Taking Comics Seriously

Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan AlexanderElizabeth Losh, Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego, and Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.

Getting your comic Zen on…

posted: 7.10.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Jonathan recently sat down digitally to catch up with his former student, David Lumb, now a full-time journalist and aspiring comics author in NYC. In this interview, David shares more thoughts on comics, composing, computers, crowdfunding…and hesitation sandtraps!

 1. What are you reading now, graphically, and what’s special about it?

Graphically, I’m reading a lot of Image comics – Saga, of course, but also Sex Criminals and East of West. It’s pretty clear that Image has an amazing roster of top-tier writers and artist who have taken the Vertigo crown for non-superhero concepts and are leading from the fore. As my journalist friend Josh Rivera says, it’s all about finding a creative team you trust. Even new stuff that’s yet to develop, like The Wicