Teaching Graphic Novels

I previewed “Maus” today for my ESL level five reading comprehension class as part of an exercise on figurative speech and inference. I hadn’t intended to, but one of those teachable moments presented itself, so I took 10 minutes or so out of class time to discuss weather or not they considered the book to be a form of literature. I parroted a few of the rhetorical questions Prof. Sample had asked us to get the discussion started.

The only student who knew anything about “Maus” was a young woman from Germany who said it was used in her public school system to teach the Holocaust. She had an interesting perspective: she found the depictions in the book to be much milder than looking at the photos found in many of the usual texts used in German schools. Maybe her reaction would have been different if Kyle Baker had done the illustrations.

The other students, mainly Asian, African and Middle Eastern, knew little about the subject, but they immediately identified the mice and cat analogy and discussed how, without using a single word, the author had set up a paradigm that everybody could understand. We didn’t have time to go over the text, but a number of students said that because of the amount of text in the book, “Maus” was literature. According to their way of thinking, text is a defining characteristic of literature. I wish I had had the time to give them a preview of “Nat Turner”; it would have been interesting to see if their ideas would change.

If I were to teach graphic novels as part of a literature survey course I would begin with a similar discussion of literature and have them compile a list of defining characteristics before introducing whatever text I was going to teach. The fact that they realized that text can stand in place of text would be key to a teaching strategy.

The minimal amount of text in a graphic novel makes them much harder to “read” than what many of us have come to know as literature. We grow up with words and use them to determine meaning. We are comfortable with words and have become lazy and dependent on our literal interpretations. At the same time, we have also become dismissive of illustrations/graphics/photographs; we don’t give them a lot of thought because we are constantly bombarded by them. I think one of the greatest pitfalls a new student to graphic novels could make would be to dismiss what they see without really trying to understand what is being represented.

With a novel like “Nat Turner”, the next step would be to have them create their own text by writing a narrative to accompany the illustrations. I would ask them to explain what they think is transpiring on certain pages. Another approach would be to have them create their own text, either through captions or dialog. Having them put what they see into words would be a valuable experience; students would need to really study the illustrations and not give just a first impression. This could be done orally was well; a version of “popcorn” reading, where each student selects a sequence of illustrations and explains what they think is being represented.

Focusing on the concept of hero

In my last post I questioned whether this book could be categorized as literature or not, and after reading my classmates’ blog posts, listening to the discussion last week, sitting in on Professor Sample’s lecture, and revisiting my own questions; I want to completely disregard what I previously wrote.  I realize this probably makes me appear to be a tad wishy-washy, but in my defense I wrote my blog last week with the ulterior motive of what my boyfriend likes to term “poking the bear.”  I felt the need for some reason, possibly because I’m an organizational freak who likes everything to fit neatly into compartments, to place the graphic novel in a category.  Because I wasn’t exactly sure how I would categorize it, I looked to my classmates for input.  I knew that there would be many strong proponents in class of teaching graphic novels, so I poked the bear by challenging its place in the literature classroom hoping to get some strong reactions.  And I did. 

With all of that said, I’ve decided that the label isn’t really what is important here.  What is important is a text’s ability to evoke a strong reaction from the reader.  I think that this emotional response could be harnessed to develop a very meaningful lesson for students.

So, how would a teacher harness those deep emotional responses?

One issue seemed to be brought up several times in class last week – the issue of Nat Turner as a heroic figure.  I wonder if Kyle Baker included that phrasing in his preface to spark controversy, because that is exactly what it did.   Using this as a jumping off point for class discussion and activity could be very fruitful because it evokes such strong opposition from people.  Staging a debate among students could be one way to explore this idea, although it may be difficult to find students willing to argue for Turner being considered a hero.  Reading Nat Turner alongside other texts from that era (several people mentioned this, I think) would be a good idea.  The students could compare Turner to figures such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe and decide which is more heroic.  Perhaps I’m hung up on this idea of hero because one of my favorite undergraduate classes was called Heroes in Literature.  We read several different novels and explored the idea of hero throughout the entire semester.  I wonder what our reactions would have been if we were required to read Nat Turner?  I’m sure even the silent ones in class would’ve felt compelled to chime in on that discussion.

Nat and Hobbes?

