Exploring The Power of Comics: Part 1

Stephen R. Bissette here, CCS instructor (since summer 2005), about to try something different here on the Schulz Library blog.

I’ve been friends with Randy Duncan for, well, decades now, and I’ve spoken to his classes in the past, in person during my couple of visits to Henderson State University and occasionally via speakerphone. I was naturally curious when I heard Randy was co-authoring a book on comics for classroom use, and when I managed to get my hands on a copy of The Power of Comics, which Randy co-authored with the esteemed Matthew J. Smith, I was suitably impressed. The Power of Comics is now a book I use in my own classroom as of this coming semester of teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies. It was, in many ways, the very textbook I’d been aching for.

I approached Randy and Matthew to suggest an interview via email, and what follows is our conversation on their book, its genesis and some of the particulars of its contents. There’s far, far too much to distill into a single conversation, but hopefully the following will serve as an introduction to the authors and The Power of Comics, which I heartily recommend.

This interview was conducted from January-September 2010, and copy-edited by the participants.

Stephen R. Bissette [SRB]: Gentlemen, all three of us are now teaching comics—I’m teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, so I’ve now a much better grasp of what the challenges are. So, let’s establish a starting point in this conversation: where are you each based now, and what are you currently teaching involving comics?

Randy Duncan [RD]: I am a professor of communication at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. My interest in comics has spread to other members of the campus community and Arkadelphia has become something of an American Hicksville [Those not familiar with Dylan Horrocks’ comics-obsessed little New Zealand town should check out the graphic novel of the same name]. A number of major comics creators have visited the campus and the Henderson Library has a number of comics related special collections – The Graphic Novel as Literature, The History of Comics, The Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier Collection, and of course, the diverse, fascinating, and still growing Stephen R. Bissette Collection.

For quite a few years I have been teaching a Comics as Communication course. This spring semester is my first chance to use The Power of Comics as a textbook for the course. This fall I am team-teaching, with colleagues in art and journalism, a course in which our students will collaborate on creative nonfiction projects in comics form. The title of the course is Co\mix, a term directly swiped from a slide in Art Spiegelman’s Comix 101 lecture. I actually got the idea for the course as Spiegelman was talking about that slide; besides, if you’re going to swipe, swipe from the best.

I am a co-founder and co-organizer of the Comics Arts Conference, which is held each summer and spring in conjunction with Comic-Con International in San Diego and WonderCon in San Francisco.

Matthew J. Smith [MJS]: I am an associate professor of Communication at Wittenberg University, a liberal arts institution of about 2000 students located in Springfield, Ohio. I presently teach COMM 222A Graphic Storytelling: Comic Books as Culture on an annual basis for the last four years (but I was off one year on sabbatical to write the book). This is the course for which the text was written.

I also lead a field study program to Comic-Con International each summer to examine the dynamics of marketing and fan culture. Next summer will be my fifth outing on this program. Details are at http://www.powerofcomics.com/fieldstudy.

I also taught a course in “The Graphic Novels of Alan Moore” this summer for the first time. Ask me about teaching The Lost Girls sometime!

SRB: What was your first experience with comics in the classroom — as both student (if applicable) and as an instructor?

RD: I was a graduate student at LSU soon after Frank Miller had finished his first run on Daredevil. I was taking a film class as an elective and I somehow convinced the professor to let me do my major paper on Miller’s use of cinematic techniques. The paper went beyond that original topic to be a consideration of the unique techniques comics creators use to communicate ideas and emotions. The paper was about three times the required length and it served as the springboard for my doctoral dissertation on the rhetoric of comics. I still think Miller’s DD work is some of the best mainstream comics has to offer, and I’ll always have a soft spot for it because it started me on my path as a comics scholar.

When I got to Henderson State circumstances lead to me being a very young department chair, and I brashly gave myself permission to teach a comics course. This was in the early 90s when such a course still raised eyebrows. By the time the Dean or Academic VP noticed and might have thought about objecting, Will Eisner had visited campus and impressed the heck out of everyone. I’ve been teaching the Comics as Communication course at least every other year since then.

