Curriculum NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant Uncategorized

Race, Comics, and Reading the Post-colonial Word & World

Written by
Michael Dominguez
San Diego State University

Way back in 2008, a friend and I, both of us men of color, both of us lifelong readers of comics, attended the premiere of the Robert Downy Jr.-led Ironman film. As we waited in line, we chatted about favorite comics—he reflecting on how drawn to the X-Men he had been, given the focus on outsider status, and I talking up the recent run of Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle comics following the DC Infinite Crisis event—both excited for the film. A few hours later, we would walk out with the same kind of conflicted feelings we both often had around comics, namely because of the way race, ethnicity, and culture played out in them. 

Specifically, I remember this scene in that 2008 Ironman film where Tony Stark, in his newly designed suit, flies across the world to dispose of Stark Industries weapons being used by terrorists. At one point, the terrorists are holding hostages, and Stark uses his extensive arsenal and technology to pinpoint the aggressive, threatening, vaguely Islamic looking, brown terrorists, and dispatch of all of them easily, leaving the hostages unharmed. Later, he fires a projectile at a tank, and coolly walks aways, as it blows up moments later. He flies off, returning to his spacious, tech laden mansion in Malibu.

Tony Stark walks away from an exploding tank on his way back to Malibu, CA in Ironman (2008)

Tony Stark walks away from an exploding tank on his way back to Malibu, CA in Ironman (2008). Who was responsible for cleaning up this near-East village in the global south after Tony Stark “liberated” it by blowing a bunch of stuff (and people) up? It sure seems like it wasn’t Ironman…

But what of the brown, global south folks whose village he just launched a bunch of high explosives into? What of the broader political issues and post-colonial tensions and artificial, European-drawn borders that were inevitably the cause of whatever the hell was going on in this village to start with? Those aren’t Stark’s concern or responsibility, apparently. 

Liked we’d both long felt with comics, we were conflicted, because, while we both appreciated the artistic qualities of the film (who knew it would launch a film franchise with 33 and counting films?), the whole thing was, ideologically-speaking, a celebration of coloniality and Orientalism—that it requires a strong White man, his militaristic intervention, and the righteous wisdom of the metaphoric “West” (i.e. the Western epistemic world) to stop all the backward, uncivilized brown folks in the global south from killing each other. And that he could do so with pinpoint accuracy—and White moral superiority–such that hostages were spared, and collateral damage was an afterthought. Once his task is done, Ironman leaves this xenophobic, Orientalist fever dream of a third world/global south village to clean itself (and all the Ironman-produced rubble) up. And while the film explores some threads about the ethics of arms sales, we never broach the original sin of the global politics of colonization, or how race and culture are wrapped up in them. But hey, at least the Stark Industries weapons are gone!

We left that theatre feeling the same way we’d both felt reading comics all our lives as folks of color: conflicted, but resigned; thrilled by the storytelling, but a little sad because of whose story it was, again, and who was incidental to, yet impacted by, the action. We watched, as we had read, knowing the phenotypically, culturally, we were firmly in that latter category. 

And so as a comics fan, you wanted to enjoy the thrill and escapism of the ride, the cool gadgets, and fun action, but the coloniality of it all…the reality of knowing your BIPoC gente are more likely the collateral damage than the hero…well, that made it hard love. 

These questions, of identity, power, post-colonial politics, and the inevitable contradictions within the ideologies that comics and comic media more broadly (because what else are we to make of the decades long Marvel-verse and DC’s twice attempted cinematic universe) raise around race, ethnicity, and culture, are what CCS 235 focus on. 

Today, 500 years on from colonization and 60 years after the civil rights movement and legislation supposedly (that’s a very sarcastic supposedly) codified racial equality,  issues and questions of race, racial identity, ethnicity, culture, and belonging arguably remain the most defining features of U.S. social experience. The active presence or absence of race in our lives—what we call racialization—carves out our identities and outlook in profound, and varied ways. Borders, drawn in our surprisingly recent colonial past, and who belongs on which side of them, dominate our headlines. How racialized cultural practices and trends are being taken up shape our tastes and popular culture. Waves of political pressures shape our perceptions of capital O- “Other” communities as pathological, exotic, or humanized. And the permissibility/ impermissibility of just being able to speak transparently about all these issues, the immanence of racial experience, is somehow, well into the 21st century, under threat.

This is all to say that race, racial identity, and racial and cultural experience loom large in our collective socio-political experiences and imaginations, whether we want them to or not. And confronting their malignancies requires taking time to learn about their histories, intricacies, and dynamics, and both the insidious ways things like coloniality still creep into our lives, and the exciting, dynamic ways communities of color have evolved and transformed their practices as acts of resistance and resilience. CCS 235, as a CSU Area F (ethnic studies) GE course, is committed to helping students explore some of these questions, because doing so—unpacking and confronting how race and racism live in our lives—is not, as some suggest, harmful or its own form of bias, but essential to humanizing on another, and eradicating these last lingering malignancies from our society. We heal from trauma by confronting it, not ignoring it. 

But let’s get back to comics. Comics have always reflected a huge spectrum of social experience, imagination, and ideology. They speak and depict things about the way we think of the world, the way we see each other, and reveal both prevailing and subversive socio-cultural and socio-political attitudes around the time of their creation.  And that means that necessarily, inevitably, speak to and comment on how race and racism are being seen and understood, challenged or upheld. And learning how to read comics with all this in mind, in such a way as to expose and make transparent the racial messages and ideologies that surround us, is an incredibly important skill for any of us.

