A Comics Syllabus

Posted by on February 2nd, 2010 at 8:07 AM

[In a recent post on Hooded Utilitarian, Noah Berlatsky refers to this as a “particularly egregious” example of a post “that makes you think ‘what the fuck?’ and not in a good way.” Ouch! As it happens, I posted the syllabus in response to a comment on an earlier tcj.com post, SVA Student Catherine Small. Once again, my readers have gotten me into trouble with Berlatsky – thanks, guys!]

It’s not easy to say why some courses flourish while others die on the vine. There have been semesters where I’ve taught two versions of the same course in the same room on the same days with the same number of students – and one class went brilliantly, while the other stank. Students are always convinced it’s the teacher’s fault if the semester doesn’t go very well, but I’m not so sure. Group chemistry seems to play a role.

In January I taught a course on “Comics, Cartoons, and the Graphic Novel” that attracted twenty students, most of them juniors or seniors majoring in subjects like dance, theatre, and communication arts. The course met three times a week for three hours a day. At first they were pretty quiet, and I didn’t appreciate how much they were soaking in. By the end of the mini-semester they were considerably more animated. At one point we watched Crumb – I’d remembered the enjoyable back-and-forth between Trina Robbins and Robert Hughes, but forgotten the part about Leg Show. Perhaps I should have screened Comic Book Confidential?

The following is a highly stylized outline, geared for both students and colleagues. The heart of the course is elsewhere. It’s in the handouts, and the readings, and in what the students and the teacher have to say to each other. The most elegant syllabus in the world can never quite capture the glorious rugby game that is teaching.

Comics, Cartoons and the Graphic Novel

Professor Kent Worcester

January 2010

We must seek out such artists as have the talent to pursue the beautiful and the graceful in their work, in order that our young men shall be benefited from all sides like those who live in a healthy place, whence something from these beautiful works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from salubrious places, and lead them unawares from childhood to love of, resemblance to, and harmony with, the beauty of reason.

Plato, The Republic

Perhaps it might have seemed to him that I was dissociating myself from the view that you destroyed an entire world when you destroyed yourself. As if I would threaten to destroy a world – I who lived to see the phenomena, who believe that the heart of things is shown in the surface of those things. I always said – in answering Ravelstein’s question ‘What do you imagine death will be like?’ – ‘The pictures will stop’. Meaning, again, that in the surface of things you saw the heart of things.

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

*     *     *

THIS COURSE PLACES the cartoon arts – comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoons, magazine cartoons, manga, and graphic novels – in an explicitly critical and scholarly framework. More specifically, the course explores the history and practice of intellectually ambitious comics analysis and criticism.

Course requirements: students are expected to attend all classes and complete the assigned readings. Grades will be calculated on the following basis: attendance and participation (10%); in-class presentation (30%); fifteen-page paper (30%); final examination (30%).

The in-class presentation assignment requires that pairs of students introduce a selection from the Best American Comics volume. Presentations should last 10-15 minutes, followed by a general discussion. The presentations should focus on a broad range of themes, from plot, dialogue, and character development to formal analysis, symbolism, and artistic style. If the presenters feel it would be helpful, they can include additional background information, such as the artist’s career trajectory, major influences, the political and social context that shaped the work, and so on. Presenters should attend to both literary and visual forms of analysis, including composition, color palette, line style, panel and page flow, and so on. The presenters will then guide the class discussion.

The paper assignment requires that each student prepare a short but substantive essay that critically evaluates a comic book series or graphic novel published in the past decade or so, or compares two or more titles. The paper should draw on the specialized language of comics analysis. For suggestions about suitable titles, please consult the instructor. The paper is due on January 26th. The final exam will be held on the last day of class (1/28).

There are four required texts for this course: Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, eds., A Comics Studies Reader (2009); Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994); Anne Elizabeth Moore, ed., The Best American Comics 2006; Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2007). These texts are available at Shakespeare & Company (69 Street and Lexington). There will be abundant handouts.

Course Outline

January 4 – Introductory lecture; handout: Charles Schulz

January 5 – Understanding Comics, chapters 1-3; handout: Richard McGuire

January 7 – Understanding Comics, chapters 4-6; handout: Chester Brown

January 11 – Understanding Comics, chapters 7-9; handout: Ruben Bolling

January 12 – A Comics Studies Reader, section four; handout: Matt Madden

January 14 – A Comics Studies Reader, section one; handout: Kim Deitch

January 19 – A Comics Studies Reader, sections two and three; handout: Jim Holdaway

January 21 – Reading Comics, section one; handout: Donald Rooum

January 25 – Student presentations

January 26 – Student presentations; paper due

January 28 – Final examination

Style Guide

It’s = it is

Know/now/no; piece/peace/ weather/whether; their/there/they’re

Consistent tenses, please

Commas inside quotation marks, semi-colons outside

Do not start sentences with “So,” or numbers (“3 of them survived”)

