Teaching Comics and Graphic Novels as Art History

In the past decade comics have established a small but growing beachhead in academia, following earlier advances in the critical attention paid to them by newspapers, magazines, and journals and the institutional recognition accorded them by museums and libraries. Courses on comics are now taught regularly in literature departments at many universities but only a handful of art history departments offer courses on comics and very few art historians do research on comics. This is a shame because comics (and graphic novels, which are really just longer comics with a fancier name) are a vital part of modern and contemporary visual culture. However, as with many aspects of visual culture, figuring out how to insert comics into art history courses is easier said than done. Because of the nature of the comics medium, teaching comics requires a number of adjustments to the way we normally teach art history. AHTR includes several lesson plans on comics, which provide material that instructors can use in their courses, but unless the instructor is prepared to deal with these dissonances between the standard techniques for teaching art history and those necessary for teaching comics, they may find it difficult to actually integrate the comics from the lesson plans into their course. This post should hopefully help ease that transition. I would argue that only by understanding these obstacles to making comics part of an art history class will the instructor be able to do justice to the subject. In fact, the obstacles themselves can become part of the lesson; explaining them will help students grasp comics’ relation to other art forms and reveal the definition and limits of art history as a discipline.

Panel Flow and Page Layout

One of the most important skills needed to teach comics is the ability to analyze panel flow and page layout. The panel is the fundamental unit of the comics page and is essential to understanding the formal language of comics. Cartoonists need to create visual segues between each panel and those before and after it, unite all the panels on a page into a cohesive whole, and use panels to determine the rhythm and pacing of the narrative. The different methods and styles for composing a page are limited only by the cartoonist’s imagination. Art Spiegelman’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (1974), for instance, uses a 3×4 panel grid, which is a classic format, with an unusual two-panel row added on top. The interior of an apartment is rendered in a kind of Art Deco or Neo-Expressionist style consisting of strong, blocky shapes that form a tightly interlocking grid of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals and clearly show Spiegelman’s familiarity with Cubism and modernist art in general. The dense network of lines locks the composition into a static frame, which is appropriate to the comic’s subject of a man passing time aimlessly in a small, barren apartment. The energy of the diagonals is thus trapped with nowhere to go, much like the man himself. The page works both as a unified composition perceived simultaneously and as a linear narrative unfolding through time, with the page layout mediating between these two ways of seeing. A prime example of this is the fact that the diagonals on the page run predominantly downwards and to the right, helping to draw the eye through the page, from the first panel in the top left to the last in the bottom right.

Art Spiegelman, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” Short Order Comix no. 2 (1974)

 

Jim Steranko, “Outland,” Part 6, in Heavy Metal vol. 5, no. 10 (January 1982)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, this two-page spread from Jim Steranko’s “Outland” (1981-82) creates an expansive composition with a strong sense of movement. The primary direction of this movement is, as in Spiegelman’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” from the top left to the bottom right, and for the same reason. The three main axes in the composition are the diagonal green roof, the upward-moving axis in the row of panels in the bottom-left quadrant, and the rapidly receding orthogonal formed by the corner of the buildings on the right-hand page. As in Spiegelman’s comic, these axes create a tightly structured composition, but in this case one that is open and dynamic rather than closed and static. These axes are in turn elaborated and interconnected by numerous secondary lines and axes. The figure on the roof is the story’s main character, William O’Niel, while the man in the greenhouse below is an assassin whom O’Niel is attempting to trap and kill. The composition expresses this action perfectly, with O’Niel depicted as mobile and free, surrounded by open space, while the assassin is visually constrained by small, narrow panels and dark, overhanging foliage. There is no visual cue to indicate whether these scenes are occurring simultaneously or in sequence, or what that sequence might be, but the text provides the necessary information, an example of the interdependence of text and image in comics. The text also serves a visual function by guiding the eye from O’Niel in the top left downwards to the assassin, while the page layout leads the eye along a different path, down the roof of the greenhouse. The two axes of the greenhouse roof and the rising diagonal axis in the horizontal block of panels intersect near the center of the page, bringing together the two narratives at the scene’s climactic moment and thereby tying together the page layout, panel sequence, and narrative content. The third axis formed by the roof orthogonal at right then pushes the eye downward and traps it, prompting the viewer to turn to the next page.

Although Steranko and Spiegelman’s comics are opposites in many ways (science fiction vs. quotidian reality, color vs. black and white, action vs. inaction, mainstream vs. underground, popular vs. intellectual), both of them unite page layout and panel flow brilliantly, using them as palimpsests that overlay and interact with each other. These pages are extraordinary examples of comics artistry, far above the level of a typical comic, but it is precisely this quality that allows us to see the interaction of page layout and panel flow so clearly in them.