Take, for instance, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, one of the all-time classics of comic story-telling. A careful reading will reveal Moore’s incisive work to call attention to the colonial ideologies and toxicity that are wrapped up in the idea of “crime fighting” and the vigilante day dreams that comics represent—including the ways in which racialization and cultural pathologizing of those marginalized by neoliberal economics keeps that machine turning. Rorschach, in the text, is a straight up racist, driven by resentment for the slew of Others he muses about in his disturbing journal. The Comedian was a hyper-violent, patriarchal figure, fully embracing and reflecting American neo-colonialism, paternalism, and racialized nation-state militarism directed at the global south. Dr. Manhattan isn’t much better, it’s just that his racial politics are different, appearing in the intellectual alibis he creates for himself; he lives in a world of abstraction in which his responsibility doesn’t extend to the mundane, but very real, lived impacts of racism and racial experience.

Black and white frame from Watchmen. Rorschach is writing in a book and the caption says, "Slept all day. Awoken at 4:37. Landlady complaining about smell. She has five children by five different fathers. I am sure she cheats welfare. Soon it will be dark."
Frames from Alan Moore’s Watchmen(1987)

Frames from Alan Moore’s Watchmen(1987)—there was no mistake about how he wanted us to see and understand these characters as flawed, problematic individuals…

Some of this nuance was widely missed in the reading of Watchmen, much to Moore’s long-documented chagrin. And one of these folks who missed all that messaging was, clearly, Zach Snyder, because in the 2009 film adaptation, all the violence, heroism, and hyper-masculine bravado is preserved, but the ideological commentary on neoliberalism, nation-state violence, and criminalization is lost, and Rorschach, particularly, is transformed from racist sociopath into audience favorite and growling, rugged hero. Posters like this that promoted the film, pulling Rorschach’s quotes out of context—here, the quote “This city is afraid of me. I’ve seen it’s true face,” sounds all badass; in the text, this sentiment is wrapped up in obvious and off-putting racial resentment, showing the delusion behind this ethos of singular, infallible crime fighter—were oddly prescient to what the film itself would do: miss the point of the text in pretty profound ways. The comic and the film might as well be two different, unrelated properties, and that is, largely, down to how they understand and speak to race, racism, and other forms of social marginalization and pathologization.

Promotional poster for Watchmen. Rorschach is crouching with a weapon and the poster says, "This city is afraid of me. I've seen it's true face."

A character poster promoting Zach Snyder’s Watchmen(2009) film. Snyder’s film interpretation of Moore’s graphic novel was both exactingly frame-accurate to the comic, and just as exactly inaccurate to its themes and ideas.

That’s why in CCS 235, I wanted to make sure we were able to explore some of these implicit messages about racial and cultural ideologies, the ways that work on us invisibly, and how they shake out across mediums and readings of texts, and interpretations of characters. Watchmen is a good example, one we talk about in the course—and the HBO Watchmen series, which wove itself into and around the history of the Tulsa Race Riots adds another wrinkle for conversation—but this kind of messaging abounds across comic media. Ideologies are all around us, as are race and differential racial experiences. When we start to read the word (or picture) more critically and clearly, we start to read the world more robustly as well, and doing so allows us to unlearn the racializing, colonial, ideologies that limit our capacity for humanity.

But none of that reflection on the presence of racial and colonial ideologies in comics is to say that those are the only things we find or can explore when we read comics. And in CCS 235, we also get the chance—like in any good ethnic studies course—to look at the dynamic ways in which race, ethnicity, and culture are being lived, transformed, and enacted in both the present and historical context. 

Like, who knew that the popular and well-known story of Zorro, immortalized in books and films and comics across a century plus, was inspired by the real-life exploits of one Joaquin Murrieta, a Mexicano who led a people’s revolt in response to the often violent seizure of land by Anglo-American settlers swarming into newly-annexed California in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s? I suspect not many of us. To the White American California government, Murrieta was a bandit and criminal. To the Mexicanos, he was a vigilante and freedom fighter (the first Chicano, some say, fighting back after the border crossed him). Either way, his story—heavily romanticized and fictionalized so that he was reimagined from Murrieta’s actual mestizo peasant rebel self into an old-money Hispano aristocrat with a soft spot for the poor, but a clear commitment to the status quo of socioeconomic hierarchy generally—became the origin for Zorro (who in turn would become the origin for Batman—who is originally and recurringly depicted as emerging from a screening of The Mark of Zorro on the night his parents are shot in Crime Alley—but that takes us into a different direction…).

The cover of the original Zorro serial (1919). Features a woman and Zorro on the cover. The serial is called "All-Story Weekly"

The cover of the original Zorro serial (1919)—admittedly not exactly ideal representation, but a first step towards normalizing Latinidad in storytelling, all with a story based on the historical figure of Joaquin Murrieta….

Cover of The Challenge of Zorro number 732.

Dell Comics’ run of Zorro in the early 20th century laid the foundations for the character as he is known today—and helped pave the way as an archetype upon which Batman and others were built. ¡Joaquin Murrieta presente!

And Zorro, despite his aristocratic bearing, politics of the status quo, and origin from the imagination and pen of a very White, very Anglo author (Johnston McCulley), represents one of the earliest positive representations of Latinidad in popular media, and a distinct contrast between other depictions of Mexicanos as vaguely uncivilized, lazy, savages, and the borderlands as lawless, empty frontier-land. In Zorro, the cultural complexities of the border received some serious play and attention. It might not have been all positive, it was a depiction of a place with relatable, attractive, and exciting culture that went beyond just the exotic (though, yeah, there was some of that too…and there’s SO much to talk about with the racial politics of Mexico and how Zorro storytelling has tended to portray that). 

