English Department Teaching, Research Make Connections

Fans of comic books, graphic novels, and manga gathered on June 15-17 at the Charlotte Convention Center for the annual Heroes Convention, founded in 1982 by Shelton Drum, owner of Charlotte’s Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find comics shop. In a “Monday Missive” blog posting, English Department Chair Mark West took a moment to discuss the use of sequential art to tell stories. Here are his words, lightly edited and reposted with permission.

The fact that HeroesCon, as the convention also is known, is big enough to fill Charlotte’s largest venue for conventions is a clear indicator of the importance of these forms of popular culture.

Comic books, graphic novels, and manga all use sequential art to tell stories.  Most examples also include text, but the text is generally subordinate to the visual images. The use of sequential art as a way to convey narratives can be traced all the way back to cave paintings. Over the years, this approach to storytelling has developed its own conventions and rhetorical devices.

Understanding the nuances of comics and similar forms of culture requires readers to have a grounding in a specialized type of visual literacy.  Well, this sounds like a job for super professors. In fact, several professors in our English Department cover sequential art in their classes and/or their scholarship.

Paula Connolly covers the inner workings of comics and graphic novels in a graduate course she teaches on the visual semiotics of children’s literature.  She also regularly includes graphic novels in her various children’s and adolescent literature classes.

“This year the graphic texts in my classes range from fantasy to realistic discussions of civil rights, including Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman (one of the earliest wordless graphic texts in children’s lit), John Lewis (et al)’s Marchseries, Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, and Brian Bendis’s Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Vol 1 (aka ‘Black Spiderman‘ issue),” Connolly writes in an email. “What’s particularly fascinating is the development of hybrid novels, like Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, in which graphic and traditional forms intersect as a way to create new narrative possibilities – in DiCamillo’s book, for new character points of view.”

Alan Rauch’s interest in comics and graphic novels stems from his childhood. “I read comic books from an early age (much to my father’s chagrin),” Rauch writes in an email. “I did do a lot of illustration and contemplated a career as either an artist or illustrator. In college, I did illustrations and cartoons for the school newspaper, The McGill Daily and I continued to do work as a designer/graphic artists well into my doctorate.”

Two of his illustrations are in a Tech Writing textbook (Scientific and Technical Writing, Harcourt, 1984).  Rauch also completed illustrations for an essay titled “The Sins of Sloths: The Giant Ground Sloth as a Paleontological Parable,” published in the book Victorian Animal Dreams.

“Even though I was fascinated with illustration and design, and addressed both in all of my classes, I didn’t really consider the graphic novel as an important genre, until I read Spiegelman’s Maus,” Rauch writes. “Since then, I have taught classes on the “Graphic Novel” in general and in “Jewish Identity and the Graphic Novel.” For the latter course, I draw on ‘traditional novels’ such as The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. I am fascinated by graphic novels that address science, such as the books by Jim Ottaviani, Jay Hosler, and more recently physicist Clifford Johnson’s Dialogues, published by MIT Press.”

Faculty member Juan Meneses’ scholarly and teaching work with comics takes a global approach. His publications in comics studies demonstrate this approach, such as his article titled “Reconsidering International Comics: Foreignness, Locality, and the Third Space,” in which he considers the possibilities of comics to establish global links between modes of representation (images and text) as well as aesthetic traditions.

In the classroom, this work has translated in the course “Graphic Novels and Animation from Around the Globe,” in which he and his students study a number of global topics such as immigration, globalization, and war. He also incorporates comics in other courses, such as Peter Kuper’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which he assigns in his “Modern World Literature” course in tandem with Kafka’s text. More recently he has developed an interest in the representation of environmental issues in comics.

Balaka Basu teaches “Superheroes on Screen,” at the 2000 level, which explores how comics travel from panel to cineplex and television and uses these immensely popular movies designed for people of all ages to introduce film and literary theory. She also advises graduate students who study or create superhero comic books for their thesis projects.

Superhero comics both reflect and effect important moments in American culture and politics, as is evident from the enormous impact that Black Panther (2018) has had on diversity in film, with its proud Afrofuturism. Black Panther is part of the groundbreaking effort begun in 2008 by Marvel Studios, in association with Disney, to create a shared, continuous universe called the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with storylines culled and adapted from the original comic books, a phenomenon that Balaka is exploring in a chapter of her current book project.

For students who want to study comics and graphic novels, which are an important part of literature, our English Department is the place to pursue this interest.

Read more Monday Missive blog posts by West on the English Department webside.

Words: Mark West | Image: Lynn Roberson

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