The case for comic books

By The Associated Press

It’s Monday morning in a classroom at the University of South Carolina. A small group of students is talking about the latest movie to open over the weekend. “I just can’t help but be critical if it doesn’t stay true to the story,” says a student from two rows back. “Whether something stays true to the book or not doesn’t bother me,” says another, before the professor calls the class to order.
It’s a routine exchange played out probably 100 times a week in English classes across the United States. But this isn’t a Great Books of the Western World class and the movie the students are discussing isn’t the latest best-seller-turned-movie-house sleeper.

This is Comic Book Class, or as it’s officially called on the syllabus, Comic Books, Race and History. And the film the students are discussing? X-Men: First Class – one of six movies based on a comic book planned to open this summer.

What’s going on in publishing? Are comic books becoming more accepted by mainstream reading audiences? Qiana Whitted, the professor for the class, thinks so.

“I think the popularity of the movies [based on comics] has had a lot to do with it. It’s a way to take in the characters we’ve all grown up with, characters that tell classic morality tales. And they’re using big-name stars to do it, so because of that, it’s exploded.”

But don’t let the subject matter fool you. While the topic of superheroes like the X-Men [Whitted is an admitted fan] does come up on occasion, you won’t find a single issue of Batman, X-Men or The Avengers on the syllabus.

What you will find are handsomely bound volumes like Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie set in the 1970s Ivory Coast of West Africa or Bayou by Jeremy Love, about life in early 1930s Mississippi.

Students in Whitted’s class pore over and deconstruct the books in as serious an academic manner as one would analyse Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Joyce’s Ulysses (both of which, by the way, have been turned into graphic novels).

“We talk about the visual language, the iconography. You have to do a lot of mental work to piece together what is going on between the written and the visual,” says Whitted, who began teaching the class as a course in May 2005.

Since then, it has grown and evolved. She has taught some version of the class – whether it’s been Comics and American Culture or Comics and American Censorship – at least once a year.

“There are a lot of people who still think it is limited to the superhero genre. But the case that I make in the class is you can use comics to tell any story,” she says.

Chris Foss, owner of Heroes & Dragons in Columbia, says he can remember when there were only five graphic novels – as comic books’ lengthier counterparts are often called – in the early 1980s.

“But of course, now they’ve taken off,” he explains.” We treat graphic novels as books.”

In fact, Foss plans to revamp his store’s layout to include graphic novels on the same shelves as traditional books.

“Graphic novels have allowed comics to cross over. The old-school comic book shop has adapted to the graphic novel,” he says.

While Hollywood has learned how to cash in on the superhero-taking-on-the-villain plot line, both Whitted and Foss say there is more to comics than guys running around in tights throwing death rays.

“You have a lot of libraries and secondary-school teachers who are finding they can use comics and graphic novels to attract young readers to a subject,” says Whitted.

On the school level, for example, graphic novels have been used to portray everything from great moments in American history to the science behind diseases.

Kim Finney, a seventh-grade English-language arts teacher, says they can help jump start a conversation about other forms of reading.

“Sometimes, a novel will have a graphic novel spin-off. So if I see they’re reading the graphic novel I’ll say, `Did you know there is a book that goes with that?’”

And while she’s fine with her students reading them in the classroom, she doesn’t think they have replaced traditional novels.

“I don’t have a problem with them reading graphic novels in my classroom. But I don’t want all of their reading to be graphic novels,” says Finney, who admits that they help create “a like” of reading.

“That’s true for those students who don’t like reading in the first place. It helps to trick them into reading because they think they’re getting away with something by reading a comic book,” she says. Comic artist Jay Potts says the format has helped him to overcome “creator’s block” and is helping other artists break out of traditional moulds. “There are a lot of artists out there that are really escaping the superhero genre and doing all sorts of great work,” he says. “There is more great work being produced now than in the last 20 years.”

Potts’ own internet strip, World of Hurt (www.worldofhurtonline. com), was inspired by the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Think Shaft and Superfly. Setting out to do something “fun but serious”, he wound up with a decidedly more straightforward plot – a detective story featuring a black protagonist.

Potts, who was a recent guest speaker in Whitted’s class, says this wasn’t typically how the subject was handled. “There are people out there that do black exploitation themes, but their approach is usually more humorous. There is a respect to it, but it’s still more humorous,” he says. “I realised that not many people had approached black exploitation in this way.”

The majority of Potts’ work has been for an online audience. One strip has been released each week. But World of Hurt: The Thrill-Seekers will be released in graphic novel form later this month.

“People have really enjoyed the longer stories and seemed to be hungry for that. I think it takes people by surprise when I say it’s the internet’s number one blaxsploitation web comic. But that’s done mainly to be bombastic. Hopefully, they will see that it’s compelling, serious and there is a narrative they can follow.”

Back in Professor Whitted’s class, students are commenting on the bustling town of Yopougon, as portrayed in the world of Aya. The city is more cosmopolitan than the students had imagined.

“It’s not what I thought it would be like,” says student Carolyn Bolton. She took the class because she thought it would be a natural fit with her African-American history studies.

“I had this Westernised idea of what West Africa is like. I was really surprised.”