[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Literature and Other Media for Adolescents.”]
We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they can help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.
–from Supergods by Grant Morrison (2012 p. xvii)
“You fellas think of comics in terms of comic books, but you’re wrong. I think you fellas should think of comics in terms of drugs, in terms of war, in terms of journalism, in terms of selling, in terms of business. And if you have a viewpoint on drugs, or if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism.”
–Jack Kirby (quoted in Howe 2013 p. 103)
In a vastly influential paper published in 1956, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars coined the concept of “the myth of the given.” The proximate target of Sellars’ critique of “givenness,” of the apparent immediacy of knowledge as derived from sense-data (“knowledge by acquaintance,” as he called it), was intended to be foundationalist epistemologies such as phenomenological theories of perception and cognition, but it has often occurred to me that “the myth of the given” can be formulated or translated into aesthetic terms as well as philosophical ones (Sellars 1956).
For example, it’s frequently argued that reading prose is inherently superior–in cognitive terms if not also in morally virtuous ones–to viewing films or engaging with mixed-media texts like comics. This argument relies on an assumption of the native “givenness” of meaning for the spectator of movies and comics as opposed to that of literature, in which it assumed that meaning must be actively constructed by the reader and is therefore not given as such. What requires more effort, what makes the audience work harder, is asserted to be better for the consumer and perhaps even for society as a whole. (We can see this snobbish attitude literalized and illustrated in Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which–horror of horrors–text-based newspaper articles have been replaced with wholly pictorial representations of events.)
The purpose of this paper is to argue against the aesthetic myth of the given in theoretical terms and then on practical, pedagogical grounds as well. I hope to demonstrate why and how comics should be taught as part of a comprehensive program of media literacy instruction in schools and across content areas, and not just utilized as a mere transitional / remedial form introduced in order to hook “reluctant readers” on literature. Rather than being an unhappy medium or mere hybrid between prose and cinema, comics in their syncretism can embody the finest qualities of both while accomplishing things that neither books nor movies can successfully pull off. (An outstanding recent example: in Silver Surfer 11, Dan Slott and Mike Allred designed the page layout and narrative of the entire issue with the looping structure of a Möbius strip [Slott & Allred 2015].) We will begin by formalizing and critiquing the aesthetic myth of the given, proceed to defining and advocating for media literacy and adolescent literacy as such, and finally demonstrate how comics fulfill the key elements of media literacy instruction and explore their pedagogical implications in content areas across the curriculum. (Please note I’ve already covered cinematic media literacy through film history and theory in two previous essays.) While critics often prefer to hold up universally-acknowledged masterpieces like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell as specimens of comics at their most refined and literary (read: wordy), I plan to focus on comics at their most ubiquitous and popular among adolescents, which is to say superhero and science fiction / fantasy comics. A significant amount of Japanese manga undoubtedly falls under these categories as well, but as I only have a passing familiarity with this genre, I will mostly concentrate on Western comics. And as an ardent and lifelong Marvel Comics fan, that publisher’s books are going to be given far more space and consideration than DC.
II. The Aesthetic Myth of the Given
Surely, there is an element of truth to the aesthetic myth of the given, at least with regard to reading. Speaking from personal experience, I possess what William Butler Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult,” which is why I find the prose of James Joyce and Henry James and the poetry of Hart Crane and John Ashbery to be so deeply enjoyable and rewarding. And even the most ardent proponents of whole language reading instruction would agree that the apparently simple task of reading for comprehension is really an extraordinarily complex act, one that involves the decoding of signifiers–not just individual words, but also sentences, paragraphs, narratives, and megatexts or discourses–on multiple and simultaneous levels (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 12-15). Learning to read and write cannot be accomplished through cultural osmosis in the manner of learning to talk and understand speech; these skills must be actively taught or facilitated by an educator.