Got/gave/get rarely work

Use i.e. and e.g. appropriately

Italics for book/film titles; quotation marks for chapter/article titles

Insert possessives where appropriate

Avoid incomplete sentences and over-quick transitions

Avoid awkward formulations and transitions

Avoid contractions (did not rather than didn’t)

Avoid passive voice (the journey they took was a long one)

Avoid wordiness (“may be forever hidden in the shadow of the politics of history…”)

Avoid unnecessary capitalization and punctuation (…”The United, States of America…”)

Avoid clichés (“when all is said and done”; “and in the end”; “for years now”)

Avoid offering judgments about objectivity and bias

Avoid overstatement (“the documentary makers hate all Europeans”)

Avoid overusing key phrases, terms, and formulations

Steer clear of terms like merely, only, basically, essentially

Beware adverbs

Wait until the conclusion to editorialize

Don’t share the journey; don’t share your feelings

Less is more

From The Elements of Style (1918) by William Strunk, Jr.

1.      Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s (Charles’s friend). Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names (the laws of Moses). The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

2.      Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas (“The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.”)

3.      Please a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause (“The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.”)

4.      Do not join independent clauses by a comma. If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon (“It is nearly half past five; we will not reach town before dark.”)

5.      Do not use periods for commas. (“I met them on a Cunard liner several years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.” WRONG)

6.      Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

7.      Put statements in positive form. (“He usually came late” rather than “he was not very often on time.”)

8.      Omit needless words. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

The Comic Journal’s Top 100 English-Language Comics of the Century

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

Peanuts by Charles Schulz

Pogo by Walt Kelly

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay

Feiffer by Jules Feiffer

Donald Duck by Carl Barks

Mad by Harvey Kurtzman & various

Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary J Green

The Weirdo stories of R. Crumb

Thimble Theatre by E.C. Segar

EC’s “New Trend” war comics by Harvey Kurtzman & various

Wigwam Bam by Jaime Hernandez

Blood of Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez

The Spirit by Will Eisner

RAW, edited by A Spiegelman & F Mouly

The ACME Novelty Library by Chris Ware

Polly & Her Pals by Cliff Sterret

The sketchbooks of R. Crumb

Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks

The New Yorker cartoons of Peter Arno

The Death of Speedy Ortíz by Jaime Hernandez

Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff

Flies on the Ceiling by Jaime Hernandez

Wash Tubbs by Roy Crane

The Jungle Book by Harvey Kurtzman

Palestine by Joe Sacco

The Mishkin saga by Kim Deitch

Gasoline Alley by Frank King

Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee

Poison River by Gilbert Hernandez

Plastic Man by Jack Cole

Dick Tracy by Chester Gould

The theatrical caricatures of Al Hirschfeld

The Amazing Spider-Man by S Ditko & Stan Lee

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

Yummy Fur by Chester Brown

The editorial cartoons of Pat Oliphant

The Kinder-Kids by Lyonel Feininger

From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey

Idiots Abroad by Gilbert Shelton & Paul Mavrides

Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Paul Karasik & David Mazzacchelli

Cages by Dave McKean

The Buddy Bradley saga by Peter Bagge

The cartoons of James Thurber

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Tantrum by Jules Feiffer

The Alec stories of Eddie Campbell

It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken by Seth

The editorial cartoons of Herblock

EC’s “New Trend” horror comics

The Frank stories by Jim Woodring

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by B Katchor

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams

Little Lulu by John Stanley

Alley Oop by V.T. Hamlin

American Splendor #1-10 by Harvey Pekar

Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray

Hey Look! by Harvey Kurtzman

Goodman Beaver by Harvey Kurtzman & Bill Elder

Bringing Up Father by George McManus

Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith

The Passport by Saul Steinberg

Barnaby by Crockett Johnson

God’s Man by Lynd Ward

Jimbo by Gary Panter

The Book of Jim by Jim Woodring

Rubber Blanket by David Mazzucchelli

The Cartoon History of the  Universe by L Gonick

Ernie Pook’s Comeek by Lynda Barry

Black Hole by Charles Burns

“Master Race” by Bernie Krigstein & Al Feldstein

Li’l Abner by Al Capp

Sugar and Spike by Sheldon Mayer

Captain Marvel by C.C. Beck

Zap by Crumb & various

The Lily stories by Debbie Drechsler

Caricature by Daniel Clowes

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker

The “Willie and Joe” cartoons of Bill Mauldin

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse

The New Yorker cartoons of George Price

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics

The autobiographical comics of Spain Rodriguez

Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

“Pictopia” by Alan Moore & Don Simpson

Dennis the Menace by Hank Ketcham

Space Hawk by Basil Wolverton

Los Tejanos by Jack Jackson

Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet

The Hannah Story by Carol Tyler

Barney Google by Billy De Beck

The Bungle Family by George Tuthill

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster

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