This morning I finished Kahan and Stewart’s Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books. I was hoping that reading through it and giving the book more of a chance, I would have more positive words to say about it than I did in my earlier blog posting on the text. I’m sorry to say that my assessment hasn’t changed. In fact, my criticisms of this book have only been underscored.
As I mentioned in the previous posting, this book’s main flaw is its intended audience and stated purpose. According to the subtitle, “Composition through Comic Books,” one would think that this text was designed to be used as an effective resource in the composition classroom. And while the authors do bring up a number of political and social issues raised by the comics they discuss, and while these topics may serve as useful fodder for writing and discussion, they nonetheless fail to make any overt links between what they’re actually doing in the book and how their discussions could apply directly to the classroom experience. The closest they get are the various questions that end each chapter in the “Thinking, Debating, Writing” sections. I’ve said it before, but this book just strikes me as an excuse to write about the social issues raised in several superhero comics and then drape that discussion in a thin cloak of praxis. What’s more, the many points they make are at times questionable, if not completely misguided. For example, at one point Kahan and Stewart make the claim that Superman “gained national fame circa 1945.” Had they actually dug around into the history of comics, they would have found that Superman gained national fame much sooner than that–perhaps the authors should have read, for example, Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow–and that by the very end of the Second World War, the superhero genre was just about to begin its temporary decline in popularity. Another example of Kahan and Stewart’s rhetorical carelessness: in their chapter on superhero comics, gender, and sexuality, they question Fredric Wertham’s preoccupation with young boys and their sexual fantasies. ”And would it be calumnious,” they ask at one point, “to suggest that Wetham concentrates on these salacious panels because pictures of men in tights, rather than, say, rural landscapes, interest him?” Oh, come on. I’m sure that the authors, if they want to be critical of Wertham’s mid-century crusade against comics, can do much better than accuse him of being closeted. It’s in bad taste, and, in essence, they are committing the same kind of unfounded atrocities that they accuse Wertham of commiting. There are other examples of this book’s shaky arguments–not to mention the many, many typos that litter the text–but suffice it to say that a good editor at McFarland would have caught many of these egregious problems. I guess they didn’t have a very good editor.
All that being said, I do agree with Kahan and Stewart in some of the final comments in wrapping up their analysis. While such statements as “We have a dream of turning comic book readers into readers of Shakespeare and Milton” seem naive and even off-putting–the subtext here appears to be similar to that espoused by proponents of Classics Illustrated back in the 19402-1960s, that comics are merely stepping stones to getting kids to read real literature–they do have a point about the current state of literary pedagogy in higher education. They argue that an overriding emphasis on theory tends to sap all the enjoyment out of reading, and that by approaching a novel/poem/story from the “outside,” deconstructing or socially analyzing a book, instead of immersing oneself inside of the work, we discourage students from reading. I don’t completely agree with their apparent antipathy to theory–it seems reactive, and besides, I see much value in these approaches–but I do think that they have a point that many of us in higher education might tend, unintentionally, to approach literature from a perspective that frustrates or discourages students’ relationship with reading. The purpose of Kahan and Stewart’s book, then, is that since comics are apparently enjoyed by younger readers, why not use comics in the classroom as a way of encouraging more enthusiastic reading habits. I certainly buy this approach. However, the authors have not done a very good job of demonstrating in Caped Crusaders 101 how such pedagogical strategies could be employed. What we need is a good comics-based textbook that can directly engages with students and instructors alike, providing useful strategies and thought-provoking narrative grist for actual and direct classroom use.