Category Archives: Week 11

Teaching Confessions

First of all, Fairfax County would also be covering the historical context in U.S. History, so the eleventh-grade English program would elide with the History curriculum and provide a nice basket of context in which we could carry this work.  Baker does an excellent job of presenting the Africans prior to enslavement and the horrifying events of their capture; it is a much better recounting than a text could do.

I would try to do this assignment during February, Black History Month.

My work with this piece would involve, of course, having students “read” the graphic novel and excerpts from Stryon’s book. In order to bring in students who would not have done the work, I would be especially careful to visually outline the opening discussion and give all students an outline to complete as we proceeded.

 I would open the class with an interactive discussion about the context to be sure students were certain we were talking about the  slave trade in  nineteenth century America and anchor that to politics prior to the Civil War.  I would include a brief piece about the African participation in the initial capture of their own and neighboring people (a piece omitted in the SOL’s).  We would proceed to life situations for the immigrant slaves who had no status, language equivalents, skills, or protections in order to survive in the world in which they would find themselves.  I would prepare questions to bring out students’ responses to how they would feel if this happened to them and their family and friends.

When the basic work of understanding the text visually and aurally was completed,  we would get to the best part:  the kinesthetic connection.  Students would choose parts and rotate among themselves who would be the narrator.  All narrators would have a Lunch and Learn session with me to be sure their interpretation had a grasp of the desolation the novel demands, and to be sure there is continuity in the narrative structure.

 The students would come to school in period costumes and wear them all day.  We would probably be able to take one entire combined period of History and English to practice, and one to perform the play for ourselves.  If they students were excited about this assignment and the administration gave permission, we could present the play in a number of formats:  lunchtime for the student body, evening for parents.

Literature vs. Text

I have read in many of the blog posts for this week that several of my classmates have trouble identifying graphic novels, or comic books for that matter with “literature.”  Most of the time, this seems to be an exclusionary distinction, graphic novels cannot count because it is primarily a visual medium, and “literature” is the written word.  One potential flaw I see with this distinction is drama.  Plays are primarily a visual medium, they were meant to be seen on the stage, performed by actors, not read.  However, I do not see  a rush to exclude Shakespeare from the category of “literature.”

Is my example a bit extreme? Probably, but i wanted to hit home a point.  I think instead of focusing on “literature” we should instead focus on the idea of “texts.”  Though hardly a technical definition, I think that a text is anything that can be interpreted, anything that can be considered more than the sum of its parts.  I also think that there is great value in studying various texts in the English classroom beyond just the written word.  Our students are barraged with hundreds of “texts” on a daily basis, a majority of which do not fall under the classical definition of literature as the written word.  I want my students to be able to read and interpret these texts as well as the more traditional written texts we look at in class.

For example, to study John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” in my class, I used a variety of texts to look at the theme of the interconnectedness of mankind across different mediums.  We used songs like “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle, which takes one of Donne’s metaphors and explores the disadvantages of human connection.  Then we compared Three Dog Night’s “One” with Aimee Mann’s cover of the same song to discuss how Mann attempted to convey the mood of the lyrics with her more somber rendering of the song.  We looked at movie clips from “I Heart Huckabees” and “Magnolia.”  I showed them the art project Garfield Minus Garfield to show the isolation we feel when we lose that human connectedness.  We also looked at the website We Feel Fine to show how the internet has fostered a change in human connectedness on a global scale by its ability to place us in touch with large numbers of strangers with relative ease.  Their final assessment is to write a “Pop Culture Meditation” where they find a text in their own lives that explores the theme.  My students are into it, they are engaged in a way that they have not been when we have just looked at the written word.

As far as Nat Turner goes, I think that there is something of real value to be studied.  To me, it mirrors a lot of the same themes as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a text that I think everyone can agree is a piece of great literature.  The horrors of slavery dehumanize the characters in both of those texts to the point where they commit brutal acts that it is hard for modern day readers to fully comprehend.  I think both texts also serve to show that the scars of slavery have yet to be fully healed in American society.

