Comics: Subject or Object?

Comics: Subject or Object?

From the Comics Journal Messageboard comes this post (re: a college intro. to comics course), by Adrian Sanders:

I know there are some glaring omissions (Crumb comes to mind, and maybe some suggestions for a collection of his short pieces would help) but I think this list ain’t half bad.

Using the other syllabi that are available at, I’ve decided that this list covers a good amount of ground for students being introduced to the medium.

I’m starting out with introductory theory (understanding comics, then Horrocks’ critique) and reading strips (Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Calvin and Hobbes, etc.)

then moving to short stories (Sturm, Woodring, Dart, Kramers Ergot 5, McSweeneys, Eisner, Barry)

then memoir, autobios (Doucet, Satrapi, Campbell, Spiegelman, Kochalka, Pekar, Lutes, Brown, Kominsky Crumb)

history/journalism (Brown, Sacco)

“Literature” (Clowes, Ware, Los Bros, Jason)

Manga (Tezuka, Nakazawa, Miyazaki)

Have read:

A Contract with God – Esiner

Maus – Spiegelman

Ghost World – Daniel Clowes

Persepolis I,II – Marjane Satrapi

Golems Mighty Swing – James Sturm

American Elf – James Kochalka

Barefoot Gen – Nakazawa

Jimmy Corrigan – Chris Ware

Frank Book – Woodring

My New York Diary – Julie Doucet

Louis Riel – Chester Brown

Safe Area Gorazde – Joe Sacco

Understanding Comics – McCloud

Barefoot Serpent – Scott Morse

Jason Lutes – Jar of Fools

Reading or will read:

A Passionate Journey – Masereel ?

Locas – Jaime Hernandez

Palomar –Gilbert Hernandez

Kramer’s Ergot 5 – Collaborative

B Krigstein Comics – Greg Sadowski ?

Phoenix (Tale of the future) – Tezuka

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind – Miyazaki

Peanuts 1950-1954 –Charles Schulz ?

Hey Wait… – Jason

Rabbit Head – Dart

From Hell – Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell ?

How to be an artist – Eddie Campbell

I Never liked you – Chester Brown

McSweeny’s #13

Basically, I left out lots of European comics because I have no exposure (Jason aside) whatsoever, and hopefully as my education continues, so will my horizons.

comments, critiques? I’ll try to have the actual syllabus ready by next week.

I will have a supplementary list for the class as well. Keep in mind this is an introduction to comics for an undergraduate class. I feel that the selections are pretty broad, and that at least one of these works should appeal to anyone.

At Bennington College, many people don’t “get” comics, and have a really hard time connecting the more complex panel transitions. I think dailies and strips are a good way to see the immediate impact of pace, gutters and composition.

anyways, suggestions are clearly in order!

My response:

That looks like good stuff, Adrian… however, and this is just me trying to open up a conversation here, does anyone have any concerns about the whole idea of “introductions to (specific) media” (i.e. I have a similar problem with intro. to film, and I would have the same concerns about an intro. to “the novel” course, if such a thing exists… I KNOW that I did hate the intro. to “the short story” course that I took as an undergrad)?

What I’m trying to say is: does it make sense, outside of a creative workshop (not that I think creative workshops make any sense either, but that’s another topic!), to privilege the “technical” aspects of texts over their thematic content? I’m not saying that formal properties aren’t important–in fact I’m pretty much a formalist critic!–but what I’m interested in is narrative form (i.e. storytelling choices), rather than the kinds of nuts and bolts stuff that you would almost have to focus on in a course with this reading list. It’s like assigning Dickens, William Burroughs, Dashiell Hamett, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins and Toni Morrison and then spending the whole semester discussing word choices and sentence construction!

Am I wrong? Do people really have that much difficulty “understanding comics”? If I was forced to teach a class with that reading list (thankfully, I won’t be! I’m using comics next semester as well, but the selections are linked by a theme) I suppose I would–in exasperation!–consecrate the time toward developing an understanding of the kinds of stories that comics can tell, although I’m not sure what that would get me either.

Are you just gonna show them examples of “great comic art” and tell them why they should consider it great? Or will you expect them to engage the works in a more truly critical spirit?

Obviously, this plays into our recent discussions re: criticism vs. appreciation, don’t ya think?