But the aesthetic myth of the given fails when it comes to comics and film, because meaning is no more immanent in images than in prose. In other words, just because a narrative is primarily told through images instead of text does not mean that processes of decoding and sense-making are absent in these mediums. The comprehension strategies of visualization and inferring are related but distinct: comics always-already provide us with visuals, but we must still do the inferring (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 130-132). Moreover, these interpretive processes are fundamentally learned behaviors; we only fail to recognize them because they take on essentially different rhetorical forms than the codes and modes of representation in literature. Although it’s undoubtedly easier to learn how to read a picture book or comic than a piece of prose, one is no more born knowing how to read comics by their arbitrary and sometimes contingent rules–to understand, for example, that every panel is a discrete temporal moment and spatial frame, or that one generally reads the pages and panels from left to right and top to bottom (Japanese manga, for example, is different in this regard)–than one is born knowing how to read text. Written texts generally make meaning through signification and symbolism, while drawn texts like comics primarily build meaning via dialectical juxtaposition and movement either within or between frames–or as it is called in film discourse, montage (Cousins 2011; Godard 1988; McCloud 1994).
Let us illustrate this distinction using a semi-hypothetical model from the musings of the film director Jean-Luc Godard. (Incidentally, along with his fellow nouvelle vague filmmaker Alain Resnais, Godard was a fan of populist comic books [Howe 2013].) When asked whether he ever considered becoming a writer, Godard replied:
Yes, of course. But I wrote, “The weather is nice. The train enters the station,” and I sat there for hours wondering why I couldn’t have just as well written the opposite: “The train enters the station. The weather is nice” or “it is raining.” In the cinema, it’s simpler. At the same time, the weather is nice and the train enters the station. There is something ineluctable about it. You have to go along with it. (Brody 2008)
Written texts rely on signifiers, such as the word “train.” The letters t-r-a-i-n, when decoded as the word “train,” serve as more-or-less stable referent for the set of essential characteristics that describe a form of mass transportation that runs on rails. The arrangement of the opening sentences also creates meaning, because sentences and paragraphs are nothing more than higher-level signifiers; each of the two alternatives signifies a subtly different mental picture and limns a slightly different mood. This ability to make sense and meaning from letters and words that we call “reading” is nothing more than this process of decoding. By contrast, in a frame of film or in a panel of a comic, the images of a train and the weather–the visual diegesis–are near-instantaneously given to us in its sensuous immediacy. Does this indicate that meaning, too, is always-already given? No; this conclusion does not follow from the premises.
As Godard observed, the temporal and spatial simultaneity of images is a foundational principle of visual texts like comics and film. There is not necessarily any inherent meaning within the picture of the train and the rain, but there would be meaning if this picture were followed by, say, one of a businessman struggling with his heavy briefcase as he futilely chases after the train as it pulls away from the station. This juxtaposition between images–regardless of whether this juxtaposition was crafted through cross-cutting by editing between scenes, the horizontal motion traced by a tracking shot, or the absolute spatial continuity preserved by a long shot (although each alternative again suggests varying shades of meaning)–naturally leads the curious viewer to ask questions: Who is this man? Why did he miss the train? What is he running toward, and what is he running from? What’s in the briefcase? Regardless of the viewer’s predictions, the audience knows that the answers to these questions are likely to be clarified in scenes to come. And, in turn, avant-garde filmmakers would not be able to deliberately subvert our expectations if we didn’t have expectations to begin with–the inculcated set of rules which film theorist Noel Burch called the “institutional mode of representation” (Burch 1973).
However, comics are not subject to the institutional mode of representation to the degree that film is; there is more freedom, more slippage allowed within this medium. Noel Burch claimed that following the “primitive mode of representation,” films identify the viewer’s sight with that of the camera and utilize rules of three-dimensional perspective to make the diegetic space of the screen continuous with the viewer’s environment. Furthermore, each shot in a cinematic sequence–analogous to the individual frame of a comic–conveys a single piece of information. Close-ups, which focus inward on one discrete image, are perhaps the most salient example. However, close-ups briefly disrupt the aforementioned spatial continuity, so the latter quality must be preserved through eye-line and directional matches (Burch 1973). By contrast, while comics constantly zoom in and out between frames and utilize jump cuts and cross-cutting, eye-line and directional matches are not so important. In their radical compression and dilation of time and space, even humble superhero comics can be almost inadvertently avant-garde and psychedelic; their genealogical lineage is closer to the experimental Soviet, German, and French cinema that pre-dates or post-dates the institutional mode of representation than to the modern Hollywood blockbusters that superhero comics have inspired.
