COMICS: FORM & MEANING

English 495CO ¤ Fall 2001

Tu 4:20 - 6:50pm
Sierra Hall 224

Dr. Charles Hatfield
Office hours – Tu/Th 1:00 - 3:00 (+ by appointment)
Office – Sierra Tower 735  //  phone & voicemail (818) 677-3416
Email  –  charles.hatfield@csun.edu

CLICK ON THE HEADINGS BELOW TO NAVIGATE THIS (LONG) DOCUMENT:

Rationale / Aims / Methods •  Prerequisites  •  Requirements

TASKS / ASSIGNMENTS:
Class Participation
In-Class Writings
Creative Project
Oral Presentation
Comic Shop Essay
Research Essay

Grading Rubric  •  Required Texts

Course Policies  •  On-Campus Resources


RATIONALE  •  AIMS  •  METHODS

In this seminar we will explore a particular kind of visual literature – that art form known, confusingly enough, as “comic art” or “comics” (sequential art, graphic narrative, picture stories, la bande dessinée, manga, historietas, quadrinhos, what-have-you).

Though long dismissed as an especially ripe variety of pulp fiction, or as a weird distorting mirror in the funhouse of Pop Culture, comic art has recently come into its own.  Since the late 1980s comics have increasingly been seen as a complex and dynamic form of communication, literature and art.  They represent a new horizon in critical study, for we as yet lack a handy set of tools, or a well-worn method, to deal with these fascinating visual/verbal hybrids.

Perhaps this uncertainty is unavoidable – comic art by its very nature seems to frustrate attempts to put it into a neat pigeonhole.  (Is it 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 visual culture more critically, and more appreciatively.  Studying comics can help us tune up our critical sensibilities so that we can more productively approach all sorts of hybrid, visual/verbal texts, from concrete poetry to illuminated manuscripts to artists’ books.  Along the way, we may discover some of the most arresting and beautiful work contemporary literature has to offer.

These are the goals of Comics: Form & Meaning.  This will be a course like no other, one that stakes out new territory in word/image studies: We will test the distinctions between “comics” and “non-comics.”  We will examine (and practice using) the formal qualities of comic art.  We will read some of the best that English-language comics have to offer, with special emphasis on the contemporary work of such artists as Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Hernandez and Debbie Drechsler.  And we will skim through comics history, especially the last thirty years.

Specific aims: Informed appreciation of comics as a literary and artistic practice; beginning knowledge of comics history; greater awareness of word/image relationships, interartistic collaboration, and the growing field of word/image studies; familiarity with resources for research in word/image studies; assessment and strengthening of students’ core analytical, rhetorical and professional skills.

Methods: Roundtable discussion; occasional lectures; student presentations; varied in-class activities, including groupwork and peer review; frequent writing, both in and out of class; and field research.  No traditional exams.


PREREQUISITES

Senior standing; either 6 units of lower-division literature or 3 units of lower-division literature and English 355 (Writing About Literature).  Credit: 3.0 units.

REQUIREMENTS

As a senior seminar, this course will rely on your constant input.  We will take advantage of the small, intimate nature of our class by emphasizing discussion and collaboration. Your contributions, critical and creative, will help determine the tenor of discussion and the content of the course.  Active engagement will be essential, both to the vitality of the class and to your success within it.

As befits a senior assessment course, 495CO will pose a high and constant level of challenge.  Your grade for the semester will be determined by how successfully you fulfill the following six responsibilities, or tasks (note the point value of each, from a total of 500):

    1. class participation – 100 points (20%);
    2. periodic in-class writings, in lieu of traditional midterm and final exams – 50 pts (10%);
    3. one creative (comics-making) project – 100 pts (20%);
    4. one brief oral presentation to the class – 75 pts (15%);
    5. one short paper requiring field research – 75 pts (15%);
    6. and one longer paper – the research essay – 100 pts (20%).
Deadlines for these tasks are TBA.  Instructions and grading criteria for tasks are given below:

TASKS

(1)  Class Participation  (100 pts, or 20 percent)
A.  IN-CLASS DISCUSSION AND ACTIVITIES [10%]:
You are expected to attend consistently, in mind as well as body; to be on the alert for ways to contribute meaningfully to class discussion; to engage issues raised by your classmates and instructor; and to assume personal responsibility for the vitality and collaborative spirit of the class.

