Part 1: The High and Low of Teaching Comics

(first of a series)

I first ran into McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the visually-oriented Freshman English anthology Seeing and Writing. The book reproduced McCloud’s chapter 6  “Show and Tell” :  a humorous and brilliant comic book  introduction to representation—how a visual resembles a real thing but is conventionalized into a symbol representing ideas, different than language, where the idea is converted into abstract form: a sound and a symbol representing a sound not the thing. Not the normal stuff of comics!

Normally, I would never have considered McCloud’s work for a basic writing class.  Then my wife Diana and I bought a copy for our son’s 12th birthday.  He was going through a phase with Japanese Manga. He never got interested in McCloud’s meta-comics book.  But I did, as it combined my childhood and adolescent delight in comics (from Peanuts to underground Zap “comix”), with my adult interest in semiotics. So I began to experiment, assigning the book as independent reading in a basic writing class that I taught with an emphasis on visual communication.

Semiotics is a marginal sub-field in academia, devoted to applying the systematic approach in linguistics to all human symbol-making . I have always held onto that visual media interest, and semiotics seemed the necessary theoretical link between the worlds of orderly rhetoric and the delirious pleasures of iconic screen imagery. Though Understanding Comics is an argument for comics as a medium that encompasses high art, as well as pre-literate fun and games, chapter 6 can be seen as an introduction to the semiotics, an esoteric subject mostly confined to film schools, “cultural studies” and philosophy departments, which is sometimes taught in a “lite” version in university level composition classes. It can be seen as too “big” of a topic for students who are struggling with the mystery of the thesis statement. In 2009, I photocopied “Show and Tell” and put it into my own edited anthology.

I assigned McCloud in one class, and some of the students probably read it, but I didn’t want test for full understanding. Students were curious, at ease with McCloud’s conventional and versatile comic style, but mystified by his non-narrative academic approach.   We discussed it , and later I quizzed them on key terms like “pictorial representation” and “linguistic representation”. I was disappointed with the results. It was not satisfying when they wrote down answers like “pictures” and “words”. I was learning my first lesson with teaching McCloud: it seemed much more simple than it actually was. The vocabulary meant very little unless I taught McCloud’s concept that words and pictures were part of a continuum of representation; students already know words and pictures are different, but find it difficult to work with McCloud’s assumption that they are part of one human impulse to symbolize.

My intentions were good: to use the medium of comics to introduce a semiotic discourse that students might find useful, providing only a rudimentary conceptual framework for more specific visual writing topics like advertisements, billboards, murals and sculptures, without attempting to teach a comprehensive theory.  McCloud presents the “simple” notion that visual representation is more than resemblance—that it is a systematic field of communication that is what Gabriel Salomon calls “replete”– full of fuzzy, individual, idiosyncratic details whose meanings are hard to pin down.

The problem with my good intentions is that in a basic writing class, I am already busy, to put it mildly, with other things like topic sentences, motivation issues, absenteeism, subject-verb agreement, lab hours, and distinguishing the teenager who can’t stop texting from the teen mother who keeps walking out to talk on her phone because her child care arrangement fell through.  I began to teach McCloud a little bit, students read it a little bit, and most of them forgot about it as the compositions became more demanding.  It was independent reading, so students saw no need to read it.  No one spoke up when I would stop teaching it late in the semester. The strongest students sometimes return a year later and say:  “I never understood what that ‘comics’ book was all about.  Does it really mean something important?”

by Jeff Goldthorpe


This entry was posted in Graphic Novels/ Comics, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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