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Archive for March, 2010

I was recently asked to suggest some graphic novels or comic books for a Young Adult Literature course by a colleague at another university.  The professor wanted books that would be exciting for future high school teachers to use and intriguing and interesting for students to read.  After providing a lengthy list of various books both within and beyond the superhero genre and knowing full well that some of the more “mature” oriented storylines of Vertigo and some independent presses may find inhospitible audiences with the parents of such children (which is why you teach college students, not high school students–no parents!), the professor settled upon Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis.

Identity Crisis

My first suggestion, regardless of the book being used, was to presume that many of the students in this professor’s class may have never read a graphic novel before and therefore may not be comfortable with the sequential format.  I think for any teacher, high school or college, who wants to use graphic novels or comics in their classes, he or she needs to read Scott McCloud’s Understading Comics: The Invisible Art, especially the sections on panel creation (size, author sign posts, organization, etc.).  Incorporating McCloud into your teaching will not only help your students better understand the readings, but also make you a more critical observer.

Second, you must provide some short, cultural history of the medium and the genre.  Students need context and nothing occurs in a social, political, or cultural vacuum.  Just like Upton Sinclair and Charlottle Perkins Gilman epitomized very different strains of Progressive Era American ideologies, comics and comic authors are shaped by their times.  This can be ascertained from many of the books listed in the Bibliography section of this site.  Third, focusing a graphic novel alone is probably going to be difficult, especially if you are trying to convince future teachers to utilize a graphic novel teaching unit in their own courses.  I would suggest choosing a central theme and then assigning two or three suggested readings in addition to the course required reading.  This allows for creative paper projects and presentations for the students, and exposes them to other comic authors.

Fourth, I would begin the discussion with the following quote from Meltzer about the series: “The murder is really just plot. To me, what the book is really about is the cost of being a hero. People always assume that the villains should be scared if they see a man in a cape—but to me, the person who should be terrified is the person putting on the cape. Identity Crisis let’s me bring a little more “man” to the ‘super.'”  There is an excellent interview with Meltzer on NPR that can also be helpful.

Finally, I devised the following questions for lecturing ideas and discussion topics:

  • How does the design, arrangement, style of the panels convey issues of time passage, scene change, emotion, and importance.  Did you have any problems engaging the book and interacting with it because of the graphic sequential format (i.e. figuring out what happens first, second, next, etc.)?  Is this your first foray into the sequential medium?  If so, what struck you most about the style and format as opposed to traditional, strictly narrative texts.  If not, how does this work compare with others you have read?  
  • Although the “Big 3–Superman, Batman, & Wonder Woman” are iconic characters known internationally and have become symbols and mythic icons in their own right through television and  film, how did you engage with the second tier characters such as Flash & Green Lantern, or those other lesser known?  Do you have to be a “comic geek” to know these characters, know their origins, and know their motives within this story?  Who do you believe Meltzer’s audience is and what knowledge base do you think they would possess prior to reading this book?  If you were to use this in a course, what do you feel your students would need to better comprehend the book?   
  • What does the title Identity Crisis signify and reveal?  What are the multiple identities these characters possess and which shocked or surprised you the most, why?  Could the title be directed more at the readership than the story itself, i.e. shattering the innocence readers associate with these iconic characters or the nobility and near sacred values many attribute to these pillars of truth, justice, and the American Way?   
  • How have the images and depictions of superheroes changed and transformed since their inception in the late 1930s and early 1940s from what we see on television, film, and in Identity Crisis
  • How do you define a superhero?  What makes a superhero good and a supervillain evil.  What are the shades of gray?  While the themes of rape, murder, and the erasure of memories by members of the Justice League complicate our portrait of superheroes, does Meltzer’s story modernize these characters at the expense of their intended origins (superheroes=good only) and destroy our myths and symbols in the process, or does his story transform these characters for modern audiences raised in a post-Vietnam, Reagan-Era?  
  • What about the relationships portrayed in the book–father & son, mentor & ward, hero & sidekick, husband & wife–stood out for you and why?  How might this relationship also reflect the “identity” in crisis within the story?  
  • Are there any other superhero or non-superhero genre graphic novels you could utilize alongside Identity Crisis to deal with the themes we’ve discussed?  Do you think your students would respond more to recognizable superheroes or other non-superhero graphic novels that deal with similar themes?  Why?  Do superheroes hold the same power today as they did 10 years ago?  Why or why not. 

