Comic Books as Literature
Sierra Hall 285 / Tuesdays & Thursdays 9:30-10:45am
Dr. CHARLES HATFIELD
and additional times by appointment
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In this course we will explore that form of visual literature known, confusingly enough, as “comics” or “comic art.”
(The form also has many other names: sequential art, graphic narrative, manga, la bande dessinée, quadrinhos, etc.)
We won’t be
covering the entire comics field, because that’s too
much to tackle in a single course. Rather, we’ll concentrate on long-form
(meaning book-length) comics. More specifically, we’ll focus on two genres: the
“comic book” (as developed in the
This means that we’ll be on the leading edge of a new field of criticism. Until recently critics have tended to dismiss the comic book as an especially embarrassing type of pulp fiction, or at best as a distorting mirror in the funhouse of Pop Culture. But since the late 1980s comic books and graphic novels have been earning a new kind of critical attention – more and more, they’re being recognized as a complex and dynamic form of literature. We are just now in the process of building a “toolbox” for analyzing this fascinating hybrid form, which joins images, words, and abstract symbols into elaborate, ever-changing designs.
Studying comics means getting out of our usual habits and trying on some new ways of reading, for, by their very nature, comics frustrate attempts to put them into a neat pigeonhole (are they pictorial narrative? visual poetry? graphic design? all of the above?). But by working to build a better toolbox for the study of comics, we can learn to see the swirling kaleidoscope of our visual culture more appreciatively, and more critically. Analyzing comics can help us tune up our critical sensibilities so that we can more productively approach all sorts of hybrid texts, from hypertext to billboards to experimental poetry.
Most importantly, studying comics will bring us face to face with some of the most complex and thought-provoking work contemporary literature has to offer.
- To explore (and practice using) the distinctive formal qualities of comics.
- To survey comic book history, especially the last thirty-plus years, so as to understand how comic books have come to be recognized as literature.
- To read some of the best that contemporary comics have to offer, with special emphasis on the work of graphic novelists like Art Spiegelman, Jaime Hernandez, and Marjane Satrapi. (Click here to move down to our required texts.)
METHODS: Discussion and lectures, much writing, group presentations, varied class activities, and field research. No traditional exams.
PREREQUISITE: Completion of lower-division writing requirement.
NOTE: ENGL 396CO assumes that comic books are an adult as well as a children's medium. Among our readings this semester may be materials that you find offensive (indeed, among the readings are things even the instructor finds disturbing). Be aware that explicit violence, frank sexuality, and graphic explorations of socially taboo matters such as race and racism will be included in the readings for historical and literary-critical reasons. Understand that all students will be expected to participate equally in discussion of all texts. Like other forms of literature, comics can cover a full range of topics, attitudes, and problems!
My specific aims for this course are to help each student achieve the following:
- Informed appreciation of comics as a literary and artistic practice;
- Basic knowledge of comics history;
- Greater awareness of word/image relationships;
- Familiarity with resources for research on comics;
- Sharper reading, writing, and communication skills (as in any literature course).
As a 300-level English course, this class will pose a high and constant level of challenge. I work from the equation, O/I = 2/1, which means that the amount of time spent OUTSIDE of class, in reading and preparation, should usually be about twice the amount of time spent IN class, in discussion. Active participation in discussion and other activities will be essential, both to the vitality of the class and to each student’s individual success.
Semester grades will be determined by how successfully students fulfill the following requirements (please note that these requirements may change somewhat between now and 31 January 2005, as the course is fine-tuned and the pace of work is adjusted):
1. Class Participation – 10%.
This will include attendance, preparedness, contributions to discussion, and participation in various class activities (such as work in small groups). It will also include short (1 to 2 pages, typed) homework assignments as needed.
Aim: Again, active class participation is vital to the success of the course, for you and for all of us. My hope is that ENGL 396CO will be largely driven by discussion.
2. In-Class Writings – 10%.
This will consist mainly of three or four substantial (45-60 minute) open-book writing exercises, to be announced well in advance. However, it may also include brief impromptu writings and pass/fail "pop" quizzes as needed. Expect the first half of the semester to emphasize in-class writing heavily, as we practice ways of analyzing and talking about comics.
Aims: In general, the in-class writings will be designed to assess your understanding of the readings, and, especially, to get you used to discussing comics analytically on the spur of the moment.
3. Response Papers – 20%.
This will consist of four brief (2 to 3 pages, typed) essays written in response to our readings. Expect one response paper very early in the term, and three in the second half of the term.
Aims: These essay assignments are meant to accomplish four things: (1) to insure that you read consistently, carefully, and on time; (2) to help you prepare for in-class discussion of the readings; (3) to take the place of quizzes, midterm exams, and other such assessments; (4) to give you sustained practice in polished critical writing.
4. Field Research Essay – 20%.
This 4 to 5-page essay will involve visiting, describing, and critiquing a local comic book store. Your goal will be to “read” and analyze each store as if it were a text, subject to your own critical interpretation.
Aims: (1) To encourage study of the comic book subculture from cultural and economic points of view (to supplement our primary focus on comics as literature); (2) to give sustained practice in polished critical writing, at greater length than in your response papers.
5. Minicomics Project – 20%.
This will be a creative project, in which every member of the class (including the instructor!) creates her/his own comic book based on the same folktale or urban legend. This comic must be accompanied by a CRITICAL JOURNAL (2 to 3 pages, typed) describing the process of its creation. Your minicomic must be copied and distributed to everyone in class, and will be critiqued in class by one or more classmates.
Aims: (1) To encourage a hands-on appreciation of comic art as a creative practice; (2) to give sustained practice in the application of critical terms (such as those proposed by McCloud's Understanding Comics).
