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Course Covering Comics to Graphic Novels is No Joke

Published: May 1, 2009

“Show and Tell: From Comics to Graphic Novels” is a year-long CSULB course that explores whether the text-and-pictures literary genre has the academic respectability to match its boffo box office generated by such summer blockbusters as “The Dark Night.”

Comparative World Literature and Classics’ Nhora Serrano joined forces with English’s Tim Caron to trace through their College of Liberal Arts Collaborative Research Seminar the new form of storytelling from its origins in pictographs, hieroglyphics, the cave drawings of Lascaux and the Bayeux tapestry to illuminated medieval manuscripts, the sequential words and pictures of William Hogarth and William Blake and the explosion of cheaply printed and widely distributed “funny papers” of 19th and 20th century American newspapers.

“Ultimately, this year-long course is a serious study that will enable students to gain a deeper appreciation and knowledge about the political, social and visual trends that have shaped the powerful creative industry of comics and the graphic novel as well as acquire a profound understanding for current theoretical issues prevalent in literary studies,” said Serrano, who joined the university in 2006.

“This is the first time such a class has been offered at CSULB,” said Caron, who joined the university in 1998. “There is a growing respect for the graphic novel. Scholarly books and essays on graphic novels are becoming more common. The Modern Language Association’s flagship journal recently contained an essay that addresses the graphic novel while CSU Northridge’s Charles Hatfield has been researching comics for years.”

Serrano enjoys studying graphic novels. “This class is fun, but I would call it ‘intellectual fun,’” she explained. “At the end of every class session, students keep telling us they need more time.”

One of the program’s goals is to sharpen students’ research skills. “Of our 14 enrolled students, 13 already have had work accepted for conference presentations at CSU Fullerton, the Popular Culture Association conference in Albuquerque, the University of Florida’s annual conference on comics and graphic novels and the American Comparative Literature Association in Boston,” said Caron. “Plus, all 14 students will participate in the research poster presentation sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts this semester.”

The literature on graphic novels is abundant and growing. “We began our first semester with Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics,” she explained. “We study names like Windsor McKay, inventor of ‘Little Nemo,’ and George Herriman, father of ‘Krazy Kat.’ Other formative names include EC Segar and Frank King of `Gasoline Alley,’” she said. “We discuss questions such as, is color necessary to comics? Are the layout and number of panels? Is the quality of artwork? Are shadows and symmetry of lines? Is gender? How do any of them detract from the story?

What does the comic medium do for the reader?”

Photo by Victoria Sanchez
Nhora Serrano (l) and Tim Caron lead their class.

The power of graphic novels comes from the one-two punch of text and images. “What is so powerful about comics is that the reader processes information on two levels at the same time, in words and text,” said Caron. “Simply looking at images alone provides plenty of information but, when images team up with text, readers see two powerful media working at the same time. For many of us, it all starts when we are young and our parents read to us from picture books. From the beginning, we have experience looking at words and hearing language at the same time. I find that combination exciting to teach because it makes students more critical and reflective about what they are doing on the Web all the time. Text and images are combined everywhere, from Web sites to print ads to video games. This course gives students an opportunity to be thoughtful and critical about how meaning is made.”

From the 1950s on, the issue of censorship has loomed over comics with parents shocked at their sex and violence. “The reason the level of debate about the graphic novel is so high is that they really grab the reader,” said Serrano. “They provoke a strong emotional response. They shock the way a good story should. A good graphic novel should get you the same way Don Quixote does. But it does it in a different manner. A good graphic novel will push the boundaries and tell a story in a different way. That difference is visual. Ours is a visual culture.”

Serrano and Caron will address CSULB’s Faculty Supper Club on Thursday, May 7, at 7 p.m., the last one of the year to be held at the official home of University President F. King Alexander. Their talk is titled “Show and Tell: From Comics to Graphic Novels.”

Caron hopes his students come away from the class with an appreciation for the graphic novel that goes beyond the stereotype of the “fan boy.” “A fan boy is usually the geek who knows all the superheroes, their alter egos and their evil nemeses,” said Caron. “My hope is that our students go on to become the comic scholars of tomorrow. Our students have seen the beginning of an art form that is now culturally legitimate. Graphic novels have become the subject of scholarly journals and academic conferences. Someday, these scholars will shape the future of this emerging discipline.”

Serrano believes the future of the graphic novel depends on how communication evolves. “The future of the graphic novel depends on how the act of reading changes in the 21st century,” she said. “There is an Internet component to its future. Maybe graphic novels will become available on iPhones. The visual medium lends itself to so much.”