(The following statement opens the syllabus for English 392: Comics, Childhood, and Children's Comics, a course I am now teaching at CSU Northridge. English 392 launched on August 27, 2018, and we are at, roughly, mid-term. Regular KinderComics readers will recognize this post as one in a continuing series on teaching.)
Did you know that Scholastic—publisher of Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, and The Baby-sitters Club—is also America's number one publisher of new, English-language comics?
Not Marvel. Not DC. Scholastic.
In fact, we are in a Golden Age of comics for children and young adults, in the form of the graphic novel. For about the past decade, graphic novels have been booming as a young reader's genre. Today, diverse publishers and imprints are competing to put graphic novels in the hands of children and teens: Graphix (Scholastic), First Second (Macmillan), Amulet (Abrams), Random House, TOON Books, Papercutz, BOOM! Studios, Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR, Flying Eye Books (Nobrow), and others, including brand-new or forthcoming imprints CubHouse (Lion Forge), Yen Press JY, and even DC's soon-to-launch DC Zoom and DC Ink. In short, something interesting is going on.
Who could have predicted this trend fifteen years ago? Comics, historically, have been a disreputable medium, branded as "objectionable," even as a threat to childhood, learning, and literacy. Further, the field of academic children's literature criticism (launched in the 1970s) has been so averse to comics that for decades it downplayed or ignored the form. The current interdisciplinary field of childhood studies has produced little work on comics. Even the field of comics studies, which has been exploding in the twenty-first century, has been so eager to attain legitimacy and "adulthood" (in terms defined by adult literature) that it has stinted research on children’s comics. Until quite recently, few scholars have felt the need to examine the intersection of comics and childhood.
Yet comics have been central to the literacy stories, and reading lives, of millions of children the world over. Moreover, children's comics include many of the most influential comics ever published. Young readers have been the target audience of the most successful comics ever made—and those have been very successful indeed, in terms of profit, cultural influence, and deep connections made with readers. Comics for children are not new, even if we are now thinking of them in new ways.
Many national cultures, from the Americas to Europe to Asia, have sustained long traditions of children's comics and drawn iconic images and characters from those comics (How can one understand postwar Japan without the manga of Tezuka, or contemporary France without Asterix?).
In the United States, millions of readers young and old read comic strips in newspapers throughout most of the twentieth century, and the comic book, born in the Depression era, mushroomed by the end of the forties into an industry that sold tens of millions of magazines every month, most of them to young people. If comic books were disreputable, they were also hugely popular and influential. If many of us have almost forgotten that era, still it lives on, implicitly, in today's conversations about the graphic novel and children. Nowadays we see in comics the seed of a new visual literacy, complex and multimodal, but have the old fears gone away?
Simply put, comics for children is a vital but still-obscured topic crying out for critical study—and that's what our English 392 class is all about. We will study the contemporary graphic novel as a children's and YA publishing phenomenon, and trace how and why this renascence has come about. In addition, we will consider (though alas only too briefly) the troubled history that lies behind this trend. What social, cultural, and educational changes have transformed the once-disreputable comic book into the graphic novel of today? What dynamics of power and cultural legitimization (or delegitimization) have changed the status of comics in our culture? To what extent has comics' reputation as illegitimate persisted, despite the current boom in children's comics?
Together we will read articles and book chapters in children’s literature and comics studies, plus a range of children’s comics, from pioneering strips (e.g. Peanuts) to comic books to, most especially, contemporary graphic novels by authors such as Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang. As we work together, each of you individually will be able to find your own areas of interest and dig more deeply. Expect to present in class, i.e. lead class discussion, at least once during the semester; to pursue self-directed research responsive to your own interests; and to craft a final seminar paper roughly 10 to 12 pages in length. Expect several guest speakers as well!
Sigh. About eleven weeks ago, I announced that KinderComics would be taking "a four-week break." That is, back around July 23 I envisioned that KinderComics would take a brief timeout so that I could prep my Fall classes and fix some technical problems, but then come roaring back to life by August 20. My hope, as I said, was "to get KinderComics on a more secure tech footing and then resume blogging on a biweekly basis just in time for the Fall semester." Further, I promised that KinderComics would "delve into teaching in a big way come August 20-27." Out of such promises, embarrassing retractions are made.
