Friday, January 15, 2010

Coming Soon: Guest Bloggers from the Contemporary Graphic Novels Seminar

Over the next several months, the members of my Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar will be on board as guest bloggers on More Than Words. Each of them has to read a monthly comic book for the duration of the class and then post 2 entries on that comic. In addition, each of them will be blogging on one book from the Leddy Library collection of graphic novels (a collection you should definitely check out if you are in Windsor). If you were reading the blog when last year's class guestblogged, you know that the next few months will feature some lively and engaging writing about comics. I'm looking forward to reading their posts and seeing the range of texts they have chosen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Teaming Up for Literacy: Spider-Man and The Electric Company

Right now I’m working on some more material related to the idea of multimodal literacy sponsorship. I’m particularly interested in the multiple ways that comics have sponsored multimodal literacy throughout their history. From the critical literacy that the EC horror titles sponsored in the 1950s through their continual re-examinations of contemporary society, to the educational comics that were published in response and that sponsored a more conventional literacy that aligned with the contemporary educational practices and social values. From the religious comics published by Oral Roberts in the 1950s and Spire in the 1970s and the ways multimodal literacy was used to promote Christianity, to the rise of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and the creation of a specific multimodal discourse community centered around the Marvel narrative continuity. I’m interested in the ways in which literacy sponsorship happens outside schools and the complex webs that these multiple sponsors of multimodal literacies create. But I’m also interested in the ways that multimodal literacy sponsorship happens in conjunction with educational programs. Hence my interest in the 1970s partnership between the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and Marvel Comics that brought Spider-Man to The Electric Company and The Electric Company to Spidey Super Stories.

The Electric Company, a show produced by the non-profit Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) aimed at teaching reading through the use of television, debuted in 1971. The target audience for the show was poor readers, 7-10 years old, who had, as The Electric Company Final Report put it, “already tasted failure in school reading programs and for whom television could provide a non-threatening and familiar alternative to the classroom experience” (6). In other words, the aim was to use a multimodal medium (i.e. one in which viewers not only made meaning through the linguistic mode, but also through the audio, visual, gestural, and spatial modes) in order to promote linguistic (or print) literacy which students would then presumably be able to transfer to the books they would encounter in school and other settings.

As the show was being aired, researchers connected with CTW pushed for more inclusion of opportunities for sustained reading so that viewers would engage with print that was longer than a single sentence and that was embedded in a narrative. One of the ways that the producers decided to introduce such sequences was through the use of Spider-Man, a character with whom viewers would be familiar. The idea was that in these live-action narrative sequences, Spider-Man would never speak. Rather, his speeches would appear in word balloons above his head, drawing on a familiar convention from comic books in order to promote reading as a way for viewers to follow the simple narratives.

Beginning with Spider-Man’s debut on The Electric Company in 1974, a partnership ensued between Marvel Comics and CTW based around short self-contained narratives that appeared on both the television show and in Spidey Super Stories, a comic introduced by Marvel in the fall of 1974. According to The Electric Company Final Report, the use of Spider-Man in The Electric Company

provided considerable motivation to read and became extremely popular with viewers. Capitalizing on the popularity of these segments, a special Electric Company “Spidey” comic was designed for newsstand distribution as a way of providing additional reading matter of a controlled kind. This comic looked much like any other, but had carefully placed print, short messages, controlled vocabulary and was designed to encourage the poor reader to read rather than to merely rely on pictures. (66)

Though the two groups had different reasons for this cooperation, the partnership clearly benefitted both CTW and Marvel Comics as they reached out to their target audience of poor readers, 7-10 years of age.

In other words, both Marvel and CTW, can be seen as sponsors of literacy, a concept I take from Deborah Brandt. In her article entitled “Sponsors of Literacy,” Brandt defines literacy sponsors in this way: “Sponsors, as I have come to think of them, are any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy – and gain advantage by it in some way” (166). Though their reasons differ (as one is a non-profit educational group and the other is a for-profit comic book publisher), both Marvel and CTW sponsor literacy and their cross-media partnership is an excellent example of the ways in which content can be linked across media even at the earliest stages of literacy development.

So, what I’m doing right now is examining this partnership, the ways in which the two groups used their partnership to sponsor both print and multimodal literacies for their target audience, and the benefits each derived from such sponsorship of literacy. I’m having a lot of fun hanging out with Easy Reader, J. Arthur Crank, and Spider-Man, and thinking through how this complex web of multimodal literacy sponsorship happened.

Monday, January 11, 2010

David Finch Signs Exclusive With DC

I don't normally announce industry happenings on this blog, but I wanted to take this opportunity to mention that Newsarama is reporting that Windsor's own David Finch has just signed an exclusive with DC Comics. Not only is Finch an incredibly talented artist, but he has been very generous in giving his time to talk about comics in various settings around Windsor, including on programs like The Comic Book Syndicate and at BookFest Windsor 2009. At the end of the BookFest session he did with fellow Windsor comics creator Tony Gray, Finch was presented with the Schuster Award for the Most Outstanding Canadian Artist of 2008. I was pleased to see him recognized for his work.

I've heard Finch speak a couple of times about his artistic processes and about collaborating with different writers within the confines of working for one of the big companies. Those talks are always informative and I really do appreciate the time that he takes to give some insight into what goes into putting together a commercial comic book. So, here's a big congratulations going out to David Finch. I, for one, am hoping we get to see what he will do with Batman.

New Narrative Conference, Toronto, May 6-7, 2010

Just before the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (May 8-9, 2010), an academic comics conference is being held at the University of Toronto. Both TCAF and the New Narrative conference are great events if you're serious about comics.

Here is the call for papers:

3rd annual New Narrative conference:
Narrative arts and visual media
An interdisciplinary conference at the University of Toronto
6 – 7 May 2010

In keeping with the spirit of sequels, we are again soliciting papers on a wide range of graphic novels, comic art, and related visual media. 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
web design and on-line comix film adaptations of comics
series; engravings and caricatures the Comics Code Authority
the “invention” of manga geopolitics/war and the graphic novel
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 31 March 2010 (responses by 08 April 2010)

Jeff Parker, Assistant Professor, and/or Dr Andrew Lesk
Department of English, University of Toronto

See also

This Conference will take place just before the Toronto Comics Arts Festival on May 8 and 9. (See