“Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives” Book Review

Despite going to an art school for illustration, there was never a course on the history of comics. Sure, there was a sequential art class that I took repeatedly and my brilliant professor, who I long remember as one of my best teachers there, went into history here and there when it was applicable. I was forced to take art history and illustration history courses through my time in college, but never once did I see a class that taught the importance of comics as an art-form and storytelling medium. Some universities out there have that luxury, and for those that do, chances are you have seen the book we are reviewing today, “Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives”.

Written by Lan Dong, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois and author and editor for a number of journals and books on Asian American lit., children’s lit., and popular culture, has broken the teaching of comics down to six essential sections. They are American studies, Ethnic studies, Women’s studies, Cultural studies, Genre studies and lastly, the trio of composition, rhetoric and communication. The book references many comics throughout time, both old and new, to make it’s point, ranging from well-established sequential art masters such as Winsor McKay and Bob Kane, to modern indy book creators like Gene Luen Yang, Aaron McGruder, and Alison Bechdel, and tons more (way too many to list).

Examining specific works from a wide spectrum of artists, an equally vast amount of topics is discussed within those six main sections, jumping from how races are viewed and discussed, to sexuality, socio-economic statuses, and even the creation of a comic itself and it’s design and approach. It’s truly a fascinating way to look at sequential art, and is an excellent text book that is easily accessible to newcomers to the art form, as well as longtime readers.

I found the sections on teaching ethnic graphic narratives very interesting, especially in how it there are so many creators that have dealt with this issue in a variety of ways, some serious, some funny, and some a cross of both. As I have heard Will Eisner say in other interviews, and he is quoted in this book as well, “the stereotype is a fact of life in the comics medium. It is an accursed necessity – a tool of communication that is an inescapable ingredient in most cartoons”. Yet, in a video I saw of Sergio Aragones from the 90’s that Marvel Comics put out, the author of “Groo” stated that while he works with these cliched looks to successful achieve his story telling, it is only because society can not accept a different look for other characters, and it is up to society to make those stereotypes go away so he and others can draw how they please. While I am getting slightly off topic, I found this entire section to be one of the most engrossing, since I think everyone has at one time either stereotyped someone or been on the receiving end of it.

“Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives” is a perfect entry point to comics for readers both young and old, and makes for a fine reference as well for critical-writing authors who use comics in their essays. Best of all, for those who are involved in more critical analysis, each chapter has a massive works cited page to help you dig deeper into higher thinking in comics, and it proves that time old adage we comic fans go by – that comics open up readers to a joy of reading they never knew they had.

You can order Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice from Amazon.com for around $40-45. Much like the other books from McFarland Publishing, they are meant as text books, so the price is higher than your average paperback book. As a textbook, it’s great (and includes some nice little homework assignments for you to do after you wrap up each chapter), and as a casual reading book, it works equally well. I could have used some more visual aids, but I just like looking at pictures and that can’t be helped. You will definitely learn about many comics you never heard of before and will want to read, so for that alone, it succeeds, but it excels more at teaching students about why the art form of comics is important and should be taken just as seriously as the so-called “high-art” world.

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