August 20 would have been one week before the launch of classes at my school (CSU Northridge). As it happens, we are now in Week Seven of classes. Of particular interest to KinderComics is my Honors seminar, English 392, devoted to "Comics, Childhood, and Children's Comics." That course underwent much revision between the time of my last substantial post about it (gulp, May 31) and the launch of class on August 27. For example, four or five of the books I envisioned teaching in 392 have in fact dropped out of the syllabus, since I had to make more room for big issues and assignments (as a course designer, I'm used to that sort of change). As I've noted before, 392 is a bit of a balancing act: the impetus for the class is the current boom in young readers' graphic novels, but the class also seeks to "address the vexed larger history of children’s comics," including, briefly, "the histories of newspaper strips and comic books vis-à-vis children." As I've said, juggling those various topics is a challenge, both practically and intellectually. And now my students and I are right in the middle of that challenge!
Working with the reality of 392, as opposed to planning it in the abstract, has required me to adjust my sights and hopes, so as to do the best I can by my students. What was a notional blueprint for a course has become, as it always must, an actual class and a kind of living experiment. I have begun to worry that my approach assumes too much prior knowledge, and to remind myself that any comics course at this level needs to lay a foundation, because students very often come into these courses with no prior experience of Comics Studies, and even little experience as comics readers (I am reminded of Gwen Tarbox's wise comments about gearing her comics-teaching toward her students' needs and concerns). In any case, I have certainly been mindful, these past seven weeks, of the serious challenge we have undertaken as a class. Here is the abridged course description for 392 that I gave out on paper back on Day One (the full syllabus being online, in the form of a class website):
And here is the tentative schedule, also given out on Day One (the final schedule being on the class website, and always potentially in flux):
Thus far we've kept to the rough contours of this schedule. On the one hand, we need some flexibility in scheduling; OTOH, the students have volunteered for dates to serve as discussion leaders (or "launchers"), so we do have to hold to the schedule as much as we can. Per the schedule, just yesterday we hosted the first of our four scheduled guest speakers: Dr. Lara Saguisag of the College of Staten Island-CUNY. Dr. Saguisag is an experienced children's author, longtime contributor to the Children's Literature Association, and author of the brand-new study, Incorrigibles and Innocents: Constructing Childhood and Citizenship in Progressive Era Comics (Ruters UP), which I consider a watershed book in both comic strip and childhood studies. I am sure that this is going to be an important and generative work for both children's literature and comics scholars.
Having read both Dr. Saguisag's article on Buster Brown and some of her work on Peanuts this past week, we joined her via Skype for a freewheeling, spontaneous conversation about childhood studies, children's book publishing in the Philippines, early comic strips, and her research methods and process, as well as her passionate childhood reading (and perhaps more ambivalent adult assessment) of Hergé's Tintin and Lewis Carroll's Alice (with a sprinkling of Roald Dahl for good measure). It was a delight to witness Dr. Saguisag thinking aloud, on her feet as it were, about serious issues, including children's reading, its possible influence, the dark side of humor, and the resonance, or one could even say terrible relevance, of her book's findings for America today, an America once again obsessed with self and Other, inclusion and exclusion, and what it means to be a citizen. Speaking personally, I can't thank Lara enough for her forthrightness, openness, and thoughtfulness, and for her generous, accessible way with everyone in our class. It was a great session.
By semester's end, we will have hosted, assuming all goes according to plan, three more speakers, including Skype guests Carol Tilley and Gina Gagliano and in-person visitor Jordan Crane (We Are All Me). To say that I'm looking forward to these sessions would be a huge understatement!
What else have we been up to in 392? Well, besides delving into Peanuts and (via Lara Saguisag's work) early American newspaper strips, we've also discussed: the cultural status of comics in the US, in particular the comic book as defined by the scandals of the mid-20th century (this will lead to Dr. Tilley and other sources in a couple of weeks); the children's graphic novel boom (and the current status of graphic novels in public libraries); the introductions to two landmark scholarly books that came out last year, Picturing Childhood: Youth in Transnational Comics (ed. Heimermann and Tullis) and Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults (ed. Abate and Tarbox); Joe Sutliff Sanders's "chaperoning theory" regarding the difference between comics and picture books, followed by Spiegelman and García Sánchez's Lost in NYC (2015) vis-à-vis De la Peña and Robinson's Last Stop on Market Street (also 2015); and Karasik and Newgarden's How to Read Nancy (2017), alongside, of course, a fair serving of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy (and Jared Gardner on the history of comic strips). So, it's been a heady brew: history, current events, comics form, constructions of childhood, and more. And we're not even halfway through!
Given all this, and three other courses to teach, in addition to writerly, editorial, and service commitments on multiple fronts, I'm forced to admit that maintaining even a biweekly blog is probably going to be beyond me between now and December. On top of that, the technical problems I alluded to back in July have not changed at all (Weebly continues to be anathema to my university), and I may therefore have to make some tough choices, and soon. But KinderComics is not going away; I hope to be back with reviews before Halloween. I continue to read children's and young adult comics (as well as many other sorts of comics) with the usual trancelike fascination, and look forward to sharing my thoughts here -- and, I hope, to hearing from my readers!
PS. They are not "children's" texts per se, not in the usual, expected sense anyway, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point my readers to two extraordinary works in comics that I've read this past week, one a memoir of childhood to adulthood, the other a story about childbearing and birthing:
L. Nichols's booklength graphic memoir, Flocks, tells a story of growing up queer, and wracked with guilt, in a fundamentalist community. It's not a screed; it's not an act of revenge. Rather, it's an act of love, through and through, one that transmutes pain into courage and understanding. An achingly personal testimony to the work of transitioning and self-fashioning, it finds its own visual language, its own distinctive vocabulary of braided metaphors, to tell a story of self-in-community, of what it means to find yourself within (and against) your "flocks." Brave, tender, and astonishing. Bless publisher Secret Acres for bringing us the completed version of this long-awaited project.
Just as astonishing, though wholly different, is Lauren Weinstein's graphic memoir of her second childbearing and birthing experience, "Mother's Walk," which makes up the latest issue (No. 17) of Youth in Decline's outstanding quarterly anthology, Frontier. "Mother's Walk" is an explicit and revealing remembrance of childbearing and delivery, with all its rigors, emotional, psychological, and of course physical. I have been anxious to see a graphic memoir like this for some time, one that depicts birth and mothering in raw but loving detail. This is a startling, eloquent, and, as always with Weinstein, unpretentious and gutsy piece of work, one that (she says) anticipates a longer book about childbearing and child-rearing. I can't wait.
I recommend these two titles as emphatically as I can recommend any art.
PPS. It’s back in print: Joe Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. Ohmigosh, yes.
The Unsinkable Walker Bean. By Aaron Renier. First Second, 2010. ISBN 978-1596434530. 208 pages, softcover, $15.99. Colored by Alec Longstreth.
(This review originally ran on the now-defunct Panelists blog in June 2011. I've revived it here and now because a sequel to Walker Bean is promised this fall. Ever the fusspot, I have not been able to avoid the temptation to trim and update, albeit slightly. - CH)
Piracy on the high seas—storybook piracy I mean, the kind we know mostly from echoes of Stevenson and Barrie—remains an adaptable, nigh-bottomless genre. The piratical yarn lends itself to the dream of an infinitely explorable world, to lusty romance, oceanic myth, and shivery deep-sea terrors, all of it salted with enough bilge, filth, and real-world cynicism to sell even the flintiest skeptic. The golden age of Caribbean piracy, which even as it happened was a set of facts angling to become a myth, helped redefine the pirating life as radically democratic, an anarchic space of freedom—ironic, since it grew out of colonialism and the Thirty Years’ War. That age bequeathed us a roll call of larger-than-life persons, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, Blackbeard, and the rest: real-life opportunists from whence Stevenson distilled his great, demonic “Sea-Cook,” Long John Silver, Treasure Island’s indelible villain.
Silver’s slipperiness lives on, I suppose, in Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, ever scheming, ever sidling away to scheme another day. Pirates of the Caribbean reinvigorated the old genre, but with a heaping dose of hypocrisy. For example, in Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp's third Pirates film (2007), the multinational juggernaut that is Disney pits globalization, in the person of the über-capitalistic East India Company, against scrappy piratical “freedom,” represented by Sparrow and his fellow rum-soaked scumbags. Huh? Couched in terms of post-9/11, post-Patriot Act resistance to a neoliberal mercantilist New World Order, that movie of course made shiploads of money. Such irony. So, the myth of the high-seas pirate carries on, its popularity an index of how we feel about the tug o’war between hegemonic authority and the individual will to live and indulge.
Cartoonists in particular seem to love pirate tales and other nautical yarns, maybe because such tales make the world feel larger, maybe because they give license for scruffiness and odd character design (think Segar), maybe simply because the high seas invite so much gushing ink. A fair handful of graphic novels from recent times either plunge into the deep sea or sail off to faraway places: Leviathan, That Salty Air, Far Arden, The Littlest Pirate King, Blacklung, Set to Sea, et cetera (I bet readers can name a few others). Aaron Renier’s The Unsinkable Walker Bean (released, what, eight years ago now?) dives into the genre with a hectic, dizzying 200-page story and a surplus of delicious inky craft.
Written and drawn by Renier and colored by Alec Longstreth, Bean is a beautiful, odd book aimed squarely at young readers, the first of a promised series that, it seems to me, aims to mix a carefully rigged Tintin-esque plot with the jouncing unpredictability and eccentricity of Joann Sfar, whose organic approach to both plotting and drawing probably provided inspiration. The materials are familiar enough, but the execution is, wow, crazy. The results strike me as imperfect but delightful.
