Comics are a powerful learning and teaching tool. That’s obvious to many teachers, a lot of whom have had great success reaching their students through graphic books. And while grade schools and middle schools have been on the forefront of using comics in the classroom, they’re also a fantastic resource at institutions of higher learning. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith have written the book on how to teach the history, impact, importance, and cultural significance of comics at the university and college level. Their book, The Power of Comics, delves deeply into the teaching of comics at the higher level and offers other professors a structure for setting up their own intensive comics courses, whether they be an Intro to Comics or something more specific.
“The Power of Comics is a good introduction for undergraduates if they know nothing about the medium, but it’s also a useful tool for graduate students because it really is an introduction to the past research,” says Duncan, who was also a cofounder of the Comics Arts Conference.
Adds coauthor Smith, “The neat thing about our book is it’s not just another history of the medium. It’s not just another regurgitation of things people have read in 15 different coffee-table books. It’s backed up by scholarship, but it’s also structured to be instructive. So all the ancillaries that one would typically expect to find in a course book, like a glossary or discussion questions or sidebars, are all in there, and there are exercises for faculty to attempt in the classroom. Even if the instructor doesn’t have a prior background in comics and thinks, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ the book is there for them to pull out as a resource.”
The authors also created a website for the book that creates a community for those using the book to share their experiences. “We hope people who use the book will share some of the resources and their experiences with using the book, what they liked and didn’t like,” Duncan says. “We even have a section for our mistakes so we can correct them for next time. We hope that people who use the book become part of the community of resources.”
Here’s what Duncan and Smith had to say about The Power of Comics.
You both bring very serious credentials in education to this book. How did your peers react when you told them about The Power of Comics?
Smith: A lot of people have said to me, boy this is so bold of you to do this in academia, where pop culture is often looked down on, and you’re so gutsy to take a stand for comics. And I have to sheepishly point out to them that I only took a stand after I got tenure. [Laughs] So any attempts to valorize my efforts are completely overstated. Part of the thing I felt really compelled to do after tenure was to really stand up for the medium and its legitimacy, and I felt in some ways I had to establish my own credentials before I could go there. I think there’s a generation of scholars coming up now who are unabashed about the medium, as rightly they should be, but I was still of the generation where texts were texts, and to think that comics could deserve scholarly scrutiny was something that was still on the fringes, still in the margins, and people like Randy Duncan just weren’t as visible as they are today. Thanks to efforts like his, we do see comics scholarship coming more into the mainstream, and it’s less of an oddity.
Was there a lot of resistance when you were starting?
Duncan: I didn’t experience that much resistance. One thing Matt was too modest to tell you was that he got a teaching award at his school and they were aware that he was doing a book about teaching comics, and that didn’t seem to deter them from giving that award. And actually, I got an excellence in scholarly activity award based in good part on The Power of Comics. So I think both of our universities have been pretty supportive in their administrations. Some colleagues raise their eyebrows and go, “Okay…” but my experience has been pretty positive for the most part.
You hear a lot about how comics can reach younger readers, but your book is aimed at higher education.
Smith: I think what we’re aspiring to is to reach a level of legitimacy that film studies has received. If you look at the history of that as sort of a subdiscipline within the academy and really the fascinating journey it’s been on, it all started when colleagues who were interested in film began to talk to one another. Then they began to teach courses, and then they began to publish textbooks. And once you get to that level, there really is no turning back in terms of making it part of the curriculum. And what we had seen up to the point of when The Power of Comics came along is there were scholarly journals devoted to comics, there were academic conferences, such as the Comics Arts Conference, which Randy started, and there were these courses just cropping up here and there and everywhere. But what had not been done yet, what had not been realized yet, were the textbooks. This is the step that the field needs to take in order to reach that next crucial step toward cultural legitimacy.
