There’s been a lot of controversy over women’s rights in the United States in the media lately. From the debate over contraception and Obamacare, to the Amazons as murderous rapists in Wonder Woman #7, it’s evident that women still have an uphill battle in terms of equality. The biggest problem with patriarchy is robbing women of their voice, but cultural norms keep the usual tropes about women firmly in place. These norms are perpetuated by the entertainment media, and no medium is more guilty of this than comic books.
But this is old hat to the comic book fan, who is more than likely a young, white male. The issue of women and comic books is threefold: the creators, characters, and fans. DC Comics, especially, has come under fire since the fall of 2011 for its lack of diversity in its staff and the over-sexualization of such characters as Catwoman and Starfire. DC isn’t alone in this practice, however, and cannot be blamed as it’s merely pandering to a demanding audience. These comics are a reflection of greater problems in the 21st century American mindset. The solution to this problem? Education, of course.
For the last two years, I have been an English Adjunct Instructor at both Greenville Technical & Community College in Greenville, South Carolina and the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I’ve been teaching for the last three years, first at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and during that time, I’ve incorporated excerpts from two graphic novels, Persepolis and Fun Home, into my class curriculum. Oddly enough, considering my passion for comic books, this is not due to any active role on my part, but by their inclusions in the textbooks chosen by the English departments and by the schools. These are not classes, however, that focus on comic books; I teach freshman Composition classes, English 101 and 102, which are general courses required by all majors.
In my experience, using these excerpts has not gone over well with students. The majority of the students, who are composed of equal parts males and females and all races, have very little experience with comic books. The Greenville Tech students are often times older, returning students (anywhere between 25 and 55), and Upstate students are your average freshman at around 18 and 19. The sad fact is that their lives are absorbed by the latest in technology, from their smart phones to XBox Live, and comic books are more and more becoming a niche culture. Of course they’ve all seen, and mostly loved, the latest movie based on a comic book, but the medium itself is antiquated to the average American. That makes the excerpts in the text books all the stranger; there is very little acknowledgement of the two excerpts actually being from comic books.
Instead, they are shoehorned into the narrative section of the readings, where they stand out conspicuously alongside the prose works. With that in mind, there needs to be a reformation of comic books being used in the classroom. Their inclusion right now feels perfunctory, with little consideration for the benefits the comic book medium can provide for the impressionable mind. Persepolis and Fun Home are two of the most important feminist texts of the 21st century, dealing with important issues like gender, sexuality, and diversity in blunt but accessible ways for students, and their inclusion in the college classroom should be a highlight of a textbook rather than an afterthought.
Originally published in France from 2000-2003 in four parts, followed by the English translation published in two parts in 2003 and 2004, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical tale, follows the author’s childhood in Iran. The chronology is relatively disjointed, as the story moves between the years under the Shah, followed by the Islamic Revolution of 1980, and the war between Iran and Iraq. As a whole, Persepolis has been very well received, landing on Time’s “Best Comics of 2003” list and Newsweek’s “Ten Best Fiction Books of the Decade,” as well as being adapted into an equally well-received movie in 2007. With critical accolades abounding, it’s understandable why academia would want to include it into canon. The excerpt from Persepolis, titled “The Letter,” is included in the 2010 edition of How to Write Anything: A Guide and Reference, edited by John J. Ruszkiewicz and Jay Dolmage. It covers the portion of the book in which Marji’s grandma describes the history of the Shah, and then Marji’s father returns from witnessing a crowd carrying a dead “martyr” to a cemetery.
The problem is in the presentation. How To Write Anything is a very effective textbook for first year composition classes, with an engaging layout and thorough selection of readings, but Persepolis as a graphic novel is lumped in with any number of visual ways to communicate information. Each chapter ends with discussion questions, and the one question targeted at Persepolis reads as follows:
4. Visual Narrative: Persepolis (p. 32) demonstrates that a story can be told in various media: This graphic novel even became an animated film in 2007. Using a medium other than words alone, tell a story from your own life or from your community. Draw it, use photographs, craft a collage, create a video, record interviews, or combine other media suited to your nonfiction tale. (39)
Compare this to the multiple Visual Reports in chapter 2, with a question that focuses on the very specific “charts, photographs, drawings, diagrams, annotations, and so on” that compromise an effective means of combining “words and images to convey information” (67). The discussion of the posters for The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Legend of Zorro (2005) even gets a more thorough evaluation, asking students to evaluate how aspects of each poster “embody different values” from their time periods (127). It’s obvious that the editors of the textbook wanted to incorporate visuals in each chapter, for each genre of formal essay, but misunderstood the unique qualities of the comic book and decided to lump it in with other visuals.
The excerpt from Fun Home, by contrast, is somewhat more effective in emphasizing both the visuals as well as the prose but still falls short in justifying the selection’s inclusion. Printed in the 2010 edition of The Norton Field Guide to Writing, edited by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, “The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death” comprises about half of the chapter 5 of the same name from the graphic novel. Published in 2006, Fun Home (named by Time magazine as number one of its 10 Best Books of the Year) as a whole deals with author Alison Bechdel coming to terms with the apparent suicide of her (repressed homosexual) father and her own realization that she is a lesbian. This excerpt, although missing much context (and all of Bechdel’s struggle with her own sexuality), works amazingly well as a self-contained story about a young girl coming home from college for a funeral and reminiscing about the sad home life that may or may not have led to her father’s death. Although The Norton is, as well, a very strong guide on the tools and methodologies necessary for critical thinking, rhetorical analysis, and argument, it does Fun Home a disservice by focusing entirely on the prose aspect.
