Artful Impact: Teaching and Investigating Comics in Higher Education | Comic-Con@Home 2020

Even the villainy of COVID-19 couldn’t dash the hopes of comics and pop culture fans expecting to attend the annual San Diego Comic-Con, canceled this year for the first time since its inception in 1970. Rising to fill the programming void was the virtual convention, Comic-Con@Home, held July 22–26, offering more than 400 hours of online events freely available to the public.

Even the villainy of COVID-19 couldn’t dash the hopes of comics and pop culture fans expecting to attend the annual San Diego Comic-Con, canceled this year for the first time since its inception in 1970. Rising to fill the gaping programming void was the virtual convention, Comic-Con@Home, held July 22–26, offering more than 400 hours of online events freely available to the public.

Continuing its five-year-long partnership with Comic-Con International, the San Diego Public Library (SDPL) offered the virtual “Comic Conference for Educators and Librarians” as part of the four festive days of events.

Speakers included creatives in the comics industry, public and academic librarians, teachers and researchers, and every combination thereof. Topics spanned teaching and learning with comics, comics as conduits to larger real-world issues, effective library programing with graphic novels, analyzing graphic texts, direct librarian influences on the Eisner Awards, reimagining creative privilege, and the concept of teamwork in kids comics.

One highly enjoyable panel was “ Comics on Campus: Fandom at Academia.” This lively roundtable discussion took an extended look at the acceptance of the creation, medium, and studies of comics by universities and colleges.

Moderated by Ed Catto (management, Ithaca Coll.), the presentation featured a sterling panel of professionals and academics, including cartoonist Frank Cammuso (illustration, Syracuse Univ.; The Misadventures of Salem Hyde), librarian Karen Green (Butler Lib., Columbia Univ.), legendary comics writer publisher Paul Levitz (Center for American Studies; 75 Years of DC Comics), Darlynne Overbaugh (English, Ithaca Coll.), and author educator Rob Salkowitz (Univ. of Washington, Seattle; Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture).

Each panelist presented myriad experiences behind the lectern, with several expressing that adapting their classes quickly to an online environment was hard on everybody. Some instructors were locked out of their office, libraries, or even home states and had to scramble to find appropriate resources to make the classes work. Some of their students had to endure five–six online hours of instruction a week to complete their session.

On the other hand, Zoom-centric classes allowed for special guests who might otherwise not have visited the classroom. For example, Levitz discussed inviting comics legend Neil Gaiman to one of his online courses, an opportunity that might not have happened if classes were held in-person.

The panelists also talked about incoming students who were not steeped in knowledge of comics history and culture, and how they learned from stories of the medium’s long tradition through other formats. Salkowitz noted that some of his international students perked up when he brought in a younger international cartoonist close to their age, which seemed to improve their engagement with the class materials.

Taking over a graduate student’s previously established “Comics As Literature” course, Green transformed it into a close-reading class, which better matched her own interests as a historian. In Green's experience, many students are taking her class to avoid a heavier general literature requirement. Yet in response papers from students received after the start of the course, many remarked about the hidden depths and complexity of comics as art and as a form of communication.

Among the various courses the panelists teach are writing or making comics, the business side of comics publishing, the intersection of fandom and comics, and how comics can be artfully utilized in terms of communication. Salkowitz asserted that comics are becoming the new computer labs, with the art and effectiveness of storytelling brought to the fore via the format serving as a utilitarian concept that is slowly become more ingrained in a new approach to learning. Thus, in the manner of how computer labs were separate entities but are now often directly in the middle of many classes, so, too, might be the role of comic art in the future as a major education tool.

Overbaugh sees this as matching with the breakdown of rigid hierarchies among academic disciplines, and that this multifaceted use of comics as art will continue to grow. Two seminal texts employed in many of these university courses are Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden's How To Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels. Both are likely sitting on the library shelves of numerous university libraries already.

The panelists as a whole have also found no negativity about comics coursework from other disciplines within the academy.  Cammuso often finds that other professors remark that they wish such classes existed in their undergraduate days. The earliest creators of this content in universities are now seeing that the need for materials is matching their curation of the same. “If I build it, they will come” was how Green described her thoughts when establishing Columbia’s comics archive. As far as the future for comics in higher education, Levitz noted that manga accounted for 40 percent of the Japanese publishing market, and that the French bandes dessinées accounted for roughly 15 percent of the Franco-Belgian market, but in the United States, comics have only been about four percent, with fewer types of stories available to readers until recently.

As more genres are explored, more diverse content and creators rise, and young people grow up with phenomenally popular comics talents such as Raina Telgemeier, Levitz predicts comics will continue to grow their market share of the U.S. market, and that in turn will make the art form more and more intrinsic in education and learning.

Rounding out the panel, Green mentioned how cartoonists winning major national and international awards has helped open the eyes of academics to the many remarkable qualities of the art form.

Douglas Rednour is a Collection Specialist, Georgia State University, Altlanta, a longtime LJ reviewer of graphic novels and DVDs, and the 2017 Video Reviewer of the Year 

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