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From Comic-Con to Columbia

By: David Randall
March 7, 2016

s there, among young and old alike, an insatiable appetite for comics? Disney mints money from large-screen portrayals of obscure Marvel heroes (Deadpool? Antman?) between releases of their blockbuster Avengers franchise. Batman vs. Superman will certainly generate profits that salve Warner Brothers’s wounds from last summer’s disastrous Fantastic Four reboot. And those are only a few of the recent comic-book offerings on the big screen.

That such movies are entertainments that do not aspire to be art means that there’s a good case against taking them seriously. A separate question is whether comic books should make the leap from Comic-Con to the classroom. Increasingly, the answer has been yes. From Disney comics promoted by Maryland for use in its elementary schools to The Cartoon History of the United States in an AP U.S. History course, teachers are using comic books—graphic novels, when they put on their Sunday best—as a classroom tool. Higher education is also jumping on the bandwagon: graduate students at Virginia Tech can now add “Graphic Novel, Comics, and Current Issues in Visual Narrative” to their fall schedule.

Fortunately for undergraduates, it’s not just their younger siblings and graduate teaching assistants who can access a beloved hobby while sitting in class. Comics can now be found in many universities’ common curriculum. Duke’s 2015 freshmen were assigned Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home on their summer reading list, while Loyola Marymount has a course on Graphic Stories as a First-Year Seminar. Columbia University’s Literary Humanities, one of the country’s most rigorous core courses, may soon amend its syllabus to include Spiegelman’s Maus, perhaps squeezing it in after The Decameron and dropping the Book of Job.

Comics are certainly popular, but including them in required university reading treats them as serious literature. Pre-college summer reading and the seminal works of Western civilization traditionally offered in introductory courses should be a foundation for a liberal arts education. Common readings provide an institutional imprimatur for the most important works of our heritage, they give students a basic cultural literacy, and provide them the materials that will aid them in taking part in a conversation with the great thinkers of the past. Can we say the same about comics? While Bechdel’s Fun Home might have value as a graphic memoir, it does not compare it to an essay by the originator of revelatory introspection, Montaigne, or reveal a life of early brokenness and sadness more movingly than Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain. A student’s time is finite: adding Fun Home will likely mean removing Montaigne.

But does Fun Home participate in the Great Conversation as well as these other works? Such a standard might be unfair. Some comic books have at least as much value as any literary production of the last half century. Spiegelman’s Maus and Maus II are extraordinary works, Holocaust memoirs that compare to Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Robert Crumb’s graphic adaptation of Robert Alter’s translation of The Book of Genesis is a work of visual seriousness in service of a foundational text. They should not replace Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but one of them could substitute for a modern novel of high quality such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004).

Yet Maus should replace Gilead only if there is something uniquely educative in the visual component of Maus. A comic book is not just a piece of text with illustration. It is a combination of word and picture in a formal, integral way not often found in modern Western art. Done properly, a liberal arts curriculum that integrates comics can introduce students to the imagery of the West.

An educator might, for example, study the precursors to the modern comic by introducing the narrative art of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series, the vivid political caricature of Honoré Daumier and George Cruikshank, and the moralizing tales conveyed in the prints of William Hogarth. Or, by focusing on the Baroque and Renaissance Old Masters’ ability to convey whole stories in a single image, students could study the visual picaresque of Georges de la Tour, the sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Biblical storytelling of Leonardo da Vinci, and the hellish panoramas of Hieronymous Bosch. By studying art through the medium of the comic—both modern and pre-modern—the teacher can illuminate the relationship of modern comic art to a different dimension of the Western visual tradition.

Another teacher might integrate comic books with the history of art criticism, by proceeding through Scott McCloud’s analysis of the formal vocabulary of comic art in Understanding Comics to Erwin Panosky’s analysis of Renaissance iconography in Studies in Iconology, and Leo Steinberg’s study of the theological content of Christ’s anatomy in Renaissance painting. A syllabus exploring antecedents to comic books’ mixture of image and word might lead to the study of ekphrasis, the verbal description of a work of art, with particular reference to the description of the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. This explication lays the foundation for a discussion of the often-rivalrous relationship of poetry and painting, organized around the tradition of ut pictura poesis (“as is painting so is poetry”), citing Andrew Marvell’s bravura description of Restoration England in “Last Instructions to a Painter.”

Finally, a course in drawing could complete the series. The student would learn how to draw, perhaps even create his own first attempt at a graphic memoir. The word is central to the Western tradition, and mastery of the word central to a liberal education—but the picture has no small place, and the ability to draw has long been considered an accomplishment of a properly educated lady or gentleman. A student should have both word and picture at his command, but command can only be achieved if the visual component of comic books becomes the object of student discussion, and is not used simply as reinforcement of their words. If comic books are to be included in liberal arts study, students should be able to think and argue intelligently about the comic book’s artistic properties.

A comic book can be a component of a liberal education that requires students to embrace both the word and the picture of the Western tradition. Comics should not be chosen because they might make education easier for a student, but because they make it harder, forcing the student to comprehend both word and image. If a teacher approaches comic books as an intensification of the traditional modes of education rather than as a renunciation of them, their inclusion in the core curriculum would be valuable. If a college does not approach comic books in this spirit, or gives the pedagogy outlined here mere lip service, then to include comics in a core curriculum will only add one more item to the long list of ways modern colleges fail their students.