Category Archives: Comics Studies

Studies in Comics: Education and Comics

Studies in Comics

Studies in Comics, Vol 11, No 1. Intellect Books. 2021. Bristol, UK. 234pp.

The case for comics having a place beyond the local newsstand or comics shop has grown to the point where it is now no surprise to hear about the latest comics course being taught at a university. We’re now, more than ever, accepting of comics in its many forms and purposes, not the least of which is its role in education. Comics and Education is the theme of the latest issue of the scholarly journal, Studies in Comics. And there is much to cover as the journal lists itself: teaching and learning with published comics; case studies of education comics/comics as education; teaching and learning by creating comics; comics, literacy and emotional development; and public information comics. While such a listing may sound rather dry, there is much life to be found in the comics medium–and that’s the whole point. Comics can breathe a whole new life into a myriad of subjects.

True Comics, 1941

But warming up to comics as an educational tool hasn’t been without its fits and starts as noted in the first article by Christopher Murray and Golnar Nabizadeh. Consider this early entry into educational comics: True Comics, from 1941, launched by The Parents’ Institute, publisher of the influential Parent’s Magazine. As to distance itself from the popular superhero, crime and adventure comics of the day, the cover boldly states: “Truth is stranger and a thousand times for thrilling than fiction!” That is a quote from the introduction by founder and publisher George J. Hecht, responding to a general misunderstanding of comics. For example, Sterling North, the Literary Editor of the Chicago Daily News, had recently attacked the comics industry on the basis that comics was, in his words, a “national disgrace” and a “poisonous mushroom growth.” And when comics did receive support from leading academics, as the authors of this article point out, it could be a mix of condescension and genuine interest:

“While the overall message is that comics are being utilized in many educational contexts, the use of the terms ‘invaded’ and ‘reduced’, and the suggestion that not even Sunday Schools are exempt, puts comics in a negative light. However, Zorbaugh and Gruenberg, along with Paul A. Witty (Professor of Education at Northwestern University), were among a handful of academics and educators exploring the psychological and educational aspects of the comics in the 1940s. In general, they presented the view that comics, far from being harmful, were a powerful way to engage children and especially reluctant readers.”

A selection of educational and information comics produced by Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS)/University of Dundee.

In fact, comics have proven many times over to be a powerful tool to process information. Anyone entering the world of comics, as a reader or as a creative, is setting foot upon an incredibly exciting journey. Another article among the eight full-length features here is one focusing on comics about healthcare and science, featuring Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS), by Damon Herd, Divya Jindal-Snape, Christopher Murray, and Megan Sinclair and it is really at the heart of what this journal is all about. For example, here is an excerpt on a comic about mental health and dealing with hate crimes that involved role-playing in order to unearth some solutions:

“The stories were fictional but they were drawn from their own real-life experiences of hate crime. This fictional aspect gave them space to ‘play the character’, creating a safe space to the discuss difficult subject matter (Jindal-Snape et al. 2011) by inhabiting the world of ‘the image of reality and the reality of the image’ (Boal 1995: 43). This was an educational and emotional experience for the rest of the team. For example, the Advocators insisted that the abusive language that had been directed against them was used in the comic. As they explained, ‘if we don’t show that it is a hate crime, then people reading might not know that it is’. Under the guidance of Advocating Together, the finished comic presented six hard-hitting stories that showcased the stark reality of the hateful (and criminal) experiences they suffer on a regular basis.”

Fibromyalgia and Us

This is a perfect example, of so many, that demonstrates the power of comics and the unexpected results that are possible both at the time of delivery and in the process of creating the work. In the case of a team-oriented event, this is known as a “comics jam” and, as this article explains, it is through this hands-on process that participants get to experience the comics medium as part of a creative team. It is an event that requires no prior art background and you can always partner with an artist as the project develops. The following is an excerpt representative of all the insights and goodwill derived from these team-oriented comics that led to a whole collection of healthcare and science comics, like Fibromyalgia and Us, from the University of Dundee:

