Is there a good comics-related textbook out there? I guess it all depends on what you want to teach and what your approach to comic studies is. Yesterday I began reading Jeffrey Kahan and Stanley Stewart’s Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books. I need a textbook for a new writing class I’ll soon be teaching, and I wanted to see what Kahan and Stewart’s book provided. I’m almost halfway through it, and so far I have been sorely disappointed. This book has quite a number of flaws, which I will discuss in a moment, and I am not convinced that it would be a useful text in the classroom.
But getting back to my opening question: is there a good comics-related textbook out there? There are two possible contenders that I am aware of (and, of course, I’m not counting individual primary texts). The first, A Comics Studies Reader, is an anthology of critical essays compiled and edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. I wrote about this book earlier in the year, arguing that while there are a number of insightful and useful essays in this collection, I was unsure of — or at least had serious questions about — the ultimate usefulness of this book or its intended audience. The collection had only one original essay, and in light of the proliferation and ease of use of research technology (e.g., professional resource databases, Google books, and even simple Internet searches), I had wondered about the reasoning behind this book’s production. Couldn’t I, or any instructor, compile his or her own reader rather easily, and without strapping my students with additional book costs? What’s more, A Comics Studies Reader seems targeted to a more sophisticated or comics-savvy audience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it limits the book’s broader viability. Another book that certainly doesn’t have this problem is Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith’s The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. This text was specifically written with the classroom in mind, and it’s basically an introduction to comics studies…and comics studies in a variety of forms. One of the problems with this book, though, and something I highlighted in a previous blog entry, is that at times it’s too rudimentary and tends to talk down to its intended audience. You may not want to assume too much knowledge of comics culture and history when writing a textbook for college (or even high school) audiences, but you don’t want to address your readers as if they are completely ignorant, either. Duncan and Smith lapse into this approach, at times. I do see some value in The Power of Comics, despite its unfortunate title, but as I lay out in my previous posting, the textbook is not without its problems.
What A Comics Studies reader and The Power of Comics both have in common is an assumption of the classroom: that their books will be used in courses specifically devoted to comics. I’ve taught courses in comics studies, whether they be basic introductory type courses or classes that use comics to look at a specific theme or topic, and I have absolutely loved doing so. However, how common is a comics class in higher education? Granted, it’s much more common now than it was ten years ago, but even then, how many instructors take the opportunity — or are given the opportunity — to teach a class specifically and solely focused on comics in some way? Enough to justify a textbook on comics? I would hope so, but I would be interested in seeing some statistics on the proliferation and popularity of comics studies classes. And perhaps it’s something akin to Field of Dreams: if we build it, they will come. You establish a viable classroom textbook, and then the number of instructors opting to teach a comics classes will increase. That would be nice.
But what about instructors who want to use comics in the classroom but who do not necessarily want to teach a comics studies class. This is where Caped Crusaders 101 seems to come into play, a text that, by the admission of its very subtitle, uses comics as a springboard for teaching composition skills and strategies. And I picked up the book with that assumption. I could not have been more wrong. I’m nearly halfway through this book, and except for several of the “Thinking, Debating, Writing” questions that end each chapter, there’s nothing in this text that is even remotely related to writing. In fact, this book seems more like an excuse to write about comics and their social significance — and not very convincingly, I might add — under the veneer of “composition textbook.” Even in the book’s introduction, “Why Comics Can Save Us from Illiteracy,” the authors tip their hand by using rhetoric much more reminiscent of literary studies than it is of topics surrounding literacy, argumentation, drafting, thinking through writing, etc.
What’s more, Caped Crusaders 101 is littered with problems. Its research is at times suspect, its arguments aren’t always convincing, its conclusions often challenge logic, and the book apparently lacked a watchful editor. Some of the book’s flaws are just infuriating. For example, in their introduction which supposedly makes the case for comics’ significance as a cultural/literary phenomenon, they site a 1979 master’s thesis that found that individual issues of comic books are shared by approximately 4.5 different readers. Kahan and Stewart’s book was published in 2006, and we’re quite a ways from the pop culture and teenage audience of the late ’70s, especially one described in dated graduate research writing. On the very next page the authors, when discussing the many cultural manifestations of Spider-Man, ask the reader, “When dealing with Spider-Man…should we include just Spider-Man comics or include offshoots such as Spectacular Spider-Man or Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, Web of Spider-Man, or Spider Man 2099?” By “Spider-Man comics” are they referring to Todd McFarlane’s title beginning in 1990? And what the hell do they mean by calling Amazing Spider-Man — the flagship title that began in 1963, not yet a year after Spidey made his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 — an offshoot? In opening their first chapter, one concerning race and equality in a few Marvel titles, the authors state that “the very idea of the superhero presupposes racial purity and ethnic inequality.” What?! As reader, I may be confused here, but I’m nonetheless waiting for them to make their case. And they never do. That statement just hangs there as a provocative and unsubstantiated assertion. There are other examples of these kind of socially conscious blanket statements, many of which are debatable and seemed to be written out of some sort of massive liberal guilt. (I’m a staunch left-leaning individual, but even I have problems with how overtly, and unreflectively, these authors stack the political deck at times.) Then there are the many, many typos and errors littering the text: misspelled words, sentences missing vital components, egregious mistakes such as writing “Spider-Man” as “Spiderman”… All of this suggests sloppy proofreading and copyediting on the part of both authors and editors. Caped Crusaders 101 was published by McFarland & Company, and from my experience, they don’t have the best track record in academic publishing (although some of their titles can be quite useful, especially when it comes to cataloging and surveys). Will I go on to finish this book? I’m not sure yet.
Coming back to my original question about comics texts and the classroom. What’s needed, I feel, is a textbook that uses comics as a basis for both writing and for literary analysis, but one that doesn’t limit itself solely to comics studies as A Comics Studies Reader and The Power of Comics obviously do. The latter books have their uses, but those of us who use comics in the classroom shouldn’t stop with these kind of texts. We also need comics-oriented textbooks that aren’t specifically limited to superhero comics. Kahan and Stewart’s book is only about superheroes…which is okay, since their title suggests as much, and we should take the authors on their intended territory. But why not open up the use of comics in the classroom and define the medium in a much broader way, with a more encompassing understanding of what “comics” really means? Perhaps McGraw-Hill or Bedford/St. Martin’s or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or Macmillan or Pearson would jump at, or at least take, the chance to expand or open up their array of titles to accommodate comics. Someone just needs to propose this idea.