The Secret Language of Comics: Visual Thinking and Writing

Mister Miracle

While I was traveling this weekend, I read the new DC Comics book by Tom King and Mitch Gerads Mister Miracle and realized that it’s the book I should have assigned as our last one. Here is the synopsis from Library Journal:

As a newborn baby, Scott Free, heir to the throne of New Genesis, was ransomed to the despotic villain Darkseid to bring an end to an interplanetary war. After years of torture at the hands of his captors, Scott, along with the love of his life, Barda, managed to flee to Earth, where he eventually became part-time superhero and full-time world-famous escape artist Mr. Miracle. He can slip any trap and overcome any obstacle, but when he discovers that he’s about to become a father, just as tensions reignite on his home planet, Scott realizes that his traumatic past is more difficult to escape than any handcuffs and that life itself is the ultimate deathtrap.

I think it’s a fantastic book — really funny but also heartbreaking — that reboots one of the classic superheroes invented by Jack Kirby in the 1970s.

I’ll definitely be adding it to the syllabus next time I teach this class. If you’re looking for continued reading along the lines of what we read this semester, check it out and then let me know what you think of it!

Final Conferences

Here’s the sign up sheet for final conferences.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to send me an email in which you identify one piece of writing you have completed this semester that you believe I should nominate for an Eagle Award, along with a paragraph explaining why it deserves this award/why you are proud of it.

Email me if you have questions as you finish up the portfolio reflection letter, editing your site, or revisions. Good luck on your exams and take care over the holiday break.


Wrapping up

I promised in class yesterday to put up a list of what you need to work on over the next couple of weeks:

  • Complete Literacy Narrative, Part 3 and publish as a new page on your site, along with a reflection post linking to it.
  • Complete your final Sunday Sketch assignment, which should help you to begin thinking about your final reflection letter.
  • By the time we meet next Tuesday (12/10) send me an email in which you identify one piece of writing you have completed this semester that you believe I should nominate for an Eagle Award, along with a paragraph explaining why it deserves this award/why you are proud of it.
  • Edit your website to have a static front page, with a good menu and clear access to all the work you’ve published this semester. Make the whole site feel like a coherent, finished website.
  • Publish your reflection letter to the front page of your site.

On Tuesday, we’ll put a bow on the class topic and discussions. I’ll answer any questions you have about the list above and we might talk a bit about the Assemblies sketches you put together. I’ll have a Google doc sign up sheet ready by then for you to sign up for final conferences with me, should you choose to have another one. And I’ll give you some time to fill out the end of semester course evaluation forms.

Week ahead: 13

13 11/19 Daytripper — Introduction by Craig Thompson, One: 32, Two: 21 (7-56) Halfa Kucha
11/21 Daytripper — Three: 28, Four: 41 (57-104) Halfa Kucha
11/24 Sketch 10: Tell a True Story

On Tuesday we’ll have presentations by:

  • Ore
  • Dean
  • Marlie
  • Bella
  • Sulaiman
  • Haider
  • Sawyer
  • Isabel

On Thursday we’ll have presentations by:

  • Ja’Mya
  • Terrence
  • Andres
  • Isaac
  • Joyce
  • Trinity
  • Andrew
  • Nick
  • Shivani
  • Teo
  • Lonnie

You should upload your presentation to the Box folder I shared with all of you, so we know that you’ll be able to access it when it’s time to present.

After presentations, we’ll spend the remaining time discussing Daytripper.

You can go ahead and sign up to meet with me just before or just after the Thanksgiving break to discuss your work so far in the class, including the Halfa Kucha presentations, using this form. If you sign up to meet with me on Monday after the break, please set a reminder for yourself so that you don’t forget after the break.

Literacy Narrative Comic Reflection

Now that you’ve completed your Literacy Narrative Comic, publish a reflective blog post of about 500 words about the writing process, paying special attention to how the work you have done has helped you to meet the Learning Outcomes for this class. That post should link to the page with your literacy comic.

Some other questions you might respond to: How was it different to write your literacy narrative as a comic? How did you think differently once the visual component was added? How did that help you to see the story you were trying to tell in different terms? Was your analytical thinking process any different? How have your thoughts about your alphabetic literacy narrative changed in the process of transforming it into a comic?

I’d also like you to discuss choices you made in creating your comic and to explain why you chose the way you did. Especially if there’s something you were really trying to do in your comic which you felt you couldn’t realize as perfectly as you would if you had a lot more time, more resources, or if you could have hired an illustrator to turn your vision into exactly what you wanted. If there are aspects of your comic where you have a clear sense of what you were trying to accomplish and how you would have done so if some things were different, then explain that in your reflection. Doing so allows you to demonstrate that you have the knowledge you need about this sort of writing even if you have not yet developed all the skills necessary to make that knowledge visible in the final artifact you’ve produced

Week Aheads Ahead: 12-13

12 11/12 Sabrina — 101- 157 Literacy narrative, part 2
11/14 Sabrina — 158-204
11/17 No sketch due
13 11/19 Daytripper — Introduction by Craig Thompson, One: 32, Two: 21 (7-56) Halfa Kucha
11/21 Daytripper — Three: 28, Four: 41 (57-104)
11/24 Sketch 10: Tell a True Story

Over the weekend and this week, you should be finishing up your comic literacy narratives and putting together your Halfa Kucha presentations.


Note: I revised the schedule slightly to move sketch 10 back one week. There is no sketch due on 11/17, to allow you to focus on your presentations.