Yes, the written word has been the traditional mode of study for these types of things in the past. However, for hundreds of years, the written word was all we really had to study.  I was reading an article the other day about colleges across the country who are now offering courses in HBO’s The Wire, a show of which the most common adjective seems to be Dickensian.  As these other types of media and texts mature and show more depth, I think it will become common to study them alongside of traditional written texts, and I am all for it.

Graphic Novels= awesome experience

Until this class I had never read a graphic novel. I’ve never picked up a comic book, only read a few comics in the newspaper. I was fascinated with Nat Turner and have to admit that I have truly enjoyed reading the novel. I really did not think that I would, because of the subject and the idea of graphic novels. I have enjoyed studying this.
I say studying because I really feel like you do have to study the pages. There is so much to take in and peruse on each page and in each illustration. I find that it is very interesting everything a reader must bring to the novel. I would love to teach a graphic novel because I feel like they take a different skill set to read then a typical novel. To read Nat Turner a student would need to really know about slavery. It would be neat to teach this entire book with excerpts from the actually confessions. I think this novel really also teaches a reader to make certain predictions and to think about what is happening to draw all the pieces of the story together. I know when I read the section where the father runs away I had to flip back and forth between the pages. When I first looked at the pictures where he leaves the bed I thought maybe he ran away. When I turned the page I recognized that he had run away and so I then flipped back to look at the first set of pictures again.
I think the reader had to recognize and think about why the author made some of the visual choices he did. Why show the violence? Historically the depiction of violent acts was used to shock readers and make them feel sympathetic towards the slaves’ situation. For instance Uncle Tom’s Cabin used a similar technique but tailored for the readers of its time. The book also used words and not pictures to get the same message across. It would be interesting to compare the two. Another thought of visual choice was the use of sharks and the phases of the moon. The sharks seem to foreshadow the danger the slaves are being sent into and the phases of the moon showed the passage of time. The question would be why the moon? I also wondered about the images at the beginning of the African villages. Who were the people and what did their expressions mean? There are certainly many things to think about, perhaps even more so then regular novels.

I really enjoyed this and would love to “read” more graphic novels and can’t wait to find one to teach!)

Considering a New Kind of Literature

I have to start off by saying that after my recent indoctrination into the world of graphic novels (thanks to Sample’s Postmodernism class two semesters ago), I am totally sold on the idea of graphic novels as literature. I know that a lot of you would not agree with this statement, so I’m going to try to make my case. First of all, we are mistaken to think that literature has ever solely relied on words. The same kinds of “gutters” that McCloud describes exist in more traditional forms of poetry, novels, and short stories—and we would be remiss to ignore the importance of ambiguity in higher-level literature. That alone, of course, cannot prove my point, but I will say that the confusion a number of us felt (myself included) in reading Nat Turner relies on our lack of comfort, as some of you have said before, with this kind of artistic ambiguity.

A better point might be that we are so accustomed to traditional forms of the written word that we only accept newer or more challenging styles after the gurus of our era deem them respectable. For example, had someone like e. e. cummings or William Carlos Williams come along at the wrong point in history and tried to uproot all of the traditional structures then associated with the “written word,” particularly with poetry, he likely would have been ignored. When we literary folk (as with others in other fields) find ourselves uncomfortable, we often struggle to accept the changing nature of art (and literature is just one form of art).

Perhaps graphic novels are more art than literature—but that’s where I get particularly confused. If literature is art, and graphic novels can be considered art, why aren’t we acknowledging the overlap between a narrative told only in words and one told through a combination of words and pictures? The same overlap appears in drama. Drama relies on actions (which may or may not be included in the playwright’s written stage directions) to tell the story. Why then would we scoff at the idea of pictures helping to tell the story when most of us would consider drama to be literature when it so consistently relies on actions in addition to words?

