Graphic Novels and Narratives for Spring 2011

Daredevil CoverI always find it difficult to select the texts for my graphic novel courses. Narrowing the choices for my Spring 2011 undergrad class bordered upon an existential crisis. Perhaps it’s because so much seems to be at stake when you’re likely introducing students for the first time in their lives to the critical study of a form that is mostly trivialized and occasionally demonized in our culture.

I feel enormous pressure to get the syllabus just right.

But what is just right? There’s the usual tension between coverage and depth—am I providing a historical overview of the form or am I exploring a thematic or aesthetic subset of that form? But there’s also the tension between the canons of graphic narrative. Yes, canons, plural. I’m thinking in particular of the literary canon of Graphic Novels That Are Taught (e.g. Persepolis) versus the popular canon of Graphic Novels That Every Fan Reads (e.g. Sandman). There’s some overlap between these canons, but not much. Inevitably I’ll have students in my class disappointed because I’ve not included a major work on the syllabus—some text they expected to be there either because it’s predictably literary or it’s a fan favorite. Likewise, I’ll usually hear from some other teacher or scholar disappointed that I didn’t include his or her pet graphic novel on the syllabus, which, I will be assured at that point, is to graphic narrative what Moby-Dick is to the American novel.

To hell with that.

This time around the only criteria for the texts I’m teaching is that they’re texts I want to teach. And I want to teach them because in one way or another I think they’re teachable. Even when—especially when—they might be difficult or off-putting, I think they’re teachable.

And so, for the upcoming semester I decided to avoid several giants of the form. It will be the first time, for example, that I’ve left Watchmen off a graphic novel syllabus, and I am less ambivalent about this than I would have thought. As much as I admire Moore and Gibbons’ work, I don’t find it as teachable as I’d like—or as it deserves to be. More than the other groundbreaking works from 1986, Watchmen has lost some of its verve. I have, however, included the other touchstones of 1986—The Dark Knight Returns and Maus. The former because it gives us entry into Batman and into the comics industry as a whole, the latter because it remains powerful and haunting, even with the fourth or fifth reading. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the only other work I’m including that has already become part of the graphic narrative canon. It’s smart and literary, arguably too smart and too literary, but those elements make Fun Home great teaching material.

Most of the other graphic novels are gambles, texts even fans of graphic novels will probably not have encountered. These range from Lynd Ward’s bold, wordless novel, told entirely in woodcuts, to Mike Carey’s ongoing series Unwritten, whose literary ambition only slowly unfolds throughout the first dozen or so issues. I’ve never taught Ward or Carey, and I have no idea how they’ll turn out. In between these two bookends are a few works that I have taught (Asterios Polyp and Nat Turner) and a few others I haven’t (We3 and Swallow Me Whole).

Looking over my final list, I’m surprised at how non-historical it is. Heavily emphasizing works published within the last five years, this course is decidedly not an overview of the form. No, it’s an overview of something else. In every case, I selected these works because I think they have something to teach us. About storytelling, about visual artistry, about the dynamic between the two. About history, about memory, about suffering and reconciliation. And about loss, and desire, and reading, and making sense of the world.

Here then is my final list, arranged roughly in the order I envision teaching the texts:

David Mazzuccheli, Asterios Polyp, Pantheon, ISBN 978-0307377326

ENGL 685 (Graphic Novels) Reading List

I always agonize over which books to teach during any given semester. It’s not for a lack of possibilities. Indeed, there are always too many choices, too many great books to teach in the fields of postmodern literature and experimental literature. And I always want to get the syllabus just right for my students, balancing the absolute must-reads in the field with more obscure but just as rich texts. My upcoming graduate class in graphic novels has been particularly difficult. There is an embarrassment of riches in graphic narrative and at some point the selection seems to become arbitrary.

That said, my finalized reading list for ENGL 685 (Graphic Novels) does have a few thematic contours. And though I’m well aware of the many gaps and missing texts, I’m excited about the list and am looking forward to the course.

Here, then, is the primary reading list for ENGL 685 (Fall 2010), organized thematically:

Rethinking Superheroes

Memory, History, and Memoir

Love Stories and Hate Stories

There will be many other  readings for the course—book excerpts, journal articles, webcomics, and so on—but these thirteen selections will form the heart of ENGL 685. ending Amazon Associates Program for North Carolina sent me a message this morning, announcing that the company is has “little choice but to end its relationships with North Carolina-based Associates” because of an “unconstitutional tax collection scheme” due to be passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. Not that I make any significant amount of money from my referrals to Amazon, but this is still disappointing news. Here’s the full text of Amazon’s announcement:

We regret to inform you that the North Carolina state legislature (the General Assembly) appears ready to enact an unconstitutional tax collection scheme that would leave little choice but to end its relationships with North Carolina-based Associates. You are receiving this e-mail because our records indicate that you are an Amazon Associate and resident of North Carolina.Please note that this is not an immediate termination notice and you are still a valued participant in the Associates Program. All referral fees earned on qualified traffic will continue to be paid as planned.

But because the new law is drafted to go into effect once enacted – which could happen in the next two weeks – we will have to terminate the participation of all North Carolina residents in the Amazon Associates program on or before that same day. After the termination day, we will no longer pay any referral fees for customers referred to or nor will we accept new applications for the Associates program from North Carolina residents.

The unfortunate consequences of this legislation on North Carolina residents like you were explained in detail to key senators and representatives in Raleigh, including the leadership of the Senate, House, and both chambers’ finance committees. Other states, including Maryland, Minnesota, and Tennessee, considered nearly identical schemes, but rejected these proposals largely because of the adverse impact on their states’ residents.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s website is, and additional information may be obtained from the Performance Marketing Alliance at

We thank you for being part of the Amazon Associates program, and we will apprise you of the General Assembly’s action on this matter.


So much for that graphic novel Amazon store I had just set up last night for my class this fall.

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.