These are merely my own suggestions from having taught graphic novels in some of my own history and popular culture courses.  I would appreciate hearing from anybody who has taught graphic novels or comics before and ask you to share your advice and experiences as well.

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I would like readers to go over to ComicsAlliance.com and to read a fascinating article about writer Dwayne McDuffie and the role of creator rights within comic publishing.  Having interviewed McDuffie about comics, portrayals of race within the medium, and comic history, this article is revealing examination of the current state of modern comics.

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I am usually asked why I read comics by both my students, my faculty colleagues, and yes, even by family members who have known me all my life.  Family I usually ignore because it will only lead to argument, faculty I usually avoid because, well, let’s be honest, they’re university faculty members, and my students….well, I have to talk with them, so there is really no way to avoid them except to lock myself in my office and turn off all the lights.

But seriously though, I read comics because they are so different.  There is an undeserved, “deviant” quality to them as the bastard children of American Popular Culture, and for most of my academic colleagues who professes an interest in popular culture and yet whole heartedly disavow any respect let alone willingness to acknowledge comics’ place in American History, comic book studies and scholarship becomes something I can call my own.  Plus, for a lot of my students who read Neil Gaiman or who adore Y: The Last Man, my usage of graphic novels in the classroom gives me coolness points.

But how then do new readers enter this world?  Two thoughts, no rather images, immediately come to mind.  The first is of the comic book guy character on the Simpsons.  Sadly accurate in many ways, the Android’s Dungeon shop would be off-putting to the casual or even new consumer.  My own family buy graphic novels or trades online rather than going into a comic book store, even the one where I have my own subscription and would receive a discount.  This is probably the perception that most people have of the medium and if my experience in comic stores is any indication, then their perceptions are not too off base.

The second image is one from CBS’ The Big Bang Theory.  While most of the comic humor may not be understood or appreciated by audiences not familiar with the medium, the placement of comic collecting alongside Star Trek fandom, Lord of the Rings costuming, and other usually defined “geek” endeavors, while very humorous, perhaps unintentionally reinforces a lot of the negative stereotypes outsiders have of the comic medium itself.  If the character of Penny is considered the only “normal” one on the show, then what do her experiences with the guys reveal about the outsider attempting entry into the comic universe?

How do we combat this?  How do we generate new readers?  Some would contend that films can push new readers into comics and that blockbuster comic films will encourage readers to seek out comics.  Yet, I would argue that if somebody wanted to read X-Men based on the first or second film by simply walking into a shop, they would be overwhelmed by the slew of X-related titles that bare little to no resemblance to the films.  If they are lucky, new readers may find a shop where the proprietor actually greets them and offers his assistance sans condescension.  More so, if this person bypassed the comic shop and went instead to Barnes & Noble or Borders, the selection of graphic novels might also serve contrary as many newbies would not be attuned to the convoluted, forty-plus year old mythology that shapes the current X-series. 

DC had such an opportunity within the past two years to tap into what could possibly be one of the biggest markets for new comic readers ever–Oprah’s Bookclub.  When Jodi Piccoult signed on to pen Wonder Woman, DC missed the boat entirely by cross-marketing the collected versions of her arcs alongside her novels in bookstores across the country.  Piccoult’s comic stories could serve as a welcome introduction for younger female and male readers who may be too young to experience some of her more mature novels; however, the bond that it would establish between generations, parents and children who read both, would be a significant one indeed.  A new audience at the ready, already aware of the author’s strengths and popularity, and anxiously awaiting the next Piccoult publication was overlooked by the current marketing strategies of DC Comics.  A similar strategy could easily be employed for Brad Meltzer or Greg Rucka’s fiction.

