Teaching Comics And Graphic Novels Guide: Choosing Texts And More
A few times on Comic Years, I’ve mentioned that one of my most rewarding jobs isn’t as a comic journalist or writer but as a professor. I first started teaching “sequential art” in 2012. That first class was amazing. We read X-Men: Messiah Complex, Pride of Baghdad, Watchmen, and Persepolis. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to teach Graphic Novel Literature nearly every year at undergrad and graduate levels. However, from what I found in syllabi available online, some instructors seem only to have a passing interest in the topic. But, like any other field, we need to study the genre at length. So, if you are interested in teaching, or want to improve your course, here’s a guide to teaching comics and graphic novels.
A Guide On How Not To Teach Comics and Graphic Novels
(Image: Marvel Comics)
Most literary eras, such as Modern, Elizabethan (including Shakespeare), Romantic, and others, are fixed in place. To make it worse for those (fantastic) eras, most courses focus on the same texts ad nauseam. I just want to put this out there: Young Goodman Brown is a garbage story. Ah, that felt good. Even worse, textbooks and courses featuring older eras focus almost exclusively on white men. In fact, the one most celebrated Black authors of the Romantic period many people don’t know was a Black author: Alexander Dumas, the author of Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Most people learned this watching Django Unchained and not from the professor with several English degrees. (tentatively raising my hand)
So the first tip? Don’t approach teaching comics and graphic novels using other literary courses as a guide. Those eras are dead. Literally, all their authors are dead. And even if you’re using a more current era, you’re still working with a mostly fixed selection of literature. But more than that, it’s rare to find something new and profound in these works that someone else hasn’t discovered already. The rules of the era or genre are set. But comics and graphic novels? This arena is Tombstone, Arizona and Kurt Russell is ready to cause chaos. It’s the Prancing Pony and Aragorn is prepared to kill anyone approaching those Hobbits. It’s Mos Eisley and Han Solo has his blaster under the table.
Comic Book Teaching is in a “Wild West” Phase – and That’s Amazing
(Image: Marvel Comics)
The comics medium is just that. The wild west had some established rules but changed every day. Similarly, with comics, we have some foundational “rules.” However, with so many new writers and artists debuting every few months, the conversation can change drastically and suddenly. This goes for original graphic novels, indie comics, and superhero serials. For instance, superhero comics found a groove somewhere between the late 80s and mid-2010s. Then Jonathan Hickman and Jordan D White decided to break it. DC Comics is currently experimenting with how they produce monthly comics, playing with length, pricing, anthologies, and mini-series. And we haven’t even mentioned Here and Sabrina yet!
Teaching Comics and Graphic Novels Guide to Choosing Texts Part One: Don’t Be a Basic Bookworm
(Image: Marvel Comics)
As I said before, many instructors are using the same texts repeatedly, without ever not branching out. If you see a syllabus where all the selections are Watchmen, Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, The Dark Knight Returns, and Blankets…that instructor most likely only read those six graphic novels. They probably felt like rebels for reading a Batman graphic novel. Those texts are the “respected” choices. The ones that holier-than-thou professors say are “more than just a comic book.” I have several things I want to say to these instructors that my editor would never allow. But for the sake of this guide on teaching comics and graphic novels, I’ll explain why this mindset doesn’t work.
My favorite Shakespeare play is Coriolanus, which is hardly ever featured in a course. Most students read one Shakespeare play every year from their first year in high school to their second semester in college. And they are almost always the same: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet. They are all great plays, but Shakespeare has more than those five plays! Now, even though Coriolanus isn’t featured in many classes, no English teacher would say that it “isn’t literature” or less worthy than other pieces of Shakespeare or other authors. Don’t do that to comics.
Speaking of Shakespeare…
(Image: DC Comics)
Don’t call Alan Moore or Frank Miller – or anyone else in comics – the Shakespeare of comics. Do you know who the Shakespeare of playwriting in Shakespeare’s time was? Christopher Marlowe. Or maybe Ben Johnson. Shakespeare, in his day, was more like Christopher Nolan. He told stories that pleased crowds, and his works were deemed brilliant…but he just wasn’t as respected as other writers. If he were alive now, he would be one of those “how has he never won an Oscar” people. If we had to name some, the actual “Shakespeares” of comics are writers like Scott Snyder, Peter David, Louise Simonson, Christopher Priest, and – just to troll some haters – Brian Michael Bendis.
Teaching Comics and Graphic Novels Guide to Choosing Texts Part 2: Respect the Elders
(Image: DC Comics)
The best way to select material is to make sure your texts reflect the industry. That means, above all, you need Marvel and DC. Without the “Big 2,” there wouldn’t be comics. They aren’t just tentpoles; they’re the foundation of the industry. However, also look at the stories that shaped their respective universes. Ergo, as much as I love them, avoid Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Suggest them, sure. Include them in other classes, such as Contemporary Literature, definitely. However, as far as understanding how superhero literature works, they, well, don’t work as well as you’d think. They deconstruct the genre a little too well. Therefore, the DC and Marvel selections need to be in-continuity stories from the past and the present.