But it was storytelling like this as it appeared in serials, then comics and films, centering Latinidad, that makes Jaime Reyes and Blue Beetle become possible. We’ve now got a story where the action and narrative is set in the border-lands, where the hero is clearly a mestizo Mexicano, where the language of his internal monologue code-switches and uses Spanglish, and where the frontera, and Latinidad, seem to be just as substantial of characters themselves as any of the people populating the pages and frames.

Character of Blue Beetle and the tagline says, "Al Fin Y Al Cabo, Soy" (after all, I am Blue Beetle)

Blue Beetle’s Jaime Reyes operates like a lot of U.S. Latinos—in Spanglish, and pulled back and forth across both real and metaphorical borders.

This kind of depiction of Latinidad manages to capture its dynamism and diversity. Blue Beetle books, and the recent film, normalize Latinx cultural practices, perspectives, and experiences, while also playing with the way that added perspectives (including, but not limited to, an extraterrestrial Scarab exoskeleton) bring those practices into conversation with shifting moral frameworks, evolving generational attitudes, and the politics of belonging that so many Latinx young people have to deal with. Blasted across comic pages and movie screens, Blue Beetle is a look at how Latinx folks are immanently crafting racial, ethnic, and cultural identity. 

Blue Beetle flying above people running on the border/frontera.

There are a lot of characters in DC Comic’s Blue Beetle, but the one that is perhaps most interesting is the border/frontera itself, and how it shows up in shaping the narrative.

These are just a few things we touch on, in just a few of the units, and that I wanted students to have the chance to explore, in CCS 235. Again, we can’t escape the way race and racial identity impact our world, shape our media, and live with us in social, material, and symbolic ways. Ignoring them; taking up a colorblind stance that pretends these things aren’t a part of our lives, does little but help the more malicious and insidious threads of resentment and bias thrive, and unfortunately, proliferate. By exploring how race and racism—and attitudes about them—are intentionally and unintentionally reflected in comic narratives, how creators are commenting upon and subverting them, and how BIPoC communities, writers, and artists are using comics to bring their dynamic stories to life, we are humanizing one another, understanding that racial experience matters, how it matters, and how we can see these aspects of our identity as significant, meaningful, and enriching to a world that is begging for empathy and perspective. 

It’s been a minute since 2008, and even with all the tensions and contradictions, I’ve kept reading and watching comic media since that day at the movie theatre. Watching the ways that comics and comic media (and indeed the Marvel Universe that Ironman launched) grapple with our changing socio-political world, and the public and epistemic dilemmas that have arisen in our racial landscape and politics since then—around the U.S.//Mexico border, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder—have been fascinating. I’ve been both heartened and excited by things I’ve seen, and predictably dismayed by others. The epistemic space Blue Beetle carved out for Latinidad. the unflinching critique of coloniality that Black Panther’s Afro-futurism offered have been revelatory. But there’s also still been quite a bit of that traditional pathologization of the poor and melanated, and valorization of nation-state militarism and patriarchal racial and post-colonial politics that have always been present in comics.

Comics have always, and will always, continue to reflect our relationships with one another, and our relationships to how we are making sense of this impactful thing we know as race/racial identity. My hope is that CCS 235 will give folks an opportunity to see how they can read those things more transparently and meaningfully, both in the world around us, and on the pages and screens of the comic ecosystem. In so doing, we deconstruct the malignancies still living in our neo-colonial world just a little bit, and keep inching close to liberation and humanizaiton.

Michael Domínguez, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at San Diego State University. Previously a middle school teacher in Nevada (where he regularly used comics as part of his literacy and ESL curriculum), Dr. Domínguez’ teaching and research focuses on the affective experiences of historically marginalized youth, the possibilities and tensions of ethnic studies in K-12 schools, and how decolonial frameworks can transform teacher education praxis. As SDSU, he leads the Center for K-12 Ethnic Studies Education, and his current community-based partnerships include ethnic studies teacher support partnerships, and an ethnographic study of pedagogy in athletic spaces. His work has been published widely, and a co-authored book, Decolonizing Middle Grades Literacy, was released in 2023.

Curriculum NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant

Creating “Manga and Japanese History”

Written by
Raechel Dumas, Associate Professor, History
San Diego State University

“Manga and Japanese History” maps a cultural history of modern Japan through manga produced at the juncture of significant historical moments and transformations. We will trace how evolutions in manga reflect developments including the rise of mass print culture; rapid urbanization; the violence of the Asia-Pacific War; atomic discourse in the postwar decades; eruptions of violence and neonationalist responses in the recessionary period; evolving gender and sexual paradigms; the emergence of new youth cultures; and the increasing proliferation of technology into every part and parcel of Japanese life. 

Situating manga as primary source texts, we will analyze how an array of genres—including propaganda, autobiography, romance, magical girls, science fiction, horror, and slice of life—reflect evolving paradigms of Japanese subjectivity and nationhood. Moreover, we will devote substantial attention to how works of manga reflect social justice concerns in their engagements with gender and sexual roles and relations. racial and ethnic violence, disability stigma and erasure, and the uncertain conditions of life in the recessionary period, among other themes.

