Saturday, October 17, 2009

Breaking Radio Silence: What's Been Up With Research and Teaching

It's been a great while since I've posted to this blog, but I'm back and hope to be consistently posting once again. I did manage to get a lot of comics-related work done this summer, both on the Marvel 1976 project and on an essay called "More at Stake: Vampires and the Comics Code." That work and the current work I'm doing on The Electric Company and their partnership with Marvel in the 1970s (remember Spidey Super Stories? Spider-Man's recurring appearances on the television show?) really seem to be swirling around the same ideas regarding multimodal literacy that I've been developing over the last several years. So, over the last few months, the larger project has been becoming more coherently articulated in my head and that's been very exciting. I'll try to spin out some of these ideas and the relationships I see between them over the next few months.

The other pressing issue right now is book orders for next semester's Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar. Here's my mostly finalized list (in no particular order). Any comments would be much appreciated.

Fell: Feral City (Ellis/Templesmith)
Batman: Year One (Miller/Mazzucchelli)
DMZ: On the Ground (Wood/Burchielli)
Fables: Legends in Exile (Willingham/Medina)
Swallow Me Whole (Powell)
The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (Campbell/Best)
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters (Gaiman/Russell)
Exit Wounds (Modan)
Nat Turner (Baker)

There you have it. I'll likely be having the students in the seminar blogging here about graphic novels in the collection at UW's Leddy Library, so stay tuned for that beginning in January. And I promise not to take six months between posts again. No, really.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Marvel 1976 Project

As I mentioned in my last post, I am just beginning work on a book-length project that uses Marvel comics circa 1976 as its frame. The natural question, of course, is why this focus? Why 1976? Why Marvel? Why not DC 1985 or Charlton 1968? Or why not Marvel in the 1960s?

Let me explain. In March we taped an episode The Comic Book Syndicate on which I was a guest panelist (the episode will premiere on Wednesday, May 6 at Phog Lounge and will soon be on Cogeco in Windsor). As one segment, Michael Poirier asked us each to talk about the first comic we remember reading. It wasn't one specific comic that came to mind, but a storyline in Marvel Team-Up that involved Spider-Man and the Scarlet Witch traveling back in time to the Salem Witch Trials.The storyline, which featured Cotton Mather as one of the villains, played out over several issues, pulling my ten-year old self into the narrative in ways I had never experienced before in my casual reading of Spider-Man, Batman, or Archie.

That story arc led me to explore the rest of the Marvel universe, or at least the small corner of it that I could afford and that was available to me at the local drugstore. It led me to, among other things, the first issue of Nova, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man, and the first issue of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man. In other words, 1976 was the real beginning of my real interest in comics and the point at which Marvel became an important sponsor of my multimodal literacy, an idea about which I've written in "Marveling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy" (College Composition and Communication 59.2, December 2007). As I thought about those issues of Marvel Team-Up and the other Marvel comics I consumed that year, it dawned on me that by focusing on Marvel comics in 1976, I could productively expand on the ideas I had begun to develop in "Marveling." The frame would allow me to discuss not only multimodal literacy, but related issues such as continuity, materiality, paratextuality, and intertextuality, and the ways in which the literacies I was developing by reading Marvel comics were intimately connected with the literacies I was developing through other sponsors of literacy in my life.

For example, in reading those issues of Marvel Team-Up, not only was I fascinated by the superheroes and their predicaments, I became so curious about Salem, the Witch Trials, and Cotton Mather that I went to the school library to find out more. For the first time history mattered to me as a ten-year old boy in rural Alberta and so, at a very rudimentary level, I began to explore it.

And, of course, the comics drew me into the world of the American bicentennial, leading me to wonder about what that all meant. What were they celebrating? Why? In essence, though I couldn't have named it at the time, I was beginning to ask questions about national identity and about my identity as a Canadian (read not-American). Hard stuff for a kid, but comics made me begin to grapple with these issues and have conversations with my friends about them.

So, why Marvel and why 1976? Short answer: because it helps me to situate my thinking about a variety of questions regarding literacy and comics. That said, I'm planning to read everything Marvel produced that year (I realized the cover date is a couple of months later than when it came out, but using a 1976 cover date simplifies the frame). That's a lot of comics -- just over 500. I'll be tracking them down in multiple forms (back issues, Essential editions, Marvel digital database, Michigan State) and thinking about the experience of reading those multiple formats will form part of the project as well.