Again, I feel like I have nothing too new to contribute to the blog discussion. Everyone has given really awesome suggestions! I think the pre-reading exercises are the key. It helped just to have someone say “slow down! look at all these triangles” to make me slow down and actually think about triangles. I think a discussion of visual literacy (admittedly a concept much broader and applicable to much more in life than just graphic mediums) needs to head off any work with graphic novels.

Again, I am confused on the purpose of my own blog. Am I trying to get students to slow down while reading Nat Turner or slow down while reading the diverse genre of graphic novels/narratives? The question seems a little nitty-gritty, but I think these differences are also key. Before Professor Sample pointed out the differences of Nat Turner and other influential graphic novels (I’m thinking of Maus) I didn’t even think of differences. I was too busy trying to situate myself to what I assumed to be the general graphic novel genre expectations. Now, comparing and contrasting Nat Turner from these expectations gives me a much deeper reading of Baker’s novel. I am really stuck on the question of why the English department choose Nat Turner as the special community book over the other more popular and, apparently, more influential graphic novels at play in the literary community. So, I would argue, for the slower, deeper reading of Nat Turner, which Professor Sample’s lecture provoked, students need to be familiar with other graphic novels.

As others have pointed out, McCloud’s comix theory does provide this genre background, but I would argue for more examples of departure. I want to talk about Calvin and Hobbes and how it always blew the other comics on the Sunday funnies out the water. Yet, when I look at a collection of just Calvin and Hobbes it doesn’t seem as groundbreaking because it is not situated in the context of the other standard form comics with Peanuts to the left and Blondie to the right. When I didn’t have a Maus comparison I didn’t know how groundbreaking Nat Turner really is.

I’m still stuck on why George Mason picked Nat Turner, but with so many of us have commenting on our discomfort with teaching and discussing the deadly issues Baker expertly brings to the front of his novel, I think I have my answer. We must slow down to really chew on these issues and I think our students will want to slow down to chew on these issues. As Susanna aptly pointed out: violence needs to be discussed and discussed now and Nat Turner allows us to talk about our culture’s comfort with violence and to also make violence uncomfortable again.

P.S. For those bitten by the “What is literature?” discussion and debate, I really recommend John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation. It’s a deep thinker.

“Do we have to analyze this?”—Adding graphic novels to the mix

                My students often try to tell me that they hate analyzing. When we start reading a new work, they’ll ask, “Do we have to analyze this one?” I try to point out, as we have discussed in class, that they are constantly analyzing everything around them!  In everyday interactions, they analyze text messages, status updates, facial expressions, and tone of voice, just to name a few. They also analyze movies, music, and, yes, literature. And most of this analysis comes as second nature. (Of course, we work to get them to really tease out their thoughts and go even deeper with their analysis.) Why not add graphic novels to the mix? It’s the perfect combination of text and visuals for “literary analysis.”

                In the past, particularly when teaching plays, I have had students create comic strips depicting the most important scenes in the drama. Now by no means am I having them create graphic novels, but I am having them consider how they would depict the scenes. They make choices as to which scenes to show and which to leave out. They have to consider how the characters look and interact. All of these choices are worthy of discussion when considering a graphic novel.

                While I would really like to have a graphic novel on my reading list, I have been stumped as to how exactly I would go about “teaching” such a work. Then I had the thought that if we are arguing that graphic novels are literature, then we could really do many of the same activities we would do with “regular” literary texts. They would need to be modified a bit, but things such as creating a scene left out of the original text, or telling the story from another point of view could work nicely with a graphic novel. Not only do such activities require them students to analyze the existing text, but they require further analysis, creativity, and justification for the choices made.

                Like Susanna, I would like to use excerpts from McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud says a lot about analysis in general, not just about comics (or, comix). I think his explanations, along with the format, would be helpful for students. (And they would have to analyze as they read about analysis!) Also, I’d like to use excerpts from a graphic novel or two in an activity that I use in the beginning of the year. Many of my IB students struggle with the concept of really examining the choices made in a literary work and the effect of those choices. During the first week or two of school I do an activity in which they look at the choices/techniques and their effects in art work, music, and film before we move on to our focus on literature. The point is that literary analysis is not completely unique and on its own island of thought somewhere. I think I’ll add graphic novel excerpts to the mix.

