Reading List for ENGL 493: Graphic Novels (Fall 2009)

I’ve finalized the reading list for my Fall 2009 course on graphic novels. This is the same super-sized class that I’ll be teaching with technologies that may help me preserve my student-centered pedagogy. The syllabus was especially hard to settle on, as there are so many compelling graphic novels worthy of inclusion. I had to make some tough choices: Neil Gaiman didn’t make it on, nor did Kyle Baker, Jessica Abel, Charles Burns, Rutu Modan, and a host of other possibilities.  But what I’ve got is some great stuff, spanning genres, styles, and mood.

And here’s a more appropriately visual presentation of the same required texts, complete with pricing information.

30 Days of Night, Again, and Again, and Again

One midnight a short time ago I picked up 30 Days of Night, a vampire graphic novel I was looking forward to, after having read some great reviews. (In 500 Essential Graphic Novels, for example, Gene Kannenberg calls 30 Days of Night a “livid, modern-gothic triumph.”)

I finished the first volume by 1am. Was I too scared to sleep afterward? No way. The only thing that kept me up was trying to figure out why I was so underwhelmed by the comic.

The series begins with a great premise—vampires go on a thirty day feeding spree in Barrow, Alaska, during the darkest part of winter, when the sun will not rise for another thirty days—and at first glance Ben Templesmith’s graphics look stunning, crowded with expressionistic Nosferatu vampires against brushed and splattered grey-black backgrounds.

But on both levels—narratively and visually—30 Days of Night is unrewarding.

The problem with Steve Niles’s writing is its flatness. Aside from a few pages early in the book (when the sheriff spots the vampire swarm approaching, each panel a closer shot than the one before, ending with a horrific close-up of the vampires looking like Edward Gorey’s creatures on steroids)—aside from a few sequences like that, the pacing is flat. There is no rising tension, no build-up of suspense. We know everything we need to know by the end of the first few pages.

The graphics likewise have a plodding sense of sameness about them. However vivid, frenzied, and edgy they are, it’s the same panel, over and over and over. There’s no sense of motion. Even when a panel depicts a vampire in the act of gutting a human, blood splattering all over the page, there’s a still-life sense about the scene. Visually, it’s beautiful, the fast strokes and scribbled outlines recalling the Muromachi Period in Japanese painting in the 14th and 15th centuries. But such dark beauty fails to create visual tension between panels. The images are too frantic, too much of the time, and the effect is a grinding repetition that, however much it may resemble the bleak sameness of the northern wastes of Alaska, sacrifices storytelling for the sake of artistry.

Fall 2009 Course Descriptions

I’ve got two fantastic advanced literature classes planned for Fall 2009:

ENGL 459 (Disaster Fiction)

This class explores what the influential critic and novelist Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster.” Sontag was speaking of Hollywood cinema of the fifties and sixties, arguing that end-of-the-world films of this era simultaneously aestheticize destruction and address a perversely utopian impulse for moral simplification. But what about disasters in contemporary fiction? While natural and unnatural disasters have provided Hollywood with predictable script material for decades, less familiar are the meditations on disasters that serious novelists have taken up in literary fiction. In this class we will consider how novelists imagine disaster. From uncontrollable natural disasters to planned nuclear annihilation, from swift destruction unleashed by human avarice to the slow death of a dying world, we will examine the ways fiction reaffirms, questions, or rewrites the modalities of disaster. Along the way we will consider the social, historical, and political contexts of disaster fiction, exploring what it means to “think the unthinkable” in different times and places. Among the writers we will study are Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Ursula Le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others.

ENGL 493 (The Graphic Novel)

This course considers the storytelling potential of graphic novels, an often neglected form of artistic and narrative expression with a long and rich history. Boldly combining images and text, graphic novels of recent years have explored divisive issues often considered the domain of “serious” literature: immigration, racism, war and terrorism, sexual abuse, and much more. Informed by literary theory and visual culture studies, we will analyze both mainstream and indie graphic novels. In particular, we will be especially attentive to the unique visual grammar of the medium, exploring graphic novels that challenge the conventions of genre, narrative, and high and low culture. While our focus will be on American graphic novelists, we will touch upon artistic traditions from across the globe. Graphic novelists studied may include Kyle Baker, Alison Bechdel, Alan Moore, Wilfred Santiaga, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and Gene Luen Yang.

Graphic Novels Saved Me a Dime

Finally, my disjointed knowledge of graphic novels and science fiction paid off. Or at least saved me a dime.

Summit Coffee, my local coffee shop, has a daily trivia question, which gets you a ten cent discount if you get it right. If it’s local trivia or sports trivia, I’m a lost cause. But every once in a while the question is right up my alley.

Today’s question: What is the only graphic novel to have won a Hugo Award?

