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!

Comic Studies Club Fawaz Qashat

The Comics Studies Club!

Written by Fawaz Qashat
SDSU Biology Major, 2023

Image that says, "Join us!"

Calling All SDSU Students! I’m Fawaz Qashat. Some of you may recognize me as one of the student researchers for Comics@SDSU, now the Center for Comics Studies! My work with Professor Pollard in History and Comics Arts Curator, Pam Jackson, in the Library began my first year at SDSU in 2020, and inspired me to launch the Comics Studies Club in 2021. Although we are currently an informal student club, we are on the path to becoming a Recognized Student Organization (RSO) through SDSU Associated Students as soon as the remaining officer positions are filled. The club is a branch of the Center for Comics Studies tree and explores the deeper messages of comics as well as facilitating fun events that build community surrounding the comic arts. Drawing on the kinds of skills that HIST/ENG 157 and other comics classes here at SDSU build, the club gathers to explore formalistic aspects of comics such as the cover, paneling, bleed, graphic weight, and splash pages as well as how they speak to various social issues. Most recently, the club has moved to book club style meetings, where we read a comic individually and then gather as a group to discuss. We have an upcoming meeting Wednesday March 22, 2023 from 11:00am to 12:00pm on zoom, at which we’ll be discussing James Robinson’s Scarlet Witch Vol.2 #1 (2015).

The Comics Studies Club is working towards becoming a “Recognized Student Organization,” but we still need two more officers to sign up for the roles of Secretary and Treasurer. Once we have those two officers, we can formalize our status with Associated Students, which will give us the ability to advertise our club, reserve a meeting space, apply for funding, host on-campus events, and so much more! Our plan for the future includes creating fun events to build a sense of community such as trips to comic book movies that can be paid for through fundraising. Another is visiting and supporting a local comic book shop by purchasing comics for the club. If you would like to become a member, we would love to have you join! If the officer positions interest you, please reach out to me and let me know. The details for our next meeting can be found on the flier below as well as my contact information if you would like to join the club.

Flyer for the 4th Comics Studies Club Meeting to be held on March 22, 2023 from 11-12pm on Zoom (meeting ID 89388520580). Flyer shows an image of Scarlet Witch and the Center for Comics Studies logo.
Flyer design by Fawaz Qashat
Flyer for the 4th Comics Studies Club Meeting to be held on March 22, 2023 from 11-12pm on Zoom (meeting ID 89388520580). Flyer shows an image of Scarlet Witch.
Flyer design by Renee Roldan
Elizabeth Pollard

From Wall Paintings to Statues – Animation’s Ancient Past

Written by
Dr. Elizabeth Ann Pollard, Professor of History

Figure 1: (left) Amanda Lanthorne (SDSU Library), Beth Pollard (SDSU History and Center for Comics Studies), and TJ Shevlin (Little Fish Comic Book Studio) at the start of their panel at the Comic-Con Museum. (right) Amanda demonstrates how magic lantern slides work.

This past week brought the exciting opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on the history of animation — Cave Paintings to Comics: A Brief History of Animation — to accompany the new Animation Academy exhibit at the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park (see S.C. Bard’s coverage in “SDSU Experts to Discuss History of Animation at Comic-Con Museum,” SDSU NewsCenter 21 February 2023). Although I do not profess to be an expert on modern animation — beyond every ‘80s kid’s heavy dose of after-school Hanna-Barbera and in Saturday morning cartoons like the Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Justice League, and Smurfs — I have spent a lot of time thinking about how art from the distant past came alive for its viewers and the ways that artists long ago worked to breathe life into their creations. My research on women accused of witchcraft in the Roman world spurred my initial explorations of life-breathed-into-art and the relationship between representations and realities [E.A. Pollard, “Witch-crafting in Roman Literature and Art: New Thoughts on an Old Image,” Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft Vol. 3, Issue 2 (Winter 2008), 119-155]. That professional background aside, my personal interest in the topic is, of course, indelibly marked by my own favorite animated characters … those powerful women who are infinitely more nuanced and compelling than the princess protagonists… namely the witches, from the hand-drawn animation of Art Babbitt’s Evil Queen in Snow White (Disney, 1937) and Marc Davis’s Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (Disney, 1959) to the stop-motion (make that heart-stopping) Agatha Prenderghast in Paranorman (Laika, 2012). Professional and personal background aside, to prepare for this panel discussion I found myself reflecting on just how far back might the idea and principles of animation go?  

