Ignorance Can Hurt Your Ethos:
How Attacking the Teaching Comic Books and Graphic Novels Without Understanding Them Can Make You Look Like a Hack
I am a comic book fan and an academic scholar. I see nothing mutually exclusive about either. In fact, I am beginning my journey to becoming a comic book and graphic novel scholar as well. Without shame or regret, I am also a supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as well. I believe that they do excellent work. Recently, they posted an article entitled “College Courses of Graphic Novels Criticized as Less ‘Intellectually Demanding’” by Maren Williams on the CBLDF’s website that caught my eye and not in a good way (it usually is never in a good way). Under discussion was an article by a Mrs. Watkins that laid out some criticisms and asserted a “tone” in the presentation of that criticism that the CBLDF was taking note that made we want to look closer myself.
The CBLDF article pointed out two critics, in fact, one building off the other: Shannon Watkins of the James G. Martin Center (where her article was posted online via their institution and the original critic) and George Leef, director of research at the Martin Center who published a summarized Watkins’ article in National Review’s “The Corner.” After reading both criticisms, I decided to address Shannon Watkins’ article because, one, it was the original point of criticism, and two, Leef’s shorter summarization read like political junk.
Of course it is always stronger and more prudent in rebuttal to deal directly with the original source of the opposition, as well as the main points of the opposition. Another good starting point is looking closely at where the article was published too. I have to admit, I am unfamiliar with the work of the Martin Center, so decided to look a bit closer. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal feels a bit strange as a name to my ears. In its “About” section it claims to be “a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation” with a stated aim of wanting to “Increase the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus” (“About”). What is strange though is that there is a subtle undertone of conservative push back within the actual article. This does not feel that it matches the above stated aim, so I went back and looked again. What I found a bit further down was this statement: “All too often, universities allow teaching to become shallow and trendy, failing to challenge students intellectually and disparaging traditional principles of justice, ethics, and liberal education” (“About”). It was noting of “trendy” and perceived low value of graphic novels that Watkins’ criticizes that then started to make things crystalize a bit more. Whether or not the James G. Martin Center was actually conservative in the larger political sense may or may not be the case, but it was definitely “conservative” in the academic, traditionalist sense. This made the perceived “push back” of Watkins’ article make more sense.
The first part of the push back from the institution becomes obvious when one looks at way that the James Martin Center website sub-listed the article. Watkins’ article was not listed under the “More in Academics” but rather under the “More in Politicization” sub-headings that followed the article on the website.
This was rather off-putting in its choice. The second part comes from the way that George Leef “slanted” the article in his summarization in the National Review Corner piece. It is he, not Watkins, who in recounting the major points levels the charge that graphic novels (which his title intentionally makes a shot at) are part of an “evident dumbing down of the college curriculum” and later pointing out that many of them have a “leftist slant.” Neither of these are explicit points made by Watkins, perhaps they might be inferred, but considering where Leef is publishing his summarization, the National Review, and its conservative audience perhaps fudging and misrepresentation are okay to do. Not academically though. Academically, this explicit bias and ignorance causes me view the James G. Martin Center’s language about “academic renewal” as some kind of conservative code language against liberal decadence or hyperbolic paranoia about changes in academic disciplines.
Returning to Watkins’ original article, because being the original text it’s the only one worth my time discussing, I would like to provide some constructive feedback on her assertions and positions considering she appears new to comic scene. I say new to the scene because upon reading her article it is clear that though she is apprehensive and not overreaching (signs of her newness) in her positions, it is also clear that she has not read Scott McCloud or any other scholars or scholarship surrounding comics, graphic novels, sequential art, etc.
I would like to take a moment and recommend that Mrs. Watkins read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics if she wants to ground any further discussion surrounding comics and sequential art in the future. Not to give it away, but if anyone wants to understand just how truly deep and complex comics can be and the forms they express, one should probably give it a read. Other recommendations to consider, and this would apply to those who can possibly note the there differences between reading Shakespeare and performing (or seeing it performed) Shakespeare invoke different critical and cognitive responses in readers/viewers might want to consider the work Neil Cohen and his work with cognitive responses to the use of visuals and words. Finally, some simple consideration of this and any number of other works out there by the likes of those such as Nick Sousanis, who commented on Watkins’ own post originally, might reveal that there is far more depth here than what many who make generalized assumptions might initially see.
Of course, I come at this all from the perspective of a growing comic’s scholar who is conducting research on visual engagement and responses of student’s to visual stimulus as additive to the composition and literature classroom, but also as a holder of a PhD in Rhetoric. It is from the discipline of Rhetoric that I found myself looking at Watkins’ article and to which I would like to now return.