Meaning, then, emerges from the cracks within and between images. It is not given, nor decoded from a single image, but dialectical or dialogical in same manner of the rhythm at the heart of film editing: shot-reverse-shot: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. With comics, this is obviously complicated by the presence of signifers in the form of dialogue, narration, and monologue, meaning that they are ultimately a form of aesthetic bricolage or assemblage of affects. But because the essential axis of a comic is its visual dimension and not its textual characteristics, the point still stands. (I.e., you can have a comic without text–indeed, there are many such “silent” comics, such as the remarkable woodcut novels of Lynd Ward, the phantasmagorical Frank stories by Jim Woodring, Shaun Tan’s classic picture book The Arrival or even particular issues of ongoing series, like Jonathan Hickman’s moving Fantastic Four 588–but you can’t have a comic without pictures.) The aesthetics of painting, comics, and film emphatically do not comprise a kind of “visual language” whose semiotic structure and symbols can be delineated with any kind of consistency (at least not across spoken languages or cultures). By reducing the concept of literacy to the mere decoding of written language, the myth of the given thus serves to impoverish our world of aesthetic experience by obscuring visual / non-linguistic ways (in this case, montage) of constructing meaning.
Why is the aesthetic myth of the given so universal and so difficult to identify and critique? It almost certainly derives from class prejudice. Comics, being a rich and vibrant tradition with its origins as a working class art form, are automatically denigrated as simplistic trash for children, while the most aggressively mediocre works of prose fiction or nonfiction are elevated far beyond their actual stature or quality. (Indeed, newspapers used to publish stories with perennial regularity on the subject of: “Comics! They’re Not Just for Kids Anymore,” causing every comics professional / journalist alive to groan in unison [Rhoades 2008].) Comics are, to be sure, a populist medium (albeit one that’s more sophisticated and stylistically diverse than ever), but they don’t have to be lowbrow. At their best, comics embody what J. Hoberman once said about his fellow film critic Manny Farber: they short circuit the lowbrow with the highbrow and play both ends off the middlebrow (Farber 2009).
III. Comics and Media Literacy
If a school’s curriculum is something like a map, showing us the breadth and contours of its terrain, then media literacy is a sprawling, uncharted blank spot; it is terra incognita waiting to be explored with the depth this rich topic demands of us. Few public high schools (usually just some of the largest ones) offer a course or even a course unit in media literacy. The closest many schools come is a technology course on digital art–i.e. learning the basics of computer software for graphic design, animation, and audiovisual editing. In the digital art classes I’ve seen, a lesson on making comics was one component of the curriculum. These technology classes may be pragmatically useful, intellectually and creatively stimulating, and even innovative in curricular terms, but they are quite different from learning media literacy as such. If this subject is taught in its own right, it is almost invariably territorialized by the content area of language arts, which can sometimes lead to it being taught both inadequately and inaccurately. The end result is art that loses much of its medium specificity and aesthetic charm in translation.
It is my belief that public schools–whether at the middle school or high school level–need to start developing courses and thematic, interdisciplinary units in order to teach media literacy as part of the curriculum. Media literacy is defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education as being:
seen to consist of a series of communication competencies, including the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms, including print and non-print messages. Media literacy empowers people to be both critical thinkers and creative producers of an increasingly wide range of messages using image, language, and sound. (NAMLE 2013)
And as a subset of media literacy, Nancy Frey and Douglas B. Fisher define visual literacy as:
describing the complex act of meaning making using still or moving images. As with reading comprehension, visually literate learners are able to make connections, determine importance, synthesize information, evaluate, and critique. Further, these visual literacies are interwoven with textual ones, so that their interaction forms the basis for a more complete understanding. The twenty-first-century learner must master this intermediality of images and text in order to interpret an increasingly digital world. (Frey & Fisher 2008 p.1)
What is “the visual interwoven with the textual” but a description of the form and content of a graphic novel?
While budget cuts and the standards-based education movement have led to a drastic reduction in the art classes and electives that schools offer to students, there are several conceptual and empirical reasons that support my arguments about the importance of media literacy instruction. Increasingly, adolescents are surrounded by screens and omnipresent media images for almost every waking moment of their days. Their lives are always-already mediated, but they nonetheless have little idea as to how one can contextualize, analyze, and evaluate visual texts like comics. (This would hopefully not be the case with written texts, which they will have studied for many years by the time they graduate from high school.) And without being able to properly contextualize, analyze, and evaluate, one cannot move to the level of media critique for which many theorists of media literacy advocate. I believe that critical media literacy is a public good; it is particularly invaluable in the process of coming to political consciousness which Paulo Freire termed conscientization. In Freire’s words, media literacy helps us to “read the world” (Freire 1968).