For more on issue of narrative and composition, I recommend chapters three and four of Scott McCloud’s classic study of the formal mechanics of comics, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994). While some chapters in this book are better than others, these two are well worth reading; chapter six, on the relation between text and image in comics, is also worthwhile. An added bonus of Understanding Comics is that it’s written in the form of a comic itself and is thus able to demonstrate its points within the text itself, making it very readable and engaging and also a rather interesting exercise in metatextuality. (Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (2009) also provides an excellent treatment of the subject that is more theoretically grounded and rigorous than McCloud’s but less useful for understanding the nuts and bolts of comics’ formal mechanics.)

A second issue related to formal analysis is that the drawing style of comics, even “art comics,” is quite different than what we are accustomed to in fine art. Chapters Two and Five of McCloud’s Understanding Comics discuss this issue, but they’re quite basic and not completely satisfactory even on a basic level. This is a topic that art historians, with their expertise in stylistic analysis, would have much to contribute to, so their absence from comics studies is especially unfortunate in this area. It’s easy to clutter up a comics panel with excessive detail, so brevity and compression are at a premium. Cartoonists have to convey as much information about characterization and the objects in the panel as succinctly as possible. The best advice I can give to help art historians familiarize themselves with the visual aesthetics of comics is to look at the work of cartoonists esteemed for their drawing technique. I’d recommend Milton Caniff’s newspaper strips, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, as examples of works that elevate cartooning technique to a high pitch of artistry. Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland is another classic, although it’s in a very different style than most comics, a fusion of academicism, Art Nouveau, and Arts and Crafts. In mainstream comic books, two cartoonists who represent the most advanced technique are Jack Kirby and Frank Miller. Underground and alternative comics are a bit more stylistically experimental than newspaper or mainstream comics but still heavily draw on and belong to the cartooning tradition, with Robert Crumb and Chris Ware being two of the most technically gifted and ambitious artists in these categories.

Dealing with Extended Narratives

The centrality of narrative to the comics medium presents another set of challenges for incorporating comics into art history courses. Art history reading assignments are typically secondary sources, with the primary sources, the artworks, presented as illustrations within them. Then, during class, artworks are projected onto a screen and lectures and discussions take place while looking at these images. Newspaper comics are never longer than a page, and comic book stories have historically included a sprinkling of one-page stories, so those comics can be incorporated into this format relatively easily, but the vast majority of comics stories are multi-page and can’t be fully consumed as single images. These comics really need to be read in their entirety, or at least in sections larger than a single page, just as novels and other long literary works are read and studied in English classes. One solution to this problem is to select individual images from longer sources and show those images in class as one would a standard artwork. The individual pages need to be carefully chosen since they have to be comprehensible on their own without an overly large amount of backstory required, and they have to encapsulate as many of the key issues raised by the comic as possible. This allows the teacher to include more works in the class, but it distorts the nature of these works by reducing them to a single page. The other option is to assign entire stories as readings. They can then be discussed in class both as narratives and as images. The downside of this approach is that it uses up a sizable portion of your reading assignments, taking away from other readings that cover multiple works for the benefit of a single work. Whether it works or not depends on the structure of the course as a whole. No solution is ideal and instructors need to choose the least bad option in relation to the structure and goals of their course.

Comics as Art History

Probably the thorniest problem in teaching comics as art history is figuring out how to relate the different histories of comics and art history to one another. This is relatively easy in the nineteenth century but gets more difficult as one proceeds through the twentieth. A common starting place for histories of comics and graphic novels is the work of the Swiss teacher and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer, whose “graphic novels” were published in the 1830s and 1840s. Although Töpffer’s comics were considered a distinctly minor art form, they had a high-culture pedigree that makes them relatively easily assimilable to traditional histories of fine art. Originally created only for private consumption, some of Töpffer’s early work came to the attention of no less a personage than Goethe, who recommended their publication and then reviewed them favorably. Töpffer’s comics satirized social conventions, with one of his favorite targets being the foibles of Romanticism, and his work reflected a well-educated and witty sensibility. As a result, Töpffer’s works can easily be compared side by side with the work of the great nineteenth-century caricaturists such as Rowlandson, Daumier, and Gavarni.

 

Rodolphe Töpffer, Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, 1830

With each successive stage in comics’ development, however, the medium moved further away from its high-culture origins. The first newspaper comics appeared in the 1890s in America as an outgrowth of nineteenth-century caricature, especially that of Thomas Nast, which keeps them in relatively close proximity to the fine-art tradition, although they were now reflecting the lives of illiterate new immigrants rather than the cultured middle and upper classes of Europe. In the twentieth century, newspaper comics proliferated and established their own conventions and styles that did not conform to the conventions of either traditional high art or the emerging modernist movement. In the 1930s, the comic book format was established and, along with it, a new genre, the superhero, which severed virtually all remaining ties with the fine-art tradition. The underground and alternative comics of the 1960s to the present are closer in spirit to the avant-garde than were earlier comics, but their stylistic features still differed almost entirely from those of the avant-garde. Affinities, borrowings, and points of contact between comics and modern art did continue to occur periodically and are detailed in the lesson plans I’ve created for AHTR, but they were isolated cases.

