Part 2: High and Low of Teaching Comics


I first assigned McCloud’s chapter 6 of Understanding Comics in a basic writing class, but I did not know how to teach it, and my students did not know how to read it. The freshman comp anthologies using semiotic ideas, notably Signs of Life, were all at the university level. There was no textbook to tell me how to teach it. I began by leading discussions on chapter 6, and quizzing students on the terms there, for example realistic vs. iconic.

I first tried quizzing students about vocabulary in the normal way (fill in the blank) and was surprised to find that a couple of go-rounds were not sufficient. There had to be discussions of pictures mixed with abstract ideas. I had little experience discussing the amount of shadowing in a drawing of a face, much less the distinction between cartoon-style and abstraction in how they omit visual detail. I began teaching the conceptual words supplemented by McCloud’s graphic representations of the concept.

It was more complicated than I realized: I used McCloud’s renderings of famous paleolithic cave paintings in order to teach the “easy” concepts of “realistic” and “iconic” (more cartoon-like) representation. What I thought of as a realistic rendering of a horse’s head was not seen as realistic by some students raised in a culture of photography and video. They did not see the horse’s head as realistic but iconic, and did not understand that other cave paintings, squiggles suggestive of men with spears, which did not render the shape of their bodies, could be understood as “iconic” next to the horse picture, which showed the shape of the horse’s head, eyes and nose specific to a horse in motion. This relates back to McCloud’s continuum of representation.

I also assigned McCloud as independent reading with periodic journal entries due every week or two. At the beginning many students dutifully tried to summarize chapters, but didn’t understand very much. Later in the semester only 2 or 3 students read the book, and eventually even they stopped submitting journal writing when the homework got more intense. Then I get the feeling that students think that they can ignore the book and do fine in the class. Yes, why should they buy the book? So I have to make reading the book count with quizzes and I have to teach it more.

I decided to order the whole book (used copies were cheap) rather than only using a middle chapter. McCloud is enough of a teacher that he introduces more basic concepts in early chapters, gives several different examples, and then picks up terms like realistic/ iconic again in later chapters. Early chapters introduce the basic vocabulary, such as media/ medium, icon/ symbol versus referent, modes such as photo-realism, cartoon-like icons, more abstract symbols, and the interface between visuals and linguistic symbols.

I began to experiment with using graphic illustrations of terms from chapter 2, like realistic / iconic. The book’s genius is that its comic form is used to explain visual theory by “showing” them graphically. McCloud constantly mixes previously used symbols and metaphors with new ones to reinforce basic concepts like a brilliant textbook or lecture.

So I’ve photo-copied a large amount of graphics from the book and have given students classroom time to arrange them with peers to show their understanding of the realistic / iconic continuum, by arranging graphics on a continuum line. These are more clearly in contrast than the cave painting examples I mentioned above; I use a lot of facial portraits from the book. The continuum is not just mentioned—it is drawn. After that work, I quiz them. I have also continued to assign homework, classroom review, and quizzes around fundamental vocabulary: medium / media, realism, icon, abstract , and so on. This is working better. Students have a sense of what they are supposed to learn.

However, I can only spend so much time teaching this stuff because I am a composition teacher, not an art history or archeology teacher. These tasks still are very much in the realm of “exposure” and not of “mastery”. My students don’t complain about being assigned a theoretical comic book text, and I don’t allot many grade points to this work. But I haven’t yet figured out how to teach writing with it, so that my students widely distinguish between realistic and cartoony-iconic styles when they are writing essays analyzing advertisements.


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