ENGL 2750-C The Graphic Novel
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In the early part of the twentieth century, American newspapers began publishing strips of sequential art that became known as “comics,” because of their often humorous nature. Decades later, publishers started to collect these strips into small pamphlets, and eventually publishers began putting out pamphlets with original, as opposed to reproduced material. The term “comics” stuck, hence the “comic book.” As Marshall McLuhan theorized, new media often works in the language and modes of older media: novels were first called “histories,” early films were conceived as “photoplays” . Comics were no different, first trying to imitate preexisting genres like war narratives and crime dramas. Eventually, however, comics contributed a new, unique genre that for decades could only be found in comic book form: the superhero. Most superhero books followed a similar format. A young man, often in some way marginalized from society, gets in some way transformed—often via radiation, that obsession of mid-century Nuclear Age America—and becomes super-human, possessing remarkable powers. Part of the drama always came from the split personality most superheroes must undergo, as the awesome powers of the alter ego are often no match for the mortal problems faced by the secret identity. Such a paradigm proved ripe for young, mostly male memoirists of the 1980s and 1990s. But first many writers and artists were looking back at veteran comics-writer Will Eisner, who in 1978 wrote A Contract with God, a series of vignettes depicting the Jewish Lower East Side. This work is now seen as the first “graphic novel,” since it is not a collection of separate comic books (often referred to as a “trade paperback”) but instead a complete work of original material designed to be published and read in one unit. (While this will be our working definition of a graphic novel, several of the works we will consider should more technically be called trade paperbacks.) After pioneering superhero writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore proved that comics could tackle adult themes, and be as aesthetically complex and rewarding as other forms of art, the comics memoir, utilizing the graphic novel format, took off: writer/artists like Chester Brown, Seth, and Chris Ware took many of the superhero tropes and techniques and adapted them for narrating their very un-super lives. Female artists followed suit, especially in the last decade that has seen work by Vanessa Davis, Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel. While we will touch on this diachronic development of the graphic novel, we will be mostly concerned with synchrony: we will ask how comics work, what is their shared vocabulary, what happens to the reader/viewer as we “read” a comic. We will try to determine the complex relationship between graphic novels the traditional novel, also how they relate to other forms of visual art (especially painting, but also cinema). Appreciating graphic novels means borrowing from both literary and art criticism, but will also need a critical look at what makes the form so unique. We will turn to several secondary sources, especially Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, to provide some models for critical appreciation.
O'Malley, Seamus. (2021, Spring), Syllabus, ENGL 2750-C The Graphic Novel, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University.
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