Walker Bean (a cartoonist’s surrogate?) is an unlikely pirate: a nervous, sensitive boy prone to doodling and mad invention, slightly pudgy and bespectacled to make him seem an unexpected hero. His emotions are worn near the surface. The plot tests his ingenuity and bravery, offering plenty of swashbuckling and catastrophic violence in the bargain. It’s sometimes bloody and boasts some real scares. Walker’s world looks like a farrago of eighteenth and nineteenth century elements—costume, settings, ships—but frankly it’s unreal, a synthetic alternate world. Per the map on the frontispiece, that world is like a distorted view of ours but bears fanciful names (e.g., Subrosa Sound, the Gulf of Brush Tail, and cities like New Barkhausen and Tapioca) alongside real ones like the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Anachronisms abound, such as a middle class child’s bedroom casually appointed with books. Stops along the way, such as the colorful port of Spithead, teem with diverse character types who lend the storyworld a distinctly postcolonial vibe.
The plot, a mad, churning mess, begins with mythical backstory: a child’s bedtime story about the destruction of Atlantis. Then it veers sharply into pure breathless adventure. Young Walker, to save his ailing grandfather, must brave the high seas in order to return a maleficent artifact to its home in a deep ocean trench. That artifact is a skull of pearl formed in the nacreous saliva of two monstrous sea “witches”: huge lobster-like monsters who caused Atlantis’s fall. The skull is itself a character, evil, cackling, and seductive. One glimpse of it can send a person into shock or even death.
Walker’s grandfather, an eccentric, bedridden admiral, entreats the boy to dispose of the skull, while Walker’s father, Captain Bean, a vain, greedy fool, plots to sell the skull for maximum profit, egged on by one “Dr. Patches,” a fraud and a fiend. The action, which zigzags unpredictably, includes long stretches on a pirate ship called the Jacklight. There Walker becomes an unwitting crew member, working with a powder monkey named Shiv and a girl named Genoa—an able thief and fighter who more than once nearly kills Walker. That's as close as the book gets to the excitements of courtship.
The pearlescent skull is said to be a source of great power, of course, but keeps tempting would-be possessors to their doom (there’s a strong hint here of Tolkien’s one Ring). Donnybrooks and sea battles alternate with creepy scenes of the skull exerting its influence and big, splashy encounters with the horrific witches. Pages vary from minutely gridded exercises to explosive full-bleed spreads. Plot-wise, there are double-crosses, shipwrecks, and weird critters aplenty, a burgeoning cast of supporting players, and moments of tenderness, confusion, and self-realization. Walker, Gen, and Shiv are all well realized. Walker himself becomes the true hero that the title promises. In the end, things are resolved but other things left open, setting up Volume Two.
Renier has not worked out his story perfectly. Honestly, I didn’t retain most of the plot details after reading through the first time; the story ran by me at a mile a minute, and I couldn’t catch it. The plot twists confusingly like a snake underfoot, and logical stretches are many; even for a pirate yarn, the book strains belief. At one point, the remains of a smashed ship conveniently drift into port. At another, the Jacklight, having been completely wrecked, is rebuilt and transformed into an overland vehicle (with wheels) in the space of a single day. In short, Renier leans on plot devices that don’t convince. What’s more, the storytelling is at times more exuberant than clear; certain double-takes and surprises confused me. Pacing and story-flow sometimes hiccup. What we’ve got here is a patently rigged plot set in an overstuffed story-world that is still in the process of being worked out. Walker Bean is a generous story, almost risibly full, but sometimes it's hard to believe.
Ah, but how it testifies to the love of craft! The book’s colophon describes in detail Renier’s process of drawing and hand-lettering (on good old-fashioned Bristol board) and then the shared process of coloring (where the digital takes over). All tools and techniques are duly described, even razor-work and the use of Wite-out to vary texture. The descriptions are aimed at any reader; no prior knowledge of technique is assumed. It’s as if Renier and Longstreth wanted to let young readers in on their trade secrets. The book’s coloring, it turns out, began collaboratively:
Using some old, faded children’s books for inspiration, Aaron and Alec created a custom palette of 75 colors, which are the only colors used in this book. Coloring a big book is easier when one has only a limited number of colors to choose from, and it makes the colors feel very unified.
