I’m teaching “Graphic Narratives in a Global Frame” in my first-year seminar this fall and am trying to get them to think about cultural contexts in the comics they read (almost all of them, I get the sense, voraciously and well beyond whatever syllabus I might come up with). Of course, I’ve picked a series of writers (artists, comics creators, graphic novelists, whatever the right word is…) they are largely unfamiliar with: Chris Ware, Shaun Tan, Guy Delisle, Marjane Satrapi, Hayao Miyazaki (surely the most popular of the lot, I expect a flood of final papers on “Spirited Away”), Alison Bechdel, and Taiyo Matsumoto, among others. In this sense, the class is little different from my other courses on (also for lack of a better term) conventional literature; to expect students to be familiar with either Henry James or Alison Bechdel on the first week of classes seems an equally unlikely proposition. Of course, on one level, this speaks mostly to the texts I choose and the largely modernist standards of evaluation I stubbornly (anachronistically?) prize: psychological complexity, formal innovation, conspicuous difficulty, inter alia. That such standards easily transcend the putative high/low divide is the subtext of much of the semester, although it feels like we’ve only been able to approach these questions with glancing blows (what this might mean for modernism, and its aftereffects, is a topic for a sequel to my book on failure that I’ll probably never write).

Where my graphic narrative classes differ significantly from my other teaching is in the avidity with which my students (and these first-year students in particular) read comics. Several already have blogs about what they read and many of them seem to have forged friendships based on that reading, which trends by a wide margin toward manga. All of them are creating comics throughout the semester—you can see and comment on the results here—and with a few exceptions, the comics they reference are ones unfamiliar to me. Plenty of factors are at work here: I’m a latecomer to reading comics seriously, by the time manga really exploded in America I was traversing a different set of canon wars in my undergraduate English department, and there is a generational divide (a very productive one, I suspect) felt more keenly in this class than in any other I’ve taught. There’s also something to be said about the sheer profusion of graphic narratives in the American marketplace as well, something Art Spiegelman alluded to when he visited campus last year and spoke (with an interesting mix of wonder, elation, and a twinge of horror) about his absolute inability to keep up with where comics are going. I think this is mirrored in the music and film industries as online forms gain a firmer foothold on both the production and dissemination of cultural work, where micro-genres emerge and social networks allow us to tend smaller and smaller gardens of  our interests and passions and cultivate micro-communities of like-minded readers, viewers, and listeners.

I’m not sure this is the whole story, though. I can see a lot of crossover between traditions in the comics we’re reading together—manga artists reading French bande dessinée, American auteurs reading both and being inspired in turn, and the big publication houses trying to capitalize on these various appetites among comics consumers—and a willingness from this (admittedly unscientific) group of readers to read widely. Even though I don’t catch the references in most of my students’ comics, they do, rarely feeling the need to even explain them to one another. Perhaps comics are alone in this, and pop music, film, conventional literature etc. will continue to trend toward smaller and discrete audiences. The accelerating overlap between these media would seem to signal otherwise. No doubt it’s too early to tell. Clearly, though, I’ve got some catching up to do.


4 Comments so far

  1.    Brenda Landis on September 11, 2010 2:54 pm

    I’m no comics scholar so I can’t even try to relate really. I did feel the same way about my music knowledge as I started to fall behind on new tunes and the radio kids listened to different stuff. This might seem trivial because this is your scholarship and my love is just a hobby but I’m ok with learning as much from my kids as they learn from me. I think it gets them excited if they feel they can offer something new that I didn’t know about already. Keeps me on my toes too:)

  2.    David Ball on September 11, 2010 7:08 pm

    I think we’re talking about exactly the same phenomenon here! Would love to have a conversation about this outside the e-realm…

  3.    Leah on September 15, 2010 10:14 am

    No, worries, Professor! Before this class I never once picked up a graphic novel in my life. I have a hard enough time pronouncing the anime titles without knowing what the comics are about. I never, ever would have considered graphic novels to be quality literature or art, but something in between… but now I’m realizing that there’s a depth to be analyzed, with allusions, metaphors, and puns; therefore, comics are literature. There’s an emotional tug, a dissonance resolved with consonance, feeling; therefore, it is art. My eyes are opened. I wouldn’t say I understand, but I would say I’m willing to try. So in reality, you’re the “young” one, the contemporary one, teaching me new tricks.

  4.    David Ball on September 15, 2010 10:17 am

    Wow, thanks Leah… I’m not worried so much as excited to learn, not that I don’t like being called the “young one”! I hope the reading experience continues to be an exciting one as we really dive into our reading for the semester.

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