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Literature Gets Graphic

For a few generations of readers, comic books were their first taste of literature. Stories of hardened detectives, noble superheroes, deadly monsters and even normal teenagers filled their imaginations and emptied their pockets of lunch money. Today, it’s those readers’ children, grandchildren and perhaps even great-grandchildren who are studying comics and graphic novels at Pomona College.

“It seems that everyone’s dads read comic books when they were young, but I don’t know of too many people my age who can say the same of themselves,” says Allison Dubner ‘09, who’s currently enrolled in Assistant Professor of English Meg Worley’s Graphic Novels class. “However, when people hear that I’m taking this class, they come out of the closet to a certain extent.”

Worley first offered her Graphic Novel class as a Critical Inquiry (ID1) class last semester, but is now teaching it as a regular class that is cross-listed as both part of the English and Media Studies departments.

“Graphic novels have a lot to offer in terms of allowing students to analyze not just the words; it puts a lot more emphasis on the visual rhetoric and the way narratives are paced,” says Worley, a polyglot whose other subjects of interest include the Bible as literature, Chaucer, medieval literature and linguistics, and children’s literature. “For example, in The Death of Superman, there might be 100 pages of people punching one another, but there’s [also] a subtle commentary about how narrative works throughout that.”

The class is split up into several modules, including graphic memoirs, superheroes and historic retellings, featuring books like Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers.

In the memoirs section, for example, Worley “wanted to test this notion: Why are these things called graphic novels? Most of the big-name crossovers [like Persepolis and Fun Home] aren’t novels, and yet they’re the ones benefiting the most from the term graphic novel.” Other topics of conversation range from the very definition of a comic (Does an illustrated sequential story must have words to be a comic?) to sound effects and “the way an artist can portray non-visual things in two-dimensions on paper,” says Worley.

While comics have a rich and storied history, the first graphic novels--which can be hard to define, but usually have a long, novel-like story or are anthologies or collections of comic book series--are considered to have come out in the 1970s, and really found their footing in the mid-1980s. Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Maus II, a two-part Holocaust memoir featuring cats and mice as Germans and Jews, have become mainstays on high school and college course syllabi. Fun Home was named a 2006 best book by The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and others, and American Born Chinese was a 2006 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature. Watchmen was named one of the 100 best novels of all time by Time magazine, and the film version opened last weekend with $55.7 million in ticket sales, the third largest March opening ever.

John Dorian Harewood ‘12 signed up for last semester’s class because of Watchmen, which he read last summer after seeing the enigmatic film trailer. “I loved the experience [of reading Watchmen] so much that when I saw a seminar class on graphic novels was being offered at Pomona, I was extremely excited to sign up.”

Dubner, whose only graphic-novel experience before the class was Maus, cites Watchmen as her favorite book from the class thus far. “I was surprised by the complexity that appeared in a superhero book. Watchmen is filled with moral ambiguity, and I really loved the ethical and philosophical discussions that the book prompted in our class. I never thought it would be so difficult to define ‘superhero.’”

Worley says her students range in their fandom. “Last semester, I had four or five students who were big manga [Japanese comics] fans, four or five students who were artists who liked drawing comics of whatever kind, and then I had two students who had never read a comic book.” This semester, she has more men than women in the class, and a third are big comics fans, while all have read manga.

Drawing Their Own

One unique aspect of the ID1 class, which focuses more on writing, was that Worley had her students create their own comics. “When they first saw it on the syllabus, there was a lot of squawking,” recalls Worley. “About half the class was like, ‘I can’t draw! What am I gonna do?’ And I said, ‘Calm down. As the semester goes along, I think you’ll find a bunch of different alternatives that you can pursue.’”

Worley showed them web comics like XKCD, a comic about math, language and technology that’s comprised of stick figures, and Garfield Minus Garfield, which erases Garfield from his owner Jon’s life, demonstrating Jon’s existential angst. Students stopped fretting and started creating.

The students’ comics ran a gamut of techniques and genres. Some were autobiographical, some were literary adaptations. Some students drew their pieces by hand; others compiled photographs into collages. Several comics are on display outside of the English Department Office in Crookshank currently, and we’ve also included PDFs of some of the comics in the sidebar.

“The real goal is for students to have some more tools to [use to] think about whatever their intellectual interests are,” says Worley. “I’m not trying to convey some information like I would in a medieval literature class, for example, that they can then go use for other things. I want them to think about the way that narrative works, the way the visual rhetoric works.”

And it’s this combination of visuals and story that grabbed Harewood. “The eclectic selection of graphic novels we read in Professor Worley’s class illustrated the vastness of the medium in terms of creativity. There is a cinematic quality that many comics have that is reminiscent of a movie, but there is something to be said for the still image and for being able to navigate through the comic at your own pace the way you would a book.”