The results do exhibit an aesthetic unity, without disallowing the occasional eruption of tasty graphic shocks. In any case, the blend of line art and color—handiwork and digital—is gorgeous. Renier, if not yet a surefooted storyteller, is a terrific cartoonist. Vigorous brush- and pen-work, lush texturing and atmosphere, dramatic staging, complex yet readable compositions, and even formalist games—all these are in his ambit. Examples are legion. For instance, check out this panel depicting a bumpy ride:
Or this much quieter one, depicting a secret hideout:
Renier’s commitment to the work and talent for conjuring strange places and characters show in every page—and every page is different. This is first-rate narrative drawing, stuffed with beauty and promise; it takes the gifts shown in Renier’s first book, Spiral-Bound, and boosts them to a new level.
Finally and most importantly, Walker Bean has soul. It makes room for emotional complexity. Minor epiphanies and finely observed silences, scattered across the book, make it much more than an opportune potboiler. Behind the book is a thumping heartbeat that testifies to a reckless love of comics and adventure. This is a yarn without a whiff of condescension: mad, high-spirited, and cool.
(Volume Two is due this October. Hmm, what difference will eight years make? Also, note that KinderComics will be on summer break between now and Monday, August 20, 2018.
Of course San Diego’s Comic-Con International begins today, along with the associated Comics Conference for Educators and Librarians at the San Diego Central Library. Part of me wishes I could be there, but, as the saying goes, I have other fish to fry. First, an announcement:
After next Monday, July 23, KinderComics will be taking a four-week break so that I can prepare for the Fall 2018 semester and also address some technical problems that have arisen around this site. That is, I will have a review up next Monday, but after that KinderComics will likely hibernate until Monday, August 20. My hope is to get KinderComics on a more secure tech footing and then resume blogging on a biweekly basis just in time for the Fall semester. Expect this site to delve into teaching in a big way come August 20-27.
I’m sorry that I’ll have to be out of action for a bit. KinderComics is something I’m very proud of, and has given new shape and meaning to my life as a comics reader. Since taking this blog public about four months ago, I’ve published nearly forty posts and reviewed nearly a score of books, including nine or ten brand-new titles. I’ve hosted posts by Joe Sutliff Sanders and Gwen Athene Tarbox, published news and commentary, brainstormed for my forthcoming children’s comics seminar, and drawn hundreds of visitors. This is a project I definitely plan on continuing, even if my teaching schedule may make weekly posting impossible. Essentially, KinderComics is my way of keeping track of the new “mainstream” in comics, practicing comics criticism, and reflecting on the emergent discourse of children’s comics scholars—so it matters a great deal to me. Look out for new posts on July 23 and August 20!
Secondly, back on July 3, which to me feels like a hundred years ago, Inks editor (and my Comics Studies Society colleague) Jared Gardner published an interview with me at Extra Inks that delves into why I am doing KinderComics and what I hope this blog can contribute to the scholarly community. Jared, a top-notch scholar and critic, is one of my guiding lights in this profession, and I'm proud and grateful that he chose to spotlight KinderComics. In general, Extra Inks (the blog of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society) is a great resource for reviews and features pertaining to comics and comics scholarship, well worth bookmarking and visiting often. (Take for example my colleague Candida Rifkind's timely and helpful post spotlighting migrant and refugee comics, from July 8.) Thank you, Jared!
San Diego's mammoth Comic-Con International is happening this coming week, July 18-22, once again filling the city's Convention Center, harborfront, Gaslamp Quarter, and myriad hotels with thousands and tens of thousands of pop culture fans and purveyors. I, though a CCI veteran, will be sitting out Comic-Con this year, for financial and personal reasons, but, as usual, I have been skimming the Con program with interest. It's my way of staying in touch. Studying the CCI program reminds me of the delights and frustrations of the Comic-Con experience, the sheer scale of the thing, and the uneasy overlapping of fan communities that make CCI such a beast.
I've learned to look out for specific things in the program and focus on them ruthlessly, while filtering out literally hundreds of other things. The personalized online scheduling provided by SCHED.org, with its color-coding and organization by day, venue, and category, makes filtering that much easier. This year I have a particular eye for the following:
This year I note an especially strong emphasis on progressive political issues, including questions of diversity and inclusion, representation, social justice, geek activism, the challenges of bullying and incivility, and the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. I also see, as expected, a continuing emphasis on children's and YA publishing, which have become crucial parts of Comic-Con.
What follows is a list of particular panels I'd be trying to get to if I were at Comic-Con, aside from the obvious spotlights on individual artists (Bui, Ferris, Liniers, Walden, Wang, Reynaldo) and graphic novel publishers that I admire (e.g. Abrams, Drawn & Quarterly). Clicking on the panels' titles will take you to online descriptions:
Teaching with Comics: An Interactive Workshop for Educators
See Hatfield, comics and children's culture scholar