MJS: I had an English instructor as an undergrad who taught an American culture course with a comics chapter in it. We spent a couple of days on that and it got me thinking that I could turn my lifelong love of comics into something scholarly . . . but my initial efforts were lukewarm at best. I taught a few lessons here and there as a grad student and a probationary faculty member, but once I got tenure I got bold enough to suggest a whole course on the subject, which I’ve loved teaching ever since.

SRB: Connect the dots for us, please. What led to your decision to collaborate on this book?

RD: I had been building pieces of a comics textbook over the years as I taught my comics course. Single-page handouts became multi-page and a few of them even grew to chapter length. I suppose from chats with friends and presentations I had given at conferences it was fairly well known in the comics scholars community that I wanted to put together a textbook. So, one day at [San Diego] Comic-Con Matt Smith stops me in the hallway and shows me his outline for a comics textbook. He had been showing it around at the Con and someone mentioned I was working on something similar. It turned out our ideas were extremely similar, so it was only natural to collaborate.

RD: Now, I have to admit my memory is pretty unreliable so I tend to take the Stan Lee approach and every time I tell a story it is somewhat different. That may or may not be the way it happened. Matt?

MJS: Randy makes me sound like a bit of a floozie, showing my outline to just anyone! 😉

Actually, Randy’s bio in the conference program listed him as having begun his textbook project which was prompted me to come forward. In truth, I did have a hard copy with me, just in case I ran into a publisher or other opportunity presented itself–and it did! Thankfully!

MJS: I’ve long admired the way that film studies achieved respectability in the academy, a process that began when film scholars first published their own scholarly journals and then began to publish their own textbooks. It seems that comics scholars have already been well invested in publishing journals but that no one had taken the initiative to get a textbook out there. While I hope that people find the book useful as a tool for classroom use, my ultimate hope is that in its own small way the very existence of The Power of Comics adds to the legitimacy of comics as a bona fide area of study in the eyes of naysayers in more traditional disciplines.

SRB: Before we get into your book, let’s lay a bit more bedrock. Let’s talk a bit about the field of books about comics. What books of that ilk did you originally adopt in your classrooms that were of use, and why?

RD: When I began the class I relied heavily on Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. It’s a very accessible work. I think it is still one of the best books for introducing the neophyte to the formal aspects of comics. When Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics appeared on the scene, I made that required reading. Students in general, and the non comic book readers in particular, loved Understanding Comics. I still recommend reading it, but I quit requiring it. For one thing, comics scholars began producing journal articles and books that analyzed comics with more focus and greater rigor. Also, I was starting to develop my own theories about comic book form.

MJS: In my first iteration of the course, I used Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, [R.C.] Harvey’s The Art of the Comic Book and McCloud’s Understanding Comics to try to get students thinking and talking about the form of comics. I really wanted to focus a good portion of the course on understanding how the comics medium communicated ideas in its distinct ways.

SRB: What books do you now use, and why? I’m asking what you used prior to Power of Comics being published, of course.

MJS: I began using The Power of Comics in its draft form with my second outing with the course and have in the successive iterations since. It’s now become the book about comics that we read since it covers history, form, culture, and implications with one consistent voice. In all versions of the course, I ask students to read about eight different graphic novels or trade paperbacks. I always teach Maus and Watchmen, as they are the acknowledged masterpieces of what can be done with the form. I’ve found positive responses to Fun Home and Bone when I added them to the mix. I’ve also used books like The Best of Simon and Kirby, A Contract with God, and Sin City, among many, many others that I’ve experimented with over the sections. I basically assemble a mix to try to give students a sampler of what the medium offers from various genres, creators, and eras.

RD: From the beginning, decades ago, I started creating my own handouts to explain some concepts. Each time I taught the class I expanded the existing handouts and added some new ones. Soon, I had enough substantive handouts that they were operating as the de facto textbook for the course. Those handouts were the precursor to The Power of Comics. Luckily Matt had been developing very similar ideas and approaches in his class. The work each of us had already done meshed very well into the beginnings of an introduction to comic books textbook.