Duncan: The teaching that had been done at the college level, and there seems to be more of it every semester, was in various departments, and it tends to be upper-level courses. If you’re teaching a film course, you would get into specialized areas after people had taken Intro to Film. But there was no Intro to Comics, so everyone was having to spend the first three to four weeks giving some of that basic foundation before they could move on to what they really wanted to look at, and that may be a particularly sociological perspective or a philosophical aspect of comics or comics as literature, but they were having to individually lay groundwork, and there was no text to help them do that. It would be great if there could be an Intro to Comics course that would use The Power of Comics as its text and then people could build on that with the other approaches. Or even if they’re just doing that one course, the first four weeks, this book could help them with that foundation.
Is there pressure to make comics course at the college level more difficult just because some people will have preconceived notions about such courses?
Smith: I don’t know that my course is any harder than any other thing I teach, but certainly students have a perception coming into it that it can’t be that hard. I like to think I’m teaching this course with the same level of maturity and rigor as if I were teaching a film course or teaching a traditional literature book-based course. So in my mind, I don’t intentionally make it any harder to prove a point, but then again, I don’t dumb it down to make it any less serious of a course than anything else offered in college.
Duncan: I would say the same thing is true for me. I do try to make it clear on the first day going over the syllabus that this is going to be work, so occasionally I’ll have a drop or two in that first week, with people going, “Oh, that’s not what I thought it would be.” There’s a good deal of writing in my course. I want them to take the ideas we talk about in the book and apply them to significant works in comics and graphic novels and do some analytical thinking.
What’s on the syllabus for your courses?
Duncan: Well, our courses are a little bit different. I redid my syllabus this time, now that we actually had the textbooks. My first semester we didn’t get to use it. It kind of follows the subtitle of the book. First, I give some history of comics; then I talk about how the form works and then about the role in the culture. But we also have the chapters on the comics industry and comics creators and looking at the comics fans and readers, so that cultural aspect of it comes in too. I kind of do my syllabus in the order of the book, except I moved the international section up because there was an assignment on there that I wanted them to do a little bit earlier. My students have to do five papers analyzing things they’ve read. They have to do a couple of creative exercises in my class where they adapt a prose story to comics and another one where they create some advocacy comics—something they want to make an argument for or against. They create a comic, a very short one, doing that. And then a couple fun things, like comparing a ’40s story and a more recent story and showing how they’re different.
Smith: The only thing I would add is I put a little more emphasis in my course on knowing the figures associated with comics, a very artsy, western approach to things. You know, if you take a music appreciation course, you come out knowing who Mozart and Beethoven are, and I want my students to come out knowing who Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were. So there’s an additional segment in my course where they have to investigate the lives and contributions of key figures in the medium’s history and they do presentations over those. That’s a little bit of a difference, but it’s still complementary to what the goals are, which is to come away from the medium really knowing something about it.
Duncan: I have a presentation this time; I’ve given them four choices and I do these throughout the semester. One is on an auteur, one is on an international tradition in comics, one might be on some historical figure, and then a genre report.
How important is it to understand the history of comics? More than just Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but prior to that in order for students to really get the art form or understand its cultural contributions?
Duncan: I think it’s important to understand how it grew out of the pulps and the comic strips and those traditions and see how it evolved into the graphic novels we have now, like Asterios Polyp. Particularly because comics are so self-reflexive. Even the artiest of the graphic novels that have pretensions to literature are often created by people who were grounded in comics culture themselves, and they’re often riffing on things that Jack Kirby did or Jim Steranko did. For the person who’s versed in history, we see some levels of meaning in these works that other people might not get, and helping our students see it as a continuum is useful.
Smith: I make a conscious effort to try to make reading selections that cover most if not all the decades of the last 50 years so that students get a sense of the evolution of the medium. So we start with something really recent in my course. The last couple of years, I’ve done Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; it’s sort of a “Here’s where we are.” And then we go back and we might do a little C.C. Beck Captain Marvel story from the ’40s and a little EC Comics from the ’50s and give them a sense of how storytelling and the medium themselves have evolved. But there are also some standards involved. I wouldn’t try to teach my class without having Watchmen or Maus be a part of it. So there is a sense that the history contributes to understanding this but it’s also in practice. It’s not just a medium that was; it’s a medium that is.
