The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal recently touched off a fierce debate about whether colleges should teach comics as literature. In a provocatively titled article “Graphic Novels Are Trending in English Departments, and That’s a Problem,” writer Shannon Watkins argued that a crisis was brewing in higher education, as more and more colleges taught graphic novels alongside or instead of “standard text-based curricula.” She raised two objections to comic studies: first, that comics are an inherently political medium, and second, that comics demand less of the reader than purely textual works.
Both objections are easy to refute, in part because Watkins’ arguments rest on anecdotal evidence; it’s hard to argue that comics are a “trend” if you don’t provide hard numbers to support your claim that universities are ditching The Iliad for Watchmen or Fun Home. As for her argument that graphic novels are compromising the true mission of colleges and universities by “push[ing] a social justice agenda” instead of teaching the classics, Watkins ignores the political impulse behind “Great Books” courses. My alma mater, for example, created its core curriculum in 1919. The faculty viewed courses such as Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities as a lens through which to view the present moment; by reading the great novels, essays, dramas, and philosophical tracts of the previous 2,000 years, they hoped to develop students’ ability to solve such 20th-century problems as “how to achieve political and legal forms which are at once flexible and stable… how to preserve national integrity and still enjoy the benefits of international organization; and finally, how to provide an education that will advance personal and social interests, cultural and industrial.” If that isn’t political, I don’t know what is.
Watkins is on firmer ground when arguing that reading comics and reading text are different skills. In one of the most quoted sections of her essay, she argues that “Texts without pictures require students to exercise abstract reasoning in comprehending the meaning of the text, leaving the accompanying visualizations to their own imagination.” Watkins then leaps to the conclusion that images “the images found in graphic novels… remove much of the need for students to exercise their intellects in order to process the main ideas.” Yet she never supports this claim with any substantial research on literacy or cognition, instead falling back on an old canard: that reading comics hinders literacy, an idea popularized by Frederic Wertham in The Seduction of the Innocent. Writing in 1954, Wertham decried comics for many of the same reasons as Watkins. “By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art,” he opined. “Considering the enormous amount of time spent by children on crime comics, their gain is nil. They do not learn how to read a serious book or magazine. They do not gain a true picture of the West from ‘Westerns.’ They do not learn any normal aspects of sex, love, or life” (89).
For additional perspective on the controversy, I encourage you to read Heidi MacDonald’s essay at The Beat, in which she explains why Fun Home is not, in fact, a “political” text, and Maren Williams’ article documenting efforts to ban controversial graphic novels from the College of Charleston, Duke University, and other schools around the country.
Now on to the rest of this week’s manga, anime, comics, and pop culture links…
Seven Seas just added two new titles to its Winter 2018 schedule: Giant Spider & Me: A Post-Apocalyptic Tale and Fauna and the Dragonnewts’ Seven Kingdoms, both of which look charming and weird in equal measure. [Seven Seas]
Erica Friedman explains how lesbian activism gave rise to yuri manga. [Okazu]
Brigid Alverson compiles a list of seven essential sci-fi manga, from Knights of Sidonia to Bodacious Space Pirates: Abyss of Hyperspace. [B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog]
Should you watch Netflix’s adaptation of Blame? Serdar Yegulalp considers what’s lost and gained by condensing Tsutomu Nihei’s manga into a two-hour movie. [Ganriki]
Leave it to a Japanese bakery to design a cat-shaped loaf of bread. [Sora News 24]
Tickets for the 2017 J-Pop Summit just went on sale today. Joining this year’s line-up of musical acts are Babyraids, Misaki Iwasa, Yanakiku, and Band-Maid. Too broke to go? Consider volunteering! In exchange for donating your time, skills, and enthusiasm, you’ll receive a free, one-day pass to the festival. [J-Pop Summit]
To promote their book So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture, Jane Mai and An Nguyen provide an illustrated primer on lolita style. Their book is now available from Koyama Press. [The Paris Review]
Scholar Kathryn Hemmann reviews Indian Summer, a novel by Kanai Mieko that was published “the same year as Yoshimoto Banana’s famous girls’ literature novella Kitchen.” Though Mieko’s novel “has more of a satirical bite” than Yoshimoto’s, “both stories reflect the heady energy of [Japanese] consumer culture at the end of the bubble years.” [Contemporary Japanese Literature]
Google’s AlphaGo software just defeated the world’s greatest living Go player. [The New York Times]
If you’re planning to read Delicious in Dungeon — and I hope you are, because it’s a hoot — check out this excerpt from Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Birth of D&D first. It will give you a new appreciation for D&D’s influence on comics, movies, and television. [Wired]
And speaking of gaming culture, Sam Riedel takes an in-depth look at the fallout from 2014’s Gamergate scandal, noting just how little meaningful progress has been made towards addressing nerdom’s misogyny problem. [Bitch Media]
Last but not least, Star Wars debuted 40 years ago this week. It’s hard to understate its impact on popular entertainment and merchandising, and difficult to fathom its box-office success: it remained the top-grossing film in America for 20 weeks in 1977. (By contrast, Finding Dory, last year’s top-grossing film, was the box-office champion for just four weeks.) Justin Bank and Sean Alfano have sifted through the New York Times’ original coverage of the film — and the phenomenon — and compiled a terrific assortment of links, from Vincent Canby’s original review to a editorial arguing that Star Wars needed more sex. Ah, the 70s… [The New York Times]