Week 2 of English 333 finished off with the first of two sessions devoted to Spiegelman's Maus (perhaps the most often-taught book in courses of this type). After my students drew attendance cards on the theme of self-as-animal, we launched into Maus right away--thanks to our discussion leader, who smartly raised the question of Spiegelman's use of animal "masks" straight off, and tied this into our drawing activity (nice). We spent an hour-plus discussing first this device, then a larger set of issues emerging from the first volume of Maus--from characterization, including the father/son relationship, to formal questions, such as the sudden rupture that is "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" (Spiegelman's pioneering underground comic, published in 1973, interpolated into the pages of Maus to dramatic effect). I asked about our sympathies, as readers, for either Vladek and/or Artie, and questioned the inclusion of the final page in Chapter One, which depicts Artie making a promise to his father that the book has already, in effect, broken (Artie promises discretion and respect for privacy, as his father wants, but Maus delivers rough honesty instead). I also sought to extend the discussion of the animal metaphor beyond its dramatic effectiveness to its possible ethical and ideological implications.
In the second half of class, we continued to discuss Maus. I found the conversation productive and encouraging, the class engaged and serious (and I look forward to further discussion tomorrow, at the start of Week 3!). I also gave my Spiegelman Pecha Kucha lecture (developed last fall in 620AS), by way of background, and showed off some other Spiegelman publications, such as the original "Maus" from Funny Aminals and an issue of the oversized RAW magazine. Finally, we discussed minicomics; I brought a raft of examples, some by past 333 students, and zipped through my usual lecture notes on the topic. I gave out Kevin Huizenga's splendid page "The Varieties of Comics Experience" (from his Center for Cartoon Studies promo booklet, 2006) to discuss comics genres, e.g. strip, one-pager, comic book, graphic novel, and minicomic. As a reminder, my students have to produce a one-sheet minicomic about their experience reading Maus by this Thursday, June 11.
Yesterday, Tuesday, June 2, my English 333 class practiced drawing very quickly, discussed readings from Schulz's Peanuts and Brunetti's textbook Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, and then took Schulz and Brunetti as departure points for a larger consideration of style in comics, with Joseph Witek's 2011 essay on comics "modes" (found in the book Critical Approaches to Comics, ed. Smith and Duncan) as guide. I did a lot of lecturing. Finally, I showed the class some minicomics created by past 333 students, and ended our session by assigning a one-sheet minicomic response to our next major reading, Spiegelman's Maus. This was another busy, productive session, though to my mind perhaps a bit too busy, i.e. too crammed, to allow for deep discussion. Already I'm feeling the time pressure of the six-week summer term. Whew.
We began with rapid-fire doodling exercises inspired by Week 1 of Brunetti's text. In lieu of our usual, Lynda Barry-inspired attendance cards, I gave out greenbooks (i.e. exam booklets) to serve as impromptu sketchbooks, then asked everyone to draw themselves again and again, in ever-decreasing increments of time (three minutes; a minute and a half; 45 seconds; 20 seconds). We discussed what happens as you draw the same thing again and again, more and more quickly. What changes in the drawings, and what stays the same? What identifying features of "you," as a character, remain constant? My thinking here was to focus on what happens when, as a cartoonist, you have to repeat yourself again and again, and to build on Brunetti's idea that drawing something very quickly, rather than fussing over it, is likely to bring you closer to the essence of that thing (I should have referenced Schulz's famous remark that doing a comic strip is "the art of doing the same thing over and over again without repeating yourself").
From there we discussed the readings, looking at particular Peanuts strips along the way. We talked about Peanuts's depiction of children, its tone, its changes over time, and some of the surprises in the selected strips I assigned (for example, the unusual artistic choices in the 1954 continuity that pits Lucy against grownups in a golf tournament). I sought to tie this into Brunetti. Many students had recognized a link between Brunetti's aesthetic of simplicity and his reverence for Schulz.
