Modifying and Innovating: Using Critical Thinking and Comic Book Pages in Evaluations

One of the genres, one that I used to use a minor writing assignment to cover and to “contrast” against Essay 2: Article Analysis, is that of Evaluations.

EVALUATIONS

Now, one of the reasons I dropped this as a minor writing assignment in conjunction with the genre of Article Analysis was specifically because it appeared to leave students confused. One of the reasons I presented and used it originally was because the Article Analysis called for something of an evaluation in it and it helped, I thought, for students to understand how to evaluate. In addition, having both assignments helped set up a contrast in the difference between evaluating and analyzing an object or subject. However, I ended up finding out that most of my time was being taken up with students finding it difficult to wrap their heads around the genre completely, getting the two (Evaluations and Article Analysis) confused, and causing me a tone of frustration.

So, a change was needed.

To accomplish this I changed this from a minor writing assignment to an in-class lecture and group work project instead. This was to take some of the pressure off (and confusion hopefully), and also, because I still felt the students needed exposure to this genre (particularly in the upcoming work on Essay 2: Article Analysis).

STEP 1: In-Class Lecture

For this I simply looked over the chapter, Ch. 13 (3rd edition) that I primed the students to have read and come with questions and/or comments before the class met.

The PowerPoint of the Lecture covers the chapter and key features while making heavy use of the sample review (evaluation) provided in the text: Ali Heinekamp’s “Juno: Not Just Another Teen Movie.” We walk through the PowerPoint and as we hit the key features: Concise description of the subject, clearly defined criteria, a knowledgeable discussion of the subject, a balanced and fair assessment, and well-supported reasons. As we look at each feature we reference back and I ask the students to pull the support from the sample review, often posed as a question.

At the end of the article I discuss how I want to extend this discussion on evaluations by having the students engage in Group Work (Projects).

STEP 2: Group Work

ALL groups were given the following elements to divide up among their members:

Concise Description: Provide us with a 2-3 sentence summary of the scene depicted

Discussion of Subject: Discuss and apply criteria found in the question based on information given

Balanced and Fair Assessment: Assess your review and stance in answering the question

Well-Supported Reasons: Use evidence from comic page and description and discussion after to support your position.

For CLEAR CRITERIA, EACH group was then given and individual question they were to answer, pertaining to their specific image and text, and then use the reasoning for their ANSWER as a means to uncover their CRITERIA.

GROUP 1:

They were provided with the following image and text:

12

Returning to the example of Superman saving the young girl on page 96 in All-Star Superman, the page opens with a long shot of a young woman on the edge of a building. The obvious implication presented visually here is that she is thinking of jumping to her death. There is no need for text here; the audience can clearly see and interpret the scene visually of a young girl in distress, with tears in her eyes. Rather than seeing Superman swoop in and save her after she jumps (a stereotypical and expected superhero trope) the audience witnesses something new and even more powerful. In a series of vertical panels (running parallel to the original long shot), Superman lands behind the young woman, puts his hand on her shoulder, and reassuringly tells her that her doctor really was “held up” and that “It’s never as bad as it seems . . . You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” (All-Star Superman, Vol. 2 96). Superman is letting this girl, who obviously appears to suffer from some form of mental illness, that suicide is not the way out, she is stronger than her pain. Superman demonstrates his ability as a messenger of hope here. Superman not only models strength that can be seen by others, but he also attempts, as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca note, “to incite to an action inspired by it” (The New Rhetoric 362). Superman could have saved the young woman after she jumped, while she was falling, and then imparted to her the lesson, like some father figure “wagging his finger” at her telling her “now don’t do that again” (also an argument of authority), but he does not. Instead, Superman provides a concrete demonstration of his own abstract principles of his excellence. In fact, he does more than model it; he shares it with someone, as an equal, rather than “lording it over” them in some form of superiority. Superman is indicating to the young woman, and to the audience, that he is like us. More so, he imparts his belief of the greatness and good we are capable of and expresses his wish, by his example, to help us see it for ourselves.

Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:

Is this a good example or representation of “what” Superman is all about, his essence?