Wish me luck as I go back in time and visit my ten-year old self. It should be interesting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Contemporary Graphic Novel Seminar: Over Now, But Back Next Yeat

Here we are at the end of another semester. I want to thank all of the members of my Contemporary Graphic Novel Seminar for all of their great contributions to the blog over the last several months. It proved to be a fascinating class and I'm pleased that readers got to see just a bit of the complex thinking about comics that students did. Again, thanks to all who contributed, both in class and on the blog. And thanks as well to Jeff Lemire for his productive visit to class and for his wonderful reading. It was a great semester.

A lot of the students who are currently in their 3rd year at UW have asked me if I'm going to be teaching this course next year, so I am happy to announce that I will be teaching the Contemporary Graphic Novel Seminar in the Winter 2010 semester. I'm looking forward to more great conversations about comics and comics theory; readers can look forward to a whole new set of guest bloggers for More Than Words.

In the meantime, I'll be back with my regular musings about comics, theory, literacy, and education. As I do so, I plan to use the blog to do some thinking about a larger research project that involves Marvel 1976. More on that in the next couple of days.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mother, Come Home -- The Trick of Paratexts

A post by Melissa Schnarr-Rice, a student in my Winter 2009 Graphic Novels class.

Upon first glance, Paul Hornshemeier’s Mother, Come Home seems pretty straightforward. The muted colour palette, understated drawing style . . . even the powerful (albeit not so uplifting) story is pretty clear-cut. Here, Thomas Tennant narrates his own story of dealing with the loss of his mother, and the resulting mental collapse of his father when he was a little boy. The subject-matter’s heavy, yes, but nothing inside the book is overly-complicated. The page layout is all very orderly; the story’s divided into nice little sections; nothing “experimental” or “weird” is going on.
But that’s the trick, isn’t it?
Like Sturm’s Unstable Molecules (discussed in class earlier this semester), the paratextual elements in Mother, Come Home play with the audience’s sense of what is real and what is not and in doing so, relate the physical make-up of the book to the major themes within the narrative.
In his Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Gerard Genette defines a paratextual element as “a vestibule that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back” that “is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it”. Mother, Come Home uses what Genette calls official peritexts, which is to say elements originally produced as part of the book (the cover, titles, back matter) that the publisher or author openly accepts or endorses; it is these official peritexts that transform the rather straightforward story into a real-life (but fictional) domestic tragedy that ultimately acts as a promise never to be fulfilled.
If we look at the cover, we’re first presented with a lion’s head door-knocker, effectively inviting us into the book. The lion’s head as a symbol will also later become quite significant – as readers, we will make connections from this first image to the lion mask Thomas is given by his mother shortly before her death. (The mask quickly becomes a shield from the outside world, as Thomas escapes to an imaginary world rather than deal with the harsh reality of his mother’s absence.) Secondly, we read the title and then the credits underneath. Paul Hornschemeier is named, presumably as the author of the book, “With an Introduction by Thomas Tennant”, the main character of the story – implying that Thomas Tennant is a real person. Inside the book, Paul Hornschemeier is further credited as the “designer”, never the “writer” or “creator”, furthering the illusion that Thomas is more than just a character from the story. Within the first few pages of the story, Thomas even describes problems he had “writing this introduction” when first approached to do so. All of these tricks, (for lack of a better word), persuade us to see Thomas as a real person, which – I think – is an attempt to make the story all the more emotionally powerful, because it is perceived as being “real”, not made-up.
The book’s set up and back-matter also work to confuse the line between fiction and reality. We read Thomas’ story as an introduction because we are told that’s what it is – a preface to a much larger work, the first chapter of which is titled “We Are All Released”. So by the end, we expect more. More story, more explanation . . . essentially, there is a lack of closure because of this promise that there is more to come, even if we never actually get to see it, even if it doesn’t actually exist. Thomas’s story is the story but setting it up as an introduction to a larger work makes us read it differently than if it were just given to us as a story.
Well, I think partially to continue to blur our ideas of reality vs. fiction but also to make us read it as something that needs to be fully understood before moving on – think of it as a step-by-step guide, I guess: You should know and understand step 1 before moving on to step 2. In this way, readers are urged to pay close attention to the story because what they take from it will inform their reading of the rest of the book (that doesn’t and will never actually exist).
It’s a very poignant use of paratexts, and one that I probably wouldn’t have been ready for if we hadn’t already come across something similar. This use of paratexts, of course, is just one of the many great things Hornschemeier does in this book with regards to the comics form and story-telling in general. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Graphic Novels Collection at University of Windsor's Leddy Library

As I have mentioned before, Leddy Library here at the University of Windsor has a great collection of graphic novels. Begun in 2005, the collection is continually growing, encompassing everything from full runs of Y: The Last Man and Sandman to Chester Brown's I Never Liked You and Seth's Clyde Fans to the recently re-issued collections of Peanuts and Terry and the Pirates. There are academic books on comics such as Thierry Groensteen's System of Comics and Jeet Heer's and Kent Worcester's edited collection, A Comics Studies Reader. There's a bit of manga, a smattering of European comics, some Scrooge McDuck, and even a collection of two of romance comics. In short, there's something to interest everyone.

