TTU graphic novel course brings comics format into the classroom

Next time their parents tell them to put those comics down and do their homework, a group of Tennessee Tech University students can honestly say, “I am doing my homework.”

That’s because an associate professor of English has brought the comics format into the classroom, and Tony Baker’s graphic novel course has attracted the interest of a diverse group of about 25 students.

“More than half of the class is made up of women, for instance, and not just English majors. Some of them are in nursing, political science, psychology,” Baker said. “Some of the students are avid comic book readers and collectors, and others are not — but regardless of their backgrounds, they all seem to bring a positive element to how they respond to the course topics.”

The purpose of the course, according to Baker’s syllabus, is to “read, re-read, compose, decompose, envision, revise, analyze, synthesize, mix, mash and otherwise intellectually and emotionally experience these things called graphic novels.”

What exactly are graphic novels, though, and how do they differ from your standard, run-of-the-mill comic book?

A graphic novel is a self-contained narrative that depicts the vision usually of a single author and illustrator and is presented by combining words with sequential art.

With comic books — although they also tell a story using sequential art — the narrative is generally less sustained, because they’re produced serially and often involve greater numbers of authors and illustrators working on various projects simultaneously, and they are significantly shorter than graphic novels.

The term ‘graphic novel’ can be somewhat misleading, though, for describing both the width and depth of the genre, Baker said.

“The term implies that a graphic novel — like most comic books — deals purely with fictional accounts, but many of the books done in that medium present stories dealing with serious and newsworthy topics,” he said. “Some are even biographies or autobiographies.”

The reading list for his course, for example, varies from the romantic fiction of Craig Thompson’s Blankets to the historically important account of journalist Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-’95.

Baker’s first teaching experience with a graphic novel came a few years ago when he included Art Spiegelman’s Maus on the reading list for an American literature course he was teaching.

Not an avid comic book reader growing up, Baker said it wasn’t until his discovery of Maus that he began to realize the potential and to explore the literary value of the graphic novel medium.

Maus is a 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that depicts a Holocaust survivor’s story, and my students in that American literature course responded very positively to it,” he said. “Their positive responses were actually what made me think about creating a course to explore the entire genre more deeply.”

TTU English department chairperson Kurt Eisen pitched the idea of the course after hearing Baker talk about Maus and other graphic novels he was exploring.

“That’s how the graphic novel class was born, and this is the first semester for it to be offered,” said Baker.

Although graphic novels use a different repertoire of tools for telling a story, they employ many of the same narrative strategies — such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, themes and motifs — as literary prose, in addition to sharing techniques with film and painting.

“I think a popular stigma associated with graphic novels and certainly with comic books is that they lack the literary value of traditional prose, but I’ve found them to be very worthy of deeper study and analysis,” he said.

In fact, students of the course are required to analyze and scrutinize the works as rigorously as students in more traditional literature classes.

Through reading, discussing and writing about the variety of book-length texts in comics format, students of the course learn the key features of graphic novels, relationships between their words and images, thematic and structural connections and critical reading strategies.

“I try to mask the work behind all the fun we have, but I think my students have found me out,” Baker said.

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