For example, in his analysis of race and power in the Pacific War, historian John Dower describes an image published in 1942 in the manga magazine Osaka Puck: “A soldier drawn in a heroic mode . . . wields a broom as he strides out of Japan into greater Asia, sweeping Uncle Sam and John Bull off the globe.”1 In this class, we will analyze a series of similarly propagandistic examples alongside Dower’s cultural history of Japanese wartime racial formations. In doing so, we will delve into how artists leveraged the medium to reify wartime discourses on Japan as the “leading race” (shidō minzoku), in turn legitimizing the nation’s imperial project. 

We will also read the first volume of hibakusha (atomic bombing survivor) Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen (1973-1987), a semi-autobiographical account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. We will pair Barefoot Gen with an article on the systematic erasure of atomic survivors’ experiences in the postwar decades to underscore the historical value (and intergenerational popularity) of Nakazawa’s trauma narrative. 

Figure 1. From Barefoot Gen. Black and white illustration showing an explosion in two panels and the face of a person in the third panel. Text says, "Like an eruption from the pit of Hell, the atomic cloud roared up six miles into the sky above Hiroshima... In Hiroshima, time stopped... Groan..."

“Hibakusha share not only traumatic memories of the A-bomb explosion itself but also, and above all, a common identity as the ‘radiation-exposed,’ living with the reality and perpetual threat of delayed radiation effects. The feeling that they are carrying an ‘unexploded bomb’ inside their bodies has not abated over the decades, and despite scientific assertions that deny the existence of genetic effects . . . such fears extend to their children and to future generations.”2

Figure 1: From Barefoot Gen

To provide a final example, contemporary Japan witnessed an accelerated fragmentation of conventional socio-cultural institutions ranging from the family to spirituality, the education system to the workforce. In this class, we will analyze some of the most pervasive pop cultural tropes to materialize (or re-materialize) in this context: for examples, the monstrous schoolgirl of J-horror and the teen boy-turned-high-tech hero of science fiction. 

On the left is Figure 2. Tomie’s titular monstrous schoolgirl. Black and white line drawing of a girl with long black hair in a sundress. Word balloons say, "I am Tomie. Me?" ON the right is Figure 3. Evangelion’s disillusioned young hero. Drawing of a young person with short black hair wearing a light blue shirt that is unbuttoned to their chest.

Throughout the semester, students will complete low-stakes assignments requiring them to craft short analyses of assigned manga with prompts to guide them. For examples:

Bring to class a ~250-word analysis of Astro Boy, with attention to how it seeks to divorce nuclear technology from the violence of the atomic bombs. In your analysis, provide close reading of at least one specific scene.Bring to class a ~250-word analysis of Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, with attention to how it portrays the realities of Japanese soldiers’ wartime experiences. In your analysis, provide close reading of at least one specific scene.
On the left is Figure 4. The nuclear-powered Astro Boy. Black and white drawing of a boy with rocket fire coming from his boots as he flies through space. On the right is Figure 5. A not-so-noble death from Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. Black and white illustration of a man dying. Word balloons say, "Guess everyone dies feeling like this" "Aarh" "No one to tell..slipping away, forgotten" "with no one watching"

In their higher-stakes midterm and final essays, students will put these analytical skills to work in more open-ended, comparative, and thorough contexts. For these essays, they will be asked to choose any three assigned manga and closely analyze them with attention to how they engage with a major Japanese historical theme (or interconnected themes) covered in class. 

In the future, I might also experiment with different forms of assessment in this course. I am particularly interested in exploring assessments that, to borrow from my fellow comics course creator Dr. Gregory Daddis, “mirror the medium.” That said, even when using rubrics, in past courses I have found exclusively visual “creative” assignments challenging to fairly assess. I find myself inclined toward assigning a “visual essay” (for which the City University of New York provides clear, concise general guidance) in which students combine their own images and text to explore a course theme. 

  1. John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1987), 229.
  2. Maya Todeschini, “Illegitimate Sufferers: A-Bomb Victims, Medical Science, and the Government,” Daedalus 128, no. 2 (1999): 67-100.

Raechel Dumas (Ph.D. in Japanese, University of Colorado at Boulder) is a specialist in modern Japan, with emphasis in the histories of literature and visual culture. She is especially interested in the gender and sexual politics of “dark” popular genres including horror, crime fiction, and science fiction. Her first book,The Monstrous-Feminine in Contemporary Japanese Popular Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), explores constructions of female monstrosity in Japanese fiction, manga, film, and video games produced from the 1980s through the new millennium. Articles by Dr. Dumas have appeared in multiple academic journals. She is working on her second book, Serial Affects, which examines gendered experiences and expressions of trauma in English-language streaming television series.

Curriculum NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant

Comics for K-12 Educators

Written by
Katie Sciurba
San Diego State University

As I designed Comics for K-12 Educators, I repeatedly heard the voices of several of my former teaching credential students echoing in my head, “Comics aren’t REAL literature,” “Captain Underpants doesn’t count as READING,” “I don’t even ALLOW comics in my classroom!”

Word art that says NO!

My goal was to find a way to convince students like this, current and future K-12 teachers, that comic texts are one of the most vital resources we have for raising young people’s socio-political awareness and critical consciousness – not to mention their literacy skills (from decoding to vocabulary development to visual analysis). I mean, what better way to interrogate colonialism than through a discussion of Black Panther’s Afrofuturistic world of Wakanda? (See Timothy Welbeck’s brilliant analysis of the “hidden messages” embedded in the Black Panther series.)   

