Spring 2014 Focus

Over the sixteen or so weeks of the Fall 2013 semester, English 333 will explore that form of communication and expression generally known to readers of English as—remember, the term is a mere convenience—comics or comic art. You will often hear/see me use the word “comics” as a mass noun with a singular verb (for example, comics is…), which is now standard practice among scholars.

Over the sixteen or so weeks of our course—which is frankly a very short time to be studying something as complex as comics—we will emphasize a couple of things. First, we’ll take a formalist perspective—that is, we’ll concentrate on understanding and analyzing the comics form: how it works, how it can be used, what it can do. We’ll doing a great deal of up-close, nut ‘n’ bolts analysis of how comics suggest meaning, or rather how we make meaning out of comics. Secondly, we’ll practice using the comics form ourselves to tell our own personal stories. In other words, you’ll be making a comic. I’ll call this the minicomic project. It’s designed to give you a hands-on, first-person experience of the challenges of working in the comics form. Those are our main foci. Along the way, though, we will delve into other things too, including the breadth and complexity of comics culture today; autobiographical comics and other key genres; and how the graphic novel came to be. I’ll be asking you to do some independent looking around in comics culture, and even to review a recent comic of your choosing.

As for the kinds of comics we’ll read as we work on these issues, again, out of necessity, a course has to focus on just a few. We’ll focus on the graphic book, i.e. book-length comics, in English—what readers in America typically call the graphic novel, or, in the case of nonfiction genres, the graphic memoir, graphic history, and so on. In order to explain how graphic novels came to be, we’ll talk briefly about some antecedent genres, most especially the American-style comic bookwhat collectors have nicknamed the “floppy.”

Note that, while the label “graphic novel” is American in origin, the genre of graphic books is international. Comics is a global art form! Many graphic books now available in English came from cultures in which the Anglophone term “graphic novel” has little or no importance—yet for our purposes these books still count as graphic novels. (Note: the European equivalent of the graphic novel or comics collection is the album; the Japanese is the tankōbon.) Graphic novels often begin as serials printed in magazines, newspapers, or, especially these days, online. In the US, graphic novels are the offspring of comic books mainly, but in other cultures they have sprung from other sources. Our readings may include translations of comics from other languages and cultures, because such imports are a vital part of the American comics scene today.

Be ready for hard work, and for some surprises.

A few official-sounding words about the perspective taken in 333 may be in order:

There are many different ways to understand comics, and in fact courses on comics are taught from many perspectives. I have colleagues in Art and Design, Communications and Media, Film Studies, American Studies, History, and Anthropology who do research and teach courses about comics. In 333 we’re going to take literary and cultural studies perspectives, since, after all, this is an English studies course. Broadly speaking, 333 will examine comics as a genre of (here are three key terms for us) visual literature, sequential art, and cartooning.

Visual literature means three things: (a) literary works in which visual elements obviously play a crucial part in shaping meaning, such as illuminated books, picture books, or visual poetry; or (b) works by visual artists that invite literary interpretation, such as handmade artists’ books; or (c) a critical framework for looking at all literature, one that finds meaning in the usually-neglected visual elements of texts such as typography and graphic design. More generally, you could say that visual literature is a field of creative and critical work that refuses to give an easy answer to the question, “Is this thing that I’m looking at visual art, or is it literature?” The term visual literature has been promoted by such scholars as Eric Vos and Richard Kostelanetz, and more recently has been usefully applied to comics by Gene Kannenberg, Jr. and others. Today the study of visual literature plays a key part in the multi-disciplinary field of word and image studies. Calling comics visual literature means, potentially, comparing them to other artifacts that mix (or blur the distinction between) text and image, such as concrete poems, children’s books, or digital hypertexts. Many scholars call such artifacts (after W.J.T. Mitchell) imagetexts.

Sequential art means visual art that arranges still images into purposeful sequences, usually for the sake of telling stories, explaining situations or processes, or conveying ideas. Generally—though not always—sequential art means placing successive images close to one another, for example on the same page or screen, so that the juxtaposition of and relationship between the images is hard to miss. This term was coined by the late cartoonist and teacher Will Eisner and popularized in his classic instructional book, Comics and Sequential Art (1985). Today sequential art is widely accepted as either a synonym for comics or a larger umbrella term under which we can put comics.


Cartooning means, well, cartooning—that commonplace yet still mysterious activity that isn’t quite illustration and isn’t quite handwriting, but has something to do with both. Cartooning is narrative drawing, or, to put it another way, doodling with intent. It is an art of simplification, typification, and streamlining—an art of selective attention and graphic compression. We’ll be using Ivan Brunetti’s comics textbook Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice to help us think intently about this topic.

So, visual literature, sequential art, and cartooning. As we study these topics in 333, we’ll be breaking ground in a young academic field.

Until recently, critics of literature and art have tended to damn or dump on comics, or just sidestep them, dismissing them as an embarrassing species of pulp fiction or at best a naïvely revealing mirror in the funhouse of Pop Culture. Over the past twenty-five or so years, though, comics have been earning new kinds of critical attention; more and more, they’re being recognized as a complex, dynamic form and a deep, rich tradition (actually an international cluster of traditions!). Even new we’re in the process of putting together a critical toolbox for analyzing and evaluating works in this form. Comics studies is still doing new things!

Studying comics may mean getting out of your usual habits and trying on some new ways of reading. After all, comics by their nature frustrate attempts to put them into a pigeonhole (are they pictorial narrative? visual poetry? graphic design? all of the above?). They’re tough to pin down. Yet working to build a toolbox for comics study can help us interact with our visual culture—the whole crazy, swirling kaleidoscope of it—more intelligently, more sensitively. Analyzing comics can help us tune up our minds so that we can approach all sorts of imagetexts, whether Web pages or experimental poetry or billboards by the side of the road, from a smarter perspective. Most importantly, studying comics brings us face to face with some of the most provocative work contemporary storytellers and artists have to offer. Simply put, there’s some wonderful work in this field.

The precise objectives and requirements of this semester’s 333 are detailed in our online syllabus, on Moodle. For now, let me say that the requirements are sketched out on the Fall 2013 Workload page, and that, broadly, the main things I want to help you do in 333 are:

  • explore (and practice using) the distinctive formal qualities of comics, and become conversant with the common critical terms used to describe these qualities;
  • read some of the best that contemporary comics have to offer, with emphasis on graphic books by creators such as Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Gene Yang, and Moto Hagio.

How will we reach these goals? All sorts of ways—via discussion, lecture, and varied class activities; reading and writing; and much Moodling. Note that we’ll do a lot of analytical writing, and so completion of CSUN’s lower-division writing requirement is prerequisite to being in the class.

Welcome aboard, 333ers! I hope you find the course stimulating, challenging, eye-opening, and enjoyable.

This page is maintained by Charles Hatfield. Last updated on 26 Aug. 2013.


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