Part of the problem might stem from reading something like Nat Turner as a first example of a graphic novel. Nat Turner relies so little on the written word, instead producing images that move from scene to scene, or aspect to aspect, which is probably particularly jarring for people who have little experience with anything other than (my childhood favorites) Archie and his crew, Jughead, Veronica, and Betty. Likewise, the graphic nature of this graphic novel (love the pun) can be disconcerting, though I share Tim’s sentiment that Nat Turner’s actions sort of balance out (or at least reflect) the horrors of slavery, which as a practice perpetuated the countless deaths of innocents for centuries. Because I knew what I was getting into with graphic literature, I was actually eager for this reading, despite the heavy nature of the subject. Having basically started out my graphic novel experience with The Shooting War and In the Shadow of No Towers, I was hungry for more– and the more controversial, the better! Frankly, I have been really looking forward to this week, and I can understand that others may not share my opinion that graphic novels are literature (or perhaps even worthwhile), but hopefully, we can all manage to learn something about this kind of art and how it can add to our teaching experience.

Last thing, I promise. If I ever teach creative writing again (and even maybe in some of my regular classes), I’d like to teach excerpts from McCloud’s book. I especially like the attention to “gutters” and “closure”—I think higher-level and/or creative students could really benefit from paying more attention to the nuances of comic arts and perhaps apply those same kinds of analyses to written literature, you know the kind we all agree  on.  In spite of all my appreciation for the new kind of literature (which is really not all that new at all), I know that College Board is nowhere near putting a comic strip on the AP test.  Still, as a teacher, I see the merits of graphic novels– and as a person, I enjoy reading them.  They just seem easier– and yet sometimes, as was the case with Nat Turner, they really aren’t.

Parsing Nat Turner

There is a lot of discussion on the blog about the violent images in Nat Turner and I agree, but then again this is a story about a violent period in our history. The violence of what Turner did to the white slave owners balances out, in my mind, the violence that was done to the slaves. In many ways it is a morality tale, only with graphic images. I agree that reading about a decapitation and viewing a graphic representation of one are two very different experiences. I’m not sure which I like better.

Having said that, I must say that I think the art work is amazing. Baker’s rendering of facial expressions captures and conveys undeniable meaning to the reader: the love Turner’s parents have for each other, the bewilderment/joy of children, the anguish of being whipped and your wounds salted, the terror of being branded, and the terror of white slave owners knowing that they are about to reap what they have sown.

I especially like how he uses the eyes of his subjects to project a personal connection into his work. All of his drawings are distinct, but in his facial expressions, the eyes seem especially powerful. In the six panels found on pages 11 and 12 we see anger, coyness, humor and terror, all within Baker’s rendering of the subject’s eyes. The first panel of the book is nothing more than a pair of eyes and the image of a book surrounded by black. It captures one of the themes of the work; how the power of the written word can set us free. He mentions the power of written text extensively in his preface and then proceeds to create a text with only a minimum of words.

What little written text he does use seems to work against the graphic text. The excerpts from Turner’s “Confessions…” move back and forth between a matter-of-fact recitation of events and the wonderfully structured sentences describing his spiritual development and final epiphany. The bland and gentle matter-of-factness of the written text clashes head-on with the brutality of the images. Turner mentions the kindness of some of his victims in his confession and then Baker renders an image of absolute brutality and terror as they are destroyed.

This juxtaposition produces one of the few instances of ambiguity that I identified in “Nat Turner.” We are trained to identify ambiguity in a written text; when our ability to understand the author’s use of words breaks down, we must interpret. I am not sure how to identify ambiguity in a graphic novel; the genre is such a departure from what I am used to. I have dealt with words long enough to know what I don’t know. Parsing an image is a different experience altogether and I found it one of the most disconcerting aspects of “reading” Baker’s novel.

Finally I want to say what a beautiful edition this is. The quality and weight of the stock makes the book a pleasure to hold. It reminds me of browsing a “coffee table” art book. At first I thought I would have preferred black ink, but the variety of tones he captures using a brown tint is amazingly subtle (and harder on the eyes). I think Baker is making the statement that part of the experience of producing/reading a graphic novel is a consideration of the tactile as well as the visual. When we engage with a written text, the number of senses in play are minimal. When we engage graphics, we are opening ourselves up to a much broader experience. I heard the “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM” on pages 61 – 63 more than I read them.

Comics as Literature?