Though I want to say up front that I do not use graphic novels and comic books (they are different though Mr. Leef fails to get that point) exclusively in my classes, I do find that they could be in some cases, and do, make bold points of engagement with students. Mrs. Watkins appears to recognize this approach and give it some credence, as do I. However, I disagree that their rise in undergraduate courses is “problematic” or as Mr. Leef appears to put it in his article, “a disturbing trend” (Watkins; Leef).
Mrs. Watkins’ first point in what she sees a “problematic” is the idea “that the majority of graphic novels tend to advance political agendas” (Watkins). This assertion is a generalization and overreach because considering her limited conception and examples she is only skimming the surface of graphic novel literature. Perhaps she would be better served if she had written: “that the majority of graphic novels used [or utilized or taught] in the classrooms I’ve observed tend to advance political agendas.” I suggest the re-write because though many times comic books and graphic novels do serve as a platform for political agendas, they primarily are reflections and metaphorical explorations of agendas, ideologies, utopian and dystopian narratives, action, adventure, drama, and experiences of our world. In other words, basically anything one could find expressed in classical or modern literature already in the cannon. The primary difference between the two being that the ideas and concepts found in graphic novels might represent viewpoints that are more diverse or perhaps more touching on modernity that the literature of the cannon does not. Some scholars and academics do not care for this, but as a rhetorician I tend to seek out value and engagement by meeting my audience where they are already.
I will not deny that the conception and use of comic books to advance political agendas does exist. It exists and cuts both conservative and liberal “slants” and perhaps liberal “slants” out weigh the conservative ones. I had an encounter last year with an individual, a Mr. Jace Lington, who published an article via The Federalist website entitled “Superman Unconsciously Fights Relativism in One of His Most-Popular Adventures.” The article took aim at an examination of
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman and how the depiction of Superman found within expresses a contradiction between the powers that Superman wields and the words he uses. Now, the article was accurate in many of its assertions and quite positively discussed the need for such metaphorical starters of conversation. I myself took issue with the rather conservative bent the author used in interpreting All-Star Superman because his and my own interpretations differed in scope and perspective. Lington, though quite astute in his observations, misses out on the nuance behind Morrison and Quitely’s homage to the Superman of the Silver Age of Comics (1956-1970) as a philosophical exploration of modern philosophy and an entry point into the “Superman universe” (Lington). However, Lington too misses out for knowing the background and evolution of Superman who started out as what we would call today a “social justice warrior.” It was this whole in the knowledge that stood out to me and I reached out to Mr. Lington via Twitter. He wrote back noting he had little knowledge of Superman’s past incarnations and I suggested further investigation to help him refine his argument. It is similarly this same advise I would like to pass on to Mrs. Watkins, because those Mr. Lington and I disagreed on perspectives about Superman, Lington’s article and I agree in his conclusion:
The increasing popularity of comic book properties calls for a defense of the comic book as a potent medium for good art. As a blended visual and narrative print [and digital now] medium, comic books and graphic novels represent an opportunity for artists to engage audiences in unique ways. Comic books can give more to readers than chase scenes, tights, and onomatopoeia. Done well, the comic book can reveal important truths about the world around us and raise important moral questions, like any good art. (Lington)
Or for that matter, good literature too. Reading of Scott McCloud can help inform one that the roles of writer and artist are closer more parallel than some sometimes realize.
Returning to Watkins specifically, I want to ask: Is it not the purpose of literature to reflect the human condition? Is it not the job of college instructors to engage students in “real life” issues, or as Watkins puts it “controversial issues” surrounding topics of “social justice, immigration, gay rights, etc.” (Watkins). She does go on to mention that this is a trend in the humanities and throws in that favorite of all conservative (as I have noticed it bandied about) buzzword “identity politics” (Watkins). I would respond by asking: “What is wrong with exploring identity politics?” If you want to have your “culture wars,” we can include that too, why can we not explore the diversity that surrounds us in order to help us move forward as more unified? I believe debate and discussion of diverse issues has become part of what the college learning environment is all about.
Now, I understand that Mrs. Watkins is trying to make a case for this (college literature and literature appreciation classrooms) not being the place for such debates. In fact, she offers up the idea that such use of graphic novels would be more appropriate in “upper division elective courses,” and they are, but with the caveat of not undermining a “firm foundation” for the students at the entry level (Watkins). My response is this: what are they doing in High School English then? High school environments and curriculum exposes students to literature as well, are we forgetting this? Perhaps the problem may require us to take a look at what goes on in primary and secondary education, but that is an adventure for another quest.
It is interesting that Mrs. Watkins chooses to lead with this point: that graphic novels being taught advances political agendas, because one might think that this choice, rhetorically, belies a particular agenda. When she chooses to use “etc.” after “social justice, immigration, gay rights” (that one might note as being “liberal agendas”) why does she fail or only include via “etc.” topics like civil rights, civility, man vs. self, etc. (Watkins). Is it because they topics do not fit her purpose or agenda? Something to consider, and rather obvious at that too.