In class this week, I’ll hand out sheets of 11×17″ paper that you can fold into 5 “panels” for sketch 10. It’s also fine to do that sketch with 8.5×11″ paper, but with all the folding the larger sheets will likely work better — working with a standard 8.5×11″ page means that your first panel is only about 2″x3″ and that might be a challenge to draw on.

Looking ahead to the Thanksgiving break, you’ll be recreating a scene from a movie … just be sort of thinking about what you might be able to manage to do with that sketch.

Half Kucha

As you read for class this week you should be thinking about and preparing for your presentations. It’s probably a good idea to look back over your Tracing Pages essay as you do so. That assignment asked you to think about trauma and healing by zooming in very narrowly on two pages. This assignment is asking you to think about trauma and recovery from more of a middle distance — looking for patterns across two or three of the books we have read this semester.

In the assignment prompt, I ask you to think about those two quotes from Herman and also the Hillary Chute essay on “The Risk of Representation.” You might think about the quotes from that essay that we worked on as a class.

Some other key ideas you might consider:

  • the ways in which a comics artist “push on conceptions of the unrepresentable” and “assert the value of presence, however complex and contingent”;
  • the ways in which these authors “offer the work of retracing — materially reimagining trauma. They return to events to literally re-view them”;
  • the ways in which these narratives “are not only about events but also, explicitly, about how we frame them;
  • the ways in which an author “insists on the importance of innovative textual practice offered by the rich visual-verbal form of comics to be able to represent trauma productively and ethically”;
  • the idiom of witness: “a manner of testifying that sets a visual language in motion with and against the verbal in order to embody individual and collective experience, to put contingent selves and histories into form”;
  • the ways in which these authors “show us interpretation as a process of visualization”;
  • comics as a “possible metaphor for memory and recollection” in the way that comics “appear in fragments, just as  they do in actual recollection,” especially when you’re dealing with traumatic memory;
  • the ways in which these authors represent “an everyday reality,” especially for women and girls, “picturing what is often placed outside of public discourse”;
  • authors using the “inbuilt duality of the form — its word and image cross-discursivity — to stage dialogues among versions of the self, underscoring the importance of an ongoing, unclosed project of self-representation and self-narration”;
  • the ways in which comics represent time as space: “time is shaped spatially” on a page through panel size, shape, and placement, which interacts with pace and rhythm and allows for “palimpsesting past and present moments together” in order to show the past, present, and future all together simultaneously;
  • the similarities and differences between comics and film, and in particular for this assignment the ways in which comics might be better at representing trauma and healing because comics “cedes the pace of consumption to the reader, and begs rereadings through its spatial form,” thus “releasing its reader from the strictures of experiencing a work in a controlled time frame,” which can have a profound impact when dealing with the ethical implications of presenting traumatic narratives or disturbing images (for example, avoiding the problem of the camera lingering too long on an image of atrocity or “wash over it too casually”);
  • because of comics’ “rhythm of acquisition” they are “capable of taking up complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness”;
  • the ways in which comics can feel diaristic: “there is an intimacy to reading handwritten marks on the printed page, an intimacy that works in tandem with the sometimes visceral effects of presenting ‘private’ images” (all quotes in this list from Chute, Hillary. “Introduction: Women, Comics, and the Risk of Representation.” Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. 1-27.)

Obviously, you should not try to tackle all of these in your analysis. But you might read through that list and pay attention to one that intrigues you and/or helps you to understand something complex about the books we’ve read this semester, then try to lay out that understanding in your presentation.

Week ahead: 11

11 11/5 Sabrina — 1-50
11/7 Sabrina — 51-100
11/10 Sketch 9: Data viz from everyday life

This week, we’ll start Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. I think it will feel like a very different book to most of you than any we’ve read so far. Zadie Smith, an author with a long list of awards and commendations, said of Sabrina that it is “the best book — in any medium — I have read about our current moment.” I wonder what you think of that claim, especially in the sense of what is “our current moment” then?

How would you describe the tone of the novel? How about its color palette and visual style? The cartoonist Roz Chast has claimed that Drnaso “gets across a mood that’s very unsettling, in a way that I’ve never quite come across before, at least in graphic novels.” Probably all the of the books we have read this semester have been unsettling in some ways — but how is this one more or less or differently unsettling?

Don’t forget to keep tracking your data for sketch 9 and to put together your visualization of that data. And I will hand out oversized paper in class on Thursday that you can use for your 5-panel true stories in sketch 10.

Week Ahead: 9

9 10/22 Kindred — Introduction, Prologue, The River, The Fire (4-57)
10/24 Kindred — The Fall (58-99)
10/27 Sketch 8: Human Document

Note: I moved back the storyboard for the literacy narrative comic to next week.

Upcoming sketch assignments

I’ll bring pages for this week’s sketch assignment to class on Tuesday. If you miss class, make sure to ask me for a page or two to work from on Thursday.

Also, we’ll talk about sketch 9 a bit in class this week so that you can begin gathering data.



Intermission for class today: Fun Home

Here are three pages from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). The first two — from the first chapter, “Old Father, Old Artificer” — contrast young Alison and her father. He was a high school English teacher who invested considerable energy and skill into restoring the old 19th century Gothic Revival house that they lived in to exacting and authentic standards. 

And then this page from the beginning of chapter three, “That Old Catastrophe,” describing her parents’ response after she comes out to them while she’s in college. Not long after she sent that letter, her father was killed when he was struck by a Wonder Bread truck in what might have been an accident or might have been suicide.