In the second half of class, I sought to put Brunetti's aesthetic into context by pointing out that there are other styles or modes of comic art. Here Witek's distinction between the "cartoon mode" and the "naturalistic" mode proved useful. I made this distinction the springboard for a long talk on different traditions and styles in comic art, what genres and storytelling tendencies we expect from those different styles, and some of the historic sources of those styles (i.e. what other traditions in visual culture helped inspire those ways of drawing comics?). My lecture/slideshow began with the Robert Kanigher/Alex Toth comic "White Devil...Yellow Devil" (from DC's Star Spangled War Stories #164, Aug.-Sept. 1972). It went on to include examples by Schulz, Segar, Herriman, Richard (Cul de Sac) Thompson, Watterson, Randall (xkcd) Munroe, Foster, Raymond, Caniff, Eisner, Stan Drake, Neal Adams, JH Williams III, and Alex Ross, plus Isaac Cruikshank, Doré, and N.C. Wyeth, plus detours into caricature, history painting, illustration, deep focus cinematography, and vaudeville (plus a cameo by King Kong). Whew again!
Probably too much information, eh? I also discussed the concept of remediation, and returned to a point I had made on the first day of class, that "comics aren't movies," though I also complicated that by trying to show how much they had been influenced by movies and other forms. To complicate things still further, I gave out Wally Wood's famous "22 Panels That Always Work" (as assembled by Larry Hama), and used that to talk about composition:
I concluded by anticipating the way Spiegelman's Maus might blur or confuse our sense of comics' different "modes." That was the teaser for our next class!
Well, part of the teaser, anyway. There was also the matter of setting up a special homework assignment based on Maus. Using the One-Sheet Workshop website built by Nomi Kane, and the one-sheet comic template provided by Beth Hetland, I demonstrated how to fold a single sheet of paper into an eight-page zine, and assigned students the task of responding to Maus in that very form. That's due in a little over a week.
Er, whew again? Another very full session.
It's been a gratifying and invigorating first week in the new summertime version of English 333. I'm working with (now that the dust has cleared) twenty-one students, which is down from our usual Fall/Spring number of about thirty-five. This week saw the launch of our Moodle site and syllabus, discussion of these things in class, and analysis of several comics, including our first major reading, Keiji Nakazawa's memoir I Saw It (1972; trans. 1982). We had two class sessions, on Tuesday the 26th and Thursday the 28th. The roster settled, I gave out tons of handouts, most everyone got scheduled for their discussion leading dates, and we all started to get to know each other. We filled a Moodle forum with conversation about Nakazawa, which led to lively discussion on Thursday, and I gave out the first cartooning homework based on Ivan Brunetti's textbook Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice (2011).
On our first day, Tuesday, we began with what will be a custom for us, the drawing of attendance cards, that is, cartoon self-portraits on index cards (an idea I lifted from Lynda Barry's splendid book about teaching, Syllabus). I then dove into a Pecha Kucha-style lightning talk designed to introduce (or reintroduce) students to the comics world. From there, students took turns introducing one another: I asked everyone to supply a dialogue balloon for a classmate's self-portrait, and then to interview that person and tell us briefly about them). We then analyzed, at length, a classic Calvin and Hobbes Sunday by Bill Watterson, from August 1988 (the same one I discuss in my first book, Alternative Comics). That led to analysis of the following classic Cul de Sac Sunday by Richard Thompson, from 2007:
This meta-strip seems to lend itself to analysis of the form (though of course there's always the inevitable danger of breaking the butterfly of art on the wheel of criticism, sigh). I presented the class with a "diagrammed" version of the Cul de Sac strip, as well as a number of other diagrams of the comics page, including examples from the books Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden (2008) and Panel Discussions: Design in Sequential Art Storytelling by Durwin Talon (2003) as well as self-made ones like this:
A classic mid-1980s Love & Rockets page, taken from one of our required books, Jaime Hernandez's The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. (2007). Ugly annotations by CH.
I also shared Talon's glossary of comics terms, and gave out a self-made handout I call The Comics Toolkit, which is basically the précis for a textbook I hope to write in the next few years. All of this was by way of equipping my students with some basic formalist terms they can use throughout the course.
