Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 27, 2013

So I Sat In On A Comics Class This Week

imageSo at Robert Loss' invitation I sat in on his Literature Of Comics and Graphics Novel class at the Columbus College Of Art And Design on Wednesday afternoon. The subject was depictions of race in comics, but we got way off topic. Some observations.

* the class was about half-women, half-male and I think about 40 percent non-white. I didn't make a head count, but it seemed like a very diverse class. It can never be stated enough how the changing face of comics readerships and comics-making is the underlying story for a lot of major comics trends and will be the driver behind multiple movements in the years to come.

* because it was a college class, there were different levels of interest. So some students spoke a lot, while others didn't speak at all. It seemed like most of the class was reasonably engaged with Loss, though; there weren't too many dead-eyed stares and a little more than half the class participated in the wide-ranging discussion.

* the primary entry point for most of these students into comics is the mainstream comics they enjoyed.

* they make little to no distinction between the mainstream comic books they've enjoyed and the cartoons and the movies featuring those characters. The Justice League and Teen Titans Go! cartoons were referenced as frequently as any actual Batman comic. I don't think they saw these things as entry points into comics as much as they all like cartoons and sort of like comics, too. One source of outright confusion for many of the kids was the fact that the comic books differ in fundamental ways from the comics or even the movies based on the comics. For instance, there was still some confusion over why there was a Green Lantern movie and this did not feature the John Stewart character featured prominently on the cartoons they enjoyed.

* the primary distinction most of the students made about depictions of non-whites in comics is that they were unsatisfying rather than simply not there. One student articulated the notion that the black characters he encountered all seemed to be best friends and even comic relief as opposed to characters whose desires and actions drove the plot. Another student was disturbed by how many black characters seem to be broken characters, and how many seem to trade in super-strength or, oddly, electricity-based powers as opposed to the usual array of super-powered approaches.

* there was a significant distaste for heavy continuity, although when speaking about comics they enjoyed, some of the students seemed more than able to speak to plot minutiae. I took some of the criticism to mean there was very little in the expression of comics as typified by standard mainstream continuities. Stand-alone efforts like Batman 100 were praised not just because they allowed easier entry but because the art and writing was on its craft merits more interesting to them than a standard comic book.

* for my part I tried to point out how the commercial aspects of comics shape what you see on the page, including the notion that you must not only make profitable works but the most profitable works, particularly in the short term, which guides some potentially short-sighted choices. I also pointed out that a lot of what we think of as modern permutations of cultural protest against diversity, like the idea that moves in that direction are tokenism and adherence to political correctness, have antecedents.

* Loss and I also assured one young man that people in the 1980s really didn't talk like the gang members in The Dark Knight Returns.

* I had a fun time, and appreciate the invite. Loss has a nice feel for the broad range of comics expression without sacrificing intimate knowledge of mainstream material; if you have need of a comics academic or someone knowledgeable about comics in the Midwest, I'd recommend him.
posted 12:10 am PST | Permalink

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