Comics Education: The English Department

isaac cates by tom kaczynski
Isaac Cates by Tom Kaczynski
As I worked on my comics education series of posts (one, two, three, four, five, six), Isaac Cates generously consented to answer a few questions I had regarding comics in the English Department. Isaac is currently an English Lecturer at the University of Vermont and has taught many classes on the Graphic Novel (as well as many other topics including Poetry). He is also the co-editor (with Ken Parille) of Daniel Clowes: Conversations and has contributed an essay to the recent The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. He’s also a cartoonist and some of his work can be seen on his blog.

My questions were pretty general as I’m just trying to get at a broad view of comics in the English Department. Isaac’s thoughtful answers sparked a lot ideas and many further questions. Maybe we’ll do something more in depth in the future?

Tom K: I don’t know that much about comics in the English Department. The only prominent cartoonist I can think of that came out of an English program is Adrian Tomine… which is actually a pretty unusual thing… I can’t think of anyone else of the top of my head…?

Isaac Cates: I don’t know of other “big name” cartoonists who have come through English departments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a fair number of English majors in the cohort or “generation” of cartoonists attending small-press conventions nowadays. Do we know what Sarah Glidden majored in, for example? (For that matter, what was Kevin Huizenga’s major? Or Jon Lewis’s? Or do those guys have degrees? I honestly don’t know.)

But there’s a reason (which I’ll get to) why more cartoonists would do the art major than the English major, even in colleges where the Art Department frowns on cartooning and comics. (Don’t know why that’s the attitude in so many art departments; Picasso and Goya were both kick-ass cartoonists.) But let me address other questions first …

TK: Do you know anything about the history of comics in English departments? When did they start to get studied seriously?

IC: There are a smattering of serious review-essays from earlier in the 20th century (a lot of them collected in Arguing Comics), but those are mainly written outside the academy as appreciations, with different goals from those of scholarly criticism. Academic criticism on comics in America seems to begin roughly around the time that people start writing about Maus. For me, an early landmark book is Rusty Witek’s Comic Books as History (1989). Other people wrote about comics before Witek, of course, but he was one of the first to write about them in the same way you’d write about a novel or a poem, and not merely as products of a particular cultural moment. The real boom in writing about comics happened after the turn of the millennium, I think.

But as far as “when did people start teaching courses on comics”—I’m not totally sure. I was under the impression that not many people were doing it in 2001 when I taught my first comics seminar, and certainly there were fewer books to put on the syllabus back then. But it must vary a lot from school to school. I might have got my idea that comics in the English Department was a new thing because I was in a fairly conservative department at the time. I should say, though, that I never had trouble getting a course approved: every department I’ve worked in seemed to understand that there was a real body of writing there that needed to be taught.

TK: From my (very narrow) experience in CSCL (Cultural Studies and Comparitive Lit) and English classes at the U of M in the 90’s, comics were quite welcome as objects of study, or even as a format for delivering assignments. What has your experience with that been?

IC: I never saw a comic book on a syllabus as an undergrad, but I wasn’t seeking them out. I imagine someone was teaching Maus even back then, and the second volume came out while I was in college. I will say, though, that I increasingly see comics on syllabi that aren’t dedicated to comics—someone teaching Fun Home in a gender studies class, or Blankets in a course on the contemporary novel. I think that’s something that has really changed in the past decade, or maybe the past fifteen years.

TK: Can you describe the type of students that attend your classes? Cartoonists? Comics curious? Writers? Readers? Etc.

IC: The first time I taught comics, several of the students in the class were hard-core comics readers and went on to produce comics of their own. (I think four of the students in an eighteen-person seminar self-published mini-comics later. One of them, Shawn Cheng, is still doing it quite successfully.) Since then, the percentage of would-be cartoonists seems to be dropping, mostly because there are a lot of other students interested in taking a course on the graphic novel. The comics-curious and the devoted graphic-novel readers are diluting the numbers of cartoonists, would-be cartoonists, or superhero fans: the pool of interested students gets larger and larger as the graphic novel gets a firmer purchase on the ordinary student’s college and pre-college readerly awareness.

More on the budding cartoonist in a second.

TK: How much do you focus on comics writing as opposed to the art in your classes? Other classes? How do students deal with the fact that some ‘writing’ is done without words?

IC: I don’t know what other teachers do, though I imagine there are quite a few English profs who talk about characters and story and text without “close reading” the visual aspects of the book, whether those visual aspects are layout, storytelling, or drawing. Actually, part of what I’m trying to accomplish with the book I’m writing for Yale is a sort of “how to read comics carefully as comics”: starting to see how decisions about visual storytelling affect the reading experience.