Each sample reading from The Norton ends with five discussion questions. As follows are the abbreviated four questions:
1. What are the various literacy practices that appear in Alison Bechdel’s narrative?
2. Bechdel includes a great deal of descriptive detail in her narrative [...]. What kinds of details does she show with images? What details does she provide with words?
3. Why do you think Bechdel selected this title? What does it reveal about her stance toward her childhood home?
4. What does her choice of [challenging vocabulary] indicate about her expectations of her intended audience? For Writing. Rewrite Bechdel’s piece using words alone. Compare your version with Bechdel’s. What is lost when the images are removed? What is gained? Write a paragraph that compares the two versions and argues for the effectiveness of one over the other. (596)
Although there is more focus on the prose aspect, questions 2 and 4 do invite the student to ponder the role of the visuals in the narrative. The problem is that the questions do little in the way of guiding the student. The other questions force the student to seek out specifics, like literacy practices or high-level vocabulary, but the very thing that separates a comic book from prose is dismissed as “images”, and question 4 even invites the reader to “fix” the story. Why not point out patterns or motifs, like the recurring use of the color yellow? Or the fact that it’s in black & white but places so much emphasis on the color? Or how about what Bechdel’s style that mixes cartoonish simplicity in the human beings and lavish details in the backgrounds?
The majority of the readings in The Norton are taken from newspapers, magazines, and collections of essays. For the most part, they present ideal models for the students to model their own papers after. These graphic novel excerpts, however, are different in that they do not resemble any assignment a first year composition student will create. Although the faculty at all three schools I’ve taught at are invited to be flexible in the execution of their syllabi, no assignment asks the student to actually create a comic strip. It appears that the editors of both text books are hoping that students absorb these excerpts and then translate them into prose works so as to understand how their own narrative paper might work. The dirty truth, however, is that the average college student doesn’t understand comic books. The word bubbles baffle them, as well as their orientation on the page (Left to right? Top to bottom?). There’s also the dreaded stigma of the superhero, so two grounded tales of women despairing and coping doesn’t compute for them when it comes to this medium.
What comic books can provide is a text for analysis. My Composition 1 class has a Popular Culture Analysis paper, and Composition 2 has a Visual / Textual Analysis. The former has the students argue about how a piece of popular entertainment, anything from television shows to music to movies to comic books, reflects cultural practices and beliefs. The latter paper takes it a step further, focusing on texts like advertisements and the Internet and how certain audiences are appealed to with both images and words. Comic books provide ample examples for both papers, and I’ve often used these excerpts for both assignments. The problem is I’m forced to do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to presenting the comic book to a skeptical student body. The textbooks seem ashamed to mention the comic book roots, and a teacher unfamiliar with the medium is given little direction on why the excerpts are included, considering they stick out in such a pronounced fashion compared to the accompanying prose works.
So how to utilize these, or any other, comic book excerpts in a classroom not designed to focus on comic books? Move them to the Textual or Literary Analysis sections accompanied by an academic analysis. For instance, in the Literary Analysis section of The Norton, there is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” with a supplementary formal essay, ‘“One of Us…”: Concepts of the Private and the Public in “A Rose for Emily,”’ taken from The Norton Introduction to Literature. Neither “The Letter” nor “The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death” function as equitable narratives to model their own papers after the way selections like Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” or Malcolm X’s “Literacy Behind Bars” do, so why force the comics under such a label?
If utilized to their full potential, as texts with accompanying analysis and discussion questions guiding students in the proper direction, comic books could be an effective tool in the college classroom. Persepolis and Fun Home, for example, are both strong examples of bildungsroman, the coming-of-age tale, and present very relatable stories for the average student. Persepolis has positive messages about tolerance and warnings about nationalism; very apt themes for a country that ten years on from 9/11 still generalizes all people from the Middle East as radicals and terrorists. Fun Home’s incredibly brutal and brusque look at death and keeping secrets is a breath of fresh air for a generation that is generally shielded from the harsh cruelties of adulthood. Both present positive, intelligent female role models in both protagonists and creators, something that is unfortunately severely lacking in the entertainment industry, as a whole, in 2012.
Comic books have long held the stigma of being considered lowbrow. The induction of comic books into the mainstream college classroom, even if they’re non-traditional comic books not dealing with spandex and superpowers, has been a vindication of sorts. Unfortunately, it’s clear that this veneer of progress is a misappropriation. The arbitrary inclusion of comic books in the college text book aimed at first year, general English courses needs reforming. Only when placed in the proper genre will it truly prove beneficial for the average freshman.
Bechdel, Alison. “The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death” from Fun Home. The Norton Field Guide to Writing, with Readings and Handbook. Ed. Richard H. Bullock, Maureen Daly. Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Satrapi, Marjane. “The Letter” from Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. How to Write Anything: A Guide and Reference, with Readings. Ed. John J. Ruszkiewicz. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. Print.