word/picture combinations.

Thursday, AKA today, we reviewed those seven types of combinations, and then the students broke into seven groups, and each group illustrated an example of one of the types.

Those types of word/picture combinations are:

Word-Specific - The words convey the meaning; the picture is decorative and adds little.

Picture-Specific - The picture conveys the meaning, the words add little.

Duo-Specific - Words and pictures both convey the same meaning.

Additive - Either words or pictures convey the meaning, and the other adds to the meaning.

Parallel - Words and pictures have separate meanings.

Montage - The words are part of the picture.

Interdependent - Words and pictures work together to create a meaning that would not exist without both.

We'll talk about that more tomorrow. Also, we'll talk about describing art styles, which is always a challenge.

Friday, October 4, 2013

I'm Not Here

I'm going out of town, so I'm not at school today. You would think it would be easy, taking days off as a teacher, because there are substitutes who come and fill in for you, but man, it takes forever to get everything ready for the sub. Maybe that's why I hardly ever take personal days. Whatever, I hope things go well. 

Today the students are going to start out by taking a short quiz over the history of American comic books. I posted five of the multiple choice questions yesterday, but don't worry, it's not that easy--the bulk of the points on the quiz will come from the extended response question that requires actual thought. After the quiz, they will read chapter five of Understanding Comics and answer questions.

I don't have a lot of time to write this, as I was just headed out the door, but I realized that if I posted today I will have made two weeks worth of daily blog posts. That's a solid achievement I can reflect on when things look grim. 

So long, Cincinnati, I'll see you soon.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Quiz Time

Sneak preview of tomorrow's quiz. How well would you do?

1. Who created Superman?
            A. Will Eisner
            B. Jack Kirby
            C. Harvey Kurtzman
            D. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

2. When was Action Comics #1 first published? 
            A. 1908
            B. 1918
            C. 1928
            D. 1938

3. Who wrote and drew the story “Corpse on the Imjin”?
            A. Will Eisner
            B. Jack Kirby
            C. Harvey Kurtzman
            D. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

4. Who created The Spirit?
            A. Will Eisner
            B. Jack Kirby
            C. Harvey Kurtzman
            D. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

5. What was the name of the first graphic novel?
            A. “Corpse on the Imjin”
            B. A Contract With God
C. Watchmen
D. Maus

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Blame it on the Rain

Here's a page from Will Eisner's A Contract With God

I once read an interview where someone said that Will Eisner wasn't the best writer, and he wasn't the best artist, but he was better at writing than any of other artists, and better at drawing than any of the other writers. That's probably true. Writing and drawing both take years to master, and Eisner was one of the few who attempted to master both.

What this view of Eisner leaves out, though, is how thoroughly he blurred the lines between writing and drawing. Look at that page again. The words may not seem all that impressive. What really really hit me the first time I read A Contract With God, though, is that Eisner is writing with the pictures. Every line on the page is part of the story. Instead of using paragraphs of prose to describe the scene--the man hunched over, the street light in the background, the rain pouring down over everything--he brings it all to life. Can you imagine any writer who could describe that rain as vividly as Eisner does here?

So anyway, today in comics class we watched the end of the Will Eisner documentary. The final third takes you from the 70s up to Eisner's death in 2005, and along the way it covers underground comics, Eisner returning to comics after years away, A Contract With God, his graphic novels, and the people he influenced. Good stuff.

I mentioned before that students were having trouble answering the questions I gave them, so today I had them watch the video and list ten things they learned. That worked better. I also reminded the students about the existence of this blog, and told them that I would post a secret code word tonight, and that the first person to tell me the code word tomorrow will get extra credit. The word is "flamingo." Now you know.

Tomorrow we wrap up our look at the titans of the comic book industry (by which I mean Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner) and return to Understanding Comics. I wanted to give the students a break from the textbook, but I fear the break has lasted too long, and I'm going to have to hurry to get back on schedule.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Spirited Failure

In theory my employers could read this blog--I don't think they'd want to, but they could--so I try to avoid saying anything like, "Man, I did a bad job today!" I will admit, though, that my plan today really didn't work.

