By Elizabeth Losh
Academic scholarship that depends upon citation and review of existing literature is usually seen as dense and complicated, diametrically opposed to the clarity and accessibility of comics. As this column has pointed out, however, the increasingly common practice of assigning graphic novels in college curricula has hardly created a rise in “gut” courses. Grappling with a dense graphic novel often means that students are more challenged by the visual and verbal content than they had anticipated, and they need to develop more sophisticated strategies of reading to understand practices of allusion, notation, framing, and sequencing that are common in the comics lexicon.
Now a number of younger scholars are embracing the comics form as a vehicle for criticism, from single-panel comics to full-fledged graphic novel presentations. For example, Stockton College professor Adeline Koh has produced a series of web comics tagged with the hashtag #dhpoco that depict her frustrations with the conservatism of the digital humanities and her desires to represent the complexities of the postcolonial experience in new media archival environments. One of the comics at Postcolonial Digital Humanities shows Koh with colleague Roopika Risam reacting to an archivist announcing that “people of color didn’t start writing until after the twentieth century,” while books on the bookshelf list centuries of masterpieces composed by former slaves or writers in the Global South.
Writer Nick Sousanis is currently a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he is writing and drawing his dissertation entirely in comic book form. At his blog Spin, Weave, and Cut, readers can see samples of chapters from Unflattening as it is being written, which includes existential meditations on the “boxes” that are “divided and neatly packaged into discrete units” and rich tableaux that demonstrate his mastery at representing anatomical figures, graphic representations, and architectural landscapes. His work has also appeared in publications such as the periodical Journal of Visual Arts Research or the book On Narrative Inquiry. You can see his pedagogy at work in his course on “Comics as Education”.
At The Comics Grid, an open access open peer review journal of comics scholarship, articles like “Irony in The Dark Knight Returns” can take advantage of “modular” rather than “strictly linear” ways to organize a scholarly argument that could also be modeled in the composition classroom. Writer Nicolas Labarre explains that “modularity was a way to include footnote digressions without relegating them to a marginal space.”
All three of these academic writers are using comics as a means to expand the expressive capacities of academic discourse. whether it be for pointed criticism in the tradition of satire, lyrical philosophical exploration of a medium, or new modes of argumentative organization, their efforts offer new paradigms for students to imitate as well, as developing writers consider the pathos, ethos, and logos of traditional rhetorical offerings.