“Comics and Graphic Narratives; or, The Art of the Matter” by Jason S Polley

The fourth-year English course “Comics and Graphic Narratives”, a title as ambiguous as, say, “Short Stories and Novels”, and even the more equivocal “Prose Fiction”, is organised into several unstable thematic groupings: underground comics (or comix), revisionist narratives within the mainstream, memoirs & confessionals, new journalism, and auteur comics. The texts most recently selected for the course are based on historical impact, verifiable influence, and general popularity with readers worldwide, as well as with an eye to comics that experiment and expand the boundaries of the medium. So, while students do recognise some familiar names and titles, less well-known texts and artists too are represented.

In the fall semester of 2016, we read the following texts, texts I’ve loosely qualified in terms of blurred or blending genres, for each destabilises subgenre conventions, not to mention the traditional (artificial) boundary between ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’.

  • Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (auteur memoir, 2006)
  • Crumb, R. The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 3 (auteur comics, 1965)
  • DeLisle, Guy. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (auteur new journalism, 2006)
  • Zwigoff, Terry. Crumb (quasi-mockumentary film, 1994)
  • Seth. It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (auteur faux memoir, 2011)
  • Liew, Sonny. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (auteur revisionist memoir, 2015)
  • Matsumoto, Taiyo. Tekkon Kinkreet (auteur revisionist, 2007)
  • Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen (mainstream revisionist, 1987)
  • Yang, Gene Luen and Sonny Liew. The Shadow Hero (auteur revisionist, 2014)

Tellingly, the critical text for “Comics and Graphic Narratives” similarly resists classical categorisation. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994) is at once a comic and a textbook. Understanding Comics is a self-reflexive critical comic that simultaneously traces the history of graphic representation and presents an analysis of different graphic strategies as it legitimates the graphic medium by deconstructing the comparatively recent historical privileging of words over images while expounding on the processes of closure or the invisible art of connecting discrete images. McCloud places a graphic version of himself in the text, thereby, among other things, elucidating the roles of the artist, educator, critic, and student: he’s in the text discerning, evaluating, and creating.

What is the most compelling aspect of this course (for students and instructor) is what I simply label on the syllabus as “Final Project”. I ask the students, in the mode of McCloud, or of any or all of the authors we study, or that students have introduced in their group presentations, to come up with their own creative final work. I offer only a few key—if also indefinite—caveats: the creative final project should be as time consuming as a 10-12 page research paper, should address texts and themes germane to the course, and should include a critical self-reflection of the project itself. In short, the projects ought to combine art and criticism, not at all unlike all worthwhile theoretical, literary, and artistic production/activism.

As when I first instructed a version of this course in Fall 2015, assessing my students’ final projects left me, well, uncommonly moved, if I may be as understated as possible. I decided to photograph what I saw as the most compelling portions of these pieces. These submissions, not unlike our genre-blending course readings, arrived in multiple forms, including, memoir, appropriation, adaptation, auto-fiction, poster, board game, and blog. References to Hong Kong will be obvious to most local readers; references to the works listed above will be more familiar to contemporary comics readers. I realise that the images below offer only single snapshots of the work of my students. I hope, however, that these brief glimpses help to convey the academic, critical, and creative possibilities of the comics medium—and how BU’s senior undergraduate students can exploit this and other media.

Student contributors of the selections that follow (in no particular order) are Blue Bell-Bhuiyan, Stephanie Chan, Brenda Cheng, Ariel Fang, Fenton Fong, Erin Fong, Tiffany Ku, Aaron Kwok, Blaine Lam, Pansy Lam, Xanthe Lau, Cecilia Lee, Isabella Lui, Christy Ngan, Crescentia So, To Chang, Sampson Tse, Liz Wong, and Katie Wong.

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jspJason S Polley is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by JSP.]

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