As I haven’t finished Nat Turner, and I wish to reserve all  comments for the end (i.e. next week), there is something more pressing I wish to discuss this week. It’s something relatively new to me, and something which has only surfaced recently: the idea of comics as literature. My roommate, who was an English major in college, first introduced the idea to me when we were having a discussion on some of our favorite books. She mentioned she took a Holocaust lit. class once and had to read a book called Maus, which was a graphic novel. She said it was one of the most eye-opening things she had ever read, and reading it changed her ideas about what was and was not considered literature.

I have heard similar thoughts expressed from students and professors of literature. One professor even suggested that everything written was literature, from the thousand-page novels to the obnoxious travel brochures you get in your mail. Okay, maybe she didn’t put it quite that way, but that was the sentiment I got from it. My response was very antagonistic: “Really?” I wanted to say. “Does that mean every stick figure I draw is art?” So, needless to say, I was skeptical about the whole “graphic novel” thing.

As I was reading McCloud’s Understanding Comics, however, a few things really stuck out to me. One was the way comics manipulated space, and the way a person’s senses were needed to fill in the gaps between the pictures. The baby/peekaboo image was a good one, as most children think if they cover their eyes, you can’t see them, because they don’t quite understand that not seeing you is not the same as you not seeing them. Similarly, in comics, a person’s senses are needed to fill in the gaps of what is and is not there. In a book, for example, an author typically does this for us, explaining what something looks like, and ignoring what isn’t important. The reader is left to fill in those details on his or her own. In comics, the artist draws what he wants us to see, and we fill in the gaps. We create the closure as we wish it to be, though we must complete it within the realm the author (or artist) has given us. We are left, basically, making assumptions.

The other interesting idea was the way comics manipulated time. That what is omitted is oftentimes just as important as what was included, and that the way something is drawn effects the impact is has upon the reader. It is true that harsh lines often represent a different mood than soft or curvy lines. It’s hard to imagine Charlie Brown as a homicidal maniac, because he isn’t drawn that way. The Joker, on the other hand, is hard to imagine as the kid-next-door. So the emotions represented by the art and manipulated by the artist represent a full range of emotions, just as any other piece of art does.

So, to bring it back to my initial question: Are comics (or graphic novels) literature?  I’m going to have to–at this point in time–say no, I don’t think they are. Do I think they are any less advanced or important? Not necessarily. I think they’re a medium of their own. Just because words and expressions are involved does not make them literature.  A lot of music involves words and expressions, but music is music. The lyrics might have literary elements, but the whole is not literature. Perhaps my view of literature is too canonical for most people’s taste, but if we are going to categorize, let’s at least do it consistently. Should graphic novels be considered art (as in “the arts”)? I think many should. Nat Turner certainly has the range to be included in this category. So, perhaps the question isn’t so much “are comics literature” as “are comics art?” But this is my own humble opinion.

Reader Responsibility in Nat Turner

I was first introduced to graphic novels last semester in my 701 class. We read Satrapi’s Persepolis and McCloud’s complete Understanding Comics. After working through graphic novels last semester, I was excited to read Nat Turner. I had a decidedly more difficult time reading Nat Turner than I did reading Persepolis, a graphic novel about a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It seemed strange to me that I was having a harder time comprehending Nat Turner, because I know a lot more of the history of Nat Turner’s rebellion than I knew about the Islamic Revolution when I read Persepolis. After reading through Scott McCloud’s excerpts again, I realized that the way Kyle Baker presents his story puts much more responsibility on the reader than Satrapi does in Persepolis, which might make it a more difficult read. 

McCloud talks about “reader responsibility” in his chapter on closure and the gutters between panels. Nat Turner puts a lot of responsibility on the reader. Baker uses action-to-action, subject-to-subject, and even moment-to-moment panels to tell his story. In many of Baker’s silent panels, the reader is expected to make a really big interpretive leap of “closure” between panels when what is happening in the two panels isn’t necessarily that clear. For example, on page 72-73, there are a few moment-to-moment panels where we see two slaves singing. Nothing really changes between the two panels, but we do see one man eyeing the other man suspiciously, so we know that what is happening is of importance. Here, I had a difficult time interpreting what was happening between the two panels until I read Kyle Baker’s notes in the back of the book. He indicates that on those pages, he was depicting the importance of transmitting messages through singing. I knew that singing was really important in the slave culture, but these panels were really vague and it was almost like I needed to read that note in the back of the book to confirm what I thought was happening in these panels. 

