Course Syllabus

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Harvard Summer School 2016

Tu & Thurs noon-3pm                        CGIS Knafel K107

Steph Burt                   Professor of English, Harvard University                                      Office: Barker 270     




Comics and graphic novels, or sequential art, are one of the world’s great storytelling media: we’re going to learn how to read them, how to talk about how they get made and how they work, how to understand—and how to enjoy— some of the kinds of comics and graphic novels (that is, some of the genres) that make up the history of this medium in the modern English-speaking world.


That history has three strands, which cross and re-cross, but which need to be understood independently, and we will see all three: short-form strip comics, designed for newspapers beginning in the 1890s and now flourishing on the Web; action-adventure and superhero comics, invented in the late 1930s, transformed in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, usually created by teams, and important to popular culture today; and a third strand beginning with “underground” or “alternative” comics or comix (with an x) in the 1960s and evolving into long form graphic novels, often created by single writer-artists, today. That history comes with visual references, which you will learn to recognize; comics also comes with its own set of theoretical terms, which you’ll learn to use.



We have several assignments that include creative writing and creative drawing, and comics creators are welcome. That said, this is not primarily a course in how to make comics; we’ll be reading, discussing, examining, and enjoying comics that already exist, and your final assignment—though it can be in comics form—has to make an argument about comics by someone else. Nor is it a course in film and TV genres closely related to comics; if you want to write about superhero movies, or about anime, you’ll have to do so by comparing them to print comics on the same topics. You are welcome to write about web-based comics, however. Finally, it’s a course that concentrates on the English-speaking world, with one detour for an important manga; you’re welcome to write about comics from the European continent, or comics published elsewhere in languages other than English, but we won’t be able to talk about them together, and you may be responsible for explaining them to me.



You’ll write three works of criticism and analysis (about 1000 words) about some work of comics. At least one will involve outside research (citing at least two substantial secondary sources). Each of these three will receive a letter grade. I welcome, but do not require, rough drafts. One of the three may itself come in comics form.


You will also complete shorter, non-graded assignments, some at home and some in class; we may circulate the results. You will, for example, introduce and recommend a single issue of a current, commercially available comic book or graphic series. You will define a term from comics history or comics theory, you will draw, you will lay out a comics page, you will try some lettering and some collage, and you will create at least one short script for someone else to draw; toward the end you will make a mini-comic. We may have other in-class exercises to make sure that everyone has read everything. This course has no final exam.


I expect you to do all the reading for a given date before our class meets on that date, and to show up ready to discuss whatever we read. If you don’t speak up, I will call on you. Discussion classes only work if almost everyone is able to participate almost every time. Of course I expect you to come to all the classes; if you have to miss a class, you’ll need to give me a good reason, in advance.


Each of the graded prose works count for 20% of your grade; ungraded in-class and take-home assignments count, collectively, for 20%, and your real-time class participation counts for the final 10%.


Written assignments should be submitted as email attachments in MS Word or Google Docs to unless otherwise specified; they are due by 10am on the date the syllabus gives (so that I have time to look the short assignments over before class) unless otherwise specified. If you will not be able to turn in an assignment on time, you need to ask for a short extension, and to tell me why, more than a day before the paper is due. Because summer school has an accelerated calendar, it’s especially important that you not fall behind. Late papers without agreed-upon extensions will be accepted but downgraded, normally by two half-grades per day (an A becomes a B+, a B+ becomes a B-); papers more than a few days late thus become F’s.


As with all Harvard Summer School courses, I expect you to abide by the Harvard Summer School policies described in detail here:


In particular, all work turned in for this class—both poems and prose—must be your own; the use of others’ work without proper and explicit acknowledgment constitutes plagiarism and will be subject to appropriate penalties, as described by Summer School policies.


Unless I say otherwise (e.g. for collaborative non-graded or in-class assignments), all the work you submit for this class should be your own work, undertaken for this class, not duplicated from earlier assignments, and not the result of direct collaboration with people who are not taking this class. You may, however, collaborate with another student in this class on one of your three graded assignments if you let me know that you will be doing so before you turn the paper or comic in.