Media literacy is thus a natural component of the expansive definition of adolescent literacy proffered by Moje, Young, and Readence (2000). Adolescent literacy refers to both the practices of reading and the body of texts and discourses that adolescents encounter in their daily lives. At its narrowest, it includes school-based literate activity: namely, the books that adolescents are expected to read, discuss, and write about as part of their formal education, as well as the works they choose to read voluntarily (young adult or otherwise). At its most broadly conceived, however, adolescent literacy encompasses multiple emerging extracurricular mediated literacies: magazines, newspapers, advertisements, emails, text messages, social media, the web, music, film, video games, comics, etc. Neither most adults nor many adolescents themselves consider the more ephemeral of these mediums and forms of communication to be legitimate literary practices, but their very ubiquity and invisibility is what makes them such important supplements in the contemporary language arts classroom. Through the use of media literacy as a subset of adolescent literacy, teachers can a) demonstrate that their students are always-already literate and possess reading skills and knowledge in a number of alternative, informal ways, b) connect students’ informal literacies back to formal literacy practices in and out of schools, and c) make their own instructional practices more culturally and generationally relevant (Moje et al. 2000).
As Carrye Kay Syma and Robert G. Weiner note in their book on Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom (to my view, possibly the best work on the subject), “sequential art, cartoons, comics, and graphic novels are not a genre, they are a format and a technique for telling a story or conveying information. […] [C]omics are a form of social history that can be used to impart knowledge about a particular era.” In other words, comics are an artistic medium rather than the determinate content thereof. They go to claim that “In the past 10 to 15 years, the use of sequential art in education has exploded. […] It is no longer a question of whether sequential art should be used in educational settings, but rather how to use it and for what purpose” (2013 p. 1). Finally, Syma and Weiner connect comics back to media literacy in precisely the same terms and arguments I have utilized:
In today’s transmedia culture, the concept of just what it means to be educated and literate continues to change and mutate. […] The combination of images with text in order for students to understand and interpret the world is probably the most important aspect of teaching literacy in the 21st century. […]
Sequential art, of course, usually combines both the visual and the narrative in a way that readers have to interpret the images with the writing. With comics and graphic novels permeating all aspects of popular culture and the world it is almost impossible for even those who disdain the format to not be touched by it (for example, in 2012, The Avengers was one of the biggest movies in the history of popular culture, and its source material is comics). Even those who may never pick up a comic for pleasure reading or analysis are still touched by the world of comics. Comics are probably one of the purest forms an educator could use to teach visual literacy.
One of the things that make comics such a good fit for education is that students are using a format that provides an opportunity for active engagement. Their minds are lively when reading comics. The readers involve their minds with both the visual and narrative content, hopefully resulting in greater comprehension and interest. (Syma & Weiner 2013 p. 15)
In the twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to ignore all forms of literacy except for printed text on a page. While comics should not serve as a substitute for all of these other forms of media literacy, they remain one of the most exciting and fruitful ways to teach and learn about this subject. In the following section, we will explore some specific pedagogical implications of comics in several separate content areas or domains.
IV. Comics and Pedagogy
Since comics as an artistic medium are inherently interdisciplinary, formal instruction on the subject would need to mirror this content in its very form. Thus, one could easily build exciting curricular connections and thematic units between language arts (studying comics and reading / writing criticism thereof); visual art (making comics and exploring their history); and social studies, science, and technology. Comics have pedagogical implications and applications across the spectrum of a school’s curriculum, and we will demonstrate this by examining each of these content areas in turn.