The same could be said for comic book movies.  I am always shocked as to why the new release comic book films or animated adventures are not displayed alongside a selection of related graphic novels in major bookstores.  Or, why if a younger audience enjoys Superman Returns or Spider-Man, bookstores are not encouraged by DC or Marvel to cross-promote their child-friendly line of comics and collected trades along with the films.  Because the direct market is unable to cross that line and most new readers are similarly unwilling to venture into such establishments.  Perhaps the corporate restructuring of DC under DC Entertainment and Marvel under Disney will yield such change because if any company understands promotion and broad advertising, it is the House of Mouse.

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So, it is a slow comics week for me.

Flash Rebirth

One book I recently finished was the well-publicized Flash Rebirth series by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver.  While much as been said about the delays in publication from the apologist threads and entries on message boards and Twitter accounts, to the outright criticism posted on various comics news sites, I thought I’d take a moment to post a review of the entire mini-series itself, as well as placing the work within the larger context of GJ’s other publications.  As a reader and researcher, I find it quite useful to not just read comics in some sort of vacuum, but rather to situate the new works within the author’s larger publication history.

In terms of readership, I admit that I am rather a “newbie” when it comes to comics.  Although I read them quite avidly as a child and well into my early teens, I became disheartened and disenchanted in the 1990s by the variant covers, multiple crossovers, and other publicity stunts that put the artwork and “gloss” above story content and narrative, thus forcing me to abandon the medium entirely.  And, while I did extensive research into comics at comics shops and at archives such as Michigan State University’s excellent Comic Art Collection while completing my own doctoral dissertation, I did not read comics for any other purpose than a scholarly one.  A close friend and colleague, however, who accompanied me on research trips to Lansing and was a good sounding board for all things comics himself (he actually helped come up with the BGCC site title), did introduce me to two books that completely reversed that trend—Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Joe Kelly’s JLA “Obsidian Age” story arc.  Even though both became titles to cover and to discuss in my dissertation, the writing, the stories, the themes, and the eventual interview and discussion with Kelly himself led to me want to read more by him and the other writers I interviewed.  This is how I came to Johns’ work, specifically through the DC series 52.

Reading Johns out of order, however, did not dispel my appreciation for his ability to weave a solid superhero storyline.  Beginning with 52, I immediately picked up Infinite Crisis, and this was for a reader who knew nothing about the multiverse, the first “Crisis,” or pretty much anything related to the DCU beyond that which I remembered fondly as a child from Super Friends.  While definitely not the same type of writer as Morrison, Kelly, Waid, or Rucka, Johns’ stories have a strength of their own, especially within a limited story arc.  He excels at the superhero genre and that is his greatest asset, something that comes across to readers and fans alike.  My entry into the Flash, however, was not through Johns.  Instead, I came across the scarlet speedster through Waid’s “Terminal Velocity” arc for my dissertation and it was through interviews with Waid that I became truly fascinated by the Wally West character.  Long story short, I devoured all of Waid’s Flash stories and moved onto Johns’ run.  Even before my inauguration into the Central /Keystone City world, however, I read Johns’ Green Lantern Rebirth, again completely unaware of a Green Lantern Corps, multiple Green Lanterns assigned to Earth, the Guardians, Parallax, or pretty much anything related to the mythos beyond, again, what I recalled from Super Friends and Sinestro’s yellow power ring abilities.