6. Final Exam – 20%.
This will be a take-home final exam, consisting of two brief (2 to 3 pages, typed) essays.
Aims: The final is meant to serve as a capstone for the course: a comprehensive assessment of how well you understand the material presented and how attentively you can read a comics text. One of the two essays will test your ability to analyze and interpret a comic of your choosing; the other will ask you to reflect on a topic of general importance to the comics field. Both essays will test your ability to organize your thoughts into a coherent paper with a strong thesis.
In addition to the above requirements, an optional Extra Credit project will be available for those who complete all required work and maintain at least a "B" average in Class Participation. This Extra Credit project will be some kind of paper or in-class presentation. For more on Extra Credit work, including grading procedures and possible topics, click on the link above.
(NOTE: Extra credit cannot be used to make up missed assignments, and will not be available to those who neglect required class work.)
Click here for the grading rubric (400 points total).
Further information about the course requirements and the Extra Credit topics will be posted here in the form of frequent updates, beginning in December 2004 and continuing up to and even after our starting date of 1 February 2005. (A fairly complete and trustworthy syllabus will be available here online as 31 January 2005.)
In the meantime, should you have
questions regarding the course workload, or specific assignments,
please feel free to email me, Prof. Charles Hatfield, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Debbie Drechsler, Summer of Love (Drawn and Quarterly Publications, paperback ed.)
- Daniel Clowes, Ghost World (Fantagraphics)
- Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez, Love & Rockets Vol. 6: Duck Feet (Fantagraphics)
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Harper)
- Frank Miller et al., Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics)
- Tezuka Osamu, Phoenix: Dawn (Viz)
- Chris Ware, ed., McSweeney's
Quarterly Concern #13 (McSweeney's)
- PLUS a photocopied reader and possibly reserve readings at the Oviatt Library (details TBA)
All of these texts should be stocked, in sufficient quantity, at the Matador Bookstore (they boosted their initial orders at my request). However, if you’re concerned about keeping costs down, you might try a bargain source, such as an online retailer like amazon.com. Unfortunately, comics and graphic novels tend to be expensive – and there isn’t much we can do about that, since there aren’t any bargain-priced, “no-frills” textbook editions of these comics on the market. (Each title in the above list is linked to its page on amazon.)
Re: Dates & Deadlines
LATE PAPERS: Papers not ready to be handed in at the START of class (9:30am) on the due date will be considered late, unless I have given prior approval in writing. Late papers will immediately be docked 10 percent (the equivalent of a full letter grade). They will be docked an additional 10 percent if not ready to be handed in by the start of the next class, and so on. For example, a late paper that would have earned a solid “A” (95%) if handed in by deadline (say, Tuesday, April 5) will receive a “B” (85%) if handed in no later than the start of the following class (Thursday, April 7) and an “C” (75%) if handed in two classes later (Tuesday, April 12).
I do not accept papers via email except in the event of extreme emergency. Papers submitted by email after deadline (always the start of that day’s class) WILL be considered late.
Schedule crunch? Make an appointment with me outside of class to discuss deadline problems and extensions. I give extensions when needed, but cannot sacrifice class time to last-minute deadline trouble.
Passing off the words, ideas, or work of another as your own – without properly crediting your source – is considered plagiarism and constitutes an academic crime. This serious breach of conduct is discussed at length in CSUN’s 2004-2006 Catalog (see pp. 531-532). To avoid plagiarism, you must acknowledge all ideas and quotations from other sources, and give full bibliographical information. Be sure to keep accurate notes when working from other texts, and to recheck bibliographic information at every stage of your writing process. Each one of your formal, out-of-class papers should include a full Bibliography, meaning a list of works cited, even if the only work you cite is one of our required textbooks. (We will discuss plagiarism in class, using examples to demonstrate proper and improper use of sources.) Be advised that I deal with plagiarism by seeking the strongest penalties possible under CSUN policy.
Other Policies to Know
Active participation in discussion and other activities is prerequisite to doing well in this class, and to our success as a group. Without your participation, class will be dust-dry and lifeless – blah, blah, blah – and we’ll all suffer. Attendance and punctuality are vital to participation and will be noted! (Note that participation includes silencing cell phones and pagers; if you’re on the phone, you ain’t here.)
Know your dates and procedures! Consult the CSUN Catalog and schedule of classes for information on changes of program, withdrawals and incompletes. You are responsible for knowing this information. Bear in mind that 18 February 2005 is the deadline for Add / Drop.
All written work outside of class should be typewritten, and should follow standard academic paper format, as demonstrated on the course Style Sheet (forthcoming).
Use my office hours! That’s the best way to talk to me about your grades, drafts of your work-in-progress, and other personal concerns that require more than a minute’s chat.
assistance with writing? Make use of the
STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES RESOURCES
Students with documented disabilities that affect their work may qualify for accommodations. Such students are urged to work with the CSUN Center on Disabilities, which runs the excellent “Students with Disabilities Resources” program (677-2684; email@example.com). Please contact me ASAP to discuss needed accommodations (e.g., an interpreter, preferred seating, large print). I’ll be glad to help. For more on the Center on Disabilities, click on the link above.
OPEN-ACCESS COMPUTER LABS
Need a computer to complete your work? The Oviatt Library manages two open-access computer labs: one in Sierra Hall (Room 392) and one very large lab in the Library called the Collaboratory (3rd floor, east wing). The Collaboratory is big (over 170 workstations) and convenient. For further info, click on the link above or call the Collaboratory Service desk at 677-6304.
This page maintained by Charles Hatfield Last updated 1 Feb 2005