By Daniel Correia
Recent UC Santa Cruz graduate Matt Sernaker knows comics well. Really well.
He’s been reading comic books since he was six, attends the San Diego Comic Convention every year, and once wrote a 10-page paper arguing that Batman is the cultural icon of our time. He admitted that if there were a comic book major, he would be “the happiest person in the world.”
“The writing caliber on these comics in the past couple years has shot up significantly,” Sernaker said. “They’re not just focused on superhero battles. It has gone beyond superheroes and â€˜cartoony’ characters to using real world situations to influence the stories.”
Sernaker wasn’t able to graduate from UC Santa Cruz studying graphic novels, but recent trends at UCSC and other universities show that more and more graphic fiction is being taught in higher education curriculum. The phenomenon is taking place not just in pop culture and graphic design classes—graphic novels are now studied as works of literature.
In the past couple decades, a new attitude toward comic books appears to have emerged, as graphic novelists continue to tackle serious subjects through this unconventional literary method. Art Speigleman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the Holocaust story Maus (1973) while Alan Moore has received acclaim for his graphic novels V For Vendetta (1982) and The Watchmen (1986). The Watchmen, a novel that deconstructs the role of the superhero in the nuclear age with a myriad of literary allusions, is the only graphic novel to win the Hugo Award and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 list of “The 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.”
Graphic novels may not bear structural resemblance to traditional literature, but the value of graphic fiction has caught the eye of some UCSC literature professors.
“The purpose of reading is not to preserve dead white guys,” said Helene Moglen, a UCSC literature professor who teaches Maus alongside Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in her undergraduate course “The Gothic Imagination.”
“It’s partly to understand our culture and to make our culture better. We read in order to understand our society and ourselves, to conceptualize what kinds of changes are possible,” Moglen said.
Vilashini Cooppan, another UCSC literature professor, has taught Persepolis, Batman: The Dark Night Returns, and V For Vendetta in her classes.
“I think graphic novels have been really remarkable for reinventing what the novel is,” Cooppan said. “For a lot of us who work on novels that are preoccupied with memory and historical representation, the graphic novel has had a particular turn with Maus and Persepolis with representing traumatic and violent pasts, whether they be individual or collective.”
Because they are able to represent society visually as well as through narration, comic books and graphic novels have been especially successful in the field of social critique. The social realms that are often the focus of literature have found ways to be represented and critiqued in graphic novels like Ghost World and Craig Thompson’s memoir Blankets (2003). One is a realistic look at the banal everyday life of two post-high school girls and the latter recounts the author’s coming-of-age struggle with his religious and romantic past.
Even when graphic novels aren’t firmly rooted in realism, they still perform this function of social critique. A comic book series by Brian K. Vaughn, called Y: The Last Man, chronicles the adventures of the last two males on Earth—a man, Yorick, and his monkey, Ampersand. In a semi-post-apocalyptic world without Y chromosomes, women carry on and recreate society.
“It’s all about politics, gender roles, and social structures,” Sernaker said. “It’s social commentary and cultural critique.”
David Namie, a UCSC graduate student, taught “Introduction to Reading Fiction” last summer. Along with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Emily BrontÃ«’s Wuthering Heights, he included Volume I of Neil Gaimen’s graphic novel series The Sandman (1988) on the syllabus.
“I wanted to get people thinking about what makes something literary,” Namie said. “People in literary studies are becoming more interested in how texts make their meaning.”
Namie explained that people are used to “reading” novels, but taking in a graphic novel is different, as it requires “putting verbal systems alongside the visual.”
“The Sandman had a lot to do with the terms we were working with—Gothic tropes,” Namie said. “I wanted to challenge the literary canon.”
Namie acknowledged the resistance of many to accept comic books into the traditional canon, but pointed out that Dorian Gray and Wuthering Heights, included in his lesson plan, were also not considered “high culture” at one point in time.
“Dickens, the BrontÃ«s—they weren’t Shakespeare,” Namie said. “People think literature was always canonical, but it had to start somewhere. They had to go through a process of canonization.”
