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.