Comics? In my English literary canon? It’s more likely than you’d think.
When you imagine Mount Allison’s English department, what do you envision? Dusty old books? Looking at the courses, it’s clear this image isn’t entirely untrue. With offerings like Modernism, Contemporary Literary Theory I & II, Early Twentieth-Century British Literature, and Late & Early Victorian Literature, there’s not much in the way of late 20th- or early 21st-century works. Most courses are intended to foster a good understanding of the history of English literature, but that has resulted in a lack of attention for contemporary works.
I spoke with Dr. Terrence Craig, an English professor, who shed some light on these apparent blind spots. “At a time when the entire University has been facing financial difficulty, the English department is struggling to keep its core curriculum,” Craig said.
Fortunately, just because finding room for new courses is difficult doesn’t mean it never happens. Dr. Craig was given the opportunity to develop a new course for this semester, and so ENGL 1991: The Graphic Novel was born. He says it’s going well: “Most of them are real keeners. They’re people who have believed in the graphic novel their whole life.” Jolaine Volpe, a fourth-year English major, is in the class and showed that the students also felt the enthusiasm. “I think graphic novels have been seen as something that’s non-academic for many years, and now we’re trying to look at it with an academic eye,” she said.
This lack of academic attention isn’t for lack of readership. Craig mentioned that many students have grown up respecting and reading these works. “It’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve started reading this myself and started asking, ‘Why don’t we have something like this?’ ” he said. “Have you read Watchmen? It’s very sophisticated.”
Watchmen was released by DC Comics in 12 issues that came out between September 1986 and October 1987. The series was provocative, thoughtful, brutal and bleak. It’s about Cold War anxiety, and how desperation breeds cataclysms. It’s seen by many as one of the greatest works of late 20th-century literature and it’s one of the many works the class will be studying.
Before they even got into Watchmen, though, Craig gave his class a crash course in reading comics. “I can’t teach this the way I would teach a novel, and they can’t read this the way they’d read a novel,” he explained. So, instead of starting by jumping into the works themselves, Craig partnered with Dr. Chris Down from the fine arts department to put on a creative exercise explaining how to conceive of and execute a comic. This taught them to think about “the dynamic tension between the art and the text, and how you decode that.just as you decode the iconography, the pictures and the symbolism of the text,” said Craig. It’s clear the information is hitting home; Volpe shared what she learned in class, summarizing, “When you’re drawing a comic, everything is a choice.”
Long story short: Comics are an incredibly nuanced medium, and you can’t just include them in any class. They require an entirely different set of skills to read, and therefore require their own course. This is especially pertinent given their imminent ubiquity. For a long time, comics in North America were seen as being for kids, and therefore too simplistic for adults. But attitudes are changing. “I don’t think you need to be defensive about it,” said Craig. Needless to say, it’s good to see that, working within financial constraints, the English department is able to offer something new and relevant. One can only imagine what other brilliant courses that would be on offer if those constraints were lifted.