McCloud also talks about how the placement and shape of the panels can affect the reading experience. There are several pages when Baker incorporates words from Nat’s confessions with some graphics. On these pages, such as page 133, the panels are both round and square and are mixed in with the words. Because the panels are not in a linear order where we can read them left to right, it puts more responsibility on the reader to figure out how you are supposed to take in all of the information on the page. 

The more true-to-reality graphics that Baker uses to depict the story helps to make the story more disturbing. Unlike Satrapi who uses a stripped-down comic image to depict herself (think Peanuts or Garfield type comics), Baker gives his characters a more human and individual look. In one of the chapters in Understanding Comics, McCloud argues that readers of graphic novels tend to identify with the more “comic”-looking characters because the simple illustration allows the reader to see themselves in the character. Baker’s characters had very distinct, unique, true-to-life characteristics that may prevent readers from “seeing themselves in the characters” as McCloud argues. However, I think that by giving his characters more humanly characteristics, the violence and hardships that the slaves went through is that much more disturbing to watch unfold on the page.

genre gaps and expectations

I couldn’t help approach McCloud as a stretch to produce theoretical justification for graphic novels in the classroom, like, “Oh sure. Gee displayed the academic theories of video games, now McCloud will draw the theory of comics. Great.” Admittedly, my initial pooh-poohing of McCloud was unfair. I was just initially disappointed that McCloud hadn’t offered me an escape from graphic novels for this response. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not hating on graphic novels or their potential for instructional opportunities and student engagement. I just found my first graphic novel alienating (for lack of a better word) because I was positioned as a naive reader trying to fill the wrong gaps. If I see a movie before I read a book then I just can’t read the book because I hate seeing an actor as the fictional character I want the experience of creating. When I read a movie I don’t come at the experience expecting the freedom to create characters and I am still in the process of adjusting my expectations of the graphic novel. Genre theory at work; I should have read McCloud first. I was placing my reader responsibility and construction in the wrong areas. I regularly read a webcomic < > and I never feel stifled or anything as pretentious as I am guiltily trying to describe. However, I never take Beartato, or any other previous comics, seriously and I do take Nat Turner and graphic novels seriously. I am still struggling with my own understanding and expectations of comics and graphic novels; genre theory is kicking my confused butt.  I expected a different kind of reader-imagination space and, as I had yet to read McCloud, took the gutter space for granted. I just continued from panel to panel without consciously filling in the gaps of action because of my previous comic experiences. When McCloud dissects the two panel axe murder in chapter three I really focused on where my expectations did not fit or fill the appropriate gaps the genre: “I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why,” (68).  I did not create any murder, but just waited for the third panel trick exposing the axe-wielder as the producer of the scream as he fell down a sewer. I expected the comic to manipulate my expectations so I simply didn’t play along. How much did I refuse my role as reader of Nat Turner? This was definitely a meta-reading experience forcing me to again look at the role of genre and expectations on the part of the reader. How can you fill in the most satisfying (or academically expected) gaps when you don’t know where to find them? I should have done a think-aloud with this one.

How do you classify a graphic novel?

I, too, was skeptical about reading this graphic novel. Having never read one, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My only exposure to this genre consists of reading Archie and Jughead comics, but I think I was about eight or nine the last time I read one of those, and they surely didn’t tackle anything close to the deep and disturbing subject matter of “Nat Turner”. I was very afraid that I just wouldn’t ‘get it’. However, from video games to twitter, I’ve been repeatedly forced outside of my comfort zone in this class, so I decided to go in with an open mind.

So, I opened it and began to ‘read.’ I went straight through without putting it down, compelled by something to keep turning the pages even when I knew I would only find more carnage. When finished, I slowly closed the book, completely surprised and impressed by my powerful reaction to it. I had the same sort of feeling I get from watching a disturbing movie.