But don't take my word for it. Check out Leddy's Graphic Novels page at Library Thing to get a sense of some of the titles in the collection.

As well, if you're on the UW campus later this month, stop and check out the display of posters on how and why to read a graphic novel, created by the students in the Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar. Not only will you learn something about comics, but you'll be able to see even more of what's available in the collection at Leddy. And I guarantee you that the librarians at Leddy are nicer than Rex Libris.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To Laugh Or Cry: A Comic about the 2008 Tigers

How did I miss this comic over at Roar of the Tigers? As a comics scholar, I'm fascinated. As a Tigers' fan, not so much. Much woe is right. Just look at how sad Paws is here.

But it's spring and hope reigns. As I write this post, it's the eve of the Tigers first pre-season game. Right now Dontrelle WIllis is a stud pitcher again, Gerald Laird is going to steal a dozen bases, and Rick Porcello is the second coming of Mark Fidrych.

Read the comic I must, if only to get last year out of my system. Maybe next year's comic will be a little happier. The Spazzosaurus just needs to stay well clear of the pitching staff.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Riddle Me This: What Graphic Novel Would You Recommend to Someone Who Doesn't Read Graphic Novels?

In conjunction with Jeff Lemire's visit to the University of Windsor on March 30 (more soon), we're trying to promote the graphic novel collection at Leddy Library. Of course, the people who read comics make very good use of the collection and for those people, all you have to do is point them in the right direction. But what about the person who has never read comics or hasn't read comics since childhood? How do you get that person to sit down with a graphic novel? How do you encourage non-comics readers to explore what's out there?

So, the question is, what graphic novel would you recommend for a non-comics reader and why? Drop a line in the comments section with the title, writer/artist, and one or two sentences that explains your reasoning.

For the Graphic Novels Seminar, the students are creating Annotated Comics Pages that will show/theorize how to read a comics page. What I would like to do is take some of your suggestions and include them in this library display that is being created for the end of the semester (to coincide with the Lemire visit). My hope is that all of it will come together to help create even more interest in the excellent collection of graphic novels that is housed at Leddy Library.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Graphic Novels Seminar: Supplementary Readings

As promised to the students in the Graphic Novels Seminar and for anyone else who is interested, here are links to some supplemental readings for the last half of the course. In addition to these four books, we have The Other Side (Aaron and Stewart) and Ghost Stories (Lemire) left to read.

City of Glass (Karasik and Mazzucchelli)
The Poetics of the Page: City of Glass, the graphic novel (Kuhlman)
"Paul Auster's City of Glass: The Graphic Novel" (Coughlan) - MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 832-854 (Available through Leddy Library through Literature Online)

The Tale of One Bad Rat
Panel Borders Interview with Bryan Talbot

"An Interview with Alison Bechdel" (Chute) - MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 1004-1013 (Available through Leddy Library through Literature Online)

The Fate of the Artist
Tom Spurgeon Interview with Eddie Campbell
Gutter Geek Review of The Fate of the Artist

Comics Autobiography
"Autographics: The Seeing 'I' of Comics" (Whitlock) - MFS Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2006, pp. 965-79 (Available through Leddy Library through Literature Online)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

More On Lettering in Comics

At Blambot, Nick Piekos has a very informative piece on the conventions of comic book lettering called "Comics Grammar & Tradition." Like the Comics Lettering Tutorial in the previous post, this comes from a working letterer and so it really gets into conventions and theory behind the storytelling choices. For example, Piekos explains that the balloons to the left are called burst balloons:

Burst Balloons are used when someone is screaming their dialogue. They tend to be more irregular and chaotic than the radio balloon, perhaps with a heavier stroke. Burst balloons typically aren't italicized, but are often bold with certain words enlarged or underlined for even more emphasis. A less punchy variation on the burst balloon is a regular balloon with a small burst where the tail meets the balloon.

Along with all of the tips for comics creators and letterers, there's a lot of extremely useful material for those of us who want to think about how comics work as a medium. It's definitely worth a look.