On Thursday, besides the usual attendance cards and other icebreaking stuff, we discussed the syllabus somewhat, particularly the Moodling requirements. Then we delved into I Saw It, building on the online discussion of the previous two days. After a bit I asked the class to divide up into four groups so that each could discuss a particular question about I Saw It and report back to us. (To break the class into groups, I used randomly distributed panels from comics pages that I had cut up, jigsaw-style, and asked students to group with other students who had panels from the same page. They had to reassemble the page, so to speak; that's how we formed the four groups.) The four questions I pitched were:
We discussed these questions, in some cases perhaps without consensus but with many thought-provoking observations (I would have liked to debate the question about children more vigorously!). I tried to tie in the discussion to the Toolkit introduced earlier. We also discussed issues such as numbing or desensitization, PTSD, and whether I Saw It is an anti-American text. I ended with a slideshow designed to contextualize Nakazawa (and postwar manga generally), partly based on one kindly given to me by I Saw It publisher Leonard Rifas. Wish we could have spent at least another hour with I Saw It!
(Interestingly, one member of our class is an international student from Japan, who remembers reading I Saw It as a required school text when she was ten. Good to hear about Nakazawa's work and reputation from that angle!)
What a week! The readings for next Tuesday are the first four "weeks" of Brunetti's syllabus-in-book-form, Cartooning, alongside a selection of Peanuts strips by Charles Schulz from the 1950s and 60s (including the first week of Peanuts ever, from October 1950, the introduction of Lucy in 1952, the strange continuity in 1954 where Lucy competes with grownups in a golf tournament, and the classic 1961 continuity where Lucy buries Linus's security blanket). In addition, students are to do the following cartooning exercise lifted from Brunetti's Week 1:
...Pencil out a grid (or grids) in your sketchbook, enough to contain 100 small drawings. Now, spending no more than 5 seconds per drawing, let your stream of consciousness guide you, drawing whatever word comes to mind (do not stop to think about it). Examples: persons, places, objects, occupations, concepts, emotions, etc. You should, at the end, have a little system of pictograms. (Exercise 1.3, pages 26-28)
Looking forward to next week! As if the above wasn't enough, we'll have our first student discussion leaders come Tuesday, and by Thursday we'll be into Art Spiegelman's fabled Maus.
333 students—I've just posted a PDF version of the course summary or "mini-syllabus" that I plan to give out on the first day of class, next week! If you want to see it—that is, if you want another advance look at what our course will be like—click on the "English 333" link in the banner at the top of this page, and then scroll down to find the PDF.
(The image to the left is just a preview. Again, click "English 333" to get the whole thing.)
I should explain that this document applies to both my 9:30 class (#14041) and my 12:30 class (#14273). These classes, obviously, will meet at different times and in different rooms, but will have the same objectives, requirements, and books. So this document works for either section. (There may be minor scheduling differences between the two sections, but the big picture is the same.)
BTW, this document will also be made available through our Moodle sites.
This coming semester, Fall 2014, I'll be teaching English 333 (Comics & Graphic Novels) once again. Class begins in about a month, on August 26, and, as always, I've got plenty of preparing to do before then! But as of now, happily, I can share some basic information about the course, including its history, my priorities as a teacher, and the requirements and textbooks for the coming semester.
A capsule introduction to the course, including the official CSUN catalog copy, can be found on the 333 Homepage (which can also be reached through the link in the banner, up top).
More about the intellectual background of the course, including my interests and priorities, can be found on the Intro to 333 page.
A list of assignments and requirements for Fall 2014 can be found on the Course Work page.
Finally, the required books for Fall 2014 are listed on the Books page (which also gives some practical tips about how to shop for the books and minimize expenses).
Students, colleagues, friend, and other interested readers: feel free to use this site's Contact page to send me questions—or comment right on this post! I'll be glad to answer questions about my teaching, the course, and comics studies in general.
333 starts on August the 26th and goes through CSUN's Finals Week, i.e. to about December 16. It will entail critical reading and writing, online posting, cartooning, visiting a comic book shop, shopping around for comics outside of the required reading list, seeking out reviews of comics... lots of different kinds of work! We'll have four new books this time, and at least two substantially new assignments.