Blood in the gutters… guts, too?

I will admit: I’ve been spending more time this week on my presentation than thinking about Nat Turner and graphic novels. However, in reading my classmates’ posts about teaching graphic novels, I’ve been inspired by their enthusiasm.

In answer to the specific question posed in class — How can we get students to slow down when reading graphic novels? — I have one answer that excites me most. I’m interested in McCloud’s concept of the gutter, as many of us are, and I think a great way to get students to move through what is basically a picture book at a slower pace is to ask them to fill in those gutters (in words). Choose a few scenes (/pages) and ask them to write the parts that are missing in between the frames. Then an interesting in-class activity might be to have some students share their “gutter text” — are they similar? are any wildly different? why might that be?

This would be a good way to show students that though graphic novels may seem too simple to some (and maybe less like literature), they actually leave themselves open to interpretation the same way a well-written story/novel/poem/play does. And isn’t this the crux of literature? An interpretable work of art that is specific, yet indirect; suggestive, yet subtle; and generally memorable? It seems to me that the guts of any literary work are often found in these “gutters.”

To bring things full circle, it might also be interesting to then show students some short stories, &c., with meaningful section breaks and talk about how we “fill in the gutters” in “regular” textual literature, too (as I think Susanna was saying). And I do not say this as though we should try to convince our students that graphic novels are Literature with a capital “L” — instead of fighting that battle, I think showing students the value in graphic novels, their intricacies and subtleties, would be far more more powerful and useful when introducing the genre.

Via the exercise I outlined above, students would also get real practice in quite literally rewriting a story, which we’ve learned this semester is a way of reading. Graphic novels seem to hold lots of teaching opportunities.

Teaching Nat Turner

I’ve been thinking about how to teach graphic novels, and more specifically, about ways to get our students to slow down when they are reading Nat Turner. I know that I flew through the book the first time that I read it. I think that more inexperienced readers (like those in high school) may be particularly inclined to view Nat Turner as a “fun” book and to not take it as seriously as other books that they might read in class. These students will probably flip through the entire book very quickly, but they wouldn’t go back to reread it as a more advanced reader might.

Here are a few teaching strategies I’ve brainstormed:

  • Assign one section to read at a time at home. Sections could be the four books, or preferably broken up into little vignettes within the books.
  • Read the book entirely in class, as a class. This way, the teacher can control the reading pace.
  • Have our students make a close textual interpretation of only one panel or one page.
  • Read The Confessions of Nat Turner alongside Nat Turner.
  • Have students create and add their own panel into the story and write about how this enhanced or changed the original narrative.
  • I think it would be really helpful to teach sections of Understanding Comics alongside Nat Turner to legitimize graphic novels to students who are skeptical about them.

I was skeptical about graphic novels myself, until I studied a few for grad school. Now, I think that graphic novels are a great way to teach interpretation. I’m really drawn to McCloud’s concept of the “gutter”. The gutters are visual cues for interpretation and because of this, I think graphic novels could be a nice gateway into learning when and how to interpret all kinds of literature. It seems like we could first teach the gutter in a graphic novel, and then compare the gutter to stanzas or line breaks in poetry, and finally move into textual interpretation.

Teaching Nat (& any graphic novel)

One of the things that first struck me about our class discussion is the way graphic novels offer students a chance to really consider what constitutes literature.  In any class, I think it can be beneficial to discuss what literature is and also why we like it.  Nat Turner, or any graphic novel for that matter, offers a great introduction to that kind of higher-level thinking.  I loved the exercise Prof. Sample showed us with converting a Craigslist ad into a “poem,” and though most might scoff at the notion of that kind of art, isn’t that what much of modern art does?  I keep going back to what creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson spoke about in the film clip we watched in class, and I have to think that education is changing and so is the nature of literature, the form, the content, even the way we process literature.  That said, in order to keep up with the changes, teaching students to really consider what literature is might be just the ticket to teaching them to open up their mind and explore the literature that matters to them.  For some of them, this might be the writing of video games, screenwriting of popular movies, or for others, graphic novels.  I have a feeling that only so many of us really appreciate the literary classics, and that is okay.  Besides, “classic” is not a fixed definition, and neither is “literature.”