There is something that images can do that words cannot. (I felt hesitant to even type that last sentence because believing in the power of words is what has lead me to study English.) However, I am not convinced that a graphic novel constitutes literature. I can see using this book in a history class to make the past become real for students. I can see teaching graphic novels in an art class. I can see this being a fantastic cross-curricular project between art and writing students. However, I cannot see this being taught in a literature class. I just can’t. Using a narrative as the basis for artistic expression and publishing the artwork in book form do not make something literature. Yes, literature is a form of art and the graphic novel is art telling a story, but that does not make them synonymous. Maybe one of you in the class can try to convince me that a graphic novel is literature. I’m willing to change my mind.

The Graphic Graphic Novel

It’s interesting to see so many people express dislike or disinterest for Nat Turner. It is a heavy subject on all fronts, and I think the graphic novel is a great medium to get this across. Most of the comments I am reading say how the images were so graphic and violent. However, unless you have the talent for linguistics like Truman Capote, I think this medium of the graphic novel is appropriate and necessary.

I was disturbed by many of the visual images going on, more so than the calm and collected retelling of Nat Turner’s confession. The images only amped up my awareness of how complicated and violent the turn of events were. If I have any criticism, it’s that there was almost unequal weight of violence, and I think that more of the horror could have been shown in the “Home” section. It seems most of the graphically violent parts like decapitation and the murder of children were in the images of the murders during the insurrection. I think a whole discussion could be had in analyzing this book based on why this part is shown as the most violent, when really it is a reaction to being dehumanized.

I am intrigued that the beginning tells so much of a story without any words. Although I must admit some parts were confusing because you really have to focus and provide your own context for what is going on in the images, I must say re-reading or rather re-looking at the images helped work out certain areas of confusion. For example, on pages 52-53, it took me awhile to realize what was happening. Initially I thought the white captors were throwing the baby overboard to the sharks, but I soon realized it was the captured (perhaps the parent of the child), who made this decision. In realizing this, so much is said about the conditions of what was happening that a parent would want to kill their own child instead of putting them through this experience.

This certainly is not an easy going read because it’s not an easy going subject, but I think to show the truth of it; including the sick sentiment of the “white family” happily picnicking at Nat Turner’s lynching, says a lot about a disgusting time in our country’s history. I think if you are deeply disturbed by this graphic novel, then it has done the best job in serving its purpose.

Working With It

I’m going to come right out with it and say I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading Nat Turner. Part of it is personal preference. I’ve never been one for comics (and I know this transcends comics, but it’s a similar style of reading). I found the material upsetting (if not unfamiliar) and I thought some of the text in the story was hard to understand. I didn’t know what was going on part of the time. When thinking about what the heck I was going to say in my blog post, I started trying to focus on what questions could be discussed about the text.

The first useful aspect of the text I came up with is the fact that even though this is a graphic novel, there is still plenty of room to discuss the author’s intention. From his introduction, it’s clear that Kyle Baker considers Nat Turner to be more a hero than a criminal. But then he includes really graphic material about murdering children (over and over) and you have to ask why. If he really sees Turner as a hero, wouldn’t he minimize the murder of innocent children and focus on the righteous outrage? It was an interesting choice to me.

Also, I think his decision to include Turner’s significant religious inspiration puts the text in a position of swaying readers purely by virtue of their own religious views. A person who doesn’t believe in organized religion, for example, may consider Turner to be a lunatic zealot instead of understanding his emotional reasons for the uprising, based on his (very understandable) motivations from his past. I don’t know – I just see the focus on his religious inspiration to be polarizing (for better or for worse). It would have been much easier to position him as a hero by glossing over his heavenly inspiration and sticking with the facts of his life – which were horrible enough to drive many a man to such acts.

I think, overall, the problematic aspect of the text is the fact that the author sets the expectation he’ll be treating Nat Turner as a hero and then shows a number of things in the story that make him difficult to support. So why do that? Was it Baker’s intention to raise the discussion of whether or not Turner was really a hero? That’s probably what I would focus on in my class.

Am I supposed to recognize him?