Immediately I’m thinking it’s either Frank Miller or Alan Moore. Art Spiegelman is probably the most mainstream prize-winningest graphic novelist, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, but I knew he never got a Hugo, one of the two leading science fiction awards (the other is the Nebula).

Most of Miller’s work isn’t science fiction, really — I would call it more superhero realism. So that left Moore, but which work? I had to go with his most acclaimed work: Watchmen.

Nailed it. And I was actually the first person today to get it right.

So Many Universes in My Head

I’ve been wondering, how many universes can I hold in my head at once?

I’m talking about fictional universes, of course. And by universe, I mean a world set apart by its own physics and cosmology. So, realist narratives all occupy the same universe (Sherlock Holmes and Tony Soprano exist in the same universe). But Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a different universe from the Marvel Universe, which is a universe separate from the Whedonverse.

Right now, circulating near the surface waters of my short-term recall are a multitude of universes, elements of which I’ve encountered in the past few days: the Marvel Universe, the Gotham City-Batman Universe (which seems closer to our universe than the Marvel Universe), the Harry Potter Universe, the George Lucas Star Wars Universe, George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire Universe, Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood Universe (thanks to my four-year-old), the Shadow of the Colossus Kyozo Universe, Nintendo’s Mario Universe, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper Universe, Gaius Baltar and his pantheistic Cylon universe, and Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls Universe (again, thanks to my son).

Shouldn’t I get confused? Each universe has its own beastiary, its own laws of physics, its own mythology. How do I keep track of them all?

Maybe because what the universes have in common is actually more fundamental than what separates them. As vast as the gulf is between a Jedi Knight and Heffalump, these two universes — and all of the ones above — share the same moral code.

Just look at this painstakingly detailed illustration:

The Moral Universe and Its Subsets

The characters that populate each of the worlds above, no matter how realistic or how fantastic, all operate within the same moral universe. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is evil. The more interesting characters are a blend of right and wrong, but nonetheless right and wrong still anchor the two extremes of what is imaginable.

I wonder, then, what exists outside this framing universe? Can someone help me name some fictional universes which operate in an amoral universe, where there is no sense of right or wrong, no judgment of good or bad deeds? What would such a fictional universe look like? Where the hero is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but something altogether…new?

The Heart of Iron Man

Something about David Denby’s review of Iron Man in The New Yorker has been bothering me ever since I saw the film for myself. I’ve finally figured out it has to do with Denby’s misreading of the superhero genre, rooted in a disregard — shared by many critics and moviegoers — of the source material for superhero movies, that is, comic books.

Now, I am not a Marvel fanboy, and I definitely never was an Iron Man fan. But I still feel the need to come to director Jon Favreau’s defense here and respond to Denby’s review, if only because the review has resumed a conversation that has been going on in fits and starts in my mind since the first Spider-Man movie in 2002.

Two elements of Iron Man are particularly susceptible to the general misunderstanding of the comic book form that is so widespread: Robert Downey, Jr.’s eyes and Tony Stark’s heart.

About Downey’s eyes, Denby comments that

…once Stark climbs inside and becomes Iron Man he loses his perverse charm; Downey without eyes is Downey cancelled.

True, there is something transfixing about the glint in Downey’s eyes. And true, this glint disappears behind the mask. But this is the inherent nature of the superhero genre: an appealing character must don a mask, hiding the very bodily feature that film has taught us, through the widespread use of the close-up, is the indicator of emotion — the face.

In comic books, it’s a different story. Because all the images are still images, the hero with a mask is on the same plane as the hero without a mask. Emotions are conveyed, not through facial close-ups, but through the artwork itself: slanted or jagged lines, scenes exploding into the gutter, full-page panels that slow down reading, and so on.

A superhero movie with a hero whose face is static behind a mask — Batman, Spider-Man, and yes, Iron Man — is actually an homage to the source of the film. The masked superhero whose expressions are inscrutable is “quoting” the form of the comic book. In her studies of film adaptations of literary works, the film theorist Millicent Marcus has coined the term “umbilical scene” to describe such tributes: a conscious or unconscious acknowledgment by the film of its literary “mother.” In superhero movies, these umbilical scenes can be predictable in-jokes, such as the Stan Lee cameo in every movie based on a Marvel character. Or they can harder-to-decipher formal decisions, such as the unmoving mask.

The first umbilical scene I ever noticed in a Marvel-universe movie was the absolutely inanimate mask of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The effect was actually disconcerting, to see this supervillain speak from behind a frozen face. I first thought the Green Goblin’s mask was some sort of play on Japanese Noh theater, but I realized soon after that Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, even more so than Spidey in the film, was a conscious recognition of Spider-Man’s origins in the stock-still pages of a comic book.

