This guest post is written by Ohio State University Professor Frederick Luis Aldama. Professor Aldama, also known as Professor LatinX, has written a number of books on comics and media in our current culture, including the Eisner Awarding winning Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics and his forthcoming comic collection Graphic Migration. You can learn more about Professor Aldama on his website.
Comics in the Classroom: A Journey into Deep Learning About All Facets of our Existence
When people like me are deeply interested in the historical, sociological, political, psychological, and cultural life of individuals, groups and societies, our involvement with the problems of our communities and with the varied fields of the arts and sciences appears with something akin to an unavoidable fate. I cannot imagine my life without my daily participation in my community, without my daily doses of fiction (literature, comics, films and TV)—and without my daily reading of findings in the fields of neurobiology and other sciences. To be enslaved by this hunger for knowledge and practical contributions to our social environments is also to be convinced of the virtues of the aesthetic experience and of the necessity of truth for the survival of our species. All sciences are truth-seekers and all the arts—comics inclusive—are aesthetic world-builders.
This outlook is totally absent from journalists and commentators such as Bill Maher who recently made a calamitously clumsy attempt at denigrating both comics and the artist Stan Lee. Apparently, Maher has spent a lifetime trying to flaunt an assumed intelligence he actually lacks. Instead of doing his homework to understand the richly varied methods and goals involved in the study of comics and graphic texts in academia, he dismisses these artistic endeavors and belittles the cognitive and affective activities involved in both their production and reception. Maher transfers the so-called antagonism of high-brow and low-brow culture to the field of politics and more specifically to the opposition between left and right orientations, by saying without a shred of proof and in an insulting manner that “the average Joe” in our society is made dumb by comics. To this he adds: “I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”
One does not need to be in favor or against a political party or another to have a so-called left or a rightwing position on such and such political matter. One does one need to have a certain political outlook on something that could impact society to be interested in all and any manifestations of our culture, popular or otherwise. Yes, comic books and graphic novels and other instances of visual-verbal narratives are important. They are manifestations of the human and universal aspiration to represent the world of matter, thought and affect in visual (dominant) and verbal narrative form.
Symbolism or representation is very old. Our Stone Age ancestors created representations such as sculptures and paintings 33,000 years ago in France (the Chauvet Cave, for instance) and 40,800 years ago in Spain (the El Castillo cave, for example), all with anatomically accurate portrayals of animals and humans along with human-made objects. Outside Europe, in the Indonesia archipelago, archaeologists found a cave decorated with mulberry-colored hand stencils and paintings of corpulent pig-deer and tiny-sized buffalo, complete with hair-like brush strokes, as well as ghostly silhouettes of human hands. Older figurines and geometric designs have been found in South Africa’s Blombos cave; now famous for, among other artistic treasures, its 75,000-year-old geometric engravings. This will to style (as I call it in Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics) is as old as the human species, and even older, for archaeologists have discovered art manifestations linked to the existence of pre homo sapiens sapiens.
Our modern graphic narrative forms are infinitely varied and aesthetically rich. They reflect the immensely powerful will to style that has created all the technical means to express itself. And when our present-day symbolism does not yet have the technical means to express itself, our science lends a hand. So now art and science have become increasingly inseparable.
Nobody can find satisfaction in ignorance such as the one Bill Maher exhibits. For him it is easy to deride and dismiss comics because he knows nothing about them. The pity lies in his attempt to dismiss a virtuoso storyteller such as Stan Lee. When time will come to write Bill Maher’s obit., the words fatuous and ignorant will most certainly appear in a central paragraph.
Now I would like to make a brief description of some of the subjects I have discussed with my students in my course at OSU entitled “Film & Comics: Race, Class, Sexuality, and Differently Abled”. The socio-historical perspective underlying the discussions has been a critical race, gender, sexuality, postcolonial, and disability studies one. The formal tools of analysis used have been the ones I have been developing for many years in my classrooms and books, drawing actively from narrative theory, cognitive science, neurobiology, and developmental psychology.
The course is supposed to cap at 35 students. With students spilling off the waitlist, I asked our department Associate Director of Curriculum and Assessment to raise the cap. We grew to a healthy 80-plus. And with this, many young sharp exploratory minds in one room—actually, in the Gateway Cinema just across High Street from the campus—it’s mind boggling just how many voices can be heard and how deep the discussions on comics can go.