Image of Black Panther

But where did all of that comic negativity begin? 

Image of Frederic Wertham reading Shock magazine.

Enter Fredric Wertham, a child psychologist whose book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), turned him into a real-life villain of comic books  – at least that’s how many comic fans view him. In short, Dr. Wertham claimed (through dubious research methods) that comic books caused juvenile delinquency and would inevitably lead young people toward lives of crime and violence. His arguments, which led to comic censorship (detailed beautifully by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), continue to reverberate today. In TE 579, students have the opportunity to read directly from Seduction of the Innocent so they can determine for themselves whether or not it is, in fact, a good idea to keep comics (even if only some comics) out of the hands and hidden from the eyes of young readers. Throughout the course, we will return frequently to conversations related to comic (and other) book bans and censorship. 

As students move into the course, they independently select and read a number of comic texts – prompted by parameters intended to push them out of their comfort zones. In addition to reading books that are popular among elementary students, like Dav Pilkey’s The Adventures of Captain Underpants and Adam Blabey’s The Bad Guys, they are required to read comics that center Indigenous, Women of Color, and Queer heroes. They must read about Critical Race Theory, as applied to the study of comics (via the work of Michael Dando), and they must explore the propagandizing comics of beloved figures like Dr. Seuss. Students also explore the topic of “Belongingness” via comics like the X-Men, an important idea to discuss when working with children, adolescents, and teens. 

Image of superheroes yelling at each other

Ultimately, students in this course will read enough comic and scholarly texts to make informed decisions about the reasons some comics are and/or are not included in literacy education contexts – including their own – as well as the reasons some new comic texts will be added. What is, and is not, literacy justice, in other words, and how can comics enhance our capacity to facilitate the empowerment of young readers?  

Because this class is designed for K-12 educators, I made sure to include comic lesson creation and activity modeling. In addition to designing their own activities for their students, adapting ideas from our course textbook, Tim Smyth’s (2023) Teaching with Comics and Graphic Novels: Fun and Engaging Strategies to Improve Close Reading and Critical Thinking in Every Classroom. students in TE 579 get to create their own comics! One of my favorite activities in this course requires students to rewrite the story of a famous “villain,” providing an alternative version of the story wherein the villain (as exemplified in Disney’s Cruella) is “not really a villain” due to the cause for which they are fighting. 

Image of Disney's Cruella

This activity encourages TE 579 and K-12 students to investigate ideology and perspective and to empathize with individuals whose experiences in the world may differ significantly from the experiences of those viewed as heroes. Perhaps someone in this course will write their comic as a counter to the narratives told in the comic world about Dr. Fredric Wertham! 

Overall, the purpose of this course is to examine the literacy-related skills developed and honed by comic and graphic novels, as well as the need to engage young people with various texts from which they might construct relevance – especially in relationship to their own existences and their own growing conscientiousness. As students read “the word” in comic texts, as Freire and Macedo (1987) emphasized, they will develop ways to (re)consider their own – and imagined – worlds and demonstrate how they are becoming critically mobilized.    

Image of a man staring at a whiteboard that has notes written on it. His head has post-it notes coming out of it, suggesting ideas.

I’m looking forward to meeting all the teachers and future teachers who sign up for this course to learn (or to help me convince everyone else) that, YES, comics ARE real literature, they ABSOLUTELY count as reading, and we do more harm than good if we miss opportunities to “ALLOW” them in our classroom spaces. 

Katie Sciurba is Associate Professor of Literacy Education at San Diego State University. She is an experienced elementary school teacher and still teaches writing to K-12 children through the SDSU Literacy Center’s WRITE TO RISE program. Her research focuses on the intersections of young people’s lives and literacy practices with an emphasis on the reading experiences of Boys of Color, and representations of sociopolitical events in children’s literature. Her forthcoming academic book, Reading and Relevance, Reimagined: Celebrating the Literacy Lives of Young Men of Color will be released by Teachers College Press in 2024. Her scholarly articles have been published in venues such as Teachers College Record, Journal of Literacy Research, Science Fiction Studies, and Children’s Literature in Education, and she is the author of texts for children including the picture book, Oye, Celia!: A Song for Celia Cruz (Henry Holt, 2007).

Curriculum NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant

Comics & Environmental Humanities

Written by
Kishauana Soljour
San Diego State University

While living in Paris, I became an avid comic book collector. I stumbled upon a small comic book store close to my favorite cafe and felt instantly transported. Lifesize figurines of Iron Man and Thor guarded the doors.  Old and new comic books lined the walls. People of all ages sat and stood engrossed in tales that took them to far away galaxies. Over time, the store became a cure for my homesickness. I found comfort in reliving memories from my youth. 

Image of a stack of comic books, including Black Panther, Bat Man, Wonder Woman, Venom and more.

As my collection grew, I knew I wanted to incorporate comic books into my pedagogy. The first opportunity came last spring when I taught the course HUM 103: Introduction to Public Humanities. During our week themed, “Public Humanities and Pop Culture,” students were introduced to the Golden Age of Comics in American Popular Culture and we welcomed Comics Arts Curator and Co-Founder/Co-Director of the Center for Comics Studies Pam Jackson as a guest lecturer.  Focusing our attention on the role of comics during World War II, students selected comics from the SDSU library and wrote blog posts analyzing the impact of nationalism and propaganda. The overwhelming majority of the students enjoyed the assignment and asked for more opportunities to engage the content, themes and stories of comic books.

