Graphic Novels and Narratives for Spring 2011

December 14th, 2010 § 3 comments

Daredevil CoverI always find it difficult to select the texts for my graphic novel courses. Narrowing the choices for my Spring 2011 undergrad class bordered upon an existential crisis. Perhaps it’s because so much seems to be at stake when you’re likely introducing students for the first time in their lives to the critical study of a form that is mostly trivialized and occasionally demonized in our culture.

I feel enormous pressure to get the syllabus just right.

But what is just right? There’s the usual tension between coverage and depth—am I providing a historical overview of the form or am I exploring a thematic or aesthetic subset of that form? But there’s also the tension between the canons of graphic narrative. Yes, canons, plural. I’m thinking in particular of the literary canon of Graphic Novels That Are Taught (e.g. Persepolis) versus the popular canon of Graphic Novels That Every Fan Reads (e.g. Sandman). There’s some overlap between these canons, but not much. Inevitably I’ll have students in my class disappointed because I’ve not included a major work on the syllabus—some text they expected to be there either because it’s predictably literary or it’s a fan favorite. Likewise, I’ll usually hear from some other teacher or scholar disappointed that I didn’t include his or her pet graphic novel on the syllabus, which, I will be assured at that point, is to graphic narrative what Moby-Dick is to the American novel.

To hell with that.

This time around the only criteria for the texts I’m teaching is that they’re texts I want to teach. And I want to teach them because in one way or another I think they’re teachable. Even when—especially when—they might be difficult or off-putting, I think they’re teachable.

And so, for the upcoming semester I decided to avoid several giants of the form. It will be the first time, for example, that I’ve left Watchmen off a graphic novel syllabus, and I am less ambivalent about this than I would have thought. As much as I admire Moore and Gibbons’ work, I don’t find it as teachable as I’d like—or as it deserves to be. More than the other groundbreaking works from 1986, Watchmen has lost some of its verve. I have, however, included the other touchstones of 1986—The Dark Knight Returns and Maus. The former because it gives us entry into Batman and into the comics industry as a whole, the latter because it remains powerful and haunting, even with the fourth or fifth reading. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the only other work I’m including that has already become part of the graphic narrative canon. It’s smart and literary, arguably too smart and too literary, but those elements make Fun Home great teaching material.

Most of the other graphic novels are gambles, texts even fans of graphic novels will probably not have encountered. These range from Lynd Ward’s bold, wordless novel, told entirely in woodcuts, to Mike Carey’s ongoing series Unwritten, whose literary ambition only slowly unfolds throughout the first dozen or so issues. I’ve never taught Ward or Carey, and I have no idea how they’ll turn out. In between these two bookends are a few works that I have taught (Asterios Polyp and Nat Turner) and a few others I haven’t (We3 and Swallow Me Whole).

Looking over my final list, I’m surprised at how non-historical it is. Heavily emphasizing works published within the last five years, this course is decidedly not an overview of the form. No, it’s an overview of something else. In every case, I selected these works because I think they have something to teach us. About storytelling, about visual artistry, about the dynamic between the two. About history, about memory, about suffering and reconciliation. And about loss, and desire, and reading, and making sense of the world.

Here then is my final list, arranged roughly in the order I envision teaching the texts:

David Mazzuccheli, Asterios Polyp, Pantheon, ISBN 978-0307377326

§ 3 Responses to Graphic Novels and Narratives for Spring 2011"

  • Mike Swisher says:

    Prof. Sample,

    Stumbled on your blog through random chance. I’m signed up for your ENGL 300 class in the Spring and really looking forward to it; I’m already reading through some of the required texts (Maus, Dark Knight, WE3). I would like to know, since I’ve already read and thoroughly enjoyed it, why you chose to select Sandman for your graduate course and not for the undergraduates? Definitely one of the better graphic novels I’ve read thusfar.

    Looking forward to Jan. 24th,
    Michael Swisher

  • Mark Sample says:

    Michael, thanks for stopping by! I agree that Sandman is a stellar series, one I’ve enjoyed reading again and again. There are no particular reasons why I didn’t include it for Spring 2011. I try to include at least 50 percent new material whenever I teach a contemporary literature class like this, so it was simply time to take Sandman out of rotation. Depending on how the final syllabus works out, however, we may have a week or two to consider supplemental works like Sandman

  • Michael says:

    Completely disagree re: Watchmen, which is fresher and timelier and more badass than ever, but completely *agree* about your syllabus rationale. Teaching a course on “Comics” is like teaching a course on “Music.” Category is too damn big. So teach what you love and you’ll get to everything important. That’s what I’m doing in my Spring 2011 Comics course, anyway :)

    Thanks for the thoughtful post

    PS god We3 is good. Why in the world did I leave it off the syllabus? Curse you for making me regret my decisions—which are, btw:

    Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
    Will Eisner, A Contract with God
    Osamu Tezuka, Buddha vol. 1
    Moore/Gibbons, Watchmen
    Frank Miller, Dark Knight Returns
    Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan
    Crumb, Genesis
    Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers
    Emi Lenox, Emitown
    Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
    Frank Miller, Sin City “The Hard Goodbye”