A. Language Arts
One of the elements of comics that I find most interesting is that of narrative compression. For example, the iconic origin story of Spider-Man as told by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Fantasy 15 is a masterpiece of compression; they constructed a complete, compelling, and self-contained story in a mere eleven pages. It’s fast-paced, showing the viewers only the most crucial scenes as it swings to its climactic denouement. When Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley retold and greatly expanded upon this simple narrative for a new generation at the beginning of their Ultimate Spider-Man series, it took them a seven issue story arc of about twenty pages per issue–or roughly one hundred forty pages total, over ten times as long as the original (Morrison 2012 p. 96). This is not to say, however, that the slower pace of modern comics is necessarily inferior to the seminal works of the 1960s. On the contrary, this “decompressed” approach allows for a greater naturalism and flexibility, an increased focus on character development and dialogue, and a reduction in repetitive, overbearing narration and expository direct addresses to the reader. Indeed, nostalgia often prevents us from seeing just how well-written the average modern comic is to the comics of yesteryear. (Unnecessary sound effects are, alas, still with us.) But regardless of how much space and time is covered in a certain span of pages, comics rely upon compression, on the viewer’s knowledge that one is traveling through time as one’s eyes scan across from panel to panel. Compression is a feature, not a bug. It’s impossible to depict a continuity of motion on pages as film is capable of showing (through the fusion frequency of twenty-four frames per second), so comics can only select representative high points of the action.
The beauty of compression is that it forces the reader to make inferences–Scott McCloud calls it “closure,” in that in involves closing the gap between parts that comprise a whole–about what happens in the interstitial gutters between panels or the margins between pages; reading comics is thus a fundamentally participatory act (McCloud 1994; Yang 2008). (Also, for what it’s worth, Robert Brandom’s “inferential role semantics” and meaning holism as an influential school of pragmatist thought in analytic philosophy, derives in part from the work of Wilfrid Sellars [Brandom 1994, 2000, 2015]. In other words, linguistic inferentialism comprises a powerful challenge to the aesthetic myth of the given.) Language arts teachers spend much of their time trying to get students to consciously make predictions–which are one type of inference–about the future events of a work of prose fiction, when comics already do this quite naturally (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 141). This is also the quality that makes them a powerful pedagogical tool in the multilingual classroom, as English-language learners can infer the meaning of vocabulary words from reading them in the context of images (Cary 2004).
To demonstrate inferences from narrative compression, we might turn to the opening of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s twelve-part All-Star Superman, an elegant, wordless two-page spread recapitulating the essential, instantly-recognizable elements of Superman’s origin story, compressed to its mythic core (Morrison & Quitely 2011). Like hearing the first few notes of a familiar melody, viewing these pages prompts the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own memory. A more recent and even better instance would be Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez’s immensely clever and amusing Edge of Spider-Verse 2. In an alternate universe story about a world in which Gwen Stacy–Spider-Man’s late girlfriend in mainstream Marvel continuity–and not Peter Parker himself is the one bitten by the radioactive spider, Latour and Rodriguez accelerate through Spider-Gwen’s origin story in a two-page montage, much like Morrison and Quitely. Unlike these two creators’ work, however, Latour’s script is more like an improvisation upon an old standard than a faithful cover version. The reader scans the rapid editing between this alluring display of images, inferring from each one the key divergences between the respective histories of Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen, with the former serving as a kind of aporia, an absent center, around which the latter is constructed.
One of the finest examples of inferentialism in comics as a pedagogical tool for the language arts classroom, however, might be Matt Fraction and David Aja’s delightful, award-winning Hawkeye 11–otherwise known as “Pizza Is My Business” (Fraction & Aja 2013). A near-wordless issue shown from the perspective of Hawkeye’s pizza-loving dog, Lucky, as he pieces together the subtle clues of a murder mystery from the previous issue, Aja conveys information through Lucky’s associations of characters with distinct scents, which are represented through networks of thumbnail graphics. The only pieces of dialogue we are allowed to see are the words that a dog might know or understand, so without words to assist us in making sense of the sequence of pictures, we must work harder to infer the connections between clues and make predictions alongside our unlikely protagonist. It’s a totally satisfying narrative in and of itself (although one needs to have read the previous issues for context), and as an experiment in representing nonhuman perception, it demands multiple readings. I, as an adult, find something new to discover and appreciate every time. Fraction and Aja also constructed a terrific follow-up in Hawkeye 17, another nearly silent issue in which spoken dialogue and word balloons are replaced with sign language. Taken together, they are a magnificent demonstration of the power of comics to elicit reader participation in constructing meaning through inferences. Not only do comics appeal to reluctant readers, they also work to teach the literacy skills we associate with conscientious readers and desire to inculcate in our students.