Maus and Watchmen are books that you can get something new from every time you read them. Do you notice that when you’re teaching them?
Smith: The thing I look forward to most in my class is teaching Watchmen because every time I read that, there’s something else there, another layer that gets pulled back for me, or a student has a comment or an insight that peels back another layer for me.
Duncan: Sometimes the student papers will have insights I hadn’t thought of.
Smith: In my mind, if you like comics, if you know comics, Watchmen is the work that really for you defines the medium. And Maus is the comic that makes comics accessible to everyone else. Sort of an in-culture, out-culture experience, and the way that they find access to the medium is through one of those two doors, I think.
What are your favorite books to teach?
Duncan: Well, I don’t always use a common book. I will give a list that people can choose from: an alternative comic, a mainstream comic, or what not. Occasionally, when I do have one we all read, I really like It’s a Bird by Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, which is not about Superman; it’s about the author being asked to write Superman and what was really going on in his life with finding out about Huntington’s Disease in his family. It’s really a complex work that uses the superhero milieu in a very symbolic way, kind of the same thing that Uncle Sam by Steve Darnall does, which I’ve also used in the past. And they are on the surface pretty accessible, but there’s a whole lot of complexity going on there that makes them fun to deal with.
Smith: A couple of years ago in a class I used one of the Scholastic versions of Bone and the students just loved it so much that this year I actually used the whole saga. Of course, their eyes just popped when they saw the book. “Are we to read that?” And then they absolutely adored it. I asked at the end of the semester which books have to stay a part of this course, and the top vote-getter was Bone. They just loved it. I don’t know if it’s because Jeff Smith lives about an hour from here—maybe it’s a hometown thing. But they do love that book.
Duncan: Bone does have wide appeal. It works for a lot of different teachers.
Do you think comics will always be seen as lowbrow in educational settings or will they gain greater recognition and acceptance at the academic level anytime soon?
Duncan: I think it’s already improving somewhat. Just the amount of attention that’s out there in mainstream media: Art Spiegelman did Comics 101 in the New Yorker. And Entertainment Weekly will have a little section on comics and graphic novels. And then there’s the fact that no one is having to make an argument for here’s why you should consider this even though it’s a comic. Because that was still true when Maus came out. Even people who were recommending it would have to make arguments: “Now you have to get past the fact that it’s a comic.” Or that it looks like a comic—because many had claimed that it wasn’t a comic. It couldn’t be; it’s too good. I think that attitude’s gone.
Smith: And what’s surprising is how more and more people will say how they appreciate comics and are regular readers of comics. On my campus, the director of our writing center is a fan of comics. The assistant director of the career center, too. One of the English faculty taught a comic in class last semester, and one of the religion faculty teaches Maus as part of her Holocaust course. So people are coming out of the woodwork as I go along here, and there is this acceptance.
Duncan: The dean of our graduate school sent me an email on the first day of the semester saying that for Christmas he got Asterios Polyp and R. Crumb’s Genesis. He was saying, “Hey, you should check these out; they’re really cool.” And he’s an English professor who has gone into administration. So that shows you that there’s probably more awareness out there than we realize.
I notice you say the word comics instead of graphic novels. Is this a deliberate choice?
Duncan: I think we struggled with this.
Smith: We did a little bit.
Duncan: I think graphic novel is the latest manifestation of a phenomenon we call comics. Both of us like comic books, but that’s just another manifestation. It’s another packaging of comics. You have this larger phenomenon, this larger medium of communication called comics. And then you have these types or marketing terms that define the way in which it’s manifested. Marketingwise, would it have made sense to call it The Power of Graphic Novels? Yeah, but I don’t think that would really have captured what we were talking about, which is a phenomenon that can find itself on the web; it can find itself in strips; it can find itself in print magazines or in book-shelvable units as well.