Besides opening students up to the idea of what literature constitutes, graphic novels present a new way to dissect a narrative, as well as a new way to create a narrative.  I often have students re-tell chapters they have read for homework in the form of comics– but why not begin to call these “graphic re-tellings”?  I actually am really interested in teaching students excerpts from McCloud’s book, especially in the extra time following the AP exam, as a way to analyze both literature and art, and this combination thereof.  That said, negotiating what we already do to incorporate the genre of graphic novels is another way to teach stories like Nat Turner.

Lastly, evocative stories like this one certainly allow students to consider what is age-appropriate and what isn’t.  Often, students feel sheltered by the topics in literature and when we teachers draw attention to the violence, the sex, the scandal that they might otherwise not catch, they certainly seem to perk up.  With texts like Nat Turner,  or at least excerpts of Nat Turner, we might be able to ask students what they think about the evolution of violence in pop culture and in literature in particular.  Students really benefit from any kind of higher-level discussion and one which interests them, particularly given the relevance of this particular topic (since violent is inherent in so many video games, TV shows, and movies that our students watch), that this kind of book would certainly feed into an interesting conversation on the purpose of violence in stories.  Likewise, by comparing this story to the textbook explantaions of Nat Turner’s rebellion, or even to war poems (like those Nikki is teaching this week!), we might push students to really consider when violence is acceptable and when it is over the top, and why they feel like that.

Lastly, I really like Susan’s idea about having students create their own mini-graphic novels.  What I envision my AP seniors doing after the AP exam (along with a research paper I’ve put off until then, so we’ll see if we get to this more fun stuff!) is reading excerpts from McCloud and creating their own fun and original graphic narratives.  I did something similar with my sophomores this year with folklore, both fairy tales and oral family stories, and the students really enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and get back to something they really enjoyed as children: storytelling.  The same could be true with what they might have once viewed as “comics” and would now hopefully come to see as a separate and perhaps more literary genre: graphic narratives.

I do have one question.  If it’s not a long story, do we call it a “graphic short story”?  Or a “graphic tale”?  Or the ghastly “graphic narrative”?  Is this where “comix” comes in handy?  I can see that it might put an end to this line of questioning.

Graphic May Be The Way To Go

Deborah Kogon                                              

ENGL 610

Blog:  Nat Turner

March 31, 2010

            This is the first graphic novel I have read and I have to admit, I grouped this genre with comic books, or at least “No Fear Shakespeare.” Therefore, I approached this assignment with reluctance about the topic and immense curiosity about the format. Kyle Baker delivers the message in a powerful visual representation I could not have imagined.

            I had attempted to read the Confessions of Nat Turner for a Southern History course while I was at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but passed it up because the violence in the text was so graphic. In addition to the gruesome content, it was incomprehensible to me that a slave would have had access to the education, vocabulary, and tone Thomas R, Gray attributes to Turner. I did not care for William Styron’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, as it seemed racially biased.

            I do not know why this approach worked for me except that I am extremely visual and the story, while horrifying and almost unbelievable, seemed to become hard-wired directly to my brain. There was no time to turn away; I just kept turning the page. 

           The most striking aspect of Baker’s Nat Turner is the way the novel set the piece in context. The brutal capture was more stunningly laid out in the visual format than any eloquently, terrifying syntax could. The reader empathizes with the African woman who desperately protects her child, then thinks death must be better than what life was to become. When I saw that noose thrown over the side of the cliff to catch her foot as she was falling, I was genuinely horrified and surprised. Baker does the same thing with the baby thrown to the sharks, with amputations, and with the final skinning of Turner’s body. I could not have read those passages, but seeing them was even worse. I will not be able to forget them.

Teaching Nat Turner

I think Nat Turner definitely deserves re-reading, and that re-reading would be a great tool for students to fully comprehend the text. There are plenty of ways I think this graphic narrative or novel could be taught:

1) Present a difficulty-paper assignment that has students recognize why they have a difficult time reading the text (i.e. because of the genre, because of the historical context).

2) On a more creative note, have students write one to two sentences of text for what is going on in the parts like “Home” that rely only on images. Or conversely, have students draw their own images for what is going on for a portion of the text of Nat Turner’s confessions.

