The Secret Language of Comics: Visual Thinking and Writing

Tracing Stitches and Spinning: Reflection

Once you have completed your Tracing project and published the pages to your site, you need to publish a reflection post as well. The post serves to turn the project in when it syndicates to the class site, and is also an opportunity for you to explain your process in the work you just completed.

Your reflection post should link to the main page for your project and also to the assignment prompt. Tell us in the post what the thesis of your essay is and give a one or two sentence preview of your argument.

You should also address the following questions:

  • Before writing your essay, you went through a pretty involved process of tracing and annotating two pages from the books. Briefly explain what that process was like for you — probably this was very different from most other writing you’ve done, so try to explain what was useful about the process for you. What productive thoughts or analysis occurred through the act of tracing and annotating?
  • For this assignment, I asked you to be very conscious of writing an inductive essay with your thesis at the end, which is probably a pretty foreign way to structure an essay for you. How did your writing process change to address this assignment?
  • This assignment is a close reading exercise focused on identifying aspects of the “secret language of comics,” the series of choices the authors make in crafting comics that probably pass by many readers with little or no conscious notice. Do you feel that this assignment helped you to get in on this secret language? Do you understand Stitches and Spinning better after having written this project? What’s the single biggest insight you gained about the two books during the process of tracing, annotating, and analyzing these pages (maybe something you “knew” on some level before you started but that you really get now, or maybe something you hadn’t really noticed until you worked on the project)?

Intermission for class today: Asterios Polyp

Here are five pages from David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (Pantheon Graphic Library, 2009). In this scene the protagonist named in the title of the book, a self-important architecture professor and his girlfriend Hana, a Japanese American artist who is caring and patient, are with Willy Chimera, a collaborator of Hana’s, who takes them to meet Kalvin Kohoutek, an experimental composer. You don’t need to get too caught up in following the details of the intellectual conversation between them, but how do the visuals of this scene convey what’s going on between the four characters?

Mazzuchelli_Asterios Polyp 205-210

Week ahead: 5

5 9/24 Spinning — chapters 4-5 (115-82)
9/26 Scott McCloud Making Comics, chpt 1

Spinning — chapters 6-8 (183-318)

9/29 Sketch 4: Combophoto

Your Tracing Pages assignment is due on October 3, so you should be working on that as you finish reading Spinning.

I had planned to move the McCloud reading up to Tuesday, since the page count over the weekend was light, but I forgot to get this post up on Friday, and with you working on tracing pages over the weekend anyway, it’s probably perfectly fine that it stays on Thursday. Just be aware that it’s more reading for Thursday’s class and plan accordingly.

For your Sunday Sketch this week, you’ll need to combine two photos to make one. Once you have your idea and the images you’re going to combine the actual editing process shouldn’t be too terribly difficult, but take a moment now to look at the example combophotos so that you can begin brainstorming and keeping an eye out for some images you might want to play with.

Week ahead: 4

4 9/17 Hillary Chute, “Comics for Grown-Ups?” from Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere

Stitches — “I was fifteen” & “A few years ago I had the following dream. In the dream I was a boy of six again” (243-329)

9/19 Spinning — Prologue and chapters 1-3 (1-114)
9/22 Sketch 3: Visual Note Taking


This week, I’ll be meeting individually with each of you (remember to show up during the time you signed up for!!). I’ll give you feedback on your literacy narrative and we’ll touch base about the class more generally.


We’ll finish reading Stitches and discuss the ending. We’ll also spend a significant amount of time working through Hillary Chute’s argument in “Comics for Grown-Ups.” Chute is probably the most eminent scholar of comics working right now and this essay is a substantial theoretical text — so read it carefully and thoughtfully. The first half of the essay traces the broad outlines of a history of comics, but what’s going on in its second half Note that the title for this class shows up in the essay and expect for me to press you to unpack this “secret language of comics.”