Fibromyalgia and Us (2017) was a project initiated by Divya Jindal-Snape (School of Education and Social Work), who has fibromyalgia and wanted to use the comics medium to inform the healthcare professionals and the public about this less-known and often-misunderstood ‘invisible’ condition that is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. The comic opens with an auto- biographical story by Jindal-Snape, with contributions by her family, and artwork by Ashling Larkin. This story highlights the impact of fibromyalgia on the individual as well as their family and friends. Her colleague Lynn Kelly also wrote a story about her own experiences and benefits of gentle exercise, with artwork provided by Letty Wilson; and there were stories by Judith Langlands-Scott, who detailed the trauma of being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia in a story with artwork by Zuzanna Dominiak. Judith’s son, Andrew Keiller, wrote a story that was drawn by Elliot Balson. This was an important addition as the general perception is that only women, or more commonly older women, have fibromyalgia. His story detailed his struggle with fibromyalgia while at school, where teach- ers and classmates were rarely understanding or sympathetic. Damon Herd and Letty Wilson drew stories based on the experiences of a doctor and a physiotherapist. This comic was launched at an event that received significant attention from both local, national and international press, and a digital version of the comic was subsequently downloaded over 13,000 times.”

A Hero’s Journey through Words and Pictures

Another process-oriented article comes from Zak Waipara, and his comics essay about setting up a new comics and animation curriculum at Auckland University of Technology.  Comics and creativity go hand in hand and so why not use comics in order to better understand how to teach about the comics medium! In the above excerpt, Waipara quotes from Christopher Vgoler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “Magic is a good way to describe the synthesis between words and pictures.” Indeed, I believe he’s onto something!

One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale

Comics need not be mistrusted or misunderstood. We’ve come such a long way from the clumsy efforts to slap a portrait of Winston Churchill on the cover of a comic book and lecture to kids that truth is far better than fiction! We are more “sophisticated” general readers: less patient; more prone to criticize; less accepting of authority. The end result should be a good thing: We are better positioned today to question the content we digest. That brings us to the work of cartoonist Nathan Hale and the article about his work by Brianna Anderson. The book in question is generally intended for middle graders and Anderson explores the book’s benefit to this group. Anderson hits upon the author’s use of inserting himself into the work, a fairly common practice in comics, particularly indie comics; and how the author presents information, whether innovative, irreverent, or whatever it might be. Anderson concludes that the author has done a great job of opening up the subject for discussion but does take issue with some choices:

“However, the paratext also reinforces racist and sexist paradigms by displacing black and female voices to the comic’s supplemental endpapers, underwriting the comic’s well-intentioned attempts to educate readers about important voices excluded from white-centric narratives. Thus, while One Dead Spy demonstrates how historical fiction comics can provoke much-needed discussions about the inherent biases and erasures of dominant historical discourses, it also reveals the dangers of relegating opportunities for children to learn about marginalized perspectives in history to the literal margins.”

The difference between how True Comics was judged in 1941 and the way that One Dead Spy is judged in 2021 is as stark as night and day. All in all, that has to be a strong indication of progress being made. A cartoonist like Nathan Hale and an academic like Brianna Anderson can sit down and compare notes. One discussion leads to another. What’s important, as Anderson commends Hale for doing, is to question authority. Anderson claims that Hale is “relegating” already marginalized voices. However, that is a debatable point, just to be fair. The story of Crispus Attucks is certainly worthy of a book all its own. So, for Hale to include a small story about Attucks in a book about American spy Nathan Hale, is reasonable. For a book with a more decided focus on marginalized perspectives, Anderson may want to check out Hale’s book on the Haitian Revolution. That said, this is not to negate but to celebrate Anderson’s analysis. We now live in a time with no simple cookie-cutter answers but, instead, we welcome robust discussion.

Studies in Comics is an essential resource in the ongoing discussion of the comics medium. You will find a treasure trove of useful and insightful content from some of the best minds on the subject of comics as art and as a communication tool. Studies in Comics is published by Intellect Books. Visit them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Comics Studies: Mise-en-Scene

Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE

Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.

From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain

You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.

You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.

from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found  the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

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