In reading this graphic novel, I found myself engaging in a different kind of analysis — instead of analyzing what the story might mean, the symbols, etc., I found myself just trying to figure out the story, period (in some places).

I’m not sure of the parameters for graphic novels, but there was more text in this book than I was expecting, and often, it still wasn’t enough. I don’t know if I’m just dense, but at times, I was asking myself questions like, “Is that Nat or someone else?” or “Am I supposed to recognize that person?” It was a little frustrating, but in trying to overcome that confusion, I spent more time looking at the images, so maybe it wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

After finishing the book, I find myself wondering what the author hopes a reader takes away from a graphic novel. Obviously, K. Baker’s skills are in drawing, but they are also in storytelling. So is the aim the same as an author’s aim for any traditional novel, and Baker is just using his particular skill set to achieve that? I have to admit that I didn’t feel myself becoming as absorbed as I usually do when reading a traditional novel; like Nikki, I also love words, and part of my love for language and literature is appreciating how authors use words to make me feel a certain way. I missed that in reading Nat Turner.

But I try not to be a snob, and I did enjoy the book in other ways. The drawings were superb (I thought), and I thought, as some others have mentioned, that the characters’ facial expressions really did a lot of the talking — Baker did well there.

I also found it interesting to note what Baker chose to include as actual words, and what he chose to tell strictly through images. I think the meat of the story — the killings — was overpowered by the textual commentary — perhaps that shows the limitations of this genre.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of reading this book. I would be interested to read a couple of other graphic novels with radically different story lines to see how other kinds of stories are depicted in images, and also how other graphic novelists choose (or don’t choose) to include actual text.

My First Graphic Novel

Instead of focusing on how disturbed I am by the content of Nat Turner, I’m instead going to reflect on the experience of reading my first graphic novel. To begin, I have to admit how skeptical I was about reading a graphic novel for a graduate English course. Call me traditional, but I didn’t think it was accurate to say I was going to “read” a graphic novel. Now I see that I passed judgment too early, as my reading skills were certainly exercised throughout this book. (Interestingly, I’ve never had a problem saying I’m “reading” a book on CD, which I do all the time, so obviously I was prejudiced against the genre, incorrectly assuming it had no intellectual merit.)

When I first opened the book, I was struck immediately by the amazing illustrations. I was entranced by the detail of facial expressions and body language, as well as the variety of and intricate details within the images. I hadn’t intended to read the book straight through, but I was in such awe that I couldn’t put it down. Granted, that awe was often replaced by revulsion, but any book that has the power to evoke such strong emotional responses obviously merits examination. I exclaimed out loud on a few occasions, and I studied several of the more grisly images longer than I was comfortable with because I just couldn’t look away. I was amazed by Baker’s ability to disgust me with what are essentially cartoon images. I had previously thought that the subject matter would have to be affected by the method of presentation (after all, how seriously can you take a comic?), but I quickly learned that I was looking beyond the method of illustrating and studying the content itself.

On pages 88-90, for example, I am amazed at how clearly Baker conveys young Nat Turner’s dilemma: he has to feign ignorance when the overseer finds him with the Bible—in fact, he looks downright comical in his pretended stupidity—yet immediately afterward, in the bottom panes of page 90, Turner’s hatred for the white man (as well as his own circumstances) is clear. I’m not sure it would be as effective to try to convey these feelings in words (no matter how powerful and compelling the diction), so in this way the image is superior. (Even as I write this, I’m amazed that I’ve been so quickly convinced. I’m a fierce proponent of the power of words, so I feel disloyal in acknowledging the validity of what feels like the antithesis of all I stand for as a reader and writer. That said, I’m already looking for other examples of graphic novels to read, though preferably less disturbing ones.)

As I start to wrestle through the idea of possibly teaching a graphic novel (issues of school and parent approval aside), I can see several pros and cons. The pros are obviously that kids would enjoy the experience (in fact, many of them read graphic novels already), and that the story is immediately clear to anyone who is capable of reading facial expressions and body language (almost everyone). I also think a graphic novel would be a great way to talk about basic plot structure in a text (e.g. locate the exposition of the story, identify the climax, is there resolution?, etc.). The biggest drawback is that of course the students wouldn’t be learning traditional reading skills (taking meaning from words and paragraphs), but there’s plenty of traditional reading built into the curriculum already. I’ll hold the rest of my thoughts about how to teach it until next week.

