COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS: English S-184
Harvard Summer School 2016
Tu & Thurs noon-3pm CGIS Knafel K107
Steph Burt Professor of English, Harvard University
WHAT THIS COURSE IS
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.
WHAT THIS COURSE IS NOT
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 email@example.com 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:
https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/02/ 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 www.strongfemaleprotagonist.com; 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: dykestowatchoutfor.com
Scott McCloud: www.scottmccloud.com
The Comics Journal: www.tcj.com
Marvel Unlimited: https://marvel.com/comics/unlimited
Comic Strip Library: comicstriplibrary.org (public domain early comics)
comics.org (cover pages and metadata for tens of thousands of comic books)
Comic Book Resources: http://www.comicbookresources.com Most reliable comics news site.
Comics Worth Reading: http://comicsworthreading.com Nonacademic critical site. See esp. http://comicsworthreading.com/how-to-review/
Hooded Utilitarian: hoodedutilitarian.com. Comics criticism site with a more academic focus, though the pieces are short.
Boston Comics Roundtable: http://bostoncomics.com Events and announcements for comics creators at all levels, including beginners and teens.
SYLLABUS AND ASSIGNMENTS
TUESDAY JUNE 21
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: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/912
George Herriman, Krazy Kat, Feb. 11, 1919: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/235 and May 16, 1919: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/355 and June 4, 1916: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/12
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes
Faith Erin Hicks, “Wolverine Goes Grocery Shopping,” http://www.faitherinhicks.com/wolverine/index.html
Randall Munroe, xkcd: “Grownups”: http://xkcd.com/150/ “Fantasy”: http://xkcd.com/429/
David Willis, Dumbing of Age, first few strips: http://www.dumbingofage.com/2010/comic/book-1/01-move-in-day/home/
Chris Ware, The Last Saturday, first two pages/ screens: http://www.theguardian.com/books/ng-interactive/2014/sep/13/-sp-chris-ware-the-last-saturday-graphic-novel
Justine Shaw, Nowhere Girl, first few pages/ screens: http://www.nowheregirl.com/episode/01/01.html
Writing and drawing exercise, part one, assigned
THURS JUNE 23
Jules Feiffer, introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965): http://www.tcj.com/the-great-comic-book-heroes-intro-afterword-by-jules-feiffer/
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
TUES JUNE 28
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
THURS JUNE 30
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” http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/12/the-x-men-establishment-lackeys/
Sigrid Ellis, “Kitty Queer”: http://www.rachelandmiles.com/xmen/?p=1785
Grant Morrison, excerpt from Supergods:
In class: line and head/torso/figure exercise: what genre is this figure?
First paper assigned
TUES JULY 5
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”: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/marvel-a-force-female-superheroes
Willow Wilson, “Dr. Lepore’s Lament”: http://gwillowwilson.com/post/118822887543/dr-lepores-lament
Marc Singer, “Infidels”: http://notthebeastmaster.typepad.com/weblog/2006/08/infidels.html
In class: panel and layout exercises: how do images fit panels and page layouts?
THURS JULY 7
Baker, Nat Turner (all)
Best American: comics by Sandlin, Appel, Sacco
Randall Munroe, “Click and Drag,” https://xkcd.com/1110/
Tim Gaze, “A Quick Introduction to Abstract Comics”: http://www.actionyes.org/issue10/abstract-comics/gaze/gaze1.html
Daniel Goodbrey, “Never Shoot the Chronopaths,” http://e-merl.com/chrono.htm
In class: wordless comic commission exercise: what can be said without words?
Comic shopping assigned; questions for Erica Henderson assigned
FRI JULY 8
First paper due
TUES JULY 12
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 http://ericafailsatlife.tumblr.com and http://ericahenderson.net/art/index.html)
Read more about Squirrel Girl at http://unbeatablesquirrelgirl.tumblr.com
In class: questions for Erica Henderson
THURS JULY 14
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
TUES JULY 19
Horrocks, Hicksville (whole book)
Dylan Horrocks, “Inventing Comics,” http://www.hicksville.co.nz/Inventing%20Comics.htm
Sandra and Woo, Nov. 22, 2010: http://www.sandraandwoo.com/2010/11/22/0219-a-short-history-of-newspaper-comic-strips/
Richard West, “The Bill Watterson Interview,” The Comics Journal, March 1989, http://www.tcj.com/the-bill-watterson-interview/
In class: collage comics
THURS JULY 21
Gulledge, Page by Paige (all)
Jillian Tamaki, “Trash the Block”: http://jilliantamaki.com/short-comics/trash-the-block/
Jillian Tamaki, “Half-Life”: http://jilliantamaki.com/short-comics/half-life/
Lucy Knisley, “Two Things”: http://www.lucyknisley.com/comic/
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)
FRI JULY 22
Second paper due
TUES JULY 26
McNeil, Finder: Talisman; Finder: King of the Cats
Best American: comics by Dalrymple
McNeil, interview with Martyn Pedler, Bookslut, March 2011: http://www.bookslut.com/comicbookslut/2011_03_017304.php
Wolk, “Carla Speed McNeil: Shape-Changing Demons, Birth Yurts, and Robot Secretaries”
Lettering assignment due (unless completed in class)
Final papers assigned
THURS JULY 28
Best American: comics by Kelso, Bell, Alabaster, Jacobs, Hooyman
Bechdel: Dykes to Watch Out For: all the strips from 1987, online at http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/dtwof-archive-episode-18
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)
TUES AUG 2
Final, abbreviated meeting: further reading, discussion of final projects; last chance for questions
WED AUG 3
Final papers due
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