Mrs. Watkins moves on to highlighting Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet as two controversial examples of political agenda driven graphic novels that are becoming popular in college classrooms. What I was struck about most, and believe me I see a great deal of literary merit in Fun Home but that is almost an entirely different point by point argument that Watkins, was how, in her ignorance, Watkins boiled all of this down to simply being some form of “identity politics.” Now Fun Home is and has been in its own line of fire as a point of controversy and reactions. I even talk about this controversy with my own students.
To skim over like this strikes me as belittling (she appears to have never read it). Her summation of (or quoted from somewhere not sourced) notes that the theme of Bitch Planet centers upon “patriarchal oppression” and somehow represents a blatant “push [of] a social justice agenda” (Watkins). I do not get that. I find Watkins’s scope and perspective even more limiting here because how is DeConnick’s representation not unlike Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984. Those books push “oppression” but because the oppressor and oppressed are male that is somehow non-threatening? Why not try to generate what Kenneth Burke would call identification and actually try to engage a more diverse audience? We want to students to think, we want them to challenge and explore things. Yes they can do that with traditional literature, but all this “hand wringing” about graphic novels is just poorly veiled hysteria.
Perhaps Watkins most sharp misfire is how she fails to even really address any of her point’s head on or directly. She leaves most sitting there like some open-ended assertion, some enthymeme where her audience should infer that liberal professors with social justice desires to bring down the cannon of literature look to undermine it through back door use of graphic novels. I call hogwash. This is just failure to deliver any real point to this argument other than glossy but reasonable overriding generalities or broad strokes that appeal to a very limited and already predisposed to agree audience.
The assertion I found most offensive, one that obviously belies Watkins’ lack of knowledge about the subject under discussion, follows when she drags out the same old, and I do mean “old” notion that graphic novels (inserted in place of comic books here) not only are used and promulgated in order “to further a political agenda”–it appears now she is changing her tone and leaning right a bit more–but they also, and she is very un-assertive here with her “it seems,” do not “possess the same merit as traditional literature” (Watkins). I find this line of argument a tired one. I feel compelled here to direct Mrs. Watkins to one Sterling North and his attacks on comic books in the 1940s because he saw them as harmful to children. Her argument is tamer by comparison and with less merit than the one that North made seventy plus years ago when comic books were new, not always of high quality, and did actually represent some exploitative elements. Interestingly though, comic books were also havens at that time for minorities and women who could actually work and create. That came to an end in the 1950s though when the Comic Code Authority drove almost all but white men out of the comic book business (see David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague). So, Mrs. Watkins argument is not a new one by any stretch. It is an old and tired one that now has to stand on even more poorly constructed generalities, like the ones that Watkins offers, such as the limitation of students’ “time in college” being a need for students to encounter “more intellectually demanding readings” (Watkins). There is a twist of irony here in that I agree with Mrs. Watkins conclusion, but not her premises.
That’s right, I agree with her conclusion…just not her method or means. I firmly believe that her assertion, one that she does not really appear to follow through up on, lacks any actual evidence or example. She immediately lays into an excuse by saying that “Grappling with a text to understand its meaning is a more intellectually demanding task, and requires a greater use of one’s reasoning skills” turning off to quote Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death book. That is where she leaves me, holding the bag and wondering, how is only focusing on a text only based close reading or analysis “more” intellectually challenging? If Mrs. Watkins had bothered to read any of the countless amounts of literature and research out there on the process she would realize that the mind is challenged “more” by the close examinations by which words and images work together in semiotic fashion to create layers of meaning that when analyzed can go deeper than simply words alone. McCloud talks about this not only in his discussion of Perceptive vs. Receptive forms of knowledge (Understanding Comics 49) but also in his discussion of the evolution of Text and Imagery (140-51) and discussions of any number of topics like space and time relations of panels to the types of word and image combinations that can be deployed (152-5). For those who teach or use comic books and graphic novels in the classroom McCloud represents a typical foundational text. If you want to know what you are talking about, understanding McCloud is practically a prerequisite.
Even more so, if we want to call for high academic standards, is it not true that we should be applying it ourselves to the things we are writing and discussing?