Figure 2: On the walls of Chauvet Cave from Paleolithic France, layered and shaded line-drawings of lions (right) and rhinos (left) may well have appeared animated by torchlight. Image above is a screenshot of Ancient Art Archive’s 3-D Sketchfab rendering of the Chauvet Cave (Available at; accessed 27 February 2023).

One might reasonably argue that animation is as old as art itself, beginning with cave paintings in the paleolithic era. Scholars have long puzzled over the purpose of the beautiful paintings on the walls of caves dating back to more than 30,000 years ago. Are these paintings somehow the religious devotion of shamans? Recollections of a successful hunt? The result of that very human urge to declare “I am/was here!”? Whatever their purpose, there’s no mistaking the accomplished artistry of these works. And, possibly, their status as the earliest animation. Take for instance, the lions and rhinos from Chauvet cave in France from 30,000-33,000 years ago (See Figure 2). Whoever painted this scene carefully overlaid lions (or one lion?) in slightly different poses, moving towards bison and rhinos who similarly are rendered as what look like multiple layered sketches of the same rhino with head and horn in slightly different position, as if running or nodding. The stroboscopic effect of a flickering, and possibly moving, torch — while someone, perhaps a shaman, told a story — would have brought these images to life for their subterranean spectators. Stroboscopic, or light-flickering, effects are key to the development of modern animation, in such devices as the zoetrope and phenakistiscope from the late 19th century. The same principles would have animated the layered images of animals on cave walls.

Figure 3: (left) Lantern slide image of Tomb of Mera, Sakkara, S10_08_Sakkara from Brooklyn Museum’s Lantern Slide Collection. (right) Plate XXI from Norman Davies, The Mastaba of Ptahhetep and Akhethetep at Saqqareh (1900); accessed via Internet Archive at
Note the progression of images on each register of the line drawing, for instance harvesting papyrus (top left) and wrestling (top right). To a viewer in ancient Egypt or to one pulling the image through a lantern slide three thousand years later these step-by-step progressions may well have produced an animated effect.
Figure 3: (left) Lantern slide image of Tomb of Mera, Sakkara, S10_08_Sakkara from Brooklyn Museum’s Lantern Slide Collection. (right) Plate XXI from Norman Davies, The Mastaba of Ptahhetep and Akhethetep at Saqqareh (1900); accessed via Internet Archive at
Note the progression of images on each register of the line drawing, for instance harvesting papyrus (top left) and wrestling (top right). To a viewer in ancient Egypt or to one pulling the image through a lantern slide three thousand years later these step-by-step progressions may well have produced an animated effect.

Other nods to a deep history for animation might be found in tomb paintings of ancient Egypt, such as the tombs of Mera (or Mereruka) and of Ptah Hotep, from Saqqara of the late third millennium BCE (See Figure 3). The registers on these tomb paintings show repeating images performing the same task/pose and/or images at slightly different stages of the same task, whether collecting papyrus stalks from a marsh or wrestling (among other activities).  Whoever may have viewed these images or, as with the paleolithic images whatever their purpose, the sequence of images lends itself toward interpretation as an animated step-by-step scene beyond the narrative of sequential art, which tends to ask the reader to do more closure between panels. It’s almost as if one could place these images on a series of flipped pages and see the scene progress. What’s all the more fascinating and “meta” is that many of the images we have today of these ancient tomb paintings were captured on slides for viewing in magic lanterns which themselves hold a place in the more modern history of animation. If such slides were drawn across the viewer of the magic lantern, they may well have brought ancient Egypt to life for the ca. 1900 viewer, just at a time when Egyptomania was at its height and modern animation was in its infancy. To take the ancient Egyptian example even more “meta”, it’s quite striking that Dreamworks appears to have acknowledged modern animation’s debt to ancient Egyptian artistic aesthetics. The scene in Prince of Egypt (Dreamworks, 1998) in which Moses learns, through his torchlit viewing of Egyptian wall art, of the slaughter of Hebrew children demonstrates in animated form the way that such wall art may have been perceived as animation long ago. [Dreamworks once again paid homage to a different kind of ancient art’s influence on animation in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011). The final credits consciously echo the style of East Asian and Southeast Asian shadow puppetry, yet another ancient art form that brought static images to life through manipulation of light and shadow. It’s worth noting that Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) gives off some serious shadow puppetry vibes, as well.]