Lettering: Visualizing Sound in Comics

Last week I finally had a chance to read Gene Kannenberg Jr.'s essay "Graphic Text, Graphic Context: Interpreting Custom Fonts and Hands in Contemporary Comics" in a collection entitled Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation. It's a fascinating piece that makes a good argument for why we need to focus on the visuality of lettering rather than simply seeing it as a transparent vehicle for the linguistic element of the text. In other words, where the text is placed and how the text is lettered is as important as the words themselves and can help the reader to make meaning of the text within the context of the story being told. Kannenberg describes these as narrative and metanarrative qualities of lettering that help to shape textual meaning; in addition, Kannenberg argues that comics lettering also displays extranarrative qualities that may identify the work as by a particular creator, part of a specific title, or of a particular genre. In other words, lettering is of crucial importance in comics and comics scholars and teachers need to pay more attention to it.

As I have thought and continue to think about the way comics make meaning in multimodal ways (linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial) through the combination of all of these elements, I keep coming back to the notion of the audio. After all, comics in their traditional forms (without taking into account recent attempts at motion comics) are a silent medium. Yet when we read them, we vividly imagine the sounds in our heads (even more than we do when reading linguistic texts) because we are given cues as to how we are supposed to hear them. As Kannenberg puts it, "The sound of characters' voices in radio, film, or television contributes greatly to audience interpretation; comics, developing this century along with these other media, uses visual emphasis as a metanarrative device in order to replicate this additional characterization tool in its own, mute medium" (174). In other words, from a multimodal perspective lettering does triple duty as it works as a visual element within the text (a point Will Eisner always emphasizes in both his theory (Comics and Sequential Art) and in the practice of his art (especially, I think, in The Spirit)), as a crucial stand-in for the audio element, and as a complex, non-transparent mediator for linguistic element. Comics may be mute, but we see, and thus hear, the words in ways that have an enormous impact on how we interpret them.

Just take a look at the complexities of the lettering (different fonts, bolding, changing font colours, balloon shapes, balloon colours, captions) in this Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Watterson (click on the strip to see it in a larger size). Now try to imagine the cartoon if all of the linguistic elements were printed inside uniform word balloons and caption boxes in a black font such as Times or Helvetica. How does the meaning change? Is it still funny? How do we interpret the words? The images? The gestures and facial expressions? The spatial layout? All of the choices that Watterson has made in lettering this strip are crucial for the narrative and the joke; without the lettering it falls flat.

I'll have more to say about lettering later this week in relation to Unstable Molecules. For now, let me leave you with more on lettering from a creator's perspective.

Comics Lettering Theory Part 1 by ~themightyfro on deviantART

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Another New Narrative?: Academic Comics Conference in Association with TCAF

I just got word that there will once again be an interdisciplinary conference held in conjunction with the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF). Here is the call for papers:

Another New Narrative?
Comics in Literature, Film, and Art (again)
An interdisciplinary conference at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival
and affiliated with the University of Toronto
9-10 May 2009

The answer to last year’s question—“The New Narrative?”—is “Not new, but certainly exciting and enlivening.” In conjunction with the bi-annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and in keeping with the spirit of sequels, we are again soliciting papers on a wide range of graphic novels and comic art.

Comics, whether in the form of novelistic illustrations, newspaper serials, animated films, film adaptations, graphic novels, or sequential art narratives, have been with us since the rise of literature itself, yet until recently such media have never been considered “serious”—or at least, serious enough to be considered novels that might be on university syllabi. But are illustrated novels and live action films really about the pictures and not the narrative? How can the history of the form be reconciled with consumer culture and the ill-defined categories of “high” and “low” culture?

Papers which examine and interpret these narratives in interdisciplinary forms are most welcome. Essays on novelistic illustrations, newspaper serials, animated films, film adaptations, graphic novels, or sequential art narratives may consider the following (incomplete) list:

graphic novels and auto/biography
illustrated and multi-media works
geopolitics/war and the graphic novel
film adaptations of comics series
engravings and caricatures
the Comics Code Authority
the “invention” of manga
other inventors and influences
bande desinée & European comix
early comics & comic history
illustrations in (literary) novels
woodcut and “silent” artists

Proposals should be 400-500 words and must clearly indicate significance, the line of argument, principal texts considered, and relation to existing scholarship (or originality). One email copy of the proposal, and a 50 word bio note must be included, as an attachment in MS Word.

Deadline for proposals is 15 March 2009 (responses by 31 March 2009).