This was Day 2 of the Will Eisner documentary (Eisner's the guy who drew that picture up there.) I like the documentary. It's got a lot of good information and it's targeted at a general audience. And since Will Eisner was around at the beginning of the American comic book industry, you also get a good history of the industry as a whole, including some footage from the 50's Senate hearings that brought about the creation of the Comics Code.

"Sure, that's interesting to you," I hear you say, "but do you think it's interesting to an average high school student?" No, don't be ridiculous. How naive do you think I am? But the most important part of a high school education is learning how to learn, no matter what the subject matter is, no matter whether you personally find it interesting or not. Many people don't find Precalculus, or Economics, or Chemistry interesting, but they still do the work and get good grades in those classes. Even if you find a class boring, you can still power through. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I want my class to be boring. I do everything I can to make it interesting. At the end of the day, though, some people just won't care about the subject matter, and that's okay.

So that's why I had to give the students an incentive to watch the documentary. As I mentioned yesterday, I passed out a sheet of questions for the students to answer as we watched the documentary. It seemed straightforward, but they had a terrible time watching the movie and keeping track of the questions. After every question, half the class asked me what it was, because they had missed the answer. It's not that they weren't paying attention; they were genuinely trying, and missing the answers. It got really frustrating, because it became apparent I did not do as good a job as I thought making up the questions.

And remember how I said the documentary is for a general audience? That's what I assume, because I already know everything they talk about in it. I've heard all this stuff a million times. So what seems clear to me, when rapidly explained by a talking head on a screen, may not be clear to the average viewer.

I dunno, those are just theories. I don't know why it didn't work, but at the end of class, the students were pretty baffled. Tomorrow I'm trying something different.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Portrait of a Sequential Artist

I bought a DVD for my comics class. We hard-working American public school teachers often invest our own money in school supplies. Not because we have to, but because we're doing it for the kids, doggone it.

Anyway, I ordered this:

That's Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, a documentary written by Jon B. Cooke and directed by Andrew D. Cooke. I was watching it last night, making notes as I went so I could give the students questions to answer. My wife was watching it with me. After awhile she said, "Aren't you worried the kids might find this kind of . . . boring?"

I was baffled. "But Loving Wife," I said, "this is about the early days of the comic book industry. What could possibly be more interesting?"

"It's a lot of old guys talking," she said. And it's true. The old guys include Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, Kurt Vonnegut, and Art Spiegelman, and other heroes of mine that I could happily listen to all day, but your average high school student is not going to want to listen to old men talk, no matter how scintillating their observations. Which is why I gave them a handout of questions to answer as we watched, forcing them to pay attention.

That's the theory, anyway--in practice, the students often listen for the answers to the questions and miss most of the context. Education is not a perfect science.

We're going to watch this documentary the next couple of days in class, so I'll go into more detail tomorrow. For now, let me just say that if you are at all interested in the history of the American comic book industry--that is, if you are a true American--then this movie is worth your time.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Corpse on the Imjin

This year I actually have some students who are interested in Superman, which is nice. Sometimes they ask me questions, because I know an absurd amount of comic book trivia--really, absurd--and I can generally answer their questions. For instance, they asked who the first super-villain that Superman fought was, and I told them it was the Ultra-Humanite. My next instinct was to talk more about the Ultra-Humanite--who was not a super-villain in the sense of having super powers, more of a mad scientist with a catchy name--but I must resist that urge. The goal of the class is to develop students' reading and writing abilities. Comic book trivia does not further that goal. So as much as I wanted to, I did not lecture the students on the different varieties of kryptonite. 

We started our look at comic books with Superman because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman was the first big hit in the history of American comic books. Comic books were originally reprints of newspaper strips, see, and when they ran out of strips to reprint, the publishers bought cheap knock-offs of newspaper strips. Superman is when comic book publishers hit on something new. The success of Superman inspired countless imitators, which led to a comic book boom. 

This is where most of the super-heroes you've heard of come from. Superman came out in 1938, other publishers wanted to get in on that action, and within the next three years you saw the debut of Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and hundreds more. But it wasn't all super-heroes; there were humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, funny animal comics, science fiction comics, war comics, and more. 

