James Bucky Carter
James Bucky Carter is one of the most influential people marrying the wealth of comics potential with the classroom. An assistant professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, he has studied comics and pop culture for years and has promoted comics’ use in building literacy (in fact, he wrote a book called Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels). Here, he discusses his history as a comics fan.
Do you remember your first comic book or graphic novel? If so, what was it?
Funny story: When I was a teenager, I told my mom I was trying to figure out how I got so interested in comic books. I was able to hold my own in conversations about obscure characters like the Silver Surfer and Dr. Strange even though most of my own comics were X-Men books. She “reminded” me that she used to read comics to me when I was a small kid, and that brought back a Proustian flood of memories. And, yes, my mom read me Defenders comics, apparently. That said, the first comic I can remember reading is Defenders #111 (1982). Actually, for years, all I could remember about it was what I thought was the cover: a beautiful, red-headed woman writing a letter. In 2000 or 2001, while rummaging through the quarter bins at Comic Exchange in Knoxville, Tennessee, I pulled out Defenders #111 and yelled “Oh, my God!” I immediately knew this was it. I opened the cover, and the first page is a splash page of Nancy Walker, aka Hellcat, writing a letter at a bedroom desk. A comic and an epistolary text. Not bad for a first book, even if it was a Defenders title and featured Nancy taking a trip to Hell and talking with a devil—strange stuff for a 5-year-old raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. Actually, that might be why I could only “remember” the comic instead of locate it in my collection! The two comics that got me hooked, though, I feel were Uncanny X-Men #196 and Classic X-Men #1, which came out a few years later.
What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
I love everything about it that I love about other literary and art forms. I love reading a text with a “timely timelessness,” a sense of it being relevant to a specific exigency in time but also having a universal quality that makes it relevant to readers at any point in history. I love reading—and I do mean reading—visual cues along with the verbal to get a full picture or hypothesized idea of what is going on completely in the story. One of my favorite examples, and one I use to teach students how deeply they need to read graphic novels, is in Maus where Anja and Vladek are walking the streets of Poland. Since Vladek can speak Polish, he “passes” well, wearing a pig mask as a visual signifier that he fits in. Anja can’t speak the language so well, so whereas she has a pig mask too, her mouse tail sticks out from underneath her cloak. It’s a perfect example of levels of visuo-verbal “passing” represented in visual terms, and if someone glosses over that element, they’ve missed an important detail of the text. In other words, I love how the layers of textuality, both letter-based and art-based, help inform a deep reading. I also love texts with complex, compelling characters that make me want to analyze their every word and movement.
Whose work do you admire?
In comics? I admire Chris Claremont, Warren Ellis, and Paul Jenkins on the superhero front. Paul Jenkins may be the most undervalued writer in contemporary superhero comics. Overall, I admire the work of Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman. Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware, James Sturm, Daniel Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, Brian K. Vaughn, Jessica Abel, and so many others.
Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
I find myself mostly reading academic books and articles to help me stay current in my fields. I do get to double-dip here, though, as I often teach YA lit courses. Right now, I’m really digging Markus Zusak. The Book Thief is a masterpiece of craft and pathos and is on my all-time favorites list right now. His I Am the Messenger is a mind-bender and joy to read as well. Other recent texts that have impressed me are Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. Beyond that, I'm always up for a good Tom Wolfe novel. I love his juxtapositions. Asher has good juxtapositions too, actually.
How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
I rarely read manga, though I respect the form. I do try to keep up with the scene, but overall that is something I’m leaving for other scholars at the moment. I do talk about the form with my students, though, and recognize it as a force in young-adult reading. It varies. I’m not interested in reading every graphic novel ever published. I’m interested in reading good graphic novels and comics. If I think something looks good, I’ll try to read it as soon as I can. If that means I go a month without reading a graphic novel, so be it. That rarely happens, though, even if it means I’m reading older ones over again.
How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
You mean how did I first put comics and education together? Well, I had some struggling readers in one of my remedial classes back when I was a high-school teacher. I tried everything I knew with them but nothing would work. I turned to comics thinking dangerously, “It worked for me. Why not for them?” It turned out that using comics in the class was the most successful thing I did with those students. They were intrigued to know they could read them in school, amazed at how much vocabulary they could learn from even superhero titles, and got excited about reading other traditional print-based texts when I was able to draw connections between a specific comic and a specific title.
As far as studying comics and literacy, I guess it all began when I took my first doctoral class at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I was part of the first cohort of doctoral students in Urban Education that the university had ever had, and the professor, Dr. David Pugalee, asked us all to mention our interests. I said, “I’m interested in comics, but I’m not sure you can do that in education.” He replied, “Sure you can!” And that’s all it took. I eventually transferred to the University of Virginia’s English Education Ph.D. program and had more support from my advisors there, Drs. Joseph Strzepek and Margo Figgins. It was in Dr. Strzepek’s YA lit course where I was encouraged to actually publish some of my ideas on teaching comics and graphic novels, and that led to my first edited collection on the topic, Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel (NCTE, 2007). Since then, I’ve continued to present, publish, and work with teachers about the form’s interconnections with literacy.
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
It’s mixed. English can be a conservative field; education has its ideological camps too, and old ideas die hard among many professors and teachers. Some are thrilled with what I do and recognize its importance in a world where the ability to critically consider images is a necessity. Others hold on to very staid, and what I consider to be very elitist and inequitable, notions of literacy, literary value, reading, and education. I have to admit that I feel that many negative reactions are based in a deep ignorance, but even intelligent people don’t like examining their ignorances at times. I try to roll with the punches and try to pick my moments to counter-punch carefully. I know the form is important culturally and socially and is important for education as well. More and more folks are coming around as well, and I may have had something to do with that. So, I can’t let other people’s negativity or ignorance bog me down too much. And when I look at the growing numbers of teachers and scholars embracing the form and its pedagogical potential, it is hard not to be happy and impressed.
Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I used to have the first appearance of the Scorpion, which I think was in Amazing Spider-Man #20. My second-youngest brother ripped the cover to shreds when he was a baby, and I ended up selling it for $2.00. Even though I do have a monthly pull list of eight or so titles, and even though I do bag and board them, I don’t worry so much about their monetary value so much as their value to me, and maybe eventually to my two sons. I do have a signed copies of A Contract with God, From Hell, Ghost World, and Safe Area Gorazde that are special to me. I only have four or five long boxes full of comics, but I did just order another book case for my office to house my growing graphic novel collection.
Is there something you covet adding to your collection?
I’m trying to get more Hernandez Bros. in my collection right now. We’re flying in Jaime Hernandez for an event at UTEP in February 2010, so I want to be sharp on his work. I’m also thinking about starting a special collection of comics-related materials from Hispanic comics creators for my university. If that idea takes off, I’ll be coveting much art and scripts from folks, but not so much for me.