And–just because I can’t resist!–don’t you think it’s just a little bit weird that there are no superhero comics on Adrian’s lists? Frankly, I don’t see how Grant Morrison’s best stuff is any less “essential” than the things that are up there, but, of course, that’s just me!

Oh yeah–as those of you that shared my disgust with the Colby Cosh piece from TCJ #263 may know, today is the 15th anniversary of the “Montreal Massacre”, and, sadly, I don’t think gender politics in North America have improved one whit since that time, despite the “sinister” ways in which “evil feminists” have “manipulated the issue to serve their ‘agenda'”… Anyone who thinks that Marc Lepine wasn’t just the tip of a very thick phallic iceberg just isn’t paying attention to popular culture, as far as I’m concerned…

Good night friends!



  1. I think it’s very weird there are no capes on the list…
    Obviously: Watchmen and the first dark knight book
    maybe – astro city or powers
    kirby’s new gods?
    stan lee’s spiderman or FF?

    While most people THINK they are familiar with superhero comics I doubt any of them have REALLY studied them…

    HEY!!! What about “Flex Mentallo”?


    The Lone Nutr

  2. i agree, uh, nutr, although, in this case, the ostracism of the “capes” is not essential to my argument–in fact, their inclusion would probably make that class even more unmanageable!

    Also–Adrian has offered a cogent response on the messageboard thread (re: the “Bennington method”) … I guess I’m still idealistic enough to believe that students can “introduce” themselves to this (or any other!) medium… the hard part begins once you’ve well and truly met!


  3. I don’t know, if a comic is worth teaching under some ideological rubric in college, then it’s worth teaching without one. If you’re going to teach Squadron Supreme, then why must the teacher have a particular political reason in mind? Seems to me that this is tacit admission on your part that literature isn’t what you’re particularly interested in teaching in your literature classes. I’d probably use this as a criterion for what’s appropriate in the classroom: does the text likely bring more than what my theory is bringing to it? Is the text more than what’s translated into theory? Everything signifies; there has to be something more than that to why study one text in literature versus something else. Some of Anders’ list is junk, but that doesn’t mean it’d be improved by including Roy Thomas.


  4. Dave,

    I agree that mixed-media classes work very well. High school English teachers tend to use videos and songs as well as stories and poems–in other words, whatever works.

    But I do think single-media classes have their place, especially in college and beyond, because they allow a greater focus on how this stuff gets made. I took a film course as an undergrad that was focused mainly on theme/meaning and not so much on the technical side, but just the fact that we watched and talked about a bunch of movies meant that the specific tehcnical (and social) concerns of filmmaking were always coming up. This is pretty important: first, because understanding how (and why) a movie is made is essential to placing your own experience of the movie into a larger context, and two, the “how” of a movie is often tied intimately to its meaning.


  5. Believe it or not, people really do have that much difficulty understanding comics, or at least understanding comic books. I’ve had quite a few friends and acquaintances pick up random comics and find themselves completely unable to follow relatively simple sequences. It’s not entirely the reader’s fault – there are also quite a few comics artists who don’t seem to grasp the basics of storytelling or page composition.

    You’re right, though, that an entire course dedicated solely the technical aspects of comics seems a bit excessive (outside of art school, that is). A better idea would be to focus on the basic technique early, and then reinforce it during the course by pointing out how the technique’s being used to create certain effects. It’d be closer to a film studies course, then.

    I’m also kinda surprised by the lack of bad examples on the list. I, for one, tend to learn more from failure than success – there’s more to be taught from a bad issue of Youngblood than a great issue of Acme Novelty Library, in my opinion.

    Dave “The Knave” White

  6. Hmm…

    I’m less disturbed by the lack of superheroes than by the overabundance of autobio…surely one or two of those would be enough, maybe three.

    And I think that the syllabus is too long in general. There’s a lot going on in these comics, and I’m afraid that there won’t be enough time to devote to each of them. But that gets back to the core issue for me: what is the main point of the class? Is it just an intro to a medium, which is probably a little broad for just one semester, or is it a survey/history/appreciation course, which again would probably warrant a reading of excerpts rather than whole books and maybe also Jones/Jacobs’ The Comic Book Heroes, which goes into a large chunk of the history pretty well.

    The whole thust of the class is vague, because there are so many kinds of comics out there, each of which does something different, and that’s even before individual readings come into play. I’m happy to see comics courses in colleges, but I think a narrower focus on one specific type with just a few examples to really pore over would be more effective…

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