Publishers were demanding this stuff, but it was up to writers and artists to produce it. Many were only barely competent, some were terrible, and a few were brilliant. Of those brilliant creators, probably no one was more influential than Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Harvey Kurtzman. You remember Jack Kirby? He's the guy I write about all the time. I've read vast amounts of Kirby, quite a bit of Eisner, and sadly very little Kurtzman. Fortunately, Fantagraphics recently put out this book: 

That's "Corpse on the Imjin" and Other Stories, by Harvey Kurtzman, a collection of the war stories he did for EC Comics in the 50s. When this came out some people complained that the stories are printed in black-and-white, when they were originally published in color, but I think they look great.

Today in class we read and discussed "Corpse on the Imjin," the story they named the book after. It's six pages long, is set in Korea, and starts with an unnamed American soldier sitting and watching corpses float down the river. It ends with a fresh corpse floating down the river. It's probably not the kind of story you would imagine if you heard the phrase "war comic." The students found it pretty depressing, which is an appropriate response.  

While Kurtzman is probably better known as a writer than an artist, he both wrote and drew this, and you can see that he's a world-class cartoonist. The highlight of the story is on page five. The American soldier is in a life-or-death struggle. His only hope is to drown the enemy solider. Look at this:


That is INTENSE. Look at how Kurtzman keeps the focus on the soldier, carefully choreographs his movements, and gradually zooms in. Notice the bold black lines, and how as we zoom in the panels are filled more and more with black. look at the soldier's expression in panel three; check out that layout in panel four. Even as you analyze the individual pieces, you can't quite pin down the magic, the tremendous force generated when you make that transition from panel four to panel five.

Like I said, I haven't read much Kurtzman, but just these seven panels make it clear that he was a master of the medium.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cheap and Colorful and Exotic

Here's a passage we read in class today, from Gerard Jones's excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, Chapter 7:

It was a good time for Superman to arrive. The kids born in the late Twenties and early Thirties had never known the thrill of taking a new medium or genre for their own: The kids a decade older had been pioneer audiences for radio, talkies, adventure comic strips, hard-boiled pulps, and science fiction, but a depressed economy had supported little that was new. Now something had come along that adults and older siblings didn't know about, something cheap and colorful and exotic. This was a skeptical generation, too, raised on lower expectations and hard realities. The comics, cartoons, and radio shows had increased the American appetite for fantastic heroes, but at the same time, plenty of adolescents and precocious kids found Flash Gordon and his ilk fairly ludicrous. The humor and excess of Superman made it possible to laugh along with the creators while still thrilling to the fantasy of power. That had always been Jerry and Joe's special insight: You could want the invulnerability and the power, but you had to laugh to keep people from knowing how badly you wanted it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Superman & Stardust

Errata: Yesterday I wrote about the story "The Girl from Superman's Past." I got the title wrong; it's actually "The Girl in Superman's Past." I thought I double-checked that, but apparently I didn't.

Also, I reread my blog post from the first time I taught this story, back in 2011, and was disappointed to discover that I used the same picture of Superman kissing Lori Lemaris both times. At least the coloring's different.

Today in class we had a brief discussion about Superman. One of the students said that he doesn't really like Superman because he's too powerful, and so everything is too easy for him. This is a common complaint. If your hero is nearly all-powerful, how can there be dramatic conflict in the story? Jerry Siegel figured this one out early on. Though Superman is able to deal with any criminal who shows up, he still has trouble with his love life. From his first appearance, he's interested in a girl who only has contempt for him when he's dressed up like a civilian. The secret identity, and the love triangle, are important parts of what make Superman work. Look at "The Girl in Superman's Past"--there's plenty of conflict, and Superman's powers are useless to resolve it.

My students also read a Stardust story by Fletcher Hanks. Stardust is a Superman imitation written and drawn by someone who completely misses the point of Superman. Instead of living among humanity, Stardust lives on a private star. Instead of being a hero, he's a bully.

Like Jerry Siegel, Fletcher Hanks had to solve the narrative problem of how you make a story about an all-powerful protagonist interesting. Hanks's solution was to spend most of the story focusing on the criminals, showing their evil deeds in lurid detail, with Stardust only showing up at the end to punish them. Stardust is less a character than a source of terrible retribution, inflicting more gruesome carnage for the readers' delight. This plot structure works surprisingly well, though I don't think you could keep it going indefinitely.