Figure 4: Dramatic scene from Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt (1998) offers an imagining of how  torchlight may have animated the repeating images in Egyptian wall art … and shows Dreamworks’ clever homage to a deep history of animation.
Figure 4: Dramatic scene from Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt (1998) offers an imagining of how  torchlight may have animated the repeating images in Egyptian wall art … and shows Dreamworks’ clever homage to a deep history of animation.

In addition to wall art from paleolithic to ancient Egypt (and, the repeated imagery one sees on such classical bas relief as the tribute bearers at Persepolis or on the Parthenon frieze from the fifth century BCE), arguably another type of ancient animation is the imagery on Greek vases. The showpiece François Vase from sixth-century BCE Etruria beautifully demonstrates the storytelling capacity of this medium. Participants at a gathering at which this piece may have been used for mixing and serving wine would have viewed (from top to bottom register): a boar hunt, the funeral games of Patroclus (Achilles dragging body of Hector), the wedding of Thetis and Peleus (with its who’s-the-fairest apple story that started the Trojan War), the ambush and killing of Troilus by Achilles, sphinxes and griffins, and pygmies and cranes. One could argue whether such vase painting is better interpreted as sequential art (more like a comic) or animation (of the repeating type, as described already, in Egyptian, Persian, and Greek wall art). Nonetheless, the Panoply Vase Animation Project has demonstrated the ways that modern animation can bring the stories on these vases to life for modern viewers; with Greek music playing in the background, the project animates the stories on Greek vases showing the action that is implied in the otherwise static images. Such modern animation of ancient vase art provides an imaginative illustration of how vase images might have come to life in the eyes of those who viewed them in antiquity by the flickering firelight of a wine-lubricated symposium.  

Figure 5: (left) Sixth-century BCE François Vase, as an example of sequential storytelling bordering on animation on black-figure pottery (from Wikimedia Commons) (right) 1887 Drawing of the François Vase (from Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 5: (left) Sixth-century BCE François Vase, as an example of sequential storytelling bordering on animation on black-figure pottery (from Wikimedia Commons) (right) 1887 Drawing of the François Vase (from Wikimedia Commons)

A final example of ancient animation comes in the form of statuary; in particular, statuary that captures the moment of a transformation. Greek and Roman classical texts record a range of shocking transformations … for example, Callisto transformed into a bear to escape a rapacious pursuer (Ovid, Metamorphoses II.401-ff) or Pygmalion’s statue come to life (Ovid, Metamorphoses X.243-ff).  [Side note: Interestingly, Encyclopedia Britannica lists Pygmalion as the legendary first animator for this act of creation (] While statues of these transformational moments existed in antiquity, the 17th-century Bernini sculpture of Daphne’s transformation offers a great example of how a moment captured in stone can embody action in a way that makes it seem almost alive. As a viewer circles Bernini’s statue, what looks like Daphne’s hair and upwards reaching arms become bark and branch of the laurel tree into which she has been transformed. The scene in stone comes alive, in all its action and pathos. Interpreting scenes of transformation captured in stone as a kind of animation might seem a stretch were it not for the reportage of the imaginative second-century writer Apuleius, whose own Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass) tells a magical story of a man transformed into a donkey and then returned to male form through the grace of Isis. Apuleius’s novel recounts the visit of his lead character Lucius to the house of a witch. Apuleius describes the city in which the house Lucius is visiting as a place where it seemed “everything had been transformed by some dreadful incantation” such that “soon the statues and images would start to walk” (Apuleius, Golden Ass, Book II.1-5; A.S. Kline’s 2013 translation of the passage available here). In this passage, Apuleius describes a statue group in which the mythological character Actaeon is depicted at the moment when he is transformed into a stag to be devoured by Artemis’s dogs. Apuleius writes that the statue was so naturalistic that if the viewer gazed into the reflecting pool in which the statue was located, the viewer would have seen in the water’s reflection a “quality of movement.” Whatever one thinks of Apuleius’s story about witches and transformations, he gives modern readers an idea of how an ancient viewer might have seen a statue rendered in the shimmer of a reflecting pool as a kind of animation.

