Friday, December 9, 2016

Welcome to the Course!


Welcome to English/Humanities 4983, also known as "Superheroes as Literature." This class--all 7 days of it!--serves as a whirlwind introduction to the history of superheroes in the 20th/21st centuries, as well as a discussion of the grammar, style, and syntax of so-called 'comic books.' We'll not only discuss why superheroes have become our modern-day mythology, but how comic books are uniquely designed to tell their story. Along the way, we'll look at some of comic books' detractors, and learn to defend this unique art form from charges of illiteracy, degeneracy, and "kids' lit." 

Be sure to buy the 5 books for class at the ECU bookstore, since we'll start reading right after our first class, with questions due on Tuesday! The book list is pasted below:



REQUIRED TEXTS: (a) Miller, Batman: Year One; (b) Millar, Superman: Red Son;   (c) Claremont, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills; (d) Wilson, Mrs. Marvel, “No Normal,” Vol.1; (e) Coates, Black Panther, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” Book One

Please bookmark this site since you'll need it throughout our brief Intercession semester. Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns at jgrasso@ecok.edu. 

See you in the funny pages! Or as Stan Lee would say, Excelsior! 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review of Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story


"Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?" (Matt Madden) 


I often teach a short Intercession (2 week) course on Comics/Graphic Novels at ECU, and in that class I try to stress the limitless possibilities of the comic medium.  A simple story, with a slight shift in words, perspective, shading, sound effects, color, or frames, can gain hidden depth and purpose.  Or it can simply become another simple story.  We always do an exercise early on lifted from Scott McCloud's seminal book, Understanding Comics, where I ask students to fill in dialogue and narration for a basic 5-frame story.  Depending on what words the students add, the story either sticks close to the visual narration or becomes hilarious, tragic, or disturbing.  Matt Madden takes this exercise to a whole new level in his amazing book, 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises In Style (2005), where he tells the same story 99 Ways.  These "ways" include everything from changing the style, the genre, the order, and even questioning what story is being told in the first place.  It's a clever, but surprisingly captivating read inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style which does much the same thing in words.  Yet the sheer range of Madden's technique and his profound imagination make this book more than a mere exercise; it's a story in its own right, and one that changes from page to page, even if you think you know the outcome.


The book is a particular delight to the comic lover, since he pays homage to his heroes and peers throughout.  After some virtuoso exercises in style (showing the comic through the eyes of a voyeur; showing the comic only in sound effects; showing the comic in flashback) he then filters it through the style of famous comic artists.  We get a brilliant parody/homage of Rodolphe Toppfer's style, followed by a hilarious--and astonishingly realistic--take on the story via the Bayeux Tapestry.  EC Comics gets a spotlight when the story becomes a thriller, though my personal favorite is his spot-on send-up of Winsdor McKay's zany, madcap style (Little Nemo).  He also throws in a wonderful homage to Jack Kirby, as well as a oddly appropriate demonstration of his technique by mimicking Scott McCloud's 6 Frame-to-Frame Progressions.  Also delightful is his use of "Cento" (composing a work completely from the words of others), where each frame tells the story from a frame of another artist--in this case, including Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, and Julie Doucet.  

However, even if you don't catch the name-dropping, you'll be blown away by how many "exercises" he can squeeze out of this 8-frame template.  He turns it into a series of advertisements, then shifts the perspective to have someone tell the entire story at a bar as a kind of pitch for a book or TV show.  The story becomes a metaphor for life itself in a few of the exercises, and in two, it becomes an audition ("Actors Studio I and II").  Some of my favorites are when he alters the style subtly, as in "Silhouette" and "Minimalist."  At the very end, he finally begins deleting small aspects of the template--first the refrigerator, then one character after another.  The point of all this is not simply to be clever (though he certainly is!), but to remind us that a story is not what happens but how it happens and who tell it to us (fittingly, he also throws in an Unreliable Narrator).  This book is a veritable treasure trove of narrative technique for anyone trying to understand how books tell stories, or how art communicates a sense of character and story through the simplest of means.  I'm astounded by the sheer diversity of story telling in this book, and wish students could read this at a very early age to help them read everything--from Peanuts to Pynchon.  I can't wait to thumb through this book again, and even though he promises that "there is [no] requirement to read every comic in one sitting (or ever)," you will want to read it as a bona fide book--and in a single sitting.  Enjoy!  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THE COMIC RESPONSE TEMPLATE: MODAN’S EXIT WOUNDS (2007)


1.         How is the work illustrated?  Be specific: would you characterize it as sketchy, realistic, cartoony, artistic, ornate, spare, expressionistic, tight, loose, etc.?  What is the overall feel of the artwork, and what kind of tone does it create for the reader?  Do you feel it is the uniquely suited to the story being told?  Consider the differences between Crumb and Cavey’s illustrations for Pekar’s American Splendor