We’ll begin to discuss Spinning, but that doesn’t mean that you can totally shut the book on Stitches. We’ll start discussion by comparing the two texts, visually and otherwise. As you read, be thinking about the similarities and differences between what Small and Walden are doing in these texts.


In class drawing: Philippe Chancel

One of the photographers included in the show “Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins” at the Barbican Art Gallery in London last year, about photographers who immersed themselves in “countercultures, subcultures and minorities of all kinds” in order to “provide an authentic representation of the disenfranchised communities with whom they spent months, years or even decades with, often conspiring with them to construct their own identity through the camera lens,” is Philippe Chancel, a French photographer and photojournalist of some renown, who spent a lot of time in the 1980s building relationships with multiracial, antiracist rockabilly street gangs in Paris. Some of the photographs from that time were published in The Guardian to promote that show.

Pay attention to where your eye is drawn as you look at the image. Then spend ten minutes drawing/sketching this photograph.

Week Ahead: 3

3 9/10 Sousanis, Nick. “The Importance of Seeing Double and Then Some” and “The Shape of Our Thoughts,” from Unflattening.

Stitches — rest of “I was six” and “I was eleven” (64-156)

9/12 Dan Roam, “First Draw a Circle, then Give it a Name” (chpt 3) from Draw to Win

Stitches — “I was fourteen” (157-242)

Literacy Narrative, part 1
9/15 Sketch 2: Sunday Sketches

Remember to post your avatar for sketch 1 over the weekend! My hope is that by Monday afternoon, all of your sites will be syndicating to Student Work page and all of your avatars are loaded onto the Student Sites page. If you still haven’t commented on the “Welcome” post with your WordPress address and replied to the student information form, let me know what help you need to get that accomplished.

I forgot to mention the additional readings for this week in class, but you should all be checking the schedule and or checking in with these week ahead posts.

These two chapters from Unflattening by Nick Sousanis will serve as one of the theoretical frameworks for our analyses of comics. Sousanis drew Unflattening as his dissertation for Teachers College at Columbia University — it was the first comics dissertation and has since been published by Harvard UP and has won a bunch of awards. Sousanis took a job at San Francisco State University a couple of years ago and is building a comics studies program there. His comic short story “A Life in Comics” is something of a literacy narrative about Karen Green, a librarian at Columbia University’s Butler Library, who is the first Curator for Comics and Cartoons there.

Be aware that this comic is probably a little more dense reading than you’re find Stitches to be, so give yourself a little time to work through those 20 pages carefully. I’ll start off our discussion of Sousanis by asking you to consider how effective Unflattening is as an academic, philosophical argument. (In week 4, we’ll read another theoretical framing text, but in the form of a more traditional essay by Hillary Chute and I’ll ask you to consider how the two pieces are similar and different.) How do the words and images in Unflattening interact together? Is it different than what happens in Stitches?

We’ll also spend some time discussing the end of David’s sixth year and his eleventh year in class on Tuesday.

On Thursday, you’ve got a very short reading from Dan Roam‘s book Draw to Win to go along with Stitches. Roam is a corporate trainer who publishes books and presents workshops on business communication and marketing, focusing on visual clarity for communicating complex information effectively. We’ll also be doing some drawing in class.

Your first major assignment is also due on Thursday. I’ll begin meeting with you individually to give you feedback on those drafts starting on Friday and stretching into the next week. I’ll have a Google doc published before class Thursday where you can sign up for a time slot (so if you haven’t given me a gmail address yet by responding to the information survey, please do so now so that I can give you access to the document!)

X-Page Exercises: Reading and/or Writing

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Think back over the course of your life so far and make a list of ten memories that you associate with reading and/or writing. Just take about 3 minutes and make a numbered list of ten memories that come to mind.

Then, read over your list and pick the one memory that seems the most vivid to you. Circle it. Then on a new page, write that memory at the top of the page as if it were the title of a story and draw a big X across the page.