Figure 6: Two views of Bernini’s 17th-century Apollo and Daphne, currently in the Borghese Gallery in Rome (from Wikimedia Commons). Circling the statue gives the viewer different moments in Daphne’s transformation from nymph to laurel tree. And Apuleius’ narrative demonstrates how an imaginative viewer might have seen these dynamic statues as alive, especially when reflecting in a rippling pool.
Figure 6: Two views of Bernini’s 17th-century Apollo and Daphne, currently in the Borghese Gallery in Rome (from Wikimedia Commons). Circling the statue gives the viewer different moments in Daphne’s transformation from nymph to laurel tree. And Apuleius’ narrative demonstrates how an imaginative viewer might have seen these dynamic statues as alive, especially when reflecting in a rippling pool.

Animation… the Latin etymology of the word conjures up the idea of the animus, a breath of life infused into an otherwise inanimate object. Taking the time to muse on a deep history of animation breathed life into the topic for me. Torchlit images in paleolithic caves or Egyptian tombs … or even the vases viewed through wine-goggled eyes of symposium attendees or statues observed in rippling reflective waters by fiction authors with overactive imaginations … none of these had the huge audience of twentieth-century and later animation. Nonetheless, these examples do suggest a long history of artists making images and stories come alive. 

Headshot of Professor Pollard

Elizabeth Pollard is Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence at San Diego State University, where she has taught Roman History, World History, and witchcraft studies since 2002. She co-directs SDSU’s Center for Comics Studies and recently debuted a Comics and History course exploring sequential art from the paleolithic to today. Pollard is currently working on two comics-related projects: an analysis of comics about ancient Rome over the last century and a graphic history exploring the influence of classical understandings of witchcraft on their representations in modern comics. Pollard has co-authored a world history survey (Worlds Together, Worlds Apart) and has published on various pedagogical and digital history topics, including DH approaches to visualizing Roman History.

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.

NEH Comics and Social Justice Grant William Nericcio

Social Justice and the Teaching of Comics at San Diego State University: A Case History Focused on “I/Eyegasm 21st Century Comics, Photography, Cinema, and Cultural Studies”

Written by Dr. William Anthony Nericcio, Director, MALAS, the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor, English and Comparative Literature, SDSU — Nericcio is also the publisher of Amatl Comix, the comix studies imprint at SDSU Press.

Image of English 157 syllabus homepage

As I faced the prospect of teaching an English 157 Comics and History course for the third time at SDSU, I was hit with a wave of trepidation: how could I teach the course differently this term? After all, I did not want to fall into a rut. The first iteration of the class had been entitled The Virus Eye/I and had debuted to around 150 students in the fall of 2020. The next iteration of the class, also to some 140 plus students was a little out there–it was called Psychedelic Mirrors: Sex, Drugs, and Rocknroll in the Age of the Televisual. Now I had gotten word, Fall 2022, that the class registrations had been growing and that I would be teaching 270 students in the class–I had to redouble my efforts and hit it out of the park and I had to do so in way that was true to the mission of the class, part of 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.

I called this third try “I/Eyegasm 21st Century Comics, Photography,  Cinema, and Cultural Studies.”