Smith: I know that the term graphic novel sounds more respectable but I try to resist the temptation to use that. I gave a little talk the other day at a Lions Club luncheon, and the title of my first slide was “The Secret Identity of Comic Books.” Then I put in parentheses “and graphic novels.” But I decided that I’m just going to use that term comic books big up there on the title slide and not be ashamed of it, even though I’m speaking to a lot of folks in their 60s and 70s who haven’t seen a comic in quite a few decades.
Duncan: And one of the things we talk about in the book is they’ve really come to occupy different cultural spaces. It’s not really if you get to be 30 pages, or whatever cutoff point you decide on, that it gets to be a graphic novel. There’s different reader responses to them. They appear in different venues, and they’re treated in different ways, so it’s almost like two camps of fans, the Green Lantern fans and the Fun Home fans, and then there are people like Matthew who love both of them.
How do your classes divide up in terms of males and females?
Smith: There was a real surge of female representation this last semester. I think the interest in anime and manga brings in a lot of women. It’s still predominantly male, but it’s not quite as overwhelming as I would have assumed it would have been.
Duncan: I’d say it’s about 50% male most of the time. But I also would say about one-third of my class doesn’t read comics.
Smith: Three-fourths of my students have not read a comic in the last decade. I have people who come in and don’t know what they’re gotten into.
Duncan: But yours does count as part of the general education requirement.
Smith: That’s true. There’s an attractive feature on mine that does appeal to the broader university population. They have to get so many credits in literary arts, and my course counts as one of those. I guess, given a choice between music appreciation and art history, I look pretty attractive.
How much does manga play into your courses?
Duncan: Not as much as it should in mine, probably.
Smith: I agree.
Duncan: That’s because neither one of us is that well versed in manga, and that’s one of the things we’ve said, that in the next edition of the book, there probably needs to be.
Smith: I spend a week talking about international comics, and a lot of them contribute ideas throughout the course regarding how things are reflected in manga. It’s such a large field. Would you really go to a Hemingway scholar and say, “What about Chaucer?” What about Chaucer? That’s not my field. But there is a sort of expectation that you know all comics. And we wouldn’t have that expectation of a music scholar or a literary scholar, that you’d know all literature. So we do have our specialties. They just don’t happen to go into the manga world, necessarily.
Duncan: And we made a conscious decision to make our book primarily focused on American print comic books. So we’re not dealing with comic strips, and we just have one chapter that touches on international. There’s just so much to say about American print comic book. And that’s another thing that we’ll probably touch on in the next edition: online comics, which again we’re probably not as well versed in as we should be. There’s so many of those to keep up with.
In general, do you think manga should be taught as a separate course? Or incorporated into the larger comics course in general?
Duncan: I think you could certainly make the justification for it being a separate course, and I bet it’d be a popular course.
Smith: At my institution, we have an East Asian studies program, and if I were able to offer a manga course, they would hug me. There’d be no question. It would be welcomed. It would be well populated. It would be widely accepted. I think the exciting thing about being part of a field that is discovering itself is there aren’t really these preconceptions, like, “Well, there should be a Shakespeare course in an English curriculum.” It’s wide open to definition by those of us who are right here at the moment of the birth of creation, and I think that’s very exciting. You can combine things or you can segregate them, and both are worthy ways to understand the phenomenon.
What’s the reaction in the academic community to the book? Has it inspired courses at colleges or universities?
Duncan: For the most part, we’re not sure yet about that. We know about a couple of people we’ve heard from.
Smith: There are a couple of folks in our sphere of influence who have adopted the book. It just came out in July, and the way the academic cycle runs is, by July, people have made their decisions about books they’re using for fall. The hope is that people are embracing it if they happen to be teaching a course this spring, and we hope to get word out so that people, as they make decisions for next fall, are really gravitating toward using this as a part of their syllabus.
Duncan: I think that because of when it came out and the process of getting the word out, next fall will tell more about how widely it might be used. We did a panel at the Comics Arts Conference where we talked about it and had some materials related to it, and there were a number of people who seemed to be very interested. But most people get to teach their comics courses only every other year or even less than that; it’s not in a regular rotation for most people.
View Matthew J. Smith's course syllabus here
View Randy Duncan's course syllabus here