The advent of postmodernism raised the possibility of a reunion between comics and high art, and to an extent such a reunion did occur, but it came with significant limitations. Postmodernism allowed for the high-cultural appropriation of low-culture artifacts and texts in a less adulterated or mediated form than had been possible under modernism and facilitated the promotion of select works of low culture to the ranks of elite culture. Both of these moves blurred the boundaries separating different strata of the cultural hierarchy, but they did not eliminate the strata or the differences between them, including their styles, cultural statuses, audiences, institutions, and critical standards. A small area of intersection did and does exist between them, but for the most part they remain separate. While postmodernism thus did do some good, it also encouraged a false sense of optimism by convincing many intellectuals that there were no longer any cultural boundaries or hierarchies when this was not in fact the case, thereby discouraging any effort to further dismantle them.

The following passage from Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik’s catalogue for MoMA’s High and Low exhibition is sweeping and idiosyncratic, but it gives a much-needed long view of the difficult relation between comics and high art.

The story of the comic strip and modern painting…is a story of convergent development rooted in a common ambition: to make art a serious game. If you stood back far enough from the history of modern visual expression, it might almost seem as if, sometime in the Romantic era, two similar dreams of a new, universal language for art came into existence, and each began to work out its own possibilities. The low, popular form of the comics tried to arrive at a unifying common language by telling stories; the high form of what would become modern art tried to get there by completely eliminating storytelling. These two tracks, however—narrative and antinarrative—turned out to be less like two streets that lead off from a fork in the road, in opposed directions, than like two paths that lead into a maze from opposite sides. For long periods the two parties of wayfarers on the paths are completely unaware of each other; then at times they become obsessed with the noises they can just make out coming from the other side of a hedge; and at times they stumble right over each other. (154)

I don’t entirely buy their reduction of comics and modernism to narrative and antinarrative, but the idea that comics and high art are like two strangers stumbling past each other in the maze of modernity is tantalizing and suggestive. Varnedoe and Gopnik are entirely correct that there are often intriguing parallels and similarities between comics and high art but that they are usually accidental and incommensurate, and that figuring out how and why they are related to each other is a difficult task. Part of the difficulty is that it’s not really an ongoing discourse but rather a series of one-off collisions; for the most part, the avant-garde ignored comics and vice versa. There were a series of intermittent and uneven encounters between the two that were largely ignored or forgotten by their respective professions, and hence did not leave a lasting impression on them. Although these episodes make up rather marginal aspects of the story of each art form, since the avant-garde has been the dominant strand in twentieth-century art, it’s essential that art historians be able to locate comics in relation to the avant-garde, even if this relationship is not of central importance for the history of either comics or the avant-garde.

Comics as Visual Culture

Lastly, comics have to be considered as one part of a larger mass visual culture that is almost never taught in art history classes. Art Nouveau posters represent one of the few points of contact between art history and this mass visual culture, but fine art and mass visual culture never again coincided to such a great extent. As a result, when comics are introduced into art history courses they are removed from the larger context of advertisements, posters, periodicals, book covers, and animated films and television shows, which constituted a major part of their social and visual context. The cover, shown here, from the January 1929 issue of the pioneering pulp science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories is a prime example of this neglected mass visual culture. All of these fields are heavily under-researched and, while major strides have been made in the last three decades, there is still foundational work remaining to be done in all of them. (Graduate students, take note: these fields are wide open for new research.) Some books that can help situate the art historian in this milieu are Ian Gordon’s Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), the chapters on comics and advertising in the High and Low catalogue, Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (Basic Books, 2005), and The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2012), edited by David Glover and Scott McCracken.

 

Cover of Amazing Stories vol. 3, no. 10 (January 1929)

Course Design

How much and in what manner one is able to incorporate comics into an existing art history course depends on the type of course under consideration. Within the scope of an introductory survey, the best that is generally possible is to drop in a handful of representative examples, say, one humorous newspaper strip, one superhero, and one contemporary graphic novel. That is enough to provide some minimal sense of the medium’s history but explaining the social context, narrative content, interpretive possibilities, and formal conventions and achievements of any of these works is very difficult in the compressed amount of time available in a survey course. Bringing comics into a course on modern or contemporary art should allow one to devote more time to them, but also makes it more important to tackle the question of comics’ relation to the avant-garde.

Structuring an entire course around comics allows plenty of time to analyze and work through all of these issues. However, most art historians don’t have enough expertise in comics to design an entire course around them. If you are interested in expanding your coverage of comics you can start by bringing small quantities of them into your existing courses, which would allow you to start familiarizing yourself with the comics canon and the academic literature on it. The next step could be to design and teach a class merging comics with a more conventional art history topic, for instance a course on the intersection between comics and contemporary art from Pop onwards. Following that, you could move on to a class solely devoted to comics. Of course, all of these are just suggestions. Comics studies is a young field so there are few if any established procedures for teaching it, much less for teaching comics in an art history context, so feel free to experiment.

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