Watkins does continue though but the pursuit is grounded in the idea that somehow comic books do not require “reading.” This seems absurd, but I guess we might have to assume Watkins means: “close reading” or “reading alone without the guidance of visuals.” She then equates the idea that it is “difficult to believe that reading a graphic novel could do the same in this [developing reasoning skills] regard as have to digest, say, The Iliad” (Watkins). This is just flimsy generalization here. It is interesting her choice of words “digest” because to some that might be the case with the works of Homer (difficult to read and understand, academic rigor and all). But the same can be said for graphic novels too, particularly works like Alan Moore’s From Hell. Also the generalization of “graphic novel” is unfocused. In fact, you can read The Iliad and The Odyssey both in graphic novel form in both college, secondary, and elementary classrooms. So, Watkins assertions, which are themselves incomplete and lacking strong ethos, really do not hold up when challenged by details. To understand the discussions about the actual debates in and around comic books and graphic novels, Watkins might want to dig deeper into the scholarship and study around comic books and graphic novels. Library research has changed course in recent decades to recognize just how important a role comic books can play in the learning process. Even the National Council of Teachers of English has addressed this issue.
At one point Watkins offers up the film Life is Beautiful as somehow comparable to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel (memoir) Maus in that it depicts Holocaust survival. This is just another of many short-sighted misconceptions about the graphic novel but also about distinguishing “theme” from “source material.” This is sad in its shortcomings that misses out that while Life is Beautiful is modern and fictional, Maus is a real survivors tale told by son about his father. Though surface wise one might see them as similar, in their ability to dig deep into the real experiences and aftermath of the Holocaust and survival they are miles apart. I see the comparison as superficial and borderline insulting.
Mrs. Watkins’ conclusion, here in its whole, and one that George Leef quotes and agrees with in his National Review short posting is worth noting and accounting for in the idea that:
Graphic novels should not substitute written texts in satisfying students’ literary arts requirements, especially when the motive behind the assignments is often political in nature. Universities should instead present students with works of literature that will truly challenge their minds and strengthen their ability to reason. Graphic novels can complement, but cannot replace, the canon in fulfilling this role. (Watkins)
I would like to say that, once more, I agree with Mrs. Watkins in that graphic novels should not ALWAYS be substituted as the written texts in satisfying literary arts requirements for students. However, I would note that those who think taking a comic book or graphic novel course often enter with misconceptions that it is a “blow off class,” as it appears that Watkins assumes, only to learn its more than they bargained for in it. I have personally watched this happen to fellow students who took Dr. Shaun Treat’s “Superheroes and Rhetoric” course at University of North Texas. Much of what took place in the class, conducted in part via his blog, was far more challenging and I saw many a student drop out or by the way side quickly as they realized how serious he applied graphic novel reading to the promotion and examination of cultural studies.
It is worth mentioning that students who appreciate literature would not simply take only one course also, they would take several. A lot of generalizations at work here, not to mention the fact that the “motive behind the assignments is often political” is false too. I do not know what sample-size Watkins is pulling from because that is not my motivation in any way. When I teach using graphic novels I specifically allow students to, for instance in my Comp II course, select graphic novels that interest them but that I have pulled from a list of award-winning, critical, diverse, and metaphorical representations of the world aimed at broadening my students’ minds. My aim is not openly political but rather an attempt to move away from the overtly and politically charged arguments I have read in the past that my students’ have written by using graphic novels as a conduit to deeper metaphorical exploration and a reprieve from the blunt force opinions and claims of the everyday world–just like one would use any literature.
Finally, I would assert that graphic novels can and do act as “works of literature that will truly challenge their [students’] minds and strengthen their ability to reason” (Watkins). Watkins does not assert this, but I feel they can meet the criteria of the assertion she makes about traditional literature. To challenge and strengthen reason is not the mutually exclusive purview of traditional literature. Just like graphic novels, they represent but one potential way. Of course, in her final statement is one that I again agree with in the desire of graphic novels to be a compliment to the textual readings of the cannon. I practice this approach in my British literature courses. This being said, I think that Watkins’ hyperbolic and generalized assertions undermine her own rational note here at the end and ultimately make her argument weak on substance and milk-toast in strength of assertion.
George Leef’s article in the National Review’s the Corner, “Comic Books (Excuse Me — ‘Graphic Novels’) Invade the College Curriculum” is little more than an open political hack job that almost blatantly misrepresents Watkins original article. The title alone is a direct insult to the opposition he is in disagreement with that signals, to me, that he does not want to debate but rather get “clicks” for his article instead. Leef’s article represents an agenda first take that is not even worth noting further.
Leef, George. “Comic Books (Excuse Me — ‘Graphic Novels’) Invade the College Curriculum”National Reviews The Corner. 16 May 2017. http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/447676/martin-center-article-comic-books-college. Accessed 21 May 2017.
Lington, Jace. “Superman Unconsciously Fights Relativism in One of His Most-Popular Adventures.” 25 September 2016. http://thefederalist.com/2016/09/25/superman-unconsciously-fights- relativism-one-popular-adventures/ Accessed 23 May 2017.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1993.
Watkins, Shannon. Graphic Novels Are Trending in English Departments, and That’s a Problem.” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. 5 May 2017. https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2017/05/graphic-novels-trending-english-departments-thats-problem/. Accessed 21 May 2017.