Every Tuesday and Thursday when my undergraduates and I get together to study comics and comic book films, the enthusiasm is high, and the interest is keen. Every class session, the outcomes of our explorations more than surprise. In every session we peel layers and layers off our materials and we seek the opportunity to take a peek into the workings of the creative minds involved in shaping them, thus enriching our understanding of how the comics and comic book films are built, and finally how they circulate in the world in ways that impact and educate anew our senses, thoughts, and feelings about ourselves in the world.
In “Film & Comics” the students examine “the art of film and comics storytelling and, simultaneously, the emotion and cognitive responses that they trigger”. They also learn the concepts that will further their understanding of the way comics and comic book films exist within a larger context of visual, oral, and alphabetic storytelling systems: from Bayeux tapestry to German expressionism to Greek, Norse, and pre-Columbian myths. The concepts and analytic tools students learn and use in the classroom allow them to enrich their understanding of how films like Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (2017) or comics like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yona Harvey’s Black Panther & the Crew (2017) are built and how they renovate or make new from scratch the perception of a complex series of thoughts, feelings and memories concerning issues of racism, ableism, misogyny, homophobia, and the like.
The learning pact we establish: our explorations will comprise the means to analyze the formal procedures that creators use as well as how the shaping devices used in the creating of comics and comic book films trigger our co-creative processes. We seek to know how the different comic book and comic book film creators geometrize their stories, among other things, to make new (or not) the ways we attend to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and the differently abled.
The journey never ends here. Together with the students, “Film & Comics” takes us on a journey into the deep dark depths of how we humans became humans: from the growing of conceptual tools (language, memory, and imagination) and the education of all the senses to the growing of emotions and ethics systems. We learned how the self exists only in relation to others, and how this relationship grows empathic systems.
Of course, we studied all of this in relation to how creators of comics and comic book films distill all these behaviors to turn them into art. So, while we attended to how Jon Favreau’s Tony experienced his rebirth in and through the Middle-Eastern Other, Dr. Yinsen, we also considered how this character came into the sense of mortality that he will need in order to grow empathy and with this a social justice sensibility. With Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) we not only analyzed the film’s obliteration of the white messiah narrative (Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman) but how his use of past in present and future (Afrofuturism) destabilizes erstwhile primitivist (jungle) mainstream narratives that have put a stranglehold on silver screen black subjectivities. And, in our exploration of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) we saw how George Miller, in close consultation with Eve Ensler (Vagina Monologues), not only created a feminist warrior flick but also asked audiences to question the age-old misconceived mind-body dualism. In an analysis of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later along with Steve Niles’s comic book 28 Days Later: Aftermath, students also question the Spock-myth: that somehow, if human behavior could be guided only by reason, and emotions were eradicated entirely, we would be better off?
The students spend time and energy delving into this question. Assisted by neurobiological texts, they threw light on how Boyle and Niles, two different creators working in different media, saw the problem and each reflected their particular vision through art. This exercise took the students to the workings of a small neuroendocrinological structure in the brain known as the hypothalamus and how this remarkable organ determines our humanness by linking in an inseparable unity the affective and the cognitive systems. Who we are (our “style” of thinking and of feeling) is highly influenced (if not determined) by how this little piece of anatomy works. In their respective distillations of reality, Boyle and Niles show the importance of mental tools and concepts, both affective and cognitive, in everyday life and in creating aesthetic artifacts.
In a perceptive article titled “Stan Lee’s greatest creation was Stan Lee”, Tom Spurgeon mentions how Lee grew up in a bedroom with a window that opened to a wall and that his career as a comics creator was “a quest to tear the offending barrier down, the better to see what lay beyond it was” (Washington Post Nov. 13, 2018). Spurgeon concludes by stating how Stan Lee “gave us a new way of looking at comics, at pop culture and maybe at the world more generally.”
Tearing down walls between high-brow and low-brow culture. Erasing lines drawn in sand in the futile attempt to separate science and arts and humanities. That’s what comics can do. That’s what the study of comics is all about.