And though the focus of the course was going to be keyed to social justice issues: racism, discrimination, systemic violence and the like, I did not stress this in the course description, nor did I heavy-hand it to them in the opening days of the class. This was the premise of the class according to the syllabus:

Buckle your seatbelts and order up some eye-protection — this is NOT your grandfather’s “Comics and History” class! Our Fall 2022 experimental comix extravaganza will emerge out of the twisted corridors of something called I/Eyegasm as we explore the deliciously and outrageously twisted psyches, minds, and visions of outrageous women and men in some of the most exotic and eye-opening comix, film, sequential art, photography, and cultural analysis this side of the planet. Our focus (pardon the pun) will be both the “I” and the “Eye”-“I,” the name we give to our complex consciousness and “Eye,” the name of the organ that dominates us in the digital age. Between Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and more, our eyes have never been more saturated, never more filled with stimulus. 

Our class will both study and (even possibly) reinforce our shared 21st century electro existential experiences where the mesh of our minds with computer screens, smartphones, and television screens comes to saturate our consciousness. The books and movies and pictures and videos we will experience this term will open our eyes to brave new worlds. But these works are not without their tricks, not without their surprises, and the fractured souls they flaunt before our eyes will test our intellect, imagination, and, most deeply, our emotions–they may even tattoo our psyche! Works to include artist/authors like Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Hernandez, Emil Ferris, Robert Crumb, Marjane Satrapi and more. Open to all majors and minors with no prior expertise with comics or literature anticipated or expected.

But the class featured writers who were transgender, Jewish American, Mexican American etc and it was through the diversity of representative artists–including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Emil Ferris–that I was able to gently inculcate the arcane and troubling histories of social justice and attacks on justice that are part of our legacies as Americans, as denizens of this planet My great colleague, Dr. Gregory Daddis, has written of his class for this same NEH/SDSU initiative something that also guided me in my course-crafting; Daddis writes about “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.” They did for me as well–but as I have taught large lecture classes for 30 years here at SDSU, and to largely non-English major, General-Education-unit-seeking undergraduates, I had learned that you have to let the works do the major lifting when it comes to issues of Social Justice — telling them they had to be thoughtful never works, showing them the benefits of thoughtfulness and empathy always works.

For instance, the class opened with FREUD FOR BEGINNERS by Oscar Zarate and Richard Appignanesi–the titillating enchantments of Freud were used as a kind of sleight of hand to lure students for whom comics are new and alienating into the web of our efforts; here’s a snapshot from my actual day to day course calendar:

Screenshot of a page from Dr. Nericcio's class calendar. It reads:"It's only the 2nd day of class ... and guess what! You've finished reading a book as you enter GMCS 333 having completed your reading of Oscar Zarate's and Richard Appignanesi's FREUD FOR BEGINNERS. Kiss your brains for being the rock star undergraduate that you are ... (not coming to class with the assignment complete, kick yourself in the existential backside for being a slacker!). As you read, think about dynamic connections you might draw between what you are reading and seeing and what you yourself have experienced recently. I don't know about you, but the Covid plague has been wreaking havoc on my unconscious, filling my dreams with fantastic visions and outrageous situations. Additionally, as you read, I also want you to watch the text, as this strange book is actually at least two books at once! The first is obvious: Richard Appignanesi, the writer and intellectual historian glossing key concepts and events from the life of Freud and the history of Psychoanalysis. But there is also another book: Oscar Zarate's drawn rendition of Freud's life and history, but, also, Zarate's keen, savvy curation of engravings and drawings and photographs from the late 19nth century and early 20th century. What might, on the surface, appear to be an illustrator playing with nasty pictures, is also, on further observation, a critical operation, where a cartoonist and visual arts curator attempts to reveal the tricky, complex relationship between images and our psyche, between pictures and our imagination. All of this, of course, will help us better understand the dynamics of sequential art, of graphic narrative, of .... COMICS!"

I also wanted the students to start thinking about themselves and their own relationship to visual representation, so I had them do an assignment in class where they did their own self portraits. First, using our class Facebook page, I would introduce them to new artists incorporating new approaches to self-representation like Titus Kaphar’s “Shifting the Gaze.”