One activity language arts teachers might employ is to engage students in “translating” a written script to a page or spread of a comic–or, conversely, to deduce the script from the comic representation thereof. By comparing and contrasting various students’ pictorial interpretations of a particular printed script (and perhaps also viewing them alongside a professional comic artist’s adaptation in a published comic book), students can gain a better understanding of how there can be multiple valid visual representations of a given textual diegesis, and that each version conveys different shades of meaning.
Comics also allow language arts teachers to introduce students to the concept of flat vs. rounded characters. Most superheroes-as-protagonists are defined by a set of key personality attributes and traits, but conversely they also grow and change–if slowly–over time, adding depth and turning them from flat into rounded characters. The sheer accumulated volume of publication means that once-simple characters have become, issue by issue, complex and compelling creations (Wolk 2008). Other, more minor characters and supervillains, however, are more liable to be flat and static as they continually revert back to their original status quo.
Including comics studies in the language arts classroom might also involve reading and writing criticism of comics. Douglas Wolk’s work serves as an intelligent and wide-ranging introduction to the field, while Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith capably put comics in historical, artistic, and political-economic context in their textbook on the subject (Wolk 2008; Duncan & Smith 2009). Finally, the two academic volumes edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester bring together some of the most crucial theoretical and critical texts in the nascent field of “comics studies” in a pair of serious and thought-provoking anthologies (2008, 2013).
B. Visual Art
In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud accurately points out that the history of comics stretches back centuries (even millennia) further than we might imagine; Greco-Roman sculptures, Egyptian and Mesoamerican picture narratives, and medieval tapestries all tell stories through the sequential juxtaposition of images (McCloud 1994). Exploring such connections between contemporary superhero comics and the art of the ancient world might get students interested in learning more about art history and mythology. Furthermore, discussing how a single panel of a comic represents a moment in a greater narrative is a wonderful way of introducing the visual literacy skills necessary to comprehend figurative / representative painting. By examining their overall color schemes and use of light and dark, specific penciling and inking techniques or brushwork, tensions and balances of framing and perspective, selection and deployment of specific detail, grasp of the human anatomy, and capture of movement and emotion through gesture and expression, we can learn to analyze the meaning and evaluate the quality of paintings and drawings as well as narrative comics. And just as the works of Edward Hopper have been compared to stills from film noir movies, paintings often suggest a larger story extending beyond the confines of the frame. Again, the very open-endedness they share with comics is what leads the viewer to make inferences and predictions.
Comics can also demonstrate the differences between Western and non-Western art and the historical trends within each tradition. While comics still generally abide by the Renaissance conventions of representation (like three-dimensional perspective), their vibrant dynamism and hyperreal exaggerations mark them as products of artistic Modernism and / or Postmodernism. In recent years, superhero comics (particularly those published by Marvel) have moved away from cinematic, detail-heavy mimetic realism to a smoother, more stylized, flattened-out graphic approach. This shift is perhaps best exemplified by the artwork of David Aja and Annie Wu (Hawkeye), Mike Allred (FF, Silver Surfer), Stacey Lee (Silk), Jamie McKelvie (Young Avengers), Phil Noto (Black Widow), Javier Pulido (She-Hulk), and Chris Samnee (Daredevil), all of which boast an utterly distinctive, unified, and personal look and feel.
Other series might serve to illustrate the influence of artistic movements upon wider popular culture. Grant Morrison’s career in independent comics alone serves as a superb illustration. In its boundless overflowing of mad creativity, his Doom Patrol (with Richard Case, among others) is a mindbending journey of surrealism and psychedelia. Morrison’s Flex Mentallo (with Frank Quitely), The Invisibles (with a rotating cast of artists), and The Filth (with Chris Weston) verge on pop art, while Animal Man (with Chas Truog) is realism spiced with metafictional, postmodern self-reflexivity. His brilliant, thrilling, and heartbreaking We3 (with Frank Quitely) is “Western manga,” combining a kind of inhuman naturalism with a Modernist fracturing of space and time, while Seaguy (with Cameron Stewart) and Vimanarama (with Philip Bond) hearken back to the glory days of Jack Kirby in their retro stylings while bringing in influences from Disney cartoons and Indian culture, respectively.