Besides freeform discussion, you should always be ready to join in other classroom activities, whether pre-announced or impromptu.  These may include small-group exercises (groupwork), writing exercises of various lengths, peer review of a classmate’s work, and anything else that enhances our work as a class.  To prepare for class activities I may occasionally ask you to bring a text of your choosing to class, or to do written homework.

B.  WEEKLY DISCUSSION QUESTIONS [10%]:
In response to each week’s reading, you should generate an in-depth discussion question: not a simple yes/no question, but one requiring a discursive answer.  This question should be presented in writing each week, in the form of a full typewritten paragraph, with enough contextual information to explain the significance of the question (50 words? 100 words?).  These questions, which should be ready for handing in by the beginning of class, will be used as prompts for in-class discussion.  Questions must be prepared every week, except when you have an oral presentation to give to the class.  Note that these will not be letter-graded.
 

(2)  In-Class Writings (50 pts – 10%)
In lieu of traditional exams, we will hold periodic in-class writings, to be graded on effort and insightfulness rather than mechanics or style (no letter grades).  These 15 to 30-minute exercises may take various forms: applications of critical terms to particular texts, close readings of specific passages, responses to issues raised in class discussion, readings of work by your classmates, or anything else that seems productive.  We may sometimes use these to generate class discussion.
 
(3)  Creative Project (100 pts – 20%)
A.  MAKING A MINICOMIC [10%]:
Everyone in the class, including the instructor, will create a “minicomic” adaptation of a single familiar folktale or fable (e.g., “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “Little Red Riding-Hood”).  A brief prose redaction of the tale, in its most familiar and conventional form, will be offered as a foundation.

Students may work singly or in collaboration, and may adapt the tale however they see fit, at any length, with three provisos: one, the end product should represent an attempt to use comic art, rather than exclusively written text; two, the end product should preserve the outline of the original tale, or at least echo it in some recognizable fashion; and three, the end product should be reproducible, i.e., should fit in a photocopier.  Each student, or team, should make enough copies of the finished piece so that everyone in the class can have a copy for the sake of reference and critique.

The end product will be graded, not on the finesse of the drawing (even stick figures will do), but rather on how effectively you apply the tools of comic art, e.g., breakdown, layout and verbal/visual interrelation.
 

B.  DOCUMENTING YOUR WORK: THE CARTOONIST’S JOURNAL [10%]:
The working process behind the minicomic will have to be documented thoroughly at all stages, from early experiments to finished product.  Whether working alone or in collaboration with another, you should prepare an individual journal that reveals, through artwork and extensive written description, exactly how you worked on the comic.  (Your journal can be neatly handwritten, in traditional journal form, or can be a typewritten narrative paper with interpolated illustrations.)  This entire project will be letter-graded.
 

(4)  Oral Presentation (75 pts – 15%)
In this ten to fifteen-minute (letter-graded) presentation, you should introduce to the class the work of a self-chosen comics author who is not represented on our required reading list.  The presentation should serve as a critical overview of the author’s work, including brief biographical information, a rundown of the author’s major works to date, a discussion of distinguishing features (stylistic or thematic) in the author’s work, and a considered response to one of the author’s projects, be it a comic book, album, graphic novel, series of strips, or Web comic.  Your presentation should be accompanied by a one or two-page handout that gives the names of major works and bibliographical resources (plus anything else that you deem helpful).  This assignment is meant to, though it does not have to, lead into the longer research essay:
 
(5)  Short Analytical Essay: The Comic Book Shop (75 pts – 15%)
Having discussed economic influences on the development of literary form, you will be asked to visit a local comic book specialty shop of your choice and perform a detailed analysis of the organization and atmosphere of the store.  The aim of this assignment will be, not simply colorful description, but a more thorough understanding of how comics form is affected by comic book marketing and comic book culture.  Length: circa 4-6 pages (1000-1500 words).  Letter-graded.
 