The second element of Iron Man that Denby gets wrong is that “Tony Stark is more like James Bond — he’s always on top.” Again, I’m no fanboy, but I have to point out that Denby glosses over Stark’s fatal flaw: his injured heart, which comes into play on both literal and metaphoric levels in the film. The archetypal superhero must have a weakness. Superman has his kryptonite. Peter Parker has his Aunt May, and Iron Man has his heart, which is seconds away at any given moment from being shredded internally by the shrapnel in his veins.

In terms of Achilles’ Heels, Stark’s heart is a much richer narrative device than, say, a rock from the planet Krypton. There’s a very neat internal/external dichotomy going on with Stark. There’s the obvious and surface-level theme of physical vulnerability, staved off through engineering and technology. But there’s also the symbolic nature of the tender heart, surrounded by armor — that is, Stark builds barriers to protect what turns out to be a fragile emotional interior.

I don’t know where the inevitable Iron Man franchise of films will go, but if they follow the comic books even remotely, they will have to reckon with (1) Stark’s damaged heart, always threatening to “crash” in a more profound way than any cybernetic exoskeleton might and (2) the dark side of Stark’s “James Bond” style of living, which manifests itself in the comic books as depression and alcoholism.

With these dangers on the horizon, and only a metal suit to protect himself, Tony Stark cuts a much more interesting figure than most superheroes. And I’m looking forward to what happens next, Avengers Initiative or not…

The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones

Indiania_Further_sm.jpgContinuing on the Indiana Jones theme, I also discovered in my old comic book box the first couple issues of “The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones” (larger image). This was back when the Indy characters had the potential to be a serious franchise — there was a Young Indiana Jones on television, you had the comic book, and a whole slew of videogames.

Honestly though, the comic book wasn’t that memorable (apparently like the new movie). In fact, I didn’t even remember that I had these rare, uncommonly rare, extraordinarily rare comic books.

Flipping through the first issue, however, I did find one image that I instantly recalled, as if it had been burnt somewhere in the reptilian part of my brain twenty-five years ago. Oddly enough, it wasn’t in the story itself. Instead, it was the inside of the back cover, a stark black-and-white preview of the next month’s issue:


This image actually gives me the creeps (larger image). The low angle looking up emphasizes the skeleton’s towering — but seemingly silent — presence, while Indiana Jones clutches some sort of treasure, the rays of his lantern illuminating but bisecting him, foreshadowing the swing of the sword from the pure darkness behind. Nothing is at a right angle, giving the whole scene an off-kilter tension, doubled by our helplessness, our inability to warn Jones of what we see. This single image, by the celebrated team of John Byrne and Terry Austin, surpasses anything in any of the actual Indiana Jones comic books.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Comic Book

Raiders of the Lost Ark Marvel AdaptationIn anticipation of the upcoming Indiana Jones movie, I dug through the old comic book box and came up with this, Marvel’s “Official Comics Adaptation of the Hit Title” — the original Raiders of the Lost Ark in comic book form (larger image).

You’d think this would be worth some money on eBay, but it looks like they’re going for about a buck a pop. So much for another one of my “collector’s item.”

Pope John Paul II in Action

Tradermaester-maestertrader Adam remembers young Karol Wojtyla (henceforth known as “the pope boy”) running through the streets of Poland in Marvel’s comic book adaptation of his life. I’m happy to bolster Adam’s memory with these EXCLUSIVE!!! images of the pope boy playing soccer in his hometown of Wadowice (larger image).

The Pope plays soccer…(Small)

For my part, the image from the comic book that has stayed with me for over 25 years, the image which I don’t even have to open up the comic book to recall in vivid detail is the Pope skiing (actually, he was only a cardinal then, but who’s keeping track?). Look at him go!

The Pope loves to ski…(Small)

What form! What grace! What cool pope shades! (Larger Image)

A glut of Popes on eBay

The Life of Pope John Paul IIInspired by the strange coincidences between Adam’s and my first forays into comic books as children, I’ve dug up this gem from my attic: Marvel Comic’s “The Life of Pope John Paul II” (full size image). Published in 1982, this graphic biography (as opposed to a graphic novel) tells the “entire story” of Pope John Paul II “from his childhood in Poland to the assassination attempt!”

What excitement! What exclamation marks!

I bring up this prematurely illustrated hagiography now because I got this comic from a trade with Adam in the early eighties. It was Adam’s and now it’s mine. My question is: what the hell did I trade for it? And how did Adam persuade me that this comic was worth a trade in the first place? Sure I was a good Roman Catholic boy, but so was Adam. He should’ve wanted the comic book just as much as he convinced me that I wanted it. And gosh, the assassination sounds like a good enough read, but I’m sure whatever I traded had some pretty violent bits too. So why did I do it? I don’t know, and for years I secretly harbored a resentment that I had been had.

