Wednesday, December 13, 2006

comics in college?

Hey, Kids.

In August, as I looked through my school's schedule of courses, I stumbled upon a word that I never expected to find in a class description:


Yes, in the fall semester of 2006, the University of Missouri offered a class called "Art History 1105: How to Read Comics."

Now I'm a senior, I only need a couple more classes to graduate, and at the time I hadn't taken one class that wasn't required. I needed to fill up 12 hours anyway, so I signed up. After the first day of class (despite finding that the syllabus was written in comic sans) I decided the class would be worth taking just to see how studying comics would even work. I've been reading and drawing comics for as long as I can remember, so I figured a new perspective on graphic storytelling would probably be a good thing for me.

Overall, the whole experience was kind of... strange.
For once, I only had to buy a couple of the required texts because I already owned or had read most of them.
I've been in a lot of classrooms, but before this semester, I had never been one of the most well-read people in any of 'em.

The main textbooks were Scott McCloud's"Understanding Comics"
and Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art."
If you haven't read either of these, I highly recommend taking a look through them. Both McCloud and Eisner have a very calculated way of looking at "sequential art" that manages to break down comics without tearing them apart.
After reading those, we went through other graphic novels such as Maus, Steven Seagle's "It's a Bird," "Ghost World," and whole heap of others. The strangest thing I found about the class was how much the professor liked Frank Miller. We spent about half the semester discussing Sin City.

The class demographics were pretty weird, too.
Most of the students fit into one of three categories:

1. Art school kids
mostly female. majority came to class with half-finished paintings in tow. liked to talk about color and composition.

2. Comic book geeks
95% male. majority had long hair and came to class with Japanese phrasebooks. liked to talk about Batman.

3. Slackers looking for an easy class
Shit, most of them didn't even show up half the time, and when they did they slept.

I like to think I'm a comfortable mix between 2 and 3.

But anyway, yesterday I took my comic class final. We were given two comics to analyze, an American Splendor comic called "Pre-dawn Ride," and a Kurtzman story called "Corpse on the Imjin."

To give you an idea about how we approached writing on comics, here is my final paper. While reading, keep in mind that I forgot we even had a paper, and i wrote this in its entirety 20 minutes before the test started.

Realism in the Fantastic Four

"After the classic era of the Golden Age comic came to a close, a new style of comic storytelling emerged. This new era built upon the groundwork laid by the Golden Age and developed more intricate artwork, themes and characterization. Lead by writers and illustrators such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this new style of comics took the subject matter and characterization of comics to places that the medium had never previously tread. Known as the Silver Age, this new style of comic brought an element of realism to the fantasy world of superheroes. While there are several differences between Golden and Silver Age artwork, I feel that the most profound divergence between the two eras is the Silver Age’s use of realism.

While the Golden Age of comics depicted a world purely of fantasy, the Silver Age attempted to bring all the elements of Golden Age superheroes into a realistic setting. Issue No. 51 of The Fantastic Four exemplifies Lee and Kirby’s use of realism, both through it’s physical setting and its characterization. In most Golden Age comics, the settings were fictitious cities such as Metropolis or Gotham City. In the Silver Age, however, most stories took place in actual real-world settings. In the case of The Fantastic Four and most other Marvel comics, the story takes place in New York City. By using an actual city as a setting, the landscape and surroundings of the characters are already defined. These Silver age stories utilize a world with which many readers are already familiar and creates the potential for more dynamic landscapes. Golden Age panel backgrounds tended to be flat, primary colored scenes of generic city backdrops, but The Silver Age’s pre-defined setting gave artists the opportunity to elaborately recreate preexisting scenes in their panels.

I feel that the main method through which Lee and Kirby incorporate realism into the story is through the characterization. Unlike superheroes of the Golden Age, The Fantastic Four were once ordinary people. Instead of being super powered beings from another planet, or wronged citizens vowing to fight crime, Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben were unwillingly exposed to gamma radiation and given amazing powers. While this event is pure fantasy, the fact that it happened to ordinary people creates an interesting dynamic for both the reader and the story itself. The amazing transformation that The Fantastic Four underwent could have potentially happened to anyone. This captures the reader’s imagination and allows him or her to say “what if…” and easily imagine him or herself in the place of any of Lee’s four characters, playing into the role of comics as pure fantasy.

Contrarily, writer Stan Lee also makes the Fantastic Four characters appear to fit into the realistic setting of New York, by having them deal with realistic problems. Even though the story of The Fantastic Four could never actually happen, Stan Lee was able to make his characters relatable by giving them real life problems. Because they were ordinary people before gaining their powers, the characters of The Fantastic Four had to do more than just fight crime, as many Golden Age superheroes did. These characters instead had adjust to their new abilities while carrying on life in normal society. This is especially hard for Ben Grimm, who is transformed into the gigantic orange creature known as The Thing. Issue No. 51 entitled This Man, This Monster, deals purely with Grimm’s difficulty to cope with his new appearance, changing the character into somewhat of a tragic hero. For the first time in comics history, the Silver Age created a sense of sympathy in the reader for superheroes.

The realism in this story almost plays a dominant role over super powers. Reed and Sue never use their powers once, and most of the action in the story is merely dialogue. While there are fantasy elements involved in the story, the majority of the story takes place in normal New York society, and forces its characters to try and adapt. The Thing is shown lumbering around in the rain feeling sorry for himself while Johnny, the Human Torch is trying to fit in on a college campus. While Johnny does encounter conflict during the story, it is not with a supervillain, but instead with a jealous jock who feels The Human Torch might take his status as Big Man on Campus. There is no physical fighting involved in the story and instead focuses upon the emotions of the characters. The main villain in the story does not even attempt to fight any of the protagonists. Instead, he thinks to himself about the errors of his ways and sacrifices himself to save Mr. Fantastic.

This attempt to include realism in this issue of The Fantastic Four exemplifies the changes that were seen in the Silver Age of comics. Though the story was fantasy, the realism included within its pages makes the story more relatable. By building upon the foundation laid by the Golden Age, comic creators such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were able to totally transform the comic medium into an entirely new storytelling medium."

I could go into a lot more detail about the class, but I'm putting off studying for a final that actually matters. Comment away, and I'll let y'all know anything else you want to find out.


JRennoldz said...

That was a great read. Definatly an "A" paper. Man, I wish my school offered a class like this.

From one senior to another, we're almost there. YEAH!

Man, I want to start reading those black and white Essential Marvel collections.

toothpick said...

my university offered a comics theory four years, i never got it. the class filled up in seconds and the waiting list was insanely long. my satire prof (who also taught the comics course) joked that everyone thought it was bird course, only to be unpleasantly surprised.

kudos on the work here though, post more.

toothpick said...

i meant i never got "in".

buckshot said...

Dope blog... I've been hearing about these kinds of courses popping up all over the place, it was nice to get a glimpse into one.

Sounds like it was a cool class. You definitely had some great "textbooks" to work from.

Kudos on the paper.

lonesome said...

Steven Seagle writes comics too? What a Renaissance man! He's an incredible martial artist, a great actor, a bonafide stud, a gritty bluesman... and now a comics creator! Blows my mind.

buckshot said...

Not to mention he has his own energy drink!