Screenshot of a post from the class Facebook page. It shares an article from the New York Times about the politics of art.

Then, I would highlight their own incipient graphic efforts–expertise in art was not a requirement!

Screenshot of a post from the class Facebook page that shows a student drawing from a lined notebook.
Screenshot of a post from the class Facebook page that shows a student drawing from a lined notebook.

During the semester I also used social media to underscore connections between the works we were experiencing as in this Tumblr share–it was also a way to introduce them to more artists:

Screenshot of a post on Tumblr. IT SAYS, "This picture illustrates the feelings incorporated in many of the books we read. Whether it be the difficulties of Kafka living as a Jew in a place where they were hated, the constant compulsions faced by Jason Katzenstein in “Everything Is an Emergency,” the women objectified in John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” as well as criticized in Marjane Satrapi’s “Embroideries.”"

click for the original posting

We also ran into challenges during the semester — this was a group of 200-plus freshmen many of whom had not been in a classroom for two years owing to Covid. So we had to come up with ways to test the students without alienating them, and we were largely successful. Here is an example of their first quiz that had little value but that let them know exactly how they would be tested on the mid-term:

Screenshot of an assignment titled, "NOT THE MIDTERM, IN-Class IMAGINATION CHALLENGE NUMERO UNO!"

By the end of the semester, our hope was that the course, a disguised macro-meditation on the value of empathy would translate months later, after the course was over, into a successful meditation on the value of social justice in a world that, at times, looks down its nose at “woke” or “progressive” values. The secret of social justice focused pedagogy is that it makes better people of us all — one of the reasons that literature and comics play a special role in higher education.

A first-generation citizen of the Ivory Tower, William Nericcio was born in Laredo, Texas, and educated at the University of Texas, Austin, and Cornell University, where he completed his Comparative Literature Ph.D. at the age of 26. Now the Director of MALAS, the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts & Sciences Program, Nericcio also serves as Professor of English and works on the faculties of Chicana/o Studies & Latin American Studies at San Diego State University.  Nericcio’s signature book Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America, appeared with the UTexas Press (2007). His next books were on playwright Oliver Mayer’s works, The Hurt Business (2008) and Homer from Salinas: John Steinbeck’s Enduring Voice for California (2009). Nericcio’s #BrownTV: Latinas and Latinos on the Screen (2019), co-authored with Frederick Aldama, appeared with Ohio State University Press. He also co-edited Cultural Studies in the Digital Age (2020) for Hyperbole Books.

Grace deVega Uncategorized

In the words of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, “Part of the journey is the end.”

Written by Grace deVega
SDSU History Major, 2022

This quote is particularly fitting for this final blog exploring my process in designing the digital exhibit “Sound of Comics” for SDSU’s Center for Comics Studies. Of all of the academic endeavors I have undertaken while at SDSU, this one has felt the most like a journey. There have been multiple paths to tread, obstacles to overcome, and constant support and encouragement along the way. And now I have reached the end: You can access “Sound of Comics” here.

In terms of multiple paths, some of the most significant decisions I have made in the final part of this curation have pertained to paring down the content. I cultivated a substantial number of collection pieces — far more than could be included — after scouring the materials in the library and beyond. The process then became a task of figuring out connection points between the pieces and organizing them into a proper exhibit. Often, I created a visual guide to help me write down all of my ideas and begin building relationships between avenues of content.

Handwritten brainstorming paper that shows how everything was categorized branching off of music as the key concept.

As evidenced by this brainstorm web, I had several different avenues that I wanted to explore with music alone. I also knew that too many subsections would overwhelm my audience with text and images, so I selected specific pieces and paths to pursue, which helped the claims in the exhibit appear more intentional and direct. For instance, one path that I did not pursue outright was the notion of “Dance” in comics, but I still found ways to incorporate the dance-related ideas into some of the collection’s pieces. Each of the exhibit sections received similar treatment, and the end result was three major categories with several smaller subcategories that reinforced the ideas of their parent topics.