For more information, contact
Dr Andrew Lesk, Assistant Professor
Department of English, University of Toronto

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unstable Molecules: Interview with James Sturm

Next Monday in the Graphic Novels Seminar, we will be discussing Unstable Molecules by James Sturm and Guy Davis. As background reading, I wanted to point out an interview with James Sturm done by Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Journal. Here's a snip of Sturm's comments:
The Fantastic Four was about this family who were superheroes. But they were a family first, right? That's what made the book tick. That's what I was trying to get at, this dysfunctional family that love/hate relationship they all have with each other. I think that's what Lee and Kirby were trying to do, right?
Throughout the book, there are lots of visual and verbal references back to the Lee and Kirby version of the Fantastic Four. In fact, like It's a Bird, Unstable Molecules depends on an intertextual relationship with previous material that is enacted in different ways through each reader's engagement with the text. The interview begins to get at some of those links as Sturm sees them (which are not, of course, the only links that readers can/will make, nor will these links be confined to the intertexts of the Fantastic Four).

Speaking of intertextual references, within the narrative of the Fantastic Four, the concept of unstable molecules is what allowed the fabric of the teams' costumes to both conform to their bodies and not be affected by their powers. It's a fascinating title for a book about family.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Theory and Practice: It's a Bird

We had a very interesting discussion in today's Graphic Novels Seminar about It's a Bird by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen. It's a "semi-autobiograpical" piece that weaves the Superman mythology with the story of a writer who is both dealing with the existence of Huntington's Disease in his family and with the offer to write Superman. It's a story that works because of the intertextual relationships created by the story (in Genette's terms, Superman is the hypo text, while It's a Bird is the hypertext that comments on and extends it, while at the same time deriving much of its meaning from the relationship it has to the original text). In an interview with UGO, Seagle said that
The story is semi-autobiographical because it has elements from my family's story. I wanted to look at why Superman is resilient because I think he still has importance in the world today. I know there is a lot of bashing when it comes to Superman such as people say he is outdated but he's not. If he was outdated he would cease to exist. I thought the right way to do that was to compare him to an average Joe or in my case an average Steve.
That, to me, sounds a lot like Ndalianis's idea that Superman is "a mythology that is both already said and which is in the process of being said" (see previous post).

As we read It's a Bird, then, we extend the mythology of Superman as we participate in its ongoing process of creation (the hypotext can be seen as the entire Superman mythology and the hypertext is any text that extends it by acting as a kind of intertext to the overall mythology). Or, in terms of Design, we make meaning during the reading process by bringing to bear our Available Resources for Design. The intertextual resonances created by the book depend on the Available Resources each person brings to the text, or the extent to which each person has been involved in the process of articulating the mythology of Superman through his or her own reading/viewing experiences. The results of our reading It's a Bird -- the meanings we make -- then loop back into the process and are made available for our next readings. The next time we pick up a Superman comic or see a reference to the Man of Steel, our experience of reading It's a Bird forms part of the context for making meaning. As readers, then, we are part of the fabric of the Superman mythology, a point Ndalianis explicitly makes as she complicates Eco's ideas.

Why do I mention all of these theoretical ideas? Because they can act as lenses through which we can think about how meaning is created within and between the multiple stories that are woven together in It's a Bird. As well, they can help us to think about how and why Superman "still has importance in the world today" and how we as readers are part of the ongoing process of the Myth of Superman.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

ICAF 2009 Call for Proposals

The call for proposals is out for the 2009 International Comic Arts Forum, to be held in Chicago from October 15-17. Proposals are due by March 20, 2009. This year's conference will be the 14th meeting of ICAF, one of the main academic conferences in the field of comics studies. From the cfp:
ICAF welcomes original proposals from diverse disciplines and theoretical perspectives on any aspect of comics or cartooning, including comic strips, comic books, albums, graphic novels, manga, webcomics, political cartoons, gag cartoons, and caricature. Studies of aesthetics, production, distribution, reception, and social, ideological, and historical significance are all equally welcome, as are studies that address larger theoretical issues linked to comics or cartooning, for example in image/text studies or new media theory. In keeping with its mission, ICAF is particularly interested in studies that reflect an international perspective.
So, consider submitting a proposal or just attending this fine conference. For those of you in the Graphic Novels Seminar, ICAF would be an ideal venue for possible presentation of your final papers.