Johns’ Flash Rebirth is nothing like his previous works and perhaps this is the reason for such vitriol on the part of reviewers and fans.  I read his GL Rebirth in trade format and thus benefitted from the preface, the introductory character bios, and having the complete series at my disposal.  Yet, can the mere presences of a forward and a series of bios truly be all it takes for a completely new reader to appreciate, to understand, and to enjoy Johns’ story, or is it something more?  For Flash Rebirth, I read them as individual issues, believing that my “extensive” knowledge of the Flash’s world, the lives of the Flash family would be sufficient to enjoy and appreciate Johns’ new take on the speedster.  And while the delivery delays definitely (wow, too much alliteration) hurt the story’s progression, would a solid, well-developed story be able to transcend such difficulties?

Having finished rereading the series as a whole, I am left wondering what Johns’ intentions were.  One problem with comics unlike film or television is that it is a medium that is experienced individually, not collectively, and one that relies entirely on expectations.  As such, comics must rely in large part on the reader’s own perceptions and cultural baggage to convey the storyline.  For example, while an author might describe a character as being from Mississippi and perhaps uses certain dialogue to reinforce this, it is the reader who attributes what level of linguistic drawl the character has.  Whether it is on one spectrum Foghorn Leghorn or someone who appears as if they just came from a scene in Deliverance or the refined Southern gentleman on the other spectrum, readers’ experiences, largely shaped by film and television, create the expectations brought into the comic medium.  Thus, comics must in large part rely upon stereotype and formula to connect with audiences whose own world view has been largely crafted by the same formulaic depictions and representations.  For Rebirth then, were readers’ expectations too high based upon Johns’ previous works?  Did readers’ bring with them too much baggage of how they perceive Wally, Jay, and Barry to act and were thus largely disappointed?  Or, did Johns try to move beyond his comfort zone, abandoning one formula of simplistic good versus evil storylines in favor of another formula of the anti-hero or “darker” hero persona?

If the delays are taken out of consideration, I believe that Johns work is largely missing its intended point if in fact that intention was to reintroduce a character to new readers yet simultaneously provide a story that would be appreciated by comic fandom.  In turn, this is perhaps one reason that authors such as Morrison are largely so divisive within the community—there usually is no middle ground with readers of Morrison as he is either generally heralded as genius or resoundingly defined as too esoteric and bizarre.   Perhaps that is the reason Morrison plays around so much in his creator-owned universe because he can truly challenge reader expectations and defy conventional stereotyping.  Even when dealing with corporate characters, Morrison still displays his flair and strengths of originality that still illicit such responses from readers.  In Rebirth, we see an attempt at innovation with a recharacterization of Barry Allen; however, this seems faulty or forced many times in the series as most of the story is told by the actors through narration rather than action.  For some Flash fans as myself, this is disappointing in light of the hero but also in terms of Johns’ strengths in other series, especially his re-inauguration of the Green Lantern franchise, particularly his abilities to tell a solid, developed superhero storyline.  Can a forward that contextualizes the story and character bios overcome difficulties in the story itself when Rebirth is collected in trade format?  More importantly, will new readers be able to participate in the story itself once it is collected and thus generate a new potential audience for the medium?  Time will tell, but I for one will be waiting to see and read it to find out because time and again, Johns has proven himself as one of the best in the superhero genre.

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As one of the major purposes of this site, I plan on eventually having a page dedicated to serious studies–journal articles, dissertations or master’s theses, or book-length monographs–examining the comics medium.  Most of what has been published on comics is done either by insiders and lacks a certain objectivity or are simply publication histories with little to no social, cultural, or political context.  Although the publication histories–Les Daniels’ various books come to mind–are very useful as introductions to the subject, serious researchers obviously need to move beyond these cursory studies.

Hopefully, once people become more aware of this site, I can generate some interest amongst fellow scholars and professionals to perhaps submit short annotations for this growing bibliography, as well as posting updates on new articles, books, and conferences that deal with the medium.  Although the site ComicsResearch.org has some excellent resources, my hope is that my site can serve as an important companion to it.  As various disciplines each approach the medium differently–American Studies, English, Communications, Media Studies, History, Sociology to name  a few–and each has its own journals, conferences, etc., it will be difficult to make sure everything gets its due; however, for the medium to move beyond insider or “fanboy” observation, it is a necessity.  And, I say this a sometimes “fanboy” myself–yes, I do have comics tshirts and the Blackest Night ring set.