GROUP 2:

 They were provided with the following image and text:Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.00.32 PM

Superman was the hero of those who had been hit the worst by the Great Depression. This Superman was also “outside” the law, and this was evident from his very first story. In Action Comics #1, Superman made his first appearance, and it was a first appearance that was engaging, provocative, and ambiguous. The very cover of Action Comics #1 set the tone for the ambiguity of the story. The story within gave a brief, one page explanation of “where” Superman comes from and his powers, along with a scientific explanation of his powers, before launching right into what appears to be the middle of a narrative already in progress (Siegel and Shuster 4-5). With almost no real context or set up, the audience witnesses Superman leaping out of the sky with a woman under his arm. It’s not a woman he’s rescued from some nefarious crime, but, rather, someone who is perhaps a criminal. Over the next 3 pages, after Superman deposits the woman on the lawn, declaring as he dashes away, “Make yourself comfortable! I haven’t the time to attend to it” (6). This scene on page 3 is immediately followed by the depiction of Superman forcing his way into the governor’s mansion. Inside, he manhandles the butler, breaks down a steal door, harmlessly absorbs a point-blank gunshot, and provides evidence that saves a woman from being executed in the electric chair (5-7). Only four pages into the story, one can imagine some young kid being completely engrossed in what they have just read and viewed. Still, we (the audience) really are not one hundred percent sure who this “Superman” figure really is yet.

Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:

How engaging or enticing might it be to read on in Action Comics #1 if all one has to go on is the cover?

GROUP 3:

They were provided with the following image and text:

5

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is one of those stories that just tends to “trip you out” if one is unprepared for reading it. Knowing something of Grant Morrison’s life and feelings about superheroes, one cannot escape the strange feeling that Flex Mentallo is part meta-narrative of Morrison’s own life (fictionalized) mixed in with wish fulfillment of superheroes being “real.” The scene above appears to represent something other than the normal version of “wish fulfillment” though. In the usual account or narrative, what is fictional and not real “appears” to become real in our world. This page from Flex Mentallo appears to demonstrate the exact opposite. Rather than becoming real from an incorporeal, fictional existence, the characters (superheroes?) slam into ground, one declaring as they do “It’s not death. Prepare to become fictional” as they appear to “die” in order to return to some kind of incorporeal, fictional state.

In “Comics You Should Own – Flex Mentallo” George Burgas exclaims: “This blending of fiction and reality allows Morrison to examine how we deal with fiction and imagination” (Burgas).

“This lack of imagination in the modern world is tied to maturity, as other Morrison projects are, but what he wants us to consider is that in growing up, we perhaps inhabit an entire different universe than the one in which we lived when we were young.”

Wallace Sage, a character in the narrative, who all of this occurring might very well be the product of his imagination makes the point of saying to some person on the phone: “‘They talk to you all the time when you’re little. They live in … I don’t know … it’s like a factory where ideas are made. They escaped from ‘the Absolute’ but the plan went wrong. Reality was flawed from the beginning. I mean, haven’t you ever felt like there’s something missing? They want to come back home. We can save the world if we can just … If I can just remember my magic word … What? No, the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. We can be them’” (Burgas).

Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:

Working with the comments made by Sage (voicing Morrison himself), do you find this page of imagery above to be compelling or persuasive in any way?

GROUP 4:

They were provided with the following image and text:

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.03.20 PM

Batman: Year One still remains one of the very best ways of entering into the “Batman” universe. This is not to take away from Batman: Zero Year (crafted recently by Zack Snyder and Greg Capullo), but Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli story remains the cornerstone for how many people imagine the origins of Batman becoming Batman. In particular, there is this scene found in the first issue. This is where, after a night out fighting crime without a disguise, Bruce Wayne decides he needs to become something more. It is from this scene, depicted here for the first time in image form (previously only described in passing) that Bruce Wayne is seen coming to the realization that to strike fear into criminals, he must become something that preys upon their fears and “frightens” them. This comes on the heels of having gone out on his own that evening, in a mask, and almost being killed by both criminals and cops alike. Book Smugglers lays out the situation in summary stating:

“Bruce, stabbed and then shot in the back by some crooked cops manages to escape to his manor, and begs for inspiration on how to fight back against the injustices of Gotham, and how to strike fear into the hearts of those who would cause fear in others. And he sees it–a bat. It flies before Bruce, breaking through the glass window. And Bruce understands–he speaks, ‘Yes father. I will become the bat.'” (booksmugglers.com)

Becoming something “more than a man” appears to be required to actually make an impact.

Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:

Is this a good depiction of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman?

GROUP 5:

They were provided with the following image and text:

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.01.33 PM

A central element in Johns and Frank’s narrative is the visual homage and re-accentuation of Richard Donner’s vision of Superman in his films: Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). In particular, Geoff Johns, who worked for Richard Donner before becoming a writer at DC, along with Gary Frank, craft their Superman in the likeness of Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in the Donner films.

Superman holds Lois Lane above Metropolis, one can see an illustration of the principles of Greenblatt’s self-fashioning at work. Superman’s likeness, the drawing of that re-accentuation, serves as the identifying element for the audience. Looking more closely at Lois in this image, a division occurs. More important in this scene of Superman embracing Lois Lane is the expression found upon her face. The expression appears to be filled, in contrast to Superman’s calming face, with mixed emotions: anxiety, surprise, astonishment, and even a little fear. Considering that the third governing condition laid out by Greenblatt for self-fashioning notes that it “is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile,” one must consider that Superman’s appearance to Lois represents quite a shock (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 9). Superman comes off as definitely alien and strange by the manner of dress (his costume), but also through the display superhuman powers. The same knee-jerk reaction can be construed all the way back in Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. Here, the cover of the issue provided no context for the perceived damage and chaos Superman inflicted by slamming a car into a boulder. One had to read the issue to uncover the context. For without it, one might easily misperceive Superman as a hostile threat or even a criminal. That same sense of ambiguity and tension emerges here via Lois’ response and expression.

Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:

Knowing that the way Superman is depicted here is supposed to resemble the familiar version, the Christopher Reeve version, of Superman, how does Lois Lane’s reaction of shock, perhaps at flying, identify or connect with the audience, say if one were to find themselves all of sudden suspended in the air held up by a stranger in a colorful outfit?

Looking at the STEPS and the OUTCOMES:

STEPS:

Two Ways Divide the Work:

Depending on the group’s size, I aimed for members with between 4-5, how they distributed each key factor was determined. Groups of 4 allowed for each member to take a key feature, minus the CLEAR CRITERIA, that was the responsibility of everyone. Groups of 5 I simply designated that one member be placed in charge of recording the groups decisions and findings.

I find that Step 2 in this process was the one most interesting to see WHAT exactly the students were able to come up with.

The first piece of criteria, the Concise Description, was perhaps the easiest element for the group. This was a requirement that only asked students to come up with enough summarization in order to communicate the image and text to us in brief.

Each group was given the following additional guidelines with regards to their development and reaching of conclusions. I have relayed them here and added my own annotations:

1. Make sure you are ALL working from established and agreed upon key criteria for your evaluation. This should be derived from the question each group receives.

Students were specifically required to agree upon the criteria they were to use in the evaluation. This key criteria was to be agreed upon by everyone. Depending on group size, one person would be in charge of recording this or the whole group would record it as a whole. This is essential since, if, members of the group are to be able to work together and apart, depending on time demands.

2. In Discussion of Subject, this is where you should be using the key criteria to make an evaluation of the image (taking into account the context and explanation of back side of the page).

This was explained to students as where they were to talk about the way the criteria operated or worked within the subject, in this case their image and text.

3. With your Fair and Balanced Assessment, keep in mind that you want to clearly indicate that you are working from only the page and context provided. Tell this to your audience.

Students were asked to look at what works and does not work with the information they were given. Students are encouraged to look at it and criticize the image and text. In particular, students were prompted to acknowledge the limitations of the material at hand in their evaluation.

4. In your Well-Supported Reasons, make sure you make use of and pull from the actual material – the comic book page and discussion on the back side – to support your evaluation via the criteria.

Each group was reminded that their support and reasons were to come from the image and text provided to them. In particular, they should make use of a direct citation from the text or image as part of this step.