As for creative works, I usually provide a pool of choices for each of the five analysis assignments. The HSU library has extensive graphic novel and trade paperback holdings, so students don’t have to buy books for most of their assignments. We always start with a Spirit story, and I hand those out from my personal collection of Kitchen Sink reprints. Some years I have required all the students to read the same book for one of the assignments. I used Maus and Watchmen, but I’ve also used some overlooked gems, such as It’s a Bird! and Uncle Sam.

SRB: What were your goals once you both rolled up your sleeves and decided to collaborate on this project?

RD: By the time we started working on The Power of Comics there were scores of books and hundreds of articles written by comic scholars, but there was no one book that served as a gateway to that growing body of literature. There was no textbook that synthesized the best of the insights from the academic literature and made them accessible to an undergraduate student with no background in the subject matter. Every established academic field has such texts. I think Matt and I both entered into the task with the hope that such a textbook might help establish comics studies as a field.

MJS: For me the primary objective was to create a textbook that would allow a college instructor to hit the ground running; hence, we have a lot of pedagogical tools in the book from discussion questions to learning activities to a glossary and so on. Secondarily, I wanted to make some small contribution to the vindication of the medium. The fact a college textbook for comics arts studies exists and is in use (if by no one else than Randy and me) is a positive nudge forward for the field, I hope.

SRB: Let’s talk about your process. How long did it take for this to take shape, from conception to publication, and what were your stages of collaboration?

RD: Testing the waters for this project goes back to the 1990s. Randy Scott, the librarian who oversees the incredible comics special collection at Michigan State University, and his graduate assistant at the time, Peter Coogan, published a Comic Studies Newsletter that was instrumental in creating a community of comics scholars. One project Peter undertook through the newsletter was a directory of comics scholars. I send a survey to everyone in that directory asking them what they would want in a comics textbook. The results were part of a paper I presented at the Comics Arts section of the Popular Culture Association Conference, and from that audience I got more direct feedback. One of the main things I learned was that it was going to be impossible to have one book that would please everyone; those of us working in this field are coming at comics from diverse disciplines and perspectives. However, the experience did influence the early version of my outline.

From that outline I began to construct a few … well, Matt referred to them as chapters, but that’s generous; fragments is more accurate. Perhaps working on my own I would eventually have finished a textbook, but certainly not before Matt working on his own would have published his book. We made Continuum’s deadline mostly because he has a discipline and attention to detail I sometimes (often?) lack. I was lucky Matt sought me out rather than just starting to work on his own.

MJS: I started working on The Power of Comics in 2005, when I taught a course in Media Research with a focus on comics scholarship. With my students functioning as research aides, I began to pull together an outline for what a comics studies textbook might look like. Then in 2006 I headed out to Comic-Con International for the first time, outline in hand, hoping to find some publishers who might be interested in the prospect. While I was there, I attended the Comics Arts Conference and read in Randy Duncan’s biography that he had written a comics textbook. I hadn’t run across this book in my research, so I introduced myself to Randy, asking after the book. It turned out that Randy had written several chapters of the book, which he was using in his class at Henderson State, but hadn’t published it. We talked, exchanged outlines and chapters when we got back to our respective campuses, and realized that we had about 80% overlap in our vision of what a comics textbook should look like. From there we negotiated that remaining 20% and came up with basic design of what you see now.

We both took the leads on key chapters, but inevitably we began rewriting one another as we moved forward, even adding sections to one another’s chapters to help flesh them out as we proceeded. However, we were in constant contact with one another throughout the process, talking, editing, and commiserating whenever appropriate. Randy is an incredibly gracious collaborator and I’m lucky to get to work with him.

[To be continued, next week!]

Note: This interview is ©2010 Stephen R. Bissette, all rights reserved; posted with permission of all involved.


One response to “Exploring The Power of Comics: Part 1

  1. PS: CCS Pioneer Class of 2007 alumni Caitlin Plovnik interviewed Randy and Matthew earlier this year—which includes info we don’t get into in this Schulz Library conversation. I recommend you check out that interview at the Diamond Bookshelf at: http://www.diamondbookshelf.com/public/default.asp?t=1&m=1&c=20&s=626&ai=86182

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