Exit Wounds has a very unique style, which among comics artists places her somewhere in the style of Alison Bechdel or Marjane Satrapi.  I say this because the people are stylized, cartoonish, yet quite realistic.  Modan’s characters might at first glance seem to have emerged from a children’s book, as they are depicted in soft, primary colors with a minimum of facial detail.  Their bodies, however, are rendered beautifully and expressively: indeed, her characters communicate more with their bodies than their faces.  I think this style allows her to transcend the locality/culture of Jerusalem, which some readers might be baffled by, and see Exit Wounds as a universal story about ‘normal’ people in extraordinary circumstances.  However, perhaps the most interesting comparison of her style is to the Russian artist Ivan Bilbin (1876-1942) who became famous for his lavish illustrations of Russian fairy tales and folkore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Bilibin.  While Bilibin’s characters have more detail, they possess the same otherwordly softness/brightness.  His illustration for Sadko, for instance, might be a Modan original, particularly when comparing both artist’s palettes.  While Modan’s story would work if depicted in a more gritty, realistic style (like Sacco, for instance), I think her style creates an undercurrent of emotion and affection: it helps us get into the lives of the characters and pulls us into the narrative.  Above all, it reminds us that this is not a story primarily about politics or history: it’s about relationships and love above all. 

2.         Why was this story written as a graphic novel?  What might this story lose if translated to a novel, short story, or even a film?  What elements of the story almost require the juxtaposition of words and images? In other words, what does the comic format allow us to see and experience that a traditional novel wouldn’t?  Again, be as specific as possible. 

To me, this is a story about the small details: little clues that emerge only after careful notice, or are missed and forgotten entirely.  The graphic novel teaches us to read expressions and body language, or look into the corner of a frame where an essential clue is lurking in the shadows.  A great example of this is on pages 110-111, when Koby and Numi are alone on the beach after his taxi has broken down.  They really don’t have much to say as they enjoy their picnic lunch, yet their body language expresses the awkward, tentative steps they are taking toward one another.  Modan shows this in a long frame that captures the boundless sea and the empty beach, with our two characters sitting apart—yet almost touching.  Their only words are “It’s so beautiful here” and “Mm-hmm...how about a sandwich?”  Yet Numi’s feet are reaching out toward Koby, while he, with a single arm supporting him at an angle, seems poised to catapult into her.  Modan is also clever at making the mundane aspects of life—a telephone call, for example—reveal hidden depths of character.  While in a novel the call would simply be lines of dialogue, in Exit Wounds, we see one character primping before a mirror, indifferent to the entire conversation, while another paces and throws his arms around, unable to communicate his despair in words. 

3.          Who narrates the story?  One person? More than one?  How do they do this?  Traditionally, narration is told from either a third-person or first-person perspective; how does a graphic novel challenge this approach?  Consider how the form of comics ‘tells’ a story and allows us to see multiple points of view within a single narrative frame. 

Exit Wounds employs traditional narration, centered mostly on Koby’s perspective and immediate surroundings.  However, the narrator is careful to show us details far beyond Koby’s awareness (as with the phone conversation mentioned above), and in one important scene, shows us the inner world of Numi’s household when he calls her for the first time.  The graphic novel works extremely well here, as this entire world is colored in shades of pink and red, which contrasts sharply with Koby’s blue and gray world.  Interestingly, when Numi leaves the room and talks to him in the hallway, the background is rendered in pastel pink (which isn’t the color of the hallway).  Numi, who is not at all a girly-girl, seems trapped in this environment, and of course Koby is completely unaware of this inner struggle.  Only the narrator, with a few visual touches, is able to communicate this to the reader. 

4.            Describe one scene in the novel, either a single frame or a single of frames, that you feel is particularly significant.  Why is this moment so important?  Do you admire this passage more for its narrative (the words) or its art (the images)—or both?  Make sure we can not only see what’s going on here, but we see how it relates to the story at large.