A collage of images: (1) A young boy pictured in front of a newsstand reading Captain America in 1942; (2) Chris Evans, the actor who portrays Captain America in the MCU being interviewed in 2016; and (3) Mail from Captain America's fan club.
Images that show the origin of Isiah Bradley. Marvel Comics. Truth: Red, White and Black (2003) #1, January 2003.

In conversation with a colleague, Dr. April Anson and I realized that comic books could be a powerful teaching tool in introducing students to Environmental Humanities. Using the Anti-Creep Climate Initiative’s Against the Ecofascist Creep, students in the HUM 103 course revisited many of the super villain Thanos’ iconic quotes and used discussion boards to debate solutions to climate change, border control and limited food supply. These early conversations helped frame my thinking as I created the new course, “Avenging the Universe: An Introduction to Environmental Humanities & Comics.” The class combines foundational readings related to evolutions within the interdisciplinary field of Environmental Humanities and its representation in comic books. Moving beyond the Golden Age, students will engage texts from the Bronze and Modern Age of Comics eras, when various characters were reintroduced or their character arcs were revised to respond to developments within the Environmental Movement. These superheroes and villains engage directly with notions of human progress, human-nature relationships, and environmental change. 

Image of Thanos with the caption, "This universe is finite, its resources, finite... if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting."

Throughout the process of developing the course, I wanted to highlight my research interest in anthropomorphism. As a scholar of the modern African Diaspora, anthropomorphism is featured prominently in oral histories and material culture. Folk and tall tales passed down through generations and across Africa, Europe and the Americas detail animals with human characteristics. These stories were meant to pass down knowledge and moral lessons for protecting nature and humanity. In African culture, totems connect communities to the environment. The animals are not only a symbol of the chosen people but are fiercely protected from internal and external dangers. Given the historical context of conquest and colonization, African flora and fauna have captured the imagination of the world for centuries. 

In my research for the course, I found connections around the globe bridging communities to animal figures and spirits. This reverence for nature transcends geographic borders and time. In an infinite world of possibilities, the world’s resources are finite and rapidly disappearing. Taking a page from “villain” Poison Ivy, “grow only what the soil will stand, grow only what we’ll need.” It is my hope that students that take the course will discover new ways of connecting with the environment and envision possible futures grounded in equity, justice and a duty to protect our dying world.

A page from “villain” Poison Ivy, “grow only what the soil will stand, grow only what we’ll need.”
Photo of Kishauna Soljour

Kishauna Soljour is an Assistant Professor specializing in Public Humanities and African Diaspora Studies. She was an Andrew W. Mellon Public Humanities Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sarah Lawrence College. Dr. Soljour received her Ph.D. in History from Syracuse University in 2019. Her dissertation, “Beyond the
Banlieue: French Postcolonial Migration & the Politics of a Sub-Saharan Identity,” won
Syracuse’s All University Prize and the Council of Graduate Schools & ProQuest
Distinguished Dissertation Award in Humanities in 2019. Her research concentrates on
the nexus of cultural, political, and social change for Diasporic communities in the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Embracing the mission of public humanities, Dr. Soljour is the Associate Director of the
Public & Oral History Center at SDSU. She has developed a number of initiatives to
expand avenues of access to public and oral history including curated exhibitions, a
digital oral history archive, and podcasts; as well as, partnered with Humanities New
York, the United Nations Volunteer Program and the Yonkers Public Library.


New Course Alert! Queering Comics

An Interview with Professor Jess Whatcott

Listen in as SDSU Journalism & Media Studies Professor, Dr. Noah Arceneaux, interviews Dr. Jess Whatcott, Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies about Jess’ new course. LGBT 550: Queering Comics, will be offered for the first time this fall.

LGBT 550: Queering Comics. Register today!

Ben Jenkins Curriculum NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant

The Rhetoric of Comics

Written by
Ben Jenkins, Lecturer, Rhetoric and Writing Studies
San Diego State University

Normally, when I tell my colleagues about the plan for one of my courses, I quickly see their faces drop as they realize that they’re stuck listening to me talk about rhetorical analysis. They’ll usually give me at least a few “that’s really interesting” comments with a nod of the head before they quickly remember that they urgently need to grade some papers or give blood. 

But ever since I started telling them about my new course, The Rhetoric of Comics, I see genuine excitement overcome their whole body. They become animated as they forget to ask me about the research and pedagogy and instead focus on their own favorite comics. I’ve had discussions with people about Batman, their favorite manga titles and other works they’ve enjoyed since they were kids. Those discussions usually circle back to a question like “do you think I’d be able to use comics in my course?” It’s at this point that I direct them to the work being done at Comics at SDSU. As part of the NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant awarded to Comics at SDSU, I was able to create a course centered on the rhetoric of comics that allows students to understand the rhetoric used in comics, how that rhetoric helps or hinders marginalized voices, and allows students to practice what they’ve learned as they work on creating their own comic. 

Throughout the process of developing this course, I kept trying to recall what I would have wanted to study in a rhetoric of comics course as an undergrad; the development of the three main projects was the key to everything. 

With the first project, I centered the focus on exposing students to the visual rhetoric present in comics, and how the medium allows for a level of communication that isn’t possible in film, books, or audio. I developed lesson plans ranging from interpreting color, to general introductions to the concepts of visual rhetoric and sequential art. 