Please give correct and complete citations for any writing by others that you quote in your own writing, as well as for any idea that you clearly picked up from an identifiable source. I prefer the Modern Language Association’s system of citation, which you can read about here: and here:

If you are used to the University of Chicago system (which uses footnotes or endnotes instead of parentheses) or another similar system, that’s fine with us: what’s important is that anyone who reads your writing (whether or not she is taking our class this summer) knows where to find whatever it is you quote.


Students with disabilities should of course request appropriate accommodation: of that’s you, please contact the Accessibility Services office at or 617-998-9640 as soon as possible. For more on disability accommodation at Harvard Summer School, look here:


I will be meeting with each of you individually at least once during July to talk about your work; I will also try to be available, within reason, to meet with you more often in order to discuss what we’re reading and writing.





The following books are already available at Million Year Picnic, downstairs at 99 Mt Auburn St in Harvard Square; buy course books there, identify yourself as a student in this course, and you will get both a discount (20% off everything) and an exemption from sales tax.


Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home


Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al. Marvel Firsts: the 1960s. Note that any collection of 1960s Marvel origins will do, as long as it has the debuts of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four; if you already own another (there have been several) that’s fine.


Wilson, Alphona et al, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal


Mulligan and Ostertag, Strong Female Protagonist Vol 1. Note that this title began as an online comic and continues online at; I encourage you to read on at the website through the several chapters which post-date the bound printed volume. However, you still need to purchase the volume.


Osamu Tezuka, Buddha Vol. 2: The Four Encounters

North, Henderson, et al. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power


Dylan Horrocks, Hicksville

Laura Lee Gulledge, Page by Paige


Carla Speed McNeill, Finder Library Vol. 1 (this book collects several individual volumes of the Finder graphic novel series; if you already own the individual volumes you do not need to buy this one)


The following books are not yet available at Million Year Picnic: I will let you know no later than class on Thursday June 23 whether you can expect to find those books there on that day, or whether you will need to purchase them elsewhere: all except Page by Paige can be ordered through Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave. across the street from Lamont (note that this store is not the Harvard Coop), and all can also be ordered quickly, used or new, through Amazon. You can purchase or order them all on Thursday, or before then if you prefer. Please make sure that you own the book by the time it comes up on the syllabus!


Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean

Jonathan Lethem, ed. Best American Comics 2015

Kyle Baker, Nat Turner

Laura Lee Gulledge, Page by Paige


For assignments that require you to find your own graphic novel or comic book, you can start at Million Year Picnic but you may also want to see other comics specialty stores in our area, such as New England Comics, 14 Eliot St. #A in Harvard Square; Hub Comics, 19 Bow St., Somerville, in Union Square; and Comicazi in Davis Square.


You are welcome to share books with people you trust; you don’t all need to own every one. If you are comfortable using the Marvel Unlimited app (which gives online access to many, but not all, Marvel properties), or if you already own the Marvel 1960s material in other formats, you probably don’t need Marvel Firsts.




Alison Bechdel:

Scott McCloud:

The Comics Journal:

Marvel Unlimited:

Comic Strip Library: (public domain early comics) (cover pages and metadata for tens of thousands of comic books)

Comic Book Resources: Most reliable comics news site.

Comics Worth Reading: Nonacademic critical site. See esp.

Hooded Utilitarian: Comics criticism site with a more academic focus, though the pieces are short.

Boston Comics Roundtable: Events and announcements for comics creators at all levels, including beginners and teens.






First meeting; getting to know you. Sample strips, panels, comics vocabulary; sharing information and goals. What have you already read?