3) Similarly, you could have students attempt to create their own (shortened version) of a graphic narrative. To relate it to the text, you could have students create one regarding some injustice they felt they have experienced.

I first came across the graphic novel in reading Maus I and Maus II in my undergraduate Holocaust literature course. At the end of the course we had to do a project or research paper, and I decided to create a mini-graphic “novel” on the anti-Semitism I witnessed growing up in a predominantly Jewish town. This helped me better understand the benefits of telling a story through this medium.

4) Ask the students questions relating to the text that may require them to go back and re-read: who fed the baby to the shark? Why is the first image of someone reading in the dark? When the white man wants to kill one of the captured Africans on page 35, and there is a bubble indicating “$!,” what does that mean?

5) Do a pre-writing or post-writing exercise about a “motive” for Nat Turner. In his confessions, he explains a lot about what happens (and as we learned in Prof Sample’s lectures, this may be exaggerated based on Thomas R. Gray’s own motive for financial gain) but not a lot about why.

6) Have students research the historical period or pre-write about what they know about slavery. I think having the background knowledge of Nat Turner’s confessions is relevant.

7) Introduce or discuss other texts that might be related, such as “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall or “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, etc.

Back to Basics?

Thinking about how we can get students to slow down while reading Nat Turner, I tried returning to the same methods we’ve reviewed this semester for use with traditional literature. Why not?

How about asking students to pick a “most important frame?” in the tradition of Blau’s “most important line” exercise? This would not only push students to carefully review the panels, but also encourage them to try to distill the point of the story (and what is that point, by the way?) down to one pivotal moment. This might be even more important for a graphic novel, since it tends to feel like the part you’ve read is done with and the part you haven’t read is about to happen. Using this lesson would help the class to focus on the novel as a whole.

Or who says that graphic novels have to be restricted to graphic exercises? Why not have the students “write” a chapter or section of the book, using words they feel convey the story in a style that fits the illustrations? It could be really interesting to see what moods and genres they’d tap into. This exercise would also drive home the idea that a graphic novel is not so different from traditional novels they’ve read.

Lastly, how about having a character from the novel write his or her version of a section of the book – from another point of view? Or write a letter to Nat Turner about what he or she thinks about his rebellion? The challenge here would be finding a character who didn’t fall massively on one side of the rebellion or the other (black or white) as the lines of loyalty would certainly be drawn pretty distinctly. Or here’s an idea – how about a letter from a modern civil rights leader (such as Rosa Parks) to Nat Turner? That might generate some interesting discussion.

Once you open up activities to the rich array of opportunities we use for the written word, the possibilities become nearly endless!

Rereading without the words.

After listening to the class discussion and considering my own impression of Nat Turner, it struck me that the most important thing to focus on when teaching graphic novels would be rereading. This has proven true for a variety of literature so far and I can see a clear necessity for using this skill with graphic novels as well— as many in class expressed, it can be too easy to flip through a graphic novel without lingering on the images.

What seems the most obvious technique would be to have students add text to silent panels, then have students compare what they “heard” in the silent panels. Students could also compare them to the original and reflect in writing which they prefer, a student version or the original. This would generate rereading opportunities as well as open a window for discussing what the advantages and limitations are of illustrations as text.

Another way of generating rereading would be to have students select a series of 10 panels from throughout a novel that they feel best summarizes the story. This activity would also give me as the instructor a gauge for how well my students are understanding the content. Students could also be asked to rearrange the panels or select based on a chosen theme, character, or plot line, then reflect on the new impression this gave them either aloud or in writing.

Class discussions on some of the “grammar” of graphic novels would also be useful. My sense is that most students would intuitively understand how to read them, but I think it would be interesting to discuss what impression the longer vs. shorter panels or certain lines/backgrounds gave to certain scenes. Having the students engage in this grammar by drawing a panel with changes could also be a way to engage students in rereading and examining how pictures can function as a text.

After I finished writing the above I realized I was considering how the average student would learn to read and comprehend a graphic novel— I wasn’t considering what my English language learners or students with disabilities would need. For English language learners I think that graphic novels could be an advantage because of the illustrations, but they could also be more difficult if students are from a culture that does not share the same visual grammar. For students who have difficulty reading body language or focusing/tracking, the visual aspect of a graphic novel may also present challenges. I think both groups of students would be best assisted if they had a reading partner or the instructor described the illustrations to them and work with the student to interpret them.