With American society’s excessive film intake, widespread video game popularity and the abundance of television advertisements, people are constantly trained to consume a massive amount of visual stimuli, according to Professor Moglen. Given this context, it makes sense that people are receptive to graphic novels.
“Students are often extremely good readers of visual texts,” Moglen said. “They will see images first and the words are secondary, whereas I read the words first. In a way, students are trained to read graphic fiction. Their whole lives have prepared them for it in ways [that have] not trained [them] to read Austen.”
Jorge Cham, who has a Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, writes an online comic strip called Piled Higher and Deeper: Life (or lack thereof) in Academia that takes a humorous, if not cynical, look at the lives of graduate students.
“I definitely think the comic form works well because it is so accessible,” Cham said. “Using both words and pictures is extremely efficient at conveying action, emotions, dialogue, context and it probably gives grad students, who read papers all the time, a break. Also, the fact that there are visible characters, and the fact that they are somewhat visually abstracted, helps the reader identify and relate their experience with the characters.”
Professor Moglen pointed out that her students have generally been very receptive to the idea of studying graphic novels.
“When I get to the Maus books I know students will have read the material and come to class prepared,” Moglen said. “They will apply analysis that makes for a very interesting discussion. How a class works for faculty and students is more about what happens in class than the object they’re about.”
Resistance to graphic novels in academia stems mainly from the genre’s place outside the literary canon. While a number of people are excited and open-minded about trying something new, others still question the validity of teaching cartoons.
Megan Hamilton, a third-year politics major, was an academic assistant for the Kresge core class “Power and Representation” in the fall of 2005. During the Vietnam section of the class, the class read Apocalypse Meow (originally published in 1998 under the Japanese title Cat Shit One). In the same vein as Maus, Apocalypse Meow uses animals to represent the main characters—Americans are rabbits, Vietnamese are cats.
“If I taught the class I wouldn’t choose it as a text because I don’t relate to it, not because I don’t think it has validity. Kitty cats in army gear raping women and tripping on acid—I just couldn’t connect with it,” Hamilton said. “Almost any other text will be more reality-based for me.”
However, the graphic novel has found fans in other students. After taking Moglen’s “Gothic Imagination” class, Renee Perry, a modern literature major at UCSC, has discovered new ways to read graphic fiction that make it more academically stimulating.
Perry compared studying a graphic novel to following a movie, but the difference is that the reader is responsible for filling in the gaps between the frames.
“In that sense, its still literature in that you have to find meaning in what’s presented,” Perry said. “Even Superman comics can be looked at analytically. If there can be classes about horror films, there can be classes about graphic novels. It’s just a different medium.”
Professor Moglen explained her decision to teach a graphic novel in her classroom.
“Ever since I began teaching there’s always a resistance to something new,” Moglen said. “It was expected in grad school to be familiar with Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare. There was a time when American literature wasn’t taught, and now English literature seems marginal in the United States. The institution is often resistant to new things that often make it behind popular fiction.”
But Namie admitted that his students found something lacking in the graphic novel he used for his course.
“Although there wasn’t resistance to the idea of reading a graphic novel, there was the feeling that something wasn’t there,” Namie said. “[Students] expect more substance or something more intellectual from traditional texts like Wuthering Heights. Intertextuality, allusions—they didn’t want to see that in the graphic novel.”
Cooppan emphasized that it is important to break boundaries and teach various forms of literature, even if some students are apprehensive about using a graphic novel as a textbook.
“To me it’s a question of value,” Cooppan said. “Is this the real stuff or the lesser stuff? I think that it’s one of the ways to understand literary texts, that they don’t necessarily fall into clear camps of high or low, good or bad.”
For Cooppan, it is important that her students recognize the importance of embracing different types of literature and not be stuck on what is considered traditional.
“It’s almost as if people think that there is a finite amount of literature or a fixed definition of what it is, that if we start teaching outside the definition that somehow it’s going to be compromised,” Cooppan said. “It’s important to teach film, or a graphic novel, or an article from the Times to get people thinking about what is literature. It’s not only a particular kind of object, a rare high object, practically obsolete, but an object that is constantly being overturned, reinvented and transformed.”