Teaching Guide to Choosing DC and Marvel Comics and Graphic Novels:
(Image: DC Comics)
Start with some classics from before the year 2000 (yes, the 90s are classics now…because we’re that old). Choose two works. I like to use the same publisher for this, and you’ll see why in a moment. This year, I used New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract and Wonder Woman by George Perez Book One. Last year, I used Silver Surfer Epic Collection: Thanos Quest and The Infinity Gauntlet.
Pick two recent comics and graphic novels, not just to help with teaching variety, but to guide students to see how styles have changed. Sometimes drastically. This year, I used House of X/Powers of X and Dawn of X Volume One (the best part of this was that students also read six single issues in one book). Last year, I taught Mister Miracle and Eternity Girl. Yes, I taught Silver Surfer, Infinity Gauntlet, Mister Miracle, and Eternity Girl in one semester. Yes, it was more depressing than I thought it would be. But, unfortunately, I forgot how nihilistic Silver Surfer could be. Always try to include one event and either a tie-in, the book leading up to the event (Thanos Quest to Infinity Gauntlet) or the book following the event (HoX/PoX to Dawn of X)
Teaching Guide to Choosing Non-Superhero Comics and Graphic Novels
(Image: Skybound Comics)
Include at least one ongoing indie comic. This gives a lot of range, and I’ve bounced between several. Saga is always popular. The Unwritten was a big hit. This year, I used Submerged, and most students loved it—Watson and Holmes, also a student favorite. I plan to use Excellence next time.
Include at least one non-traditional original graphic novel (the “literary” ones). Want to give your students literary whiplash? Go from Silver Surfer to Sabrina. Other great choices: Here, Imagine Wanting Only This, Black Hole, and Moving Pictures. Also, one that I taught for the first time this year and became the class favorite, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.
Pick at least one biography or memoir. Earlier, when I mentioned how a creator could suddenly change the landscape of this field? Nobody has done that more in the past twenty years than late Congressman John Lewis. The March trilogy became a phenomenon. But March is just one of several great graphic bios and memoirs. Yes, Maus, Persepolis, and Fun Home are good choices. I’ve taught all three. However, we also have Nat Turner, Alexander Hamilton, They Called Us Enemy, and The Best We Could Do. Graphic bios and memoirs bring their subjects to life in amazing ways. Use that.
The Class Textbook
(Image: William Morrow Paperbacks)
Assign Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. As far as teaching comics and graphic novels, Scott McCloud is the ultimate guide. This is your “textbook.” McCloud explains how sequential art works, but also the incredible things that only comics can do. For instance, how writers can manipulate gutter space. That little white or black area between panels? Oh yeah, some writers will make that bit of nothing feel like something.
McCloud also helps promote discussion. If your students are ever lost on what to discuss, turn to McCloud. For example, you can talk about realistic vs simple images, and how they work for or against the story.
One of my favorite discussions? How comics is the only medium that 1) engages both sides of the brain, and 2) we read using time and space. When we read comics and graphic novels, the panels guide us from one to the next, left to right. However, we can still see the entire page. And a good writer and artist will use that
Lean Into the Fact That Teaching Comics and Graphic Novels Is a “No Man’s Land”
(Image: Marvel Comics)
Did you get the Batman reference? If so, extra credit! There’re many books about comics and graphic novels history, a guide or eight on writing them, and probably even one for teaching. However, for all the expertise out there, this is still a new frontier. And you’re on deck in the Enterprise. Or, at the very least, you’re cleaning the engines for Scotty. So don’t worry if something isn’t traditional or looked down on, or if you’re doing it right. With all literature, there is no right. What you do with your class will guide comics and graphic novels literature like any other literature teaching job in the future. Just another job. That’s good. That means we’ve made it.
But here’s the last part of this guide on teaching comics and graphic novels. For the most part, you don’t need to learn new tricks. You have new terms and new criticism to play with regarding form and function, but as far as the content of the stories? It’s the same as any other literature—character, plot, themes, etc. So, whether you’re teaching Mrs Dolloway, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Crisis on Infinite Earths, all literature boils down to the same criticism. The only difference is that you’re getting paid to teach Spider-Man. So, Young Goodman Brown can eat a big bag of web-shooters.
Are you interested in teaching this genre? Or, if you already are teaching comics and graphic novels, share more tips for this guide!
For a more complete guide on comics and graphic novels I have taught or plan on teaching, here is my Goodreads list.
(Featured Image: Madhouse Studios – and not, as my mom thinks, a picture of me teaching.)
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.