It wasn’t until decades later, when the pope died, that I realized perhaps this musty old comic book had some value. So — and I now admit that this was the real impetus for rescuing my comics from my parent’s attic — after the pope’s death, and probably even before the new pope was picked, I logged on to eBay, prepared to sell this “collector’s item” to some sobbing, mourning Catholic desperate for one last piece of pope memorabilia.

Yes. I planned to profit on the pope’s passing.

Does this make me a bad person? A good person doing a bad thing? A sinner? A seller? A merchant of death?

I don’t know. But I do know that I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Apparently all across the country were hundreds of other adults who had held onto their misbegotten Pope John Paul II collectible comic books from their childhood. Because there was a glut of pope comics on eBay. Dozens of the very same comic, all for sale for the highest bidder. It was a buyer’s market in pope comics. So saturated was the market that I didn’t even bother to sell.

So here I am, a few years later, faded old pope pictures in hand, my chance to make something of a decades-old trade with Adam long gone.

Or, not…

Maybe Adam still has whatever it was I traded for Marvel’s “Life of Pope John Paul” and he’s finally ready for a counter-trade…

My musty old comic books

Super Friends No. 13Adam and I have been friends for over thirty years — he’s one of the few people I regularly keep in touch with from my childhood. And lately Adam’s been mining our childhood for memories of our individual and collective comic book “habit,” writing some wonderful reflections upon comic books and what they’ve meant to him through the years. Adam’s most recent recollection describes buying his first comic book with his own money — Superfriends No. 13 — and he mentions that he is nearly certain I was with him at the time. My memory is more than a little fuzzy about this; I don’t recall it at all. I would’ve been seven at the time.

But I just dug through an old battered cardboard box, hauled around the country with me ever since my parents cleaned out their attic a few years ago, where I haphazardly store my fading, musty collection of comic books. And there it was: Superfriends No. 13, featuring some sort of giant green mutated shrew. So either Adam and I bought the same comic at different times, or we each bought our own copy at the same time (thus avoiding the fate of Bart Simpson’s rare copy of Radioactive Man). Either way, this cover is actually imprinted on my mind, and I didn’t realize how familiar it was until I saw it again (the image here is scanned from my own copy; I’ve also got a larger version where you can see just how wrinkled and scratched this thirty-year-old cover is).

Captain Atom
As I was rummaging through my stash of comics I also discovered my first comic book. I didn’t buy it with my own money, so it’s not in the same category as Adam’s, but it is the first comic I remembering owning, reading it over and over. Undoubtedly my parents gave it to me as some sort of bribe on one of our long family car trips. The comic, seen here (larger version), is No. 83 of Captain Atom, one of the many radioactive superheroes who never made it big. (You’ve never heard of him, right?)

Nonetheless there are some surprising coincidences here: (1) Captain Atom bears some resemblance to the Simpson’s Radioactive Man, so here I am again preliving a more wholesome version of the fictional Bart Simpson’s life; (2) I remember that at the time (age six) I thought Captain Atom was Captain Adam, because I knew Adam was my friend, but I had no idea on earth what an atom was; and (3) if you look closely at the larger image, you can see the legendary Steve Ditko’s signature. Captain Atom was one of Ditko’s creations from the early sixties (my version of Captain Atom No. 83 is a reprint of a much earlier appearance), and Ditko would of course go on later to create the much more memorable Spider-Man — the anchor of the Marvel Universe, which I would soon join myself, leaving behind the innocence of the Superfriends, the naive Wonder Friends, and the forgettable Captain Atom…

Using Understanding Comics to Understand New Media

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts about the rhetoric of the hyperlink, which I was working on with my Textual Media course. I’ve complicated my students thinking (I hope) by suggesting that we can use Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s wonderfully insightful dissection of comics (itself in comics form) to understand new media.

Among the many useful keywords and concepts McCloud provides is a rubric of panel-to-panel transitions, in other words, techniques for tying together two distinct panel frames on a page. Inspired, I think, partly by an awareness of how cuts work in film, McCloud gives us these six categories:

  1. moment-to-moment (showing the passing of time)
  2. action-to-action (showing cause and effect)
  3. subject-to-subject (in film, an example would be a cut to closeup or a wide shot)
  4. scene-to-scene (shifting the action across significant time and/or space)
  5. aspect-to-aspect (what McCloud calls a “wandering eye”; these transitions are rarely used in Western comics, but they appear much more frequently in Japanese comics, usually to evoke a mood or atmosphere)
  6. non-sequitur (with “no logical relationship” between panels)

Now, I wonder — and I’ll be asking my students this soon — what are the new media analogs of these transitions? How, say, can simply using text and hypertext evoke these different transitions? Some are easier to imagine than others. Hypertext on the World Wide Web makes it incredibly easy to create non-sequitur links. But what would an aspect-to-aspect link look like?