Part of the fun of creating this class was coming up with a reading list. The main textbook I chose to use was Scott McCloud’s Making Comics (2006). While the content has some information he covers in his previous book, Understanding Comics (1993), it also contains helpful information on the developmental aspects of creating a comic book. By utilizing the information from McCloud and other scholars, I was able to create lessons that highlight the many rhetorical and creative decisions comics creators make throughout the process. 

While I chose a number of comics to highlight as examples of storytelling and technique, the main comic I focused on was The Magic Fish (2020) by Trung Le Nguyen. Nguyen’s limited use of three color palettes paired with three different storylines helps clarify the difference and meaning of each path.  With Nguyen’s beautiful work, and with McCloud’s technical explanations, I was able to create lessons that help students see how comic storytelling creates a world for the reader that doesn’t compare to other mediums. 

On the left: Front cover of The Magic Fish shows a young boy reading. On the right: Page one of the comic showing three panels, each in a different color to help clarify the storylines throughout the book.

The second project was created with social justice and marginalized communities in mind. For this project I ask students to compose a multimodal essay, comic, or presentation based on their analysis and comparison of two comics that are either about a marginalized community, or feature a main character from a marginalized community. By comparing comics featuring marginalized communities student’s are able to recognize how assumptions and stereotypes play a role in the creation of some comics, and the interpretation of characters by some readers. 

Finally in the third major project, I ask students to build upon what they learned as they created a comic of their own. I don’t expect the students to be expert artists, but I do want them to use the visual rhetorical strategies they’ve learned about in McCloud’s text, and to mimic storytelling and artistic techniques they might have seen in The Magic Fish and other comics. Just like Nguyen was able to tell his own story detailing what it was like to come out to his friends and family, I encourage students to tell their own individual stories through the comic medium. 

Comics aren’t something one necessarily expects to encounter in a university setting, but they’d be wrong. Comics have been a part of our society for…well, I don’t actually know how long.  I’m not a historian, but if you’d like to learn more about the history of comics, we have a course for that here at SDSU, and now we have a rhetorical analysis course on comics as well. It’s been a privilege to be able to create this class. My only hope is that the students who take the course learn to love and appreciate comics as much as I do. 

Ben Jenkins completed his MFA in creative writing and his BA in English at SDSU. Currently, he works as a lecturer at SDSU while also teaching English at Miramar College. Ben is a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. In 2016, he won the new voices Native American writing contest at the literary journal, See the Elephant

Some of Ben’s interests include: literature and issues pertaining to American Indians and other indigenous people throughout the world, civil discourse, our relationship with technology, social justice, the environment, visual rhetoric, and comics.

Curriculum Gregory Daddis NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant

“Assessing” Social Justice in Cold War Comics

Written by Gregory A. Daddis, USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History, San Diego State University

Teaching a Cold War comics course for the first time has reinforced what I have suspected for a long time—comics are some of the most insightful cultural products of post-World War II era.

Cold War era comics spoke to fundamental issues of American identity in a rapidly changing postwar society. They illustrated the fears that drove domestic and foreign policies at a time when evil, godless communists seemed lurking behind every dark corner. They expressed anxieties over living in the atomic era, when the possibility of nuclear Armageddon appeared ever more likely each time children ducked and covered under their school desks. And they reflected the possibilities and limits of achieving true social justice when many Americans’ civil rights were being contested by defenders of a stratified prewar status quo.

These representations of Cold War American society informed my course design for HIST 580, “Comics and Cold War America,” taught in the 2022 fall semester at San Diego State University. The course supported a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, “Building a Comics and Social Justice Curriculum,” co-directed by Elizabeth Pollard and Pamela Jackson, both of whom also lead our university’s Center for Comics Studies.

How comics, as cultural products, influenced Americans’ understanding of social justice issues helped shape the fundamental objectives that I hoped my students and I would achieve by course end. Though our study of comics, I sought ways in which we might be better equipped to articulate the domestic impact of the Cold War in the United States and the ways in which this global contest affected American citizens’ conceptions of culture, society, and social justice. And I hoped that our critical engagement with comics as Cold War cultural products would help us evaluate how they communicated the relationship between word and image.

But how to assess student performance and progress while trying to achieve two course objectives simultaneously—evaluating Cold War American society and culture while also engaging with comics as visual cultural products?

The answer, for me at least, was to mirror the medium.

For my mid-term exam, I provided my students with what I thought was an innovative prompt that would allow them to be more creative than simply writing a traditional essay:

“You have been asked by the editor of the Journal of Comics and Culture to develop a pictorial storyboard for a new feature titled “The Cold War at Home and Abroad.” The editor would like you to explain to the journal’s readership how Cold War comics demonstrated a close relationship between US foreign and domestic policies from 1945 to 1965. To do so, develop your story based on the readings from the first half of our course.”

I then offered them instructions for how to complete the exam:

“You must create your storyboard in six successive panels, an example of which is seen below. The top half of the panel should be used for a written narrative while the bottom half should be used for graphic illustrations. Be creative but remember to focus on making an argument and supporting that argument with historical content and analysis. As each panel’s written portion should comprise a full paragraph, ensure you write using complete sentences. Your drawings should support or enhance your written narrative. Manage your time wisely. Have fun.”

Image with lines at the top and a blank space underneath to draw an image.

Along with the prompt and exam instructions, I attached an 11×17 paper that had six panels—two rows of three columns—laid out consecutively as a reader might see in a comic.

The results showcased how students not only were capable of evaluating Cold War comics on their own merits, but also of expressing their ideas in both written and visual form.