Picture yourself in the memory that you are exploring and then write the answers to the following questions anywhere on the page. Pretend we are having a conversation, so you can see the image but I can’t so I’m going to be asking you these questions to help me “see” the image too. Keep writing until the next question is asked — no detail is too small or unimportant.

  1. Where are you?
  2. What time of day or night does it seem to be?
  3. What season does it seem to be?
  4. Where is the light coming from?
  5. What kind of light is it?
  6. What’s the temperature like?
  7. What does the air smell like?
  8. What are you doing?
  9. Is there anyone else in that place with you?
  10. What are they doing?
  11. Why are you there?
  12. What are some of the sounds you can hear?
  13. What are some of the things you can see?
  14. What’s directly in front of you?
  15. If you turn your head to your right, what’s there?
  16. If you turn your head to the left, what do you see?
  17. What is behind you?
  18. What’s below you and around your feet?
  19. What’s above your head?
  20. What emotions are you feeling in this space?

Once you have jotted answers to those 20 questions on your x-page turn to a new page and freewrite for 5 or 10 minutes about that memory. There are no wrong or right things to write about or ways to write about the memory. Just write without stopping whatever thoughts are coming to your head about that memory.

We did this exercise in class with one memory. As preparation for writing your literacy narrative essays for next week, choose the next two most vivid memories from your list and make an X-page and freewrite for each.

(adapted from Lynda Barry, Syllabus)

Week Ahead: 2

2 9/3 Andrea Lunsford, “Rhetorical Situations” and “Reading Rhetorically”from Everyone’s an Author

Allie Brosh, “Adventures in Depression, Part One” from Hyperbole and a Half.

Create WordPress site & read syllabus, comment on this post
9/5 Stitches — first 2/3rds of “I was six” (pages 8-63)
9/8 Sketch 1: Avatar

(Note: Most weeks, I’ll try to publish a post on Friday or over the weekend with a glimpse at what is coming up in the next week. Like I have done above, I’ll start with repeating the information on our official schedule for the next week, then like I do below, I’ll often write a little bit more detail about what we’ll focus on in class or what you need to be thinking about and preparing for.)

We had our first class meeting yesterday and you got an introduction to the class. Before we meet again on Tuesday, you should create your WordPress site and complete the other homework I gave you on Thursday.

In class on Tuesday, we will have four major tasks to complete:

  • further discuss the syllabus and expectations for this class (yours and mine) and answer any questions you might still have
  • discuss the terms laid out by Andrea Lunsford, especially focusing on the terms associated with “rhetorical situation,” which we’ll be relying on all semester
  • discuss “Adventures in Depression, Part One.” Think about the relationship between the words (both the blocks of text in between comic panels and the words within the panels) and the images. How would you describe the tone of her comic? What is Allie Brosh’s rhetorical situation? Try to identify the genre, audience, purpose, design, stance, and context. (The medium for “Adventures in Depression, Part One” is comics, webcomic more specifically, so don’t call the genre “comic.” We’ll eventually get to talk about medium versus genre further, and why comics is a medium not a genre.)
  • an in-class writing exercise designed to help you get started with thinking about your literacy narrative, which will be due in week 3

On Thursday, we’ll spend the bulk of our time discussing the opening section of Stitches. As you read those first 50ish pages I would like you to consider the following questions:

  • How does Small establish character and setting in the first handful of pages?
  • This chapter all takes place while David is 6 years old. What are the major subdivisions of the chapter though? You’ll probably decide that there are three (maybe four) major sections in these pages — what is the primary idea being conveyed by each section?
  • Pick the single page that you find the most compelling or interesting or that you think is the most important in today’s reading. Describe the page in a few sentences. Why is it interesting or important?

Also in class on Thursday, we’ll discus the first Sunday Sketch assignment, as you’ll be creating your square avatar images by Sunday and go over any initial questions you have about your WordPress sites.