This semester, I’m working on a proposal for a new course: “Development of the Graphic Novel.” It’s a variation of one of our existing genre courses called “Development of the Novel,” which I’ve taught once here and twice at another school. If it’s approved, I probably won’t be teaching this new course for at least another year, which gives me a good chunk of time to prepare.
And even though the genre of the novel is associated with fiction—while the genres of journalism, memoir, biography, or autobiography are associated with non-fiction—this course should allow for the inclusion of works that aren’t, strictly speaking, fiction. Nevertheless, I think it makes more sense to stick to a term like “graphic novel” than to adopt a more awkward possibility like “visual storytelling” or “sequential art.”
Well-known names in the fiction category of graphic novels include Daniel Clowes, Will Eisner, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware. (Hmmm… my fiction list needs some women. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments below.)
And the following names are among those well-known for non-fiction: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, and—perhaps most famously, due to the success of Maus— Art Spiegelman,
Rationale: There are 2 good reasons why we should add this course to our catalog:
- The importance of the genre: Regardless of whether you believe that graphic novels are the contemporary equivalent of, say, Renaissance drama in terms of literary merit, they are a vibrant and growing genre. And many graphic novelists have published or are publishing in no less a literary periodical than the New Yorker. An English degree program that fails to introduce students to this genre is not doing its job.
- The need for visual literacy: English majors need to have the skills—and be introduced to the tools—for critical visual analysis, and studying graphic novels is an ideal way to fulfill that goal. Careers in the publishing industry require visual literacy for such tasks as page layouts, cover designs, and marketing. Careers in web-based work also require visual literacy in order to create web sites that are attractive, easy to understand, and easy to navigate. An English degree program that fails to help students acquire this essential characteristic is not doing its job. (I’m planning a future post on the ways in which we can do a better job of preparing students for careers working in digital media. Stay tuned…)
Request for Input
First, those of you who are knowledgeable—either as fans or as scholars—can help out by sharing what you think some of the foundational primary works are in the genre as well as some of the most exciting recent works.
Second, those of you who are knowledgeable as scholars on the subject can help out by sharing what you think some of the foundational secondary works are as well as who the current important voices are in the scholarship on the subject. There’s a great deal to choose from.
Course Topic: English 3??: Development of the Graphic Novel
Course Summary: A critical and historical study of the graphic novel surveying major works and artists and illustrating the characteristics of the genre, its historical development, and its reflection of significant literary periods and movements.
Objectives: Upon completion of this independent study, the student will
- have an understanding of the history and continuing evolution of this genre;
- be able to read critically texts that combine the visual with the linguistic; and
- be familiar with the body of secondary material concerning the genre.
Method of Evaluation
- Weekly, substantive entries in an online discussion forum, open to a select group of outside readers who may or may not provide feedback. These entries will be composed not only of words—essay-writing being a skill that students in English courses should expect to use and strengthen—but also of images from the works in question, annotated using a simple tool like Jing. Examples of such annotation—not currently featuring pages from graphic novles—may be viewed by clicking here.
- Annotated bibliography 1, covering 5 article-length scholarly works.
- Midterm paper, 4 to 6 pages.
- Annotated bibliography 2, covering 5 article-length scholarly works.
- Final paper, 8 to 12 pages.
- Collaborative research presentations that must use visual aids effectively. (Inspired by Jason B. Jones and my own experience as a Talk 20 speaker at HUB-BUB, I’m considering having students do them as Pecha Kucha presentations. Trust me: it’s pretty cool.)
Hypothetical Reading List
- Will Eisner, A Contract with God
- Harvey Pekar, American Splendor
- Alan Moore, Watchmen
- Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns
- Art Spiegelman, Maus
- Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth
- Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
- Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
- Would you include something else here…?
- Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
- What else…?
Scott McCloud, “Understanding Comics” (17:08)
From TED.com, posted in January 2009.
Blurb from the YouTube page (a little over-the-top, if you ask me): “In this unmissable look at the magic of comics, Scott McCloud bends the presentation format into a cartoon-like experience, where colorful diversions whiz through childhood fascinations and imagined futures that our eyes can hear and touch.”
See also the TED “speakers page” on Scott McCloud, which links to related material by and about him.