(6)  Longer Research Essay (100 pts – 20%)
This essay, the capstone of the course, should demonstrate your analytical, rhetorical and research skills.  Its focus will be determined by you in conference with me, so that the work reflects your personal interests.  Minimum length: circa 10-12 pages (2500-3000 words).  Letter-graded.

One option for this assignment would be to write a critical introduction to a specific author.  Such an essay would track the development of the author’s work over time, analyzing at least two works in terms of distinguishing attributes (e.g., narrative technique, recurrent themes, design, or style).  In addition, such an essay should make a case for the value, influence, or representative qualities of the works in question.  This type of paper could conveniently be built from your oral presentation, and indeed this is what I envision (to ease the workload).

However, you may freely pursue other options, including but not limited to: an argumentative essay on a specific controversy; an analytical essay that applies an existing form of critical theory to comics (e.g., How might feminist theory, or New Historicist methods, be applied to certain comics?); a review of criticism, which comments on the critical reception of a particular work; a comparative analysis of a story, novel, play, or film and its adaptation into comics form (or vice versa); an original, well-edited interview with a comics professional; or an historical essay on an author, genre, trend, or market.  Above all, you should respect your own interests, and follow them.

Whatever the topic, the paper should show a strong awareness of comics form, and should engage the visual dimensions of comic art.  In addition, it should draw on outside research.  The final product ought to synthesize that research, along with your original insights, into a coherent, pointed, and readable essay.


GRADING RUBRIC (500 points total):

Participation               100 pts
In-Class Writings        50
Creative Project        100
Oral Presentation        75
Short Essay                  75
Research Essay         100
465 – 500 = A
450 – 464 = A-
435 – 449 = B+
415 – 434 = B
400 – 414 = B-
385 – 399 = C+
365 – 384 = C
350 – 364 = C-
335 – 349 = D+
315 – 334 = D
300 – 314 = D-
<299 = F
Note:  The above rubric represents an attempt to make my grading scheme as open, concrete, and unsurprising as possible Subjective judgments, however, inevitably play a part in the grading process, and I reserve the right to raise borderline grades in instances where exceptional effort, participation, or other factors must be weighed.

CORE TEXTS :

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Harper, $22.50)
Chris Oliveros, ed., Drawn and Quarterly 2:1 (Drawn & Quarterly, 5.95)
Jessica Abel, Radio: An Illustrated Guide (Fantagraphics, cost)
Neil Gaiman et al., Sandman: Dream Country (DC Comics, 14.95)
Art Spiegelman, Maus Vols. 1 and 2 (Pantheon, boxed set for $20-$28 or individual vols. for $14)
Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library No. 1 (Fantagraphics, 3.50)
Jaime Hernandez, Penny Century No. 2 (Fantagraphics, 2.95)
Gilbert Hernandez, Love & Rockets X (Fantagraphics, 12.95)
Debbie Drechsler, Daddy’s Girl (Fantagraphics, 9.95)
Daniel Clowes, Ghost World (Fantagraphics, 9.95)
Plus photocopied reading packet (forthcoming from QuickCopies) and reserve readings
A word about costs: Comics are not cheap, and the graphic novels available for college courses tend to be costly.  (Unfortunately, there is no thriving textbook market for comics – and we all know that traditional textbooks are too expensive to begin with.) Rest assured that I have chosen the least expensive texts that satisfy the requirements of the course!  The above books, which were chosen to represent various genres and critical issues, will be used extensively both inside and outside the classroom, and I expect you to know them and to have them.  (If money is tight, try working out a cost-sharing deal with a fellow student, but remember that there may be times when you have to refer carefully to the text in the classroom.)

Reserve readings, when necessary, will be announced well in advance.  These will be stored in the Reserve Book Room at the Oviatt Library (2nd floor, East Wing).  More TBA.