My favorite scene in the novel occurs when Numi has just leanred that Koby’s father (her lover, who has disappeared), actually had another lover, a woman he had known for over 40 years.  So instead of being killed in a car bombing as they assumed, he merely dumped Numi for another lover, another life.  Koby warned her of this earlier, but Numi persisted and even Koby’s resolve began to falter.  Now, however, the truth is unmistakable; Numi bawls in Koby’s taxi as they drive away, saying “How could he!  And with that ugly old hag.”  Behind this statement is her desire to be attractive, or at least somewhat desirable the way her mother (a former model) and sister (whom Koby tells her is “hot”) are.  However, if Koby’s father shacks up with women so indiscriminately, then she has lost all claims on beauty or desirability; she was merely convenient.  Also, she fears that the end of their journey will make Koby leave her, too.  At this point, she clearly no longer cares about the old man but is using the adventure as an excuse to hang out with Koby.  She goes on to lament that “I wish he was dead.  I wish it really was his body.  I’m so sorry, Koby.  Maybe I am crazy.”  The folly of the whole enterprise comes crashing down on her, though unexpectedly, Koby crumples at this sign of vulnerability.  He responds, “He’s the one that’s crazy.  Only a lunatic would walk out on a girl like you.”  This entire conversation takes place in the cramped quarters of a taxi, so we can only see their torsos and faces, and as the scene reaches its climax, the faces become more prominent.  The final three frames are wordless, as she realizes that Koby has feelings for her, and their necks crane toward one another and kiss.  Lest this become too sentimental, the final frame zooms out to the nighttime traffic jam they’ve created, with rows of cars frantically beeping at their stalled taxi.  The juxtaposition of sentiment and humor—and sentiment and tragedy—is a constant theme of this book, and is done with such flair and delicacy that only the finest novelists can achieve. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blankets by Josh McNeely

The illustration of Blankets is very artistic and cartoonish. Craig Thompson does something interesting with the illustration of people. The younger he is in the story, the more cartoonish the drawings become. The older Craig is the more realistic the art work becomes. This gives off the impression that as time moves further the more obscure the memories become. Though the pictures while he is in his high school career are more realistic in the portrayal of characters, the art work begins to become much more artistic. This is meant to add to the emotions Craig is feeling while he is with Raina. For example on page 306 he sees Raina in her nightgown and views her as an angel, in this atmosphere of beauty swirling around her.
What this story does is it tells you the story of how Craig feels and falls in love with Raina, and allows the artwork to compliment it in a manor with shows degree of a situation not just showing how the situation is unfolding, remember the example from page 306. This complimenting factor is not possible in a movie or novel format. You would miss out on Blankets ability to make you feel the emotions of the characters are experiencing, both the exaggerated emotions (when he is a kid), and the more artistic unique emotions he feels in high school.
The story has some interesting narration going on. This is a story that he narrates from a further point in time then when the story begins. At times we find him narrating as an adult about being in high school where he tells a story about when he was a kid. Also, due to the exaggeration of the artwork, Craig seems to be untrustworthy in what he see's, and say's. On page 16, His dad opens up a sleeping crate that has teeth; obviously, there were no teeth, but it shows that how he saw things as a child is not necessary how they happened.
The most significant scene, in my opinion, is on page 506. We see Craig walking through a field that has lost all of the snow, but he is remembering what the field looked like with snow. Right before this in the story we see him getting a call from Raina, telling him that she cant handle a commitment right now. Because of this he starts seeing the world change. The love he has for Raina is changing, she's changing, and there is nothing Craig can do about it. This scene on 506, shows that he is faced with a situation in nature that has now changed form what he thought of as beautiful. He wants things to stay the same, but he cannot keep things from changing. This scene is a metaphor for his relationship with his brother, his relationship with Raina, and his faith. It shows how time reveals the things we may not want to see but we will eventually see. Craig eventually grows apart from his brother, he eventually breaks up with Raina, and he eventually cant keep turning from the fact that the dogma of the christian faith is ridiculous. All of these things can be used as metaphors for this scene, which is why I think it is a really significant scene.

Tamara Drewe by Lisa Edge


1.       How is the work illustrated?  Be specific: would you characterize it as sketchy, realistic, cartoony, artistic, ornate, spare, expressionistic, tight, loose, etc.?  What is the overall feel of the artwork, and what kind of tone does it create for the reader?  Do you feel it is the uniquely suited to the story being told?  Consider the differences between Crumb and Cavey’s illustrations for Pekar’s American Splendor.  It is done cartoony but with realistic characters.  Some is done with full color, others more pastels, and some with more a black and white feel with shades of blue or almost shadowy.  The play with color I think adds to the feel of the story. 

2.        Why was this story written as a graphic novel?  What might this story lose if translated to a novel, short story, or even a film?  What elements of the story almost require the juxtaposition of words and images? In other words, what does the comic format allow us to see and experience that a traditional novel wouldn’t?  Again, be as specific as possible. This story has the possibility to be re-done multiple ways it has enough story content to be turned into a book I understand that there is a book and that this is based off of the book.  As stated before I also feel that this same story would fit well into a soap opera—that’s the feel I get from the story line.  In the beginning you think or get the feel that the story is going to center around the retreat but as the story unfold it centers more around the sorted affairs of Tamara Drewe. 