But yeah, I spend a lot of time talking about things like layout, perspective, the interrelation of text and image, drawing style, cross-hatching, and so forth. Probably it bores some of my students, but I think for most of them it makes them conscious of a layer of intentional meaning that they were receiving at best unconsciously before. I think it’s important to make them aware of stuff like perspective, which can influence the reading of a panel very subtly, for the same reasons I want poetry students to be aware of things like meter and etymology. In that way, I’m lucky to have some cartooning experience, though I mainly started cartooning so I could figure out how to talk about comics in this way.

TK: What are some of the essential comics you guys study? Does it change a lot year to year?

IC: I don’t know what goes in the “canon” for other people, but I know I have never done a course without Maus, Understanding Comics, Ghost World, something by Chris Ware, and something by Will Eisner. I used to insist on Jimmy Corrigan, but I’m experimenting to find a Chris Ware book that every student will actually finish. (Jimmy Corrigan is tough, and long, and it always comes at a difficult point in the semester.) I can report that Quimby the Mouse is not that book. I used to always teach To the Heart of the Storm, but lately I’ve switched to Contract With God, so I can show students the “first” “graphic novel.”

And now that it’s published, I will probably never do a class without Fun Home. Maybe more than any other graphic novel, that one begs to be read in the English department.

I have to change the syllabus a bit from year to year because things don’t stay in print. I love teaching [Posy Simmonds’] Gemma Bovery, for example, but I switched to Tamara Drewe for the fall because for some reason Gemma is out of print. Also, Tarama Drewe has a movie adaptation coming out, and that’ll make for some interesting conversation, I suppose.

And I try to swap a few things out here and there to keep my own teaching fresh. Probably I’ll try teaching [David Mazzucchelli’s] Asterios Polyp once it’s out in paper. I’m teaching Jason Lutes’s Berlin for the first time this semester, finally lifting my self-imposed ban on teaching isolated parts of larger projects.

TK: What are the essential texts on comics criticism you use?

IC: Other than Understanding Comics, I don’t use criticism in the classroom much. Maybe that’s a shortcoming on my part, but I don’t use much criticism in my other literature courses, either. I’d rather keep the experience of the students focused on the “primary” reading, rather than secondary materials and tertiary arguments, if that makes sense.

And what I do with Understanding Comics has grown more and more contentious over the years. Now I think I’m mainly going to assign parts of it in order to get the students to argue against McCloud, to get them thinking about navigating their own answers to the questions he raises. (“What defines comics?” “What is the essential thing that makes comics work?” “What goes on between panels?” “Why do we like cartoons?” “What is art?” Well, probably not that last one.)

TK: Feel free to add anything else that you think is relevant.

IC: Okay, here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately:

English departments are getting more and more comfortable having courses in which we study comics the way we do in other literature courses. And many English departments also have creative-writing courses, in which students write short stories or poems or non-fiction essays that approximate the creative work they’re reading in their other courses. I wonder whether anyone has taught a creative writing course on making comics, within the English department.

Or, rather, I wonder whether it’s been done more than twice in college English departments. Matt Madden did a “creative writing: comics” in the Yale Summer Programs, when I was organizing creative writing for them, and I did it myself once at Long Island University. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be done more, except that most English Departments don’t have cartoonists working for them and wouldn’t hire a cartoonist for this purpose. I actually think that many English departments would be more amenable to teaching comics-making than most Art departments.

That’s one change that would probably make a big difference in the direction of comics in the coming generations, don’t you think? On the other hand, if creative writing courses did for comics what they’ve done for poetry in America, making them more insular, more professional, and more “academic” in the worst senses of that word, then I’d rather not start walking down that road.

Maybe the ideal thing in college would be a two-course sequence (or even a simultaneous two-course “block”) that had someone in the English department teaching story structure and storytelling, and someone in the art department teaching figure drawing, perspective, inking technique, and so forth. I’m not trying to suggest that everything about cartooning is the province of the English department, but I would certainly want to challenge anyone who thought it all belonged in the art department.

TK: Thank you!

tom k by isaac cates
Tom Kaczynski by Isaac Cates


Over a year ago I was asked by Isaac Cates to contribute to his collaborative comics project Mapjam. The book came out at Mocca this year and because of my recent move I never got a chance to mention it. It was a fun exercise (in collaborative worldbuilding) and there are many interesting contributions. More details and a way to own your own copy can be found here.