My students had a write a short essay comparing Superman to Stardust. Probably their best observation is that while "Superman" sounds masculine and heroic, "Stardust" sounds like a stripper's name.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kiss the Mermaid Good-Bye

We live in the Golden Age of Comic Strip Reprints. Behold:

These are the books I took in last week, to use as visual aids as we focused on newspaper comic strips. Want to read a Krazy Kat Sunday page? There they all are on the top of that stack, 1916 to 1944, collected in 13 beautifully designed volumes. And there at the base are 24 years worth of Peanuts comics, including all the glory years of the 1960s. I started bringing the books home today. They're heavy; it takes awhile to transport them.

Here are the books I brought in for our discussion of Superman:

Men of Tomorrow, on the top there, is prose, not comics. It's probably my favorite nonfiction book I've ever read.  I can't recommend it highly enough. It gives the whole story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of how they created Superman when they were still kids, and how they sold the rights for one hundred American dollars, and the long sad history of lawsuits and poverty and heartbreak that followed.

The third book down is Superman from the 30s to the 80s, a slightly later edition of the book I checked out from my school library in 1983 and read cover to cover. Out of all the stories that are reprinted in this book the one that stuck with me over the last thirty years was "The Girl From Superman's Past," Over time all the other details from this book faded (at least until I bought a used copy a few months ago) but I always remembered the story about college-age Superman falling in love with a mermaid.

"The Girl From Superman's Past," AKA the Lori Lemaris story, originally saw print in Superman #129 back in 1959. It was written by Bill Finger and Wayne Boring, two creators who don't get enough credit. Wayne Boring doesn't get talked about much these days, even though he basically defined the look of Superman. Bill Finger is pretty much the textbook example of a comic book creator who doesn't get enough credit--in fact, it's contractually required that he not get the credit he's due--but we'll talk about that more later, when we get to Batman.

So many Superman comics focus on various romantic entanglements or schemes or rivalries that ultimately come to nothing. Because "The Girl From Superman's Past" is, obviously, set in Superman's past, it can tell a story of doomed romance that has a beginning, middle, and end, with no need for maintaining some kind of romantic status quo.

There's a melancholy tone to these old Superman stories that I find appealing. Superman's a great guy, and he does what he can to help people, but his home planet blew up, his foster parents are dead, he can't commit to a romantic relationship, and there's no one else like him in the world. "The Girl From Superman's Past" is literally a children's story where the hero reminisces about the only woman in the world he was ever willing to marry, and how it turned out that the two of them could never be together. "And now he will always be alone. THE END."

My students' homework for tomorrow is to read "The Girl From Superman's Past" and answer questions about it. Will they respond to this story's wistful melancholy as enthusiastically as I did? Almost certainly not, but I'll let you know.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Suddenly, Weeks Later!

I wanted to get back into the habit of blogging every day, but I got sick, and, uh, a few weeks passed, and . . . let's not dwell on the past, okay? I'm here now, if only for a moment.

Since I last posted, we read the first three chapters of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and then took a test over those chapters. The main ideas boil down as follows:

Chapter 1 - McCloud's definition of "comics," AKA, "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

Chapter 2 - The continuum between "realistic" and "abstract," and the difference between icons, symbols, and pictures. Also: there's nothing wrong with cartoony drawings.

Chapter 3 - The magic of closure, and the six types of panel-to-panel transitions. We spend a lot of time practicing identifying panel transitions. They still never quite got aspect-to-aspect, so I eventually told them not to worry about it, since it hardly ever comes up in American comics. Except in Hellboy.

After all that I figured the students needed a break from the scholarly stuff, so we spent a week looking at newspaper comic strips, with an emphasis on Little Nemo in Slumberland, Krazy Kat, and Peanuts. On Tuesday they spent most of the class reading Peanuts comics, which is not only good practice for reading comprehension but is actually good for the soul. On Wednesday they each researched a different big name newspaper cartoonist, and on Thursday they took a quiz.