3.       Who narrates the story?  One person? More than one?  How do they do this?  Traditionally, narration is told from either a third-person or first-person perspective; how does a graphic novel challenge this approach?  Consider how the form of comics ‘tells’ a story and allows us to see multiple points of view within a single narrative frame.   The narration is done by who’s point of view is being told at the time.  There are moments when Beth the retreat keeper is guiding us through the story as she sees it and through her troubling marriage.  Through column clipping we see Tamara Drewe’s narration.  At one point it is glen in the bathroom who is overhearing a conversation/argument between Beth and her husband.  This Graphic novel allows us to see multiple points of view at a time allowing us to get to know each character.  It draws us in deeper into the story and allows us to empathize with all the characters even if we do not agree with what is going on or how they are handling the situation.


4.       Describe one scene in the novel; either a single frame or a single of frames that you feel is particularly significant.  Why is this moment so important?  Do you admire this passage more for its narrative (the words) or its art (the images)—or both?  Make sure we can not only see what’s going on here, but we see how it relates to the story at large. There are no page numbers but there is a scene where Glen is in the bathroom and overhears an conversation/argument between Beth and her husband where Glen struggle with the decision to make it known that he is there and cut and run or to just be quiet till it’s over.  For whatever reason he stays compelled to know what’s going on I assume After Beth and her husband’s conversation passes and Glen overhears a conversation between Nick (Beth’s husband) and his lover and learns quickly the truth of their split.  That Nick’s lover called it off and not Nick as Nick had told his wife.  This scene’s illustrations are brilliantly done depicting the goings on of the character’s.  I really felt for Glen all hid out in the bathroom wanting to bolt but compelled to stay.  I also felt for Beth because her husband is such a louse.  

Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Ammi Ross


1. This particular comic was illustrated by Gomez and I thought it looked sketchy and tight. There was also a realistic touch with the extreme likeliness of some of the comic characters to their tv counter parts. It looks and feels like a superhero comic which is great, because Buffy is a superhero. It even had the written exclamations like: ARGHH!! and B-KOOM. ---no seriously. It was spelled that way. Whatever happened to tried and true; KA-BOOM!!---  

2. It was written as a graphic novel simply, because BVS fans refuse to let the story die. This was a way to renew interest in the older episodes and movie while later allowing us to continue further than the final 7th season. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been revamped (lol i knew i could fit that in some where) time and time again. 1st as a movie, then a tv series, then a short silent film within the tv series---which won awards---, then a musical within the tv series, then graphic novels, and at last a series of books. All of these have made a hit within the BVS cult following. So I can't really say the comic version is the better one. I think the one thing that seeing it as a comic really did for its audience was paint Buffy as a superhero. And some of that had to do with the design as previously stated.  

3. This comic reads like a series of events with dialogue rather than a narration for the most part and some of that is due to BVS way of speech. Things happen quickly. But looking hard I would have to say there were 3 different narrations: Buffy's POV, then the Villain's and finally the supporting character's. ---if I'm wrong sue me :)---

4. Pg. 4&5 are the most important in my opinion, because it set up the villain's character. Buffy is at her menial job and her trainer---a girl about Buffy's age---starts telling Buffy about their weird boss who Buffy had yet to meet. She talks about the boss' obsession with the freezer. These scenes foreshadow what's to come and without them the story would seem like it jumped a frame. 

Nancy Drew: The Fake Heir by Karnesa McGaha

1.  

     How is the work illustrated?
Nancy Drew girl detective #5 The Fake Heir is illustrated in a cartoony style.  The illustrator used a technique similar to Japanese Anime to draw the characters.  The faces and eyes in particular are draw with harsh lines and sketchy strokes.  The artwork adds to the mystery of the book.  Most of the illustrations serve as support for the words, making the book very word specific.  The entire novel is illustrated in color but rely heavily on a blue grey color scheme to create mood. 

2.      Why was the story written as a graphic novel?
The original stories of Nancy Drew were published in novel form but the author tried to re-do the same stories in graphic novel form to encourage young readers to read.  This book is one in a series of seven other stories.  A new book was released every three months in order to create suspense and excitement as a ploy to get readers “hooked” to the series.

3.      Who narrates the story?
 The novel is narrated by the main character, Nancy Drew.  She appears as the child detective in each book.  In each story she seems to discover or uncover some sort of mystery or problem to solve.  She seems to keep her identity as a child while assisting the adults in the story to solve a mystery or crime.  The author keeps the story in chapters to transition from one thought to another.

4.      Describe one scene in the novel.
The frames that exhibit the overall style of the book can be found on page five.  The narration boxes highlight vocabulary words in bold print.  The second frame on the page has a magnified portion of a smaller detail the illustrator wants the reader to notice.  The illustrator continues to use this same type of magnification throughout the book.  I found this technique particularly interesting because the book is written for young readers so the illustration helps the reader figure out what is important in each frame.  This page is when the plot begins to thicken and you see the characters in a different light.  The story is about a lost treasure that is claimed by a false heir and page five starts to identify who might be suspects later in the story.  This page is also when the author introduces an obstacle for the characters to overcome.