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.