With reference to obstacles, most of the barriers that I faced dealt with translating the exhibit into its digital form. As I expected, there was a significant learning curve when first working with WordPress, which is the platform that I selected (having chosen from Omeka, Google Sites, Adobe, and a few other digital exhibit options). I watched several tutorials and made several unsuccessful attempts to figure out the system at the beginning. However, I eventually learned the tools of the platform, as well as figured out how to manipulate those tools to produce the content and design that I desired. Most of this work came through trial-and-error, which was difficult but ultimately rewarding when I was able to see the finished product of each section. In addition, I decided to format the layout of all of the pages before implementing their text and images which proved useful in building my confidence and knowledge of the platform while also ensuring their uniformity. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to overcome these challenges through the support of Dr. Pamella Lach, the Director of the Digital Humanities Center at SDSU. I met with Dr. Lach several times, and she helped me select WordPress as my digital platform, as well as offered advice on best practices throughout the process. Her support was particularly helpful when discussing accessibility with the website and making certain that the exhibit is compatible with screen readers and all other ADA compliances. I am so grateful for her assistance and insight.

To that final point about support, I have been fortunate throughout this entire process to receive advice and encouragement from a variety of sources. Along with the indispensable support of Dr. Lach, several other scholars have offered their perspective in improving my work and helping me examine sound in comics more thoroughly. Over the last month, I have had the privilege to interview several comics scholars, querying their understanding of sound in comics. I interviewed Dr. Barbara Postema, who studies wordless comics, to discuss comics that tell stories when conventional forms of sound are intentionally limited. Dr. Postema explained the role of images, pictographs, and expression lines in replacing alphabetic symbols when figures communicate. For instance, she referenced the dashed dialogue lines in Hawkeye #19, which she labeled “asemic,” or lacking in semantic content, as a key example of this type of wordless sound conveyance. She mentioned the frustration that audiences experience when encountering communication in this form, and I found such insight extremely helpful when creating the “Disability and Sound” section of the exhibit. 

I also had the opportunity to interview Dr. José Alaniz, a comics scholar and professor at University of Washington, Seattle. Our conversation covered a wide array of topics pertaining to sound in comics, and one of my biggest takeaways from Dr. Alaniz  was the ability of sound to both reinforce and distort the reality of the comic. We discussed the “mimetic function” of certain sounds, such as including a pre-existing song within a scene because it establishes the setting in time and in its similarity to the world of the audience.  At the same time, Dr. Alaniz pointed out that depictions sounds are often “toyed with,” as he called them, to underscore the unfamiliarity of the landscape and exacerbate the divide between the world of the comic and the world of the reader. His perspective proved invaluable when I discussed environments in the “Music” and “Sound Effects” sections of the exhibit.

Lastly, this project would have been “dead air” without the guidance and supervision of Librarian Pamela Jackson and Dr. Elizabeth Pollard. Pam Jackson provided me with some of the first comics that I read for the exhibit, and she, along with the rest of the Library’s Special Collections and University Archives team, have been incredibly helpful, thoughtful, and considerate over the course of my research, especially when I spent hours in their archives poring over comics. Similarly, Dr. Pollard always made herself available to answer questions, provide feedback, read over text that I had written, and connect me with people that could support my efforts. I have grown so much as a student, scholar, and fan of comics under her guidance. Lastly, Dr. Pollard and Librarian Jackson have shown genuine enthusiasm for my work throughout the entire process, which has helped me stay motivated and reassured in the steps I had taken, even when I questioned myself.

So, while this may be the end of my journey into sound in comics, I could not be more proud of the work I have done or more appreciative of the people who helped me get there.

Photo of Grave deVega.

Grace deVega (she/her) is a Fourth Year History and Political Science student at San Diego State University. She previously won the President’s Award at the SDSU Student Research Symposium and 1st Place in her Division at the CSU Research Competition for her research into the impacts of the 1986 Philippines People Power Movement on nonviolent revolutions. She has also played clarinet for the past twelve years, including in the SDSU marching and concert bands, which is where her passion for music and aural studies derives.