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I realize that bloggers and online reviewers’ primary intentions are usually to have the “first word” on a subject, to break the big news, or to leak the latest spoiler; however, I believe in this rush to “publish,” whether it be on sites such as CBR, Newsarama, IGN Comics, or others, or on personal blogs, undermines the validity of the medium itself, evoking in many ways some of the greatest negatives associated with comics’ pulp predecesors.  That is not to say that the reviews published by organizations listed above are not solid and well done, but one of the goals of this site is to move beyond the fan review, beyond the quick hit review, and delve deeper into comic culture itself and its larger social significance.

Of course, Scalped #35 is perhaps not the best issue to begin a review with as it is a stand alone issue transitioning between writer Jason Aaron’s story arcs.  Having been with the series since the first issue, having covered its initial seven issue run in a book manuscript, and having spoken with Aaron several times about the series, this latest issue comes as a welcome departure away from what few if any reviewers have identified as potential problems for the series itself.  One of the things that truly brought me into the title was its brash and often times brazen use of violence and language juxtaposed against an environment that is often times overlooked in American popular culture–Indian Country.  Yet, this defining aspect of a series once called “the Sopranos on an Indian Reservation” by Vertigo, which once served as a potential catalyst for more contemporary, more modern, and some cases, more realistic portrayals of Native peoples, became, for a time, a stereotype in and of itself.

In this issue, Aaron introduces readers to two new characters, Mance and Hazel, both of whom live on the Prairie Ridge Rez.  Opening with a crisis contrasted against a nostalgic memory of times past, Aaron identifies a crucial and critical theme in Native history–reservation vs. non reservation Indian peoples.  Aaron states “back when the rez was formed, the only Indians lived near town were the ones who had given in, given up the fight, sold out completely.  The real Indians lived as far from town as they could get.  The further out, the more real you were.”  While recognizing this often complex and difficult relationship between rez and non rez Indigenous peoples, and the hostilities that would obviously emerge, Aaron, like most other writers dealing with contemporary Native America (in comics or otherwise) overlooks the modern demographic shift away from reservations and into cities, and the importance of urban Indian peoples in the twentieth century.  Almost establishing an “us against them” mentality, Aaron, throughout the series, reinforces stereotypes while simultaneously challenging and critiquing them.  Yet, are readers aware of this?  Does Aaron’s sound and viable research into Native history (which he does quite well) translate over to audiences largely ignorant of said history beyond what they have seen on film and television thousands of times?

This is not to say that the plight, the poverty, the hunger that are depicted in Scalped are not true–far from it.  America’s own third world is here in Oklahoma, here in South Dakota, here in Arizona, New Mexico, and beyond.  And, this is also not to say that Aaron should simply tell a “happy” story once and a while.  But, Aaron is often times championed for his “dark” and “gritty” approach to writing.  This is great and it is definitely one of his strong suits as an author.  And, in selecting a reservation as a locale to explore such themes is commendable and usually quite intriguing; however, the major trap that the series has fallen into is that the “darkness” and the “grit” are overwhelming the characters, specifically the cultural landscape upon which the entire book is founded.  Native audiences in have very few places that they can look toward and see themselves reflected back in mainstream comics (let alone film or television), and for every harsh, “dark,” and “gritty” storyline that depicts the brutality of rez life that is presented, Aaron would do well to give his Indigenous characters more agency and allow the “bright spots” of issue #35 to be achieved by the people themselves, rather than simply acted upon by outside forces beyond their control.

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Hello world!

Hi everyone!

I just set this up so give me some time and we’ll hopefully have some content within the next few hours!

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