COURSE POLICIES:

Senior Assessment:  495CO is a senior assessment course.  Therefore your research essay will be graded according to a standard rubric, in addition to my usual grading techniques.  Also, all students majoring in English will need to complete the Senior-Level Survey of the English Major before the end of the term.  We will be actively testing your abilities in the five key areas, or Core Competencies, identified by the CSUN English Department as fundamental goals of undergraduate English instruction (see the dept. handout on the Core Competencies).  “Assessment of skills” will be a constant concern throughout.

Know your dates and procedures!  Consult your Fall 2001 Schedule of Classes for information on change of program, withdrawals, and incompletes.  You are responsible for knowing this information.

Reading load:  Don’t be fooled by the seemingly “easy” nature of much comics reading.  I expect you to come to class each day with a thorough knowledge of the assigned reading, by which I mean the kind of familiarity gained only through careful rereading and note-taking.  Bear in mind that truly appreciating a text requires, first, enough time to read for pleasure, and second, enough time to reread for critical insight.  Don’t forget those weekly discussion questions!

POLICY ON LATE WORK:  Papers not submitted by deadline will be docked a full letter grade for each day or part of a day that they are overdue (e.g., a research essay that would have received an A if handed in on Tuesday by 4:20 pm would receive a B if handed in by Wednesday morning, or a C if handed in late on Wed night or on Thurs morning).  Papers will always be due at the beginning of class on a deadline day.

Extensions are available at my discretion, provided you make an appointment with me in advance so that we can set a new deadline.  I am generous with extensions when warranted, but will not sacrifice time in the classroom to discuss deadline problems at the last minute.  Think ahead.
Formatting: All written work outside of class should be typewritten, and should follow the format demonstrated on the course Style Sheet (forthcoming).  In good MLA form, all essays should include in-text documentation and a list of Works Cited and Consulted.

Use my office!  If you have questions about the work we are doing in class, feel free to ask at any time.  (Others may benefit from hearing the answer to your question!)  However, if you have questions about private concerns, such as grading, please do not attempt to discuss them with me as I walk into the classroom, nor when we are working together as a group.  Approach me discreetly after class and arrange to meet me in my office, either during Office Hours or, if necessary, at an alternate time.

Cell phones and pagers should be silenced before entering the classroom!

Students with documented disabilities that affect their ability to do in-class writing should contact me at the start of the term to discuss accommodations – I’ll be happy to help.  Many such students work with the CSUN Center on Disabilities (phone 677-2578 or email at ctrdis@csun.edu), which runs an excellent “Students with Disabilities Resources” program.  I recommend it to all qualified students!

PLAGIARISM:
As seniors, you are no doubt aware of what constitutes plagiarism: passing off the words, ideas, or work of another as your own, without properly crediting your source.  (Reminder: plagiarism is discussed at length in your Fall 2001 Schedule of Classes, pgs. 151-152, and within the CSUN catalog.)  To avoid committing this academic crime, you must of course 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 record full bibliographic information at each stage of your writing process.  Again, always include a list of Works Cited and Consulted at the end of your papers.  Be advised that I will deal with plagiarism by seeking the strongest penalties possible under CSUN policy.


ON-CAMPUS RESOURCES

The Writing Center

Need tutorial assistance with writing?  Make use of the Writing Center, located within the Learning Resource Center in Student Services Building (SB) Room 408.  The Writing Center employs skilled Consultants who can tutor you in academic, professional and personal writing: research papers, reports, resumes, etc.  They can also help you improve your time management, reading, note-taking, and test-taking skills.  All of these services are free!  Call at 677-2033 to arrange an appointment.
 

Open-Access Computer Labs

Need a computer to finish your work?  (Remember, all written work outside of class must be typewritten.)  The Oviatt Library manages three open-access computer labs on campus: two in Sierra Hall (PCs: Room 392, Macs: Room 396) and one in the Library called the Collaboratory (3rd floor, east wing).  The Collaboratory is big (150 workstations!) and convenient.  For further info, click on the link above or call the Collaboratory Service desk at 677-6304.
 

Finally: don’t forget to use my office hours!



This page maintained by Charles Hatfield                                                                                    Last updated   8 Nov 2001