Superman, Hypertime, Design, and Continuity

In the Graphic Novels Seminar this week, we're reading Angela Ndalianis's excellent essay "Enter the Aleph: Superhero Worlds and Hypertime Realities" from her edited collection The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (a useful collection that Routledge has, for some reason, only released as an incredibly expensive hardback). In the essay, Ndalianis usefully complicates Eco's ideas about Superman as a mythic figure who must remain static despite the serial nature of the comic book form (see "The Myth of Superman," anthologized in Arguing Comics). That is, in order to be mythic, Superman must remain essentially unchanged and "unconsumable" so that whatever happens to him, his essential characteristics remain intact. That's what accounts for so many dream or "Elseworlds" stories and, though Eco didn't foresee it in 1972, the whole concept of parallel worlds that DC has been both spinning out and trying to control over the years.

In trying to contend with these parallel worlds, DC writers have often had to retroactively change the continuity (or retcon, to use the current term) in order to rationalize the characters and their relationships to each other (which also keeps the essential quality of a character like Superman intact). However, as Ndalianis asks, "how can entire fictional histories and the characters who participated in them be wiped from the memories of readers who had experienced them? (280). The answer: they can't. Superman did die. Superman did marry Lois Lane. The rocket carrying the baby who would become Superman did land in Russia.

Ndalianis addresses this notion of the role of the reader in narrative continuity through reference to Grant Morrison's idea of Hypertime in which "within the diegetic universe, multiple versions of a superhero work together to create the version that eventually becomes the legend" (281). Every character within the serial form of comics is thus always in process in complex ways that are dependent on the experiences of the actual readers (as we discussed last week in class with All-Star Superman). In contrast to what Eco writes, then, for Superman, what is created is "a mythology that is both already said and which is in the process of being said" (Ndalianis 284).

I bring up these ideas to complicate our thinking about Eco, but also to begin to explore this idea of Hypertime in relation to the concept of Design (which also complicates Eco's ideas). Design, as formulated by the New London Group, is a dynamic and recursive process that involves three elements: Available Design, Designing, and the Redesigned. Available Designs are the resources that each of us has for Design. Available Design acts as the array of resources we bring to any text, but they do not determine exactly how we will make meaning from that text; individual agency is also important because each of us makes individual decisions about how to use those resources.

When each of us use our Available Designs we engage in the process of Designing or making meaning (whether through writing or reading). Designing is an active process, both for creators and readers of multimodal texts; when we engage in the process of Designing, we use the resources of Available Designs based on own social situatedness, history, life experiences, and interests and we do so within and as a result of our past experience. Such experiences are part of the ongoing process of Design. These new meanings created in Designing become the Redesigned, new resources, part of our newly configured Available Designs. For example, whenever we read a story about Superman, that experience and those meanings become part of our Available Designs and cannot help but influence our future readings.

There are definite parallels between Hypertime and Design that I want to explore further in the future, especially in relation to the notion of continuity. For now, I think it's enough to point out the way that these two theoretical ideas nicely complicate Eco's ideas about Superman.

Finally, reading Ndalianis provides an interesting perspective on It's a Bird, the text for tomorrow's seminar. It should be a fascinating discussion.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blog Spotlight: The Graphic Classroom

There are some blogs that I think are essential reading for people interested in the connections between comics, literacy, and education. One of them is The Graphic Classroom, a blog devoted to "Promoting the use of high quality comic literature in the elementary, middle school, and high school classroom." It's run by Chris Wilson, a graduate student in the College of Education at Missouri State University; always with an eye towards literacy and education, Wilson and the blog's 4 staff writers provide a steady stream of insightful reviews of comics and graphic novels. I appreciate getting their take on books I've been reading like the new Shazam, but more importantly, I rely on them to introduce me to the books for kids that I might have missed, such as A Moment of Clarity. All in all, it's an excellent resource.

If you're in New York this weekend, you can hear Wilson and Michael Schofield, one of the staff writers, speak at the Graphica in Education Conference. If I could get away, that's where I would be on Saturday.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Toronto Comic Arts Festival

The Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF), to be held May 9-10, 2009, has just announced its line-up. Here's a snip from the press release:
Drawing a diverse array of cartoonists from around the world, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) is a phenomenal exhibition of international comics talent, and a chance to celebrate Canadian comics authors here at home. TCAF will showcase the talents of its guests through an ambitious programme of exhibitor presentations, gallery showings, lectures, workshops, discussion panels, interactive readings, and the 2009 Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning.

