Now I’m working on my third syllabus for comics studies, and I’m getting further away, maybe, from the “critical work as structural spine” course structure and a little closer to a “readings as rhetoric” structure. What I mean by that is, so, I’m still using a book of comics criticism to keep the tempo, but the paired readings themselves are more organized than they were in my first course that I wrote up.
That course was, basically, some early favorites from this yearlong comics reading project. Now, I feel I’m a little better equipped–although, really, only a little–to sort of think through the reading list for a comics studies course in a more deliberate way.
I know I’m exposing myself and my work a bit here. Syllabus development is something that maybe happens mostly in secret. But I have to say that I really wish this kind of material was more widely and easily available. There are a ton of great moments throughout Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (which I’m reading now) where she namedrops books that meant a lot to her, and readers who aren’t familiar with those can leapfrog back to those books to see what she’s talking about, to read what she read and see if they feel the same way. Publicly available syllabuses operate in a similar fashion, I think, documenting a web of texts that interested readers can skip and splash across.
And whether it’s a good idea or not to share this stuff, it’s helpful to me to keep track of my reading and research like this. So here’s the third one.
A sort of summary
As I was reading interviews with comics writers, creators, and scholars, the one universal work that comes up over and over again is Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. This is an almost universally acknowledged watershed moment for comics as a medium, at least in terms of its respectability and it’s the beginning of a movement that would bring all kinds of comics more mainstream acceptance.
But from there, there is, it seems to me, a period where there aren’t as many books to really rival Maus in terms of influence. Also, the really big comics news in the 1990s seems to have been the speculator market crash and the devastating contraction of the comic direct market, meaning that some of the most vital infrastructure for comics as a medium was in a pretty dire financial situation.
But as that situation improved (you know, as much as it did) and the internet gave creators a new way to reach and engage audiences, comics fought for more and more mainstream acceptance and pop culture relevance. There’s March, whose third book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. There’s This One Summer and El Deafo, which both won prestigious children’s book award honors in 2015. There’s the Image Comics sleeper hit Saga, called “Star Wars for perverts” by one of its co-creators, which is credited variously with validating creator-owned production and distribution systems and with revitalizing the comics industry as a whole. And there’s Fun Home, which is now on broadway.
These books, read together but not necessarily against each other, tell the story of a medium that has evolved to tell all kinds of stories, to celebrate all kinds of voices, a form where creators bring their own metaphysical psychosystems and heuristic calculus–their creators’ manifold idiosyncrasies and eccentricities–to the weight and import of words, pages, panels, and pictures. It’s an amazing time to be alive if you’re a comics reader in America, but I really think that if you don’t read at least these 12 books (Maus I and II; March Books 1, 2 and 3; Saga Books 1, 2, and 3; El Deafo; This One Summer; Fun Home; Are You My Mother?) then I think it’s really hard to get a sense of what mainstream comics successes have been or to get even an inkling of why and how they accomplished that achievement.
Without further ado, the list:
Part 1. What It Is, What It Isn’t
Week 1–Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, Art Spiegelman
- “The Watch,” Elie Wiesel
- “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” Nathan Englander
- “Chapter 1: What Comics Are and What They Aren’t” from Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
Week 2–Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, Art Spiegelman
- “The Shawl,” Cynthia Ozick
- “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman,” Tadeusz Borowski
Week 3–MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman
- I’m Supposed to Protect Your From All This, Nadja Spiegelman
Part II. Agreeable, Good, Beautiful, and Sublime
Week 4–March Book 1
- “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” by W.E.B. Du Bois
- “The Talented Tenth” by W.E.B. Du Bois
- “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” by W.E.B. Du Bois
- “To the Nations of the World,” W.E.B. Du Bois
- “Chapter 2: Auteurs, the History of Art Comics, and How to Look at Ugly Drawings,” from Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
Week 5–March Book 2
- “I Have a Dream” (speech from the March on Washington), Martin Luther King Jr.
- “Speech at the March on Washington,” John Lewis
- “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.
- Barry, Vikram Ghandi
Week 6–March Book 3
- First and second inaugural addresses by Pres. Barack Obama
- “The Philadelphia Speech,” then Sen. Barack Obama
- Selma, Ava Duvernay
Part III. Calving
Week 7–Complete Saga Book 1
- The Image Revolution, Patrick Meaney
- Image Comics: The Road to Independence, George Khoury
- Various articles on Image Comics
- “Chapter 3: What’s Good About Bad Comics and What’s Bad About Good Comics,” from Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
Week 8–Complete Saga Book 2
- The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming et. al.
- Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams
- [alt] Star Wars (2015) #1-6
Week 9–Complete Saga Book 3
Part IV. Fun House
Week 10–El Deafo, Cece Bell
- The Story of My Life/”Part I” by Helen Keller
- On the Camino, Jason
- “Chapter 4: Superheroes and Superreaders,” from Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
Week 11–This One Summer, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
- Who Will Save the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore
- “Chapter 5: Pictures, Words, and the Space Between Them,” from Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
Week 12–Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
- Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, and Rob Epstein
- Design Matters/”Alison Bechdel” (episode)
- The Comics Journal/”The Alison Bechdel Interview”
- “Alison Bechdel: Reframing Memory” from Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk
Week 13–Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel
- Tea with Winnicott, Brett Kahf and Alison Bechdel
- The Indelible Alison Bechdel, Alison Bechdel
Part V. Now You
Weeks 14-15–Your turn.