Finally, visual art classes can teach children to make their own comics to tell stories–either adaptations of pre-existing narratives from literature or stories that students create on their own in order to express themselves (McCloud 2006). As mentioned above, many digital arts classes already instruct students in how to create comics and animations using various software programs and apps found on the web.
C. Social Studies, Science, and Technology
Superhero comics often strive for relevance within contemporary pop culture–they reflect the time period in which they were created–so they can be utilized in the classroom as an index to broader sociocultural shifts (Syma & Weiner 2013). Many social studies classes already make extensive use of political cartoons, so delving further into graphic narratives makes sense, too. For example, Captain America can tell us something about perceptions of the United State’s role in World War II and other conflicts, while the X-Men have always served as a literalized metaphor for prejudice and discrimination–toward racial and sexual minorities, for example–of all kinds. Sean Howe’s totally engrossing Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a hilarious and often horrifying chronicle that engages with such issues as the class struggle, U.S. labor and business history in the twentieth century, the contributions of immigrants and religious / ethnic / racial minorities to American culture, the impact of drugs and sixties / seventies psychedelia upon society, moral panics and political anxieties, conflicts between creativity and copyright, and the uneasy relationship between commerce and art (2013). Moving from straight history to a sui generis work blending subjective history, criticism, philosophy, and memoir, Grant Morrison’s entertaining Supergods (2012) is a mind-expanding look into what comics can tell us about the (post-)human condition. Finally, David Hajdu’s work on comics in the fifties and sixties gives us great insight into the history of censorship in the United States (2008). The website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group that promotes and protects First Amendment liberties, also contains many detailed resources on banned and challenged books (CBLDF 2015).
It’s worth noting that in recent years, Marvel’s superhero comics have become more diverse (both stylistically and in terms of representation) than ever. In addition to all of the original, classic characters, there’s now a biracial Spider-Man, a black Captain America, a female Thor, a female Captain Marvel, a Pakistani-American (and Muslim) Ms. Marvel, a Korean-American Spider-Woman, a Hispanic Ghost Rider, and several gay or bisexual Young Avengers and X-Men. Having such an egalitarian cast of characters can allow previously excluded minorities to hear their own unique voices, to see themselves reflected–as heroes instead of sidekicks or villains–in the media they consume. At their best, superhero comics can widen the circle of our empathy and inspire us to create a more tolerant society.
Scott McCloud suggests in his Reinventing Comics that webcomics–which are not bound to the dimensions of a printed page–can give creators the freedom to sprawl out in multiple directions, to play with the representation of space and time (2000). But regardless of whether comic is published on paper or on a screen, all comics allow the reader to pause, rewind, and fast forward, to play with the subjective flow of time. This is exactly the quality that makes them so ideal for conveying information regarding science and technology. As Syma and Weiner note, a growing number of high school and college textbooks and “graphic guides” on various academic subjects utilize comics as a concise and elegant way of explaining concepts, one that lends itself to repeated viewings for the purpose of studying or memorization (2013). In many ways, superhero comics actually anticipated this by overlaying pictures with explanatory text that referred the reader to the numbers of previous issues for context, in a kind of primitive augmented reality.
(Speaking of memorization–anyone who thinks superhero comic books are light reading with low cognitive demands on the reader likely has not read one lately, for few genres require the reader to file away and recall later as much minutiae and trivia from decades of relevant backstory as this one does!)
Artistic innovation flows upward, from the lowbrow to the highbrow, as often as it trickles downward in the reverse direction. With regard to graphic novels, the subtle innovations of Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, Craig Thompson, and Chris Ware–to name some of the “prestige” comics creators acclaimed by the literary mainstream–often pale in comparison to the splashy psychedelic hyperrealism and radical reinventions of both form and content that can be found in the humble superhero comic. Panel after panel, page after page, too many graphic novels limit themselves to repetitive foresquare panels and staid rectangular page layouts, with a kind of lazy middlebrow naturalism (perhaps gleaned more from television or film than from the history of comics) serving to render them aesthetically conservative or even downright stodgy.