Which almost brings us up to date. Today (by which I mean Monday, though I'm writing this shortly before midnight) we moved on past newspaper comics, to the birth of the American comic book. Ah, the American comic book! Is there any subject more fascinating? To you, maybe. I tell you what, if I had been as interested in finance as I am in comic books, I would be a very rich man. But who needs material wealth, when you have handsome reprint volumes of Carl Barks duck comics on your shelf?

Tomorrow: more about Superman!  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Comics Class 2013: Week One

We started school last Wednesday, and today is Wednesday, so that must mean we've been in school for a week. Let's pause and reflect, shall we?

As you may recall from previous blog entries, I'm teaching a one-semester high school elective about comics. The first time I taught this class was in 2011, and I blogged about it extensively. I taught it again in 2012, and blogged about it not at all. This year's already going better than 2012 did, though, so hopefully I will get back into the swing of writing about it.

One change I made this year is to lay more groundwork before we start with our textbook, Understanding Comics. The last two years I jumped right in, which, in retrospect, was a mistake. This year we've had a week's worth of classes and I haven't even passed the books out yet. Instead, we've been doing this. . .

Day 1

For an introductory activity, I took in a semi-random pile of comics from my basement. See that Richie Rich comic there? If you look inside, the ad for Sea Monkeys has a hole in it. Because when I was a child I cut out the order form and mailed it in. I got my Sea Monkeys from THAT VERY COMIC. That's history, right there. Also pictured: my favorite X-Men comic. Yes, it's that one.

Day 2 
Thursday we focused on the terms "medium" and "genre." I realized that we'll use those terms extensively both in this class and in Film Studies, so I need to spend a lot of time on them up front. The students split into two teams and competed to see which team could come up with a longer list of genres of fiction. The winning team got delicious candy. Candy is what educators call an "extrinsic motivator."

Day 3

By Friday there were 15 students in the class, and I have about 15 volumes of Krazy Kat reprints, so I realized I could take those in and let each student read Krazy Kat comics. So they read Krazy Kat, and tried to make sense of it, and did some activities.

And yes, my dry erase board was pretty dirty by the third day of school. Don't worry, though, I have since bought a bottle of cleaning fluid.

Day 4  
The Krazy Kat activity was new this year, so I wasn't sure how long it would take. It turns out it takes about two days. We finished it up and then I gave them vocabulary words, both comics-specific terms and the tricky words (like "aesthetic" and "juxtaposed") they'll need to understand Scott McCloud's definition of comics.

Day 5
Students drew short comic strips, and labelled the parts. This gave them practice with comics vocabulary words like "panel" and "gutter." For homework, students were assigned to write a paragraph giving their own definition of "comics."

Day 6

Since today is Jack Kirby's birthday, I started class with a PowerPoint presentation about Kirby. This is the first year I've had a projector in the classroom, so it's exciting to be able to do this, even though I stayed up too late making the slideshow, and the projector stopped working and I had to borrow someone else's, and the board I projected on collapsed, just collapsed right there on the floor . . . so yes, there were setbacks, but it's nice to finally be able to use PowerPoint. That should be a huge boon to this class.

In retrospect, I should have tightened the focus of my presentation. I tried to cover just the highlights of Jack Kirby's career, but he did so much that I barely scratched the surface. I probably should have just picked a decade.

After discussing Jack Kirby, and what he did, and how all that ties in with what we've discussed so far, we looked at the students' definitions of "comics." Tomorrow, we'll read Scott McCloud's definition, and see how that compares.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A New Dawn, A New Day

The long wait is over . . . Creative Reading class starts up again today. At 1:52 PM, to be exact. Get ready for thrilling comics reading action like you've never seen!

More on this story as it develops.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reality DIES at DAWN!!!


Tachyon precipitation is at 72%; subjective standards are fluid; transcendental oscillators vacillate ominously. 

Nano-combine clusters activate. Proto-transistors thrum. Matter translates into energy. A delicate quantum matrix emerges, enveloping all doubt, consuming lingering pockets of despair at the speed of light. 

Invoke paradigmatic synergy; invert standard parameters; invigorate stale discourse; initiate salient disclaimers. 

Unfurl the manifold!

Fire engines!

We are GO.