I think graphic novels could be a real advantage in the English classroom—they make for quick and enticing reads, leaving more time to invest in writing about and discussing the literature.

Teaching a Graphic Novel

In thinking about how I could teach a graphic novel, the first thing I realized is that the content of the text is an important factor in how I would present it to my class. Not all lesson ideas or approaches would be appropriate for all comics. (For example, considering the controversial content of Nat Turner, I wouldn’t introduce it in a lighthearted lesson, nor would I choose it as the first graphic novel I show my students.)

As I said in my blog post last week, I noticed a big difference in my own thinking about the content of Nat Turner vs. the way in which it is presented. I don’t think high school students would naturally separate those two aspects of the text, so it’s important that the teacher does so for them (as necessary) or (preferably) develops lessons that encourage students to do so on their own. To do this, the teacher needs to know his purpose in presenting the text (that sacred concept of backward planning). He has to consider his ultimate goal: Am I teaching graphic novel X because I want to teach a/any graphic novel or because I want to discuss the issue of X? (My initial opinion of Nat Turner is that it would be better used as a starting point in discussing the actual issue of the slave rebellion. I don’t think it would be as productive, with a high school audience, to discuss the physical presentation of the story—at least until after the genre had been introduced and dealt with using less controversial examples. Then, yes, full steam ahead with NT.) So the only real conclusion I’ve reached so far is that you need to know WHY you’re teaching the text in the first place. (I know–good teaching 101, right?).

Maybe I’ve over-thought Prof. Sample’s question by hashing out all this goal stuff, but I couldn’t start brainstorming until I’d set some parameters for my hypothetical lessons. But now, finally some ideas . . . If I were to teach a graphic novel, I think I’d want to find one that it is middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty (i.e. not Nat Turner, but also not an Archie comic—no offense to Archie). I would want students to be able to differentiate between content and presentation, but also be able to examine both together (as in, why do you think the author chose to convey this message in this manner as opposed to in a more traditional form? It strikes me that Maus would be a great example to use when discussing both form and content together).

Bottom line, I think there’s a lot a teacher could do with any given graphic novel that would inspire students to think critically about certain aspects of the work (images, text, purpose, message, voice, plot, etc.). Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Remove all text from the images (thought bubbles, captions, onomatopoeia) and then ask students to fill in their own captions. Students would have to support/defend their captions with textual evidence (in this case, image-based evidence). I’ve done a similar activity as a review of Macbeth, but the version I’ve done doesn’t really require critical thinking, only summarizing skills. The activity could vary depending on whether you’ve shown the students the original text beforehand—I can see it being worthwhile both ways.
  • Cut up a shorter graphic novel (graphic short story?) into pieces and have students reassemble based on their knowledge of story conventions (exposition, climax, falling action, etc.). This lesson would work well with a traditional short story unit because it would show students that the mechanics of stories are similar even when the final products look different. (You could then discuss why authors choose particular methods of conveying a story. How a short story is better/worse/different from a graphic novel, movie, song, etc.)
  • Slow down the reading of a longer graphic novel by giving students only short sections at a time. Study the sections one at a time, asking students to write about what they see, how this excerpt connects to previous sections, and how the story might play out after this point. After seeing all the sections, students could review their notes and evaluate how their understanding of the story changed, improved, or declined as they read more passages. (Now I’m thinking of reading log audits. I’m sure there’s a lot you could do with something like this.)
  • Ask students to translate a graphic novel into a written short story (or vice versa). Discuss the pros and cons of each genre, difficulties the students encountered, possible combinations of the two presentation styles, and so on.
  • Visually experiment with multiples storylines or narrative perspectives. One novel I teach uses a fragmented narration style that really confuses my regular 10th graders. I could ask students to represent different story threads by cutting and pasting panes from a graphic novel in different patterns or combinations. This activity would help visual learners in particular.

These are only “rough draft ideas,” so I’m really more interested to see what everyone else comes up with. I love hearing different perspectives and ideas because I always find something useful to bring back to my students. I hope we can compile a more comprehensive list of ideas and flesh them out as a class.

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 < http://nedroid.com/ > 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.