OUTCOMES:

The key element in all the outcomes, the key element at the heart of pushing this kind of assignment was to have students engage in critical thinking through mixed media presentations. Each group had access to comic book pages (all but one with text in it) and text that accompanied and contextualized the comic book page.

The focal point for this critical thinking centered round the CLEAR CRITERIA that is required by the evaluation, and to promote this students were forced to use the material given to them to ANSWER a question.

Each group had a different question. The group had to answer the question; in particular they had to decide on a shared answer. However, this did not give them their CRITERIA. To find that, they had to look at the reason WHY they chose the answer they chose and come up with their criteria there.

GROUP 1 was given Superman rescuing a girl on a rooftop and the question: Is this a good example or representation of “what” Superman is all about, his essence?

Group answers overwhelmingly asserted that the image and accompanying text did offer an expression of Superman’s essence because regardless he meets our expectations, just in a different way, but still meets or exceeds the expectations nonetheless. His essence is about saving people. That is still at work here. There is his symbolic nature on display here as well. One particular group opted to look at three pieces of criteria they saw as present in the page and context. These criteria upheld that “Superman had super-human abilities, had a larger than life figure, and that he was a good-hearted person. We believe that this comic strip of Superman saving this girl from falling to her death embodies all three of these ideals.” 

GROUP 2 was presented with the cover of Action Comics #1 and asked: How engaging or enticing might it be to read on in Action Comics #1 if all one has to go on is the cover?

It was compelling because of how it recreated for the young audience “a scene that contains destruction, chaos, explosions, and conflict in the book.” There was also the view that the story cover encapsulated the essence or general “feeling” of the story. It was also viewed as being compelling as well.

GROUP 3 was given the image a large aircraft slamming into a cityscape and given the question, intricately connected to the text also given: Working with the comments made by Sage (voicing Morrison himself), do you find this page of imagery above to be compelling or persuasive in any way?

One group made note that Flex Mentallo represented “a powerful representation of what meets the eye and what is underneath. This story compares and contrasts the idea society has of reality, and how it is perceived.” There is, and was noted by several groups, the idea of the twist at play in the scene depicted as well.

This one group who focused on the “compelling” aspect pointed out that Flex Mentallo page under evaluation was “compelling because it brings an unexpected twist from the common comic book hero tropes most people are familiar. In most superhero stories, the heroes themselves become who they are due to an incorporeal event. But this comic strip takes that into reverse, where the heroes in the plane are ‘real’ and will are breaking the fourth wall by acknowledging that they will become “incorporeal” ideas once the plane crashes into the building . . . With the unexpected twist in the dialogue, it subtlety encourages them to ponder what truly makes comic characters ‘real’ or ‘fictional’.”

One group also found that imagery itself was far more compelling then Sage’s words.

GROUP 4 was given a scene from Batman: Year One where Batman decides to become Batman after an encounter with a bat and is asked: Is this a good depiction of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman?

Most of discussion around this depiction centered upon the place of how the “bat” played off against a lack of a larger context.

GROUP 5 is shown an image with NO words but with Superman and Lois Lane hovering above Metropolis and given the question: Knowing that the way Superman is depicted here is supposed to resemble the familiar version, the Christopher Reeve version, of Superman, how does Lois Lane’s reaction of shock, perhaps at flying, identify or connect with the audience, say if one were to find themselves all of sudden suspended in the air held up by a stranger in a colorful outfit?

One particular group focused in on Lois Lane’s body language as giving off a more classical and recognized version of Lois and her “crush” on Superman. Another group made note that Lois’s reaction is amplified by “the fact that the person who is holding you in mid-air is a complete stranger adds to the shock factor.”

CONCLUSION

Overall, most of the groups were able to understand and source out the required criteria using the question and applying critical reasoning to their own answer. Looking at the 5 examples I used, I can draw the conclusion that students appear to be most engaged and spirited when put up against imagery and material that acted in the most abstract manner – such as Group 3’s assigned image. This appears to have generated the most conversation and diversity of opinion overall (this was expected). Additionally, perhaps the most challenging one other than Group 3’s image and material was Group 5’s.

In general, I liked the way this assignment played out with the students. I think it challenged them and helped them better understand the elements and needs of evaluation that will be of direct use of them in Essay 2, the Article Analysis.

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