At the center of the Festival proceedings are the international premieres of numerous long-anticipated works, both by and celebrating Canadian cartoonists, and by graphic novel creators from around the world! Canadian programming highlights will include the debuts of The Collected Doug Wright - both a collection of work and tribute to the beloved Canadian newspaper cartoonist - and George Sprott, a new graphic novel by Seth collecting his acclaimed comics from The New York Times Magazine. Toronto’s own Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of the popular Scott Pilgrim series will attend TCAF to present the fifth volume of the series, and to discuss the Hollywood adaptation of his work filming in Toronto this spring!

Among the international cartoonists appearing at TCAF for the first time will be: Emmanuel Guibert (France), with his new graphic novel The Photographer, a gripping account of the work of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan; Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Japan), debuting his massive 840-page biography A Drifting Life; Anke Feuchetenberger (Germany) will present new work at the Festival (TBA); American Adrian Tomine will premiere the softcover edition of his bestseller Shortcomings; and American Ivan Brunetti will offer the collection of his dark humour comics, entitled Ho!.
It's a great guest list, especially since both Seth (George Sprott (1894-1975)) and Bryan Lee O'Malley (Volume 5 of Scott Pilgrim) will have new material out by then. If you're in Windsor, Leddy Library has copies of Heavy Liquid, Batman: Year 100, and Escapo by Paul Pope, as well as Clyde Fans, Wimbledon Green, and It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken by Seth, Volumes 1-3 of Scott Pilgrim by O'Malley, Shortcomings, Sleepwalk, and Summer Blonde (among others) by Adrian Tomine, and Alan's War by Emmanuel Guibert. These are all fascinating creators with diverse styles. Check them out and, if you can, head up to Toronto in May to hear them speak.

One of the major sponsors of this year's TCAF is the Toronto Public Library. I think this partnership speaks to the value that libraries (especially public libraries) place on their graphic novel collections. As the programming becomes more solidified, I will be interested to see if there are some panels geared towards the connections between comics and literacy. According to the press release, there will be two weeks of events leading up to the festival, so there's definitely a space for a variety of innovative programming. At any rate, I'm very impressed by the guest list and the possibilities of this partnership. Consider May 9-10 circled on my calendar.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Comics History: Pappy's Golden Age Comics Blogzine

If you're interested in the history of comics, you might want to check out Pappy's Golden Age Comics Blogzine. At Pappy's you might find crime and superhero stories from the '40s, historical fiction and talking animals from the '50s, or science fiction and horror from the 60's (though the focus is clearly on pre-Comics Code material). Everything appears in very clear scans that come up full screen with a single click.

To give you some sense of what you might find, here are a couple of pages from a recent post that features a Captain Marvel Jr. story from 1943. In this story, the gangsters and the poltergeists form a pact to fight their mutual enemy: Captain Marvel Jr. The layout of these two pages is beautiful and facilitates storytelling that is very smooth and economical; I especially like the way the cartoonist, Emmanuel Raboy, controls eye movement, even using the shape of the panel to help move the action along in panel 3 of the first page. There's also some great use here of unbounded panels, especially panel 4 of the second page, a panel that works especially well because of the way it is positioned on the page in relation to both panel 1 and panel 3. Of course, that's not quite the end of the story as Captain Marvel Jr. still has to deal with the poltergeists, but I'll let you see how that plays out yourselves.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Theory and Practice: Fell

Last week in the Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar, we had a very productive discussion of the first three issues of Fell (collected in Fell:Feral City) by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith. Having read some introductory comics theory (including material from Scott McCloud's Making Comics and Understanding Comics, Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, and Durwin Talon's Panel Discussions), we spent a long time discussing how Ellis and Templesmith use the comics medium to introduce and develop both Snowtown and Richard Fell in the first issue. The discussion ranged from the connotations and intertexts of the names Snowtown and Fell to the muted colour palette that links specific colours to specific locales within Snowtown to the ubiquitous Snowtown tag. We talked about Fell's physical appearance, including his golden halo of hair, about the sequence in which Fell demonstrates his powers of observation in Mayko's bar, about the panels that map the relationships between locales in Snowtown, and about the way that not even the gutters of the comic are pristine. Finally, we talked at length about how Fell and Snowtown are linked both visually and linguistically in the final panel of the issue and how this issue and this culminating panel set up much of what happens in the subsequent issues. Fell worked well as a text through which students could begin to think about how meaning is created within the comics medium, especially through the lenses of the theories they have begun to read.