Strips and pages to view online:


Winsor McCay, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, Oct. 14, 1904:


McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Oct. 15, 1905: and March 4, 1906:


George Herriman, Krazy Kat, Feb. 11, 1919: and May 16, 1919: and June 4, 1916:


Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes:


Faith Erin Hicks, “Wolverine Goes Grocery Shopping,”


Randall Munroe, xkcd: “Grownups”: “Fantasy”:


David Willis, Dumbing of Age, first few strips:


Chris Ware, The Last Saturday, first two pages/ screens:


Justine Shaw, Nowhere Girl, first few pages/ screens:


Writing and drawing exercise, part one, assigned




Jules Feiffer, introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965):


Wolk, Reading Comics: “What Comics Are and What They Aren’t” (photocopy provided)


McCloud, Understanding Comics, to p. 93 (intro and chs. 1-3)


In class: panel order excercise or word balloon/ caption exercise


Writing and drawing exercise, part one, due; writing and drawing exercise, part two, begun



McCloud, Understanding Comics, to end (chs. 4-9)


Wolk,” “Auteurs, the History of Art Comics, and How to Look at Ugly Drawings”; “Alison Bechdel: Reframing Memory”


Bechdel, Fun Home (whole book)


Writing and drawing exercise, part two, due: to be shared in class



Marvel Firsts: Fantastic Four #1, Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spider-Man), Journey Into Mystery (Thor), X-Men #1, Strange Tales #110 (Dr Strange), Daredevil #1


Wilson and Alphona, Ms. Marvel, vol. 1


Wolk, “What’s Good About Bad Comics,” “Superheroes and Superreaders”


Noah Berlatsky: “X-Men: Establishment Lackeys”


Sigrid Ellis, “Kitty Queer”:


Grant Morrison, excerpt from Supergods:


In class: line and head/torso/figure exercise: what genre is this figure?


First paper assigned




Mulligan and Ostertag, Strong Female Protagonist, vol. 1


Best American: comics by Bayer, Obomsawin, Duncan


Jill Lepore, “Looking at Female Superheroes with Ten-Year-Old Boys”:

Willow Wilson, “Dr. Lepore’s Lament”:

Marc Singer, “Infidels”:


In class: panel and layout exercises: how do images fit panels and page layouts?




Baker, Nat Turner (all)


Best American: comics by Sandlin, Appel, Sacco


Randall Munroe, “Click and Drag,”


Tim Gaze, “A Quick Introduction to Abstract Comics”:


Daniel Goodbrey, “Never Shoot the Chronopaths,”


In class: wordless comic commission exercise: what can be said without words?


Comic shopping assigned; questions for Erica Henderson assigned



First paper due




Tezuka, Buddha Vol 2: read at least first 150 pp., see how far you get


North and Henderson, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power


Guest: Erica Henderson


Read about her and see more of her work at and


Read more about Squirrel Girl at


In class: questions for Erica Henderson




Tezuka, Buddha Vol 2: rest of book


Comics shopping due


In class: reverse engineering a comic into prose: what gets lost and gained in prose descriptions? What do you see that others don’t see?


Second paper assigned




Horrocks, Hicksville (whole book)


Dylan Horrocks, “Inventing Comics,”


Sandra and Woo, Nov. 22, 2010:


Richard West, “The Bill Watterson Interview,” The Comics Journal, March 1989,


In class: collage comics




Gulledge, Page by Paige (all)


Jillian Tamaki, “Trash the Block”:

Jillian Tamaki, “Half-Life”:

Lucy Knisley, “Two Things”:


Matt Seneca on Gary Panter, with an inset page from Panter’s Jimbo:


In class: looking at Panter, Jimbo in Purgatory, if available


In class: comics terminology review


Lettering assignment (either in class or take-home)



Second paper due




McNeil, Finder: Talisman; Finder: King of the Cats


Best American: comics by Dalrymple


McNeil, interview with Martyn Pedler, Bookslut, March 2011:


Wolk, “Carla Speed McNeil: Shape-Changing Demons, Birth Yurts, and Robot Secretaries”


Lettering assignment due (unless completed in class)


Final papers assigned




Best American: comics by Kelso, Bell, Alabaster, Jacobs, Hooyman


Bechdel: Dykes to Watch Out For: all the strips from 1987, online at


Chance to discuss whatever we missed earlier


Possible online comics to be assigned depending on class interests; we may also catch up with Strong Female Protagonist, with ongoing autobiographers, or with superhero titles, again, depending on class interest


In class: whole minicomics on commission (if not done earlier)




Final, abbreviated meeting: further reading, discussion of final projects; last chance for questions



Final papers due



Course Summary:

Date Details Due