In his “theoretical fiction about postmodernism,” Doom Patrols (which was in turn inspired by the eponymous series by Grant Morrison), the theorist and critic Steven Shaviro points out that comic books have a curiously bifurcated nature:
The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.” It’s all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does “readers.” The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content. (Shaviro 1996)
When I first entered the world of comic books and graphic novels, I assumed that superhero comics were merely a text to be critiqued, deconstructed, or parodied rather than appreciated in their own right. This attitude, which was no doubt borne of reading postmodern works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen before I ever encountered a single superhero comic, prevented me from perceiving and entering into the “living conversation” surrounding the medium (Buehler 2009). As Shaviro alludes to above, there are already expansive subterranean literacies–such as letter columns in the back of single issues, online forums devoted to comics, and comic book shops themselves–in which adolescents and adults can engage in passionate discussion and debate. For example, if one enters a chain bookstore, one is unlikely to overhear customers and staff members talking animatedly about the merits of individual creators, characters, titles, and storylines, but when one walks into a comic book store, this is exactly what one might reasonably expect to immediately encounter. As a form of collaborative storytelling and mass readership, comics are perhaps unique in inspiring more devotion, attention to detail, and vociferous praise and criticism, than any other text-based medium. As educators, we need only reject or revise our aesthetic assumptions and myths (which, in the last instance, often amount to sociocultural ones) about what constitutes literature and, indeed, the act of reading itself, in order to access this rich and colorful discourse and to encourage a new generation of media literate citizens.
This essay is dedicated to Nich Boyd–for getting me back into comics. Thank you also to my local comic book store, Nostalgia Ink.
VI. Works Cited
Archer, J. (Producer), & Cousins, M. (Director). (2011). The story of film [Motion picture]. Ireland: Hopscotch Films.
Brandom, R. (1994). Making it explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Brandom, R. (2000). Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Brandom, R. (2015). From empiricism to expressivism: Brandom reads Sellars. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Brody, R. (2008). Everything is cinema: The working life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Da Capo.
Buehler, J. (2009). Ways to join the living conversation about young adult literature. The English Journal 98(3), 26-32.
Burch, N. (1973). Theory of film practice. New York: Praeger.
Cary, S. (2004). Going graphic: Comics in the multilingual classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
CBLFD. (2015). Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved from http://cbldf.org/.
Duncan, R. & Smith, M.J. (2009). The power of comics: History, form, and culture. New York: Continuum.
Farber, M. (2009). Farber on film: The complete film writings of Manny Farber. New York: Library of America.
Fraction, M. & Aja, D. et al. (2013). Hawkeye vol. 2: Little hits. New York: Marvel.
Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Frey, N. & Fischer, D.B. (2008). Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Godard, J-L. (Director). (1988-1998). Histoire(s) du cinéma [Motion picture]. France: Gaumont.
Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic book scare and how it changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Hatfield, C., Heer, J., & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2013). The superhero reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Heer, J. & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2008). A comics studies reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Howe, S. (2013). Marvel comics: The untold story. New York: Harper Perennial.
Latour, J. & Rodriguez, R., et al. (2015). The amazing Spider-Man: Edge of spider-verse. New York: Marvel.
McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: William Morrow.
McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing comics: How imagination and technology are revolutionizing an art form. New York: William Morrow.
McCloud, S. (2006). Making comics: Storytelling secrets of comics, manga, and graphic novels. New York: William Morrow.
Moje, E.B., Young, J.P., Readence, J.E., & Moore, D.W. (2000, February). Reinventing adolescent literacy for new times: Perennial and millennial issues. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(5), 400-410.
Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods: What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Morrison, G. & Quitely, F. (2011). All-Star Superman. New York: DC Comics.
National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2013). Media Literacy Defined. Retrieved from http://namle.net/publications/media-literacy-definitions.
Sellars, W. (1956). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shaviro, S. (1996). Doom patrols: A theoretical fiction about postmodernism. London: Serpent’s Tail.
Slott, D. & Allred, M. (2015). Silver Surfer vol. 3: Last days. New York: Marvel.
Syma, C.K. & Weiner, R.G. (Eds.). (2013). Graphic novels and comics in the classroom: Essays on the educational power of sequential art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Wolk, D. (2008). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean. New York: Da Capo.
Yang, G. (2009). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts 85(3), 135-140.