For example, we began the course by analyzing how the “Red Scare” delineated boundaries between acceptable and intolerable social behavior and how, in the process, the anti-communist crusade limited opportunities for those Americans seen as the “other.” We discussed how the Catholic Library Service pamphlet “How Communism Works” from 1938 set conditions for how postwar Americans thought about the threats of communism. Students replicated this “looming paranoia” in their exam answers.

Figures 1 and 2. “How Communism Works,” Catholic Library Service pamphlet, 1938. Excerpt from student exam, used with permission.
Figures 1 and 2. “How Communism Works,” Catholic Library Service pamphlet, 1938. Excerpt from student exam, used with permission.

During the semester, we also evaluated how the Bowman Trading Card Company’s card set from 1951, Children’s Crusade against Communism: Fight the Red Menace, informally recruited children into the Cold War contest. These cards—relying on text and imagery, just as the comics did—molded political content for a young audience, helping them understand the ideological terms of the Cold War. Indeed, the card box featured an oath for children to swear: “I believe in God, and the God-given freedom of man…. I am against any system which enslaves man and makes them merely tools of the State.” Students made these connections during the exam. They wrote how the Bowman cards “reinforced conservative views for young audiences,” while replicating imagery that made Fight the Red Menace so appealing to Cold War child consumers.

Figures 3 and 4. Bowman Gum Company, Fight the Red Menace: The Children’s Crusade against Communism, trading card #47 of 48, “War-Maker,” 1951. Excerpt from student exam, used with permission.
Figures 3 and 4. Bowman Gum Company, Fight the Red Menace: The Children’s Crusade against Communism, trading card #47 of 48, “War-Maker,” 1951. Excerpt from student exam, used with permission.

And, thanks to our exploration of EC Comics, we evaluated how at least some pre-code writers and artists used their pages as critiques against a society that was not living up to its potential for achieving social justice and equal rights. We surveyed science fiction comics and the ways in which publishers used them as allegories for the future of race and morality in the United States. We deliberated how EC “dared to get political” and how the company designed racial polemics that could be read not only by children, but by adults as well.

In discussing EC’s “Judgment Day!” from 1953, for instance, we saw future worlds where racial prejudice impeded the progress of democracy, surely an issue when placed into the contemporary context of a global struggle against communism. Once more, students stepped up with engaging answers on their exam that demonstrated a grasp of our course objectives and, just as importantly, a level of creativity that might not have been realized in a written exam alone.

Figure 5. Final panels from “Judgment Day!” co-authored by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and illustrated by Joe Orlando. Weird Fantasy, issue #18, March-April 1953.
Figure 5. Final panels from “Judgment Day!” co-authored by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and illustrated by Joe Orlando. Weird Fantasy, issue #18, March-April 1953.
Figures 6 and 7. Excerpts from student exams, used with permission.
Figures 6 and 7. Excerpts from student exams, used with permission.

By delving into Cold War comics, my students and I have had the unique opportunity to evaluate how these visual arts depicted race, identity, gender, and social justice during a time when many US citizens believed they were engaged in an existential struggle between good and evil. In every class period, we’ve discussed both the history of the Cold War and how contemporary comics reflected and shaped Americans’ understanding of that time period.

Moreover, early in our course, we read a selection from Harriet E.H. Earle’s Comics: An Introduction, in which see argues, persuasively, that comics “draw on the traditions of visual political commentary.” I think she’s right. The challenge for assessing students’ grasp of this important concept lies in how best to evaluate their progress toward realizing course objectives that speak both to the history of a certain time period and how comics depict that history as it is unfolding.

I might suggest that if we do “frame” our exams in a way that does mirror the medium, we can craft assessment mechanisms like a mid-term exam that evaluate progress and performance while also allowing students to be as creative as they wish to be.

Figure 8. Excerpt from student exam, used with permission.
Figure 8. Excerpt from student exam, used with permission.

Gregory A. Daddis is a professor of history at San Diego State University and holds the USS Midway Chair in Modern US Military History. Daddis specializes in the history of the Vietnam Wars and the Cold War era and has authored five books, including Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines (2020) and Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017). He has also published numerous journal articles and several op-ed pieces commenting on current military affairs, to include writings in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Interest magazine. He is the recipient of the 2022-2023 Fulbright Distinguished Scholar Award, Pembroke College, University of Oxford.


Comics and Roman History

An Interview with Professor Elizabeth Pollard

Listen in as SDSU Journalism & Media Studies Professor, Dr. Noah Arceneaux, interviews Dr. Elizabeth Pollard from the History Department about the inclusion of comics in her course, History 503 Ancient Rome. This “comics-related” course includes a healthy amount of comics but they are not the sole focus of the class. The course will be offered again in Spring 2023!


New Course: Graphic History

An Interview with Professor Van Tarpley

Listen in as SDSU Journalism & Media Studies Professor, Dr. Noah Arceneaux, interviews Professor Van Tarpley from the History Department about an exciting new upper-division GE course, History 457: Graphic History. The course will engage in critical analysis of selected historical problems, eras, and events, using graphic histories and novels as the principal historical documents. The course will be offered for the first time in Spring 2023!


Cold War & Comics

An Interview with Professor Greg Daddis

Listen in as SDSU Journalism & Media Studies Professor, Dr. Noah Arceneaux, interviews Dr. Greg Daddis, Professor of History and Director of the Center for War and Society and the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History about the power of comics to study the Cold War. Greg’s new course, History 580: Comics and the Cold War, will be offered for the first time this fall.