The last comment I want to make has to do with how disturbed I was by the subject matter, so I’ll try to make it brief because I know I could go on at length about that. As entranced as I was by the book, I was equally concerned by the fact that Baker presents Turner as a hero. I agree with what Jennifer said in her post—I readily admit the inhumanity of slavery, but I don’t see Nat Turner’s actions as a justifiable retaliation, and I also suspect his understanding and application of Biblical teachings. It seems to me that the Nat Turner portrayed in this book would be dismissed as a religious fanatic today. I know this is a simplistic stating of the case, but I couldn’t comment on the book without remarking on the one glaring drawback I perceived. The questionable nature of Baker’s portrayal doesn’t in any way hurt my appreciation of the genre, and that’s why I’ve tried to address the two issues separately. I hope we can do the same in class next week.

Nat Turner—disturbing, but in a good way

When Professor Sample asked those of us who had already read Nat Turner to describe it, I said I thought it was disturbing. I say this not because of the format or genre of the narrative, but because of the story itself. I became absorbed in the book right away and read it in one sitting. However, I was shocked and appalled when reading (and seeing) how Nat Turner carried out his rebellion and justified his actions. Yes, I have learned of slave rebellions, but I honestly had never heard of Nat Turner until picking up this graphic novel. Sad, I guess, but true. Unlike Kyle Baker, I don’t recall seeing even a one paragraph blurb about him in any history textbook. I doubt that I am alone, though, as Baker points out that someone would be lucky to find one book on Nat Turner.

                After reading Baker’s Preface, I guess I was expecting the story of a great, heroic man. After all, Baker says “Many of history’s greatest people, including Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X all cite Nat Turner as an inspiration” (6). Baker praises Turner’s will power and the fact that he overcame the system, found access to books, taught himself to read, and educated himself. Yes, for these reasons he is admirable. But, despite the fact that Kyle Baker references killing, I guess I was expecting more from this man who overcame the odds. I guess I expecting to hear of more of an intellectual revolution as opposed to a bloodbath. Yes, slavery is indeed awful, horrific, extreme, and disturbing. But I was shocked by Turner’s extreme measures. While I can praise the idea and act of rebelling against slavery and creating a revolution, I am not comfortable saying that what Turner did was right. And I seriously question his grasping of the Scriptures and what he believed he was being called to do.

                Okay—whew—I got it out there. I’m sure that, in light of the fact that Nat Turner is hailed as a hero, some people are probably thinking that I’m horrible.

                I realize I’ve been expressing my views on the subject of Baker’s graphic novel and haven’t really analyzed the novel. Graphic novels of this nature open up this sort of discourse, though. It allows the discussion of, even debate over, the events of history. In his Preface, Baker says that “comic books/graphic novels are a visual medium, so it’s most important for an artist to choose a subject with opportunities for compelling graphics” (6). Nat Turner’s story definitely provides opportunity for compelling graphics! Graphic novels offer an effective way to present history. (I sure won’t forget Nat Turner now!) Similar to films about historical events, since the graphic novel is a “visual medium,” readers are note solely reading a story, a history, but they see it play out beyond the images in their minds. This medium is by far more effective than text alone, particularly when it comes to historical narratives! It’s too easy to skim over text or maintain a safe distance from the events. It’s far harder to ignore the visuals.

                I feel that graphic novels have much to offer and, to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed by experiences with the genre thus far. I was first exposed to graphic novels in American Postmodernism last spring and was intrigued by Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Lappe and Goldman’s Shooting War. I worked with graphic novels again this past fall semester in 701 as we studied Satrapi’s Persepolis and McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Much like a film, graphic novels have layers of analysis—not only can you explore the text, but there are also the visuals and the relationship between the graphics and the text, I love the complexity of what appears to be a “simple” form! I would love to teach a graphic novel (Persepolis, in particular), and I look forward to our class discussions on the form and how to teach it.