This week we're going to be talking more about Fell, but this time we will be using multimodality and Thierry Groensteen's ideas (as developed in The System of Comics) as our theoretical lenses. For Groensteen, the panel is the smallest unit in the system of comics and his theories force us to think about the relations between the panels (arthrology), both in sequence and as they form a network within the page and within the work as a whole. For example, we make sense of panel 4 in the above page both as it occurs in sequence (restrained arthrology), but also in relation to the Snowtown tags we have seen marking the city throughout the first issue of the series (general arthrology). It acts as a transition from the interior of Fell's apartment to the exterior of Snowtown. In this panel, the brown of the apartment becomes the brown of Fell's skin which has been physically marked by the Snowtown brand (courtesy of Mayko). The next panel (panel 5) pulls back to reveal a headshot of Fell as he examines this brand, but the colour (including the hue of Fell's skin) has changed to the grey that has been associated with Snowtown's exteriors throughout the issue (as it will be throughout the series). Panel 5 is, then, linked to the subsequent panels because of the grey colour, to the transitional panel that precedes it because of the Snowtown brand, and to the previous panels in the issue because of both the Snowtown tag and the grey colour associated with Snowtown exteriors.

The final panel, whose meaning in multimodal terms is created through a combination of linguistic, visual, gestural, and spatial elements, derives its impact because of its relation to the panels that precede it on the page and in the issue as a whole. In terms of Groensteen's spatio-topia, the panel stands out from the others on the page because it is different from the other panels on the page in form (a horizontal rather than vertical rectangle) and size (three times the size of the standard panel in Fell), and because it occupies a privileged reading position in the lower right corner of the page. These factors make us pay attention to this panel, linger on it, and consider it in relation to the panels that have preceded it in the issue. In this way, various theories give us a number of ways to consider comics texts as we think about how they create meaning.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Scott McCloud, King of Powerpoint

Scott McCloud's 2005 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk has now been posted. I had a chance to see him give a version of this constantly evolving talk at the BGSU Comic Book in Popular Culture Conference in October and was glad I did. Not only is it quite a good summary of McCloud's ideas about comics, but it's one of the best Powerpoint presentations I've ever seen. I also like the way he weaves in his family history and biography. (This video will be of definite interest to the students in the Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar.)

(Link via On Panel)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Pull List: Supergirl Gets It Right

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade (6-issue series)
Landry Q. Walker (w); Eric Jones (a)

That's right, Supergirl. Now this isn't the Supergirl you might think you know. For one thing, she's actually drawn like a teenage girl, as Tiina points out in her excellent review of the first issue at Comics Are For Everybody. Moreover, the comic is actually aimed at adolescents (including adolescent girls) rather than at adult men. Like the ongoing Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam (more on that book in a future post), the Supergirl mini-series is a real attempt by DC to write a book that starts with the concerns of kids and writes about them in a way that isn't condescending and that doesn't simply try to translate "adult" comics into a form that is deemed suitable for kids to consume.

The brilliant part of the book is that after Kara arrives on Earth (in the middle of a fight between Superman and Lex Luthor), Superman hatches a plan for her to learn about the planet, the people, and the culture by going to a public school. So, Kara becomes Linda Lee, a transfer student who doesn't know anyone at her new school or anything about how to fit in. She is, both literally and metaphorically, an alien, the outsider at whom everyone laughs.

She's trying hard to get it right, but no matter what she does, the laughter seems to surround her, enveloping her visually within each panel, and echoing the feeling that everyone is laughing at her. It's only in a beautifully unbounded image of flight near the end of the book that there is any sense that Kara/Linda might be able to transcend her circumstances and be who she really is (she's Supergirl after all). I won't spoil what comes next -- I'll just say that the reveal makes nice use of the comics medium to bring her back to earth.

Speaking of the medium, Walker and Jones do an excellent job of using the grammar of comics to tell the story (and introduce younger reader to the way that comics work). As you can see from the following page, the freedom that Supergirl initially feels is underscored by the fact that the image is unbounded by panel borders. The subsequent panels step down as she falls and our eye movement through the page follows her. Finally, the red and blue motion lines of the last unbounded panel tell the reader visually that Superman has come to save her (with the speed and sound represented by the zoom sound effect). And that's only the tip of what's going on in this page. We could easily talk about this one, fairly straightforward page in terms of any number of formalist theories of comics (as those in the Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar are learning), but what's important is that Landry and Jones use all the tools available and in doing so, help kids learn to read and appreciate comics. To my mind, comics such as this are exactly what are needed to get kids interested in the medium.

But that isn't quite what I've been telling people. What I have been telling them is that Supergirl: Cosmic Adventure in the 8th Grade, along with Kunkel's new Shazam book, is one of the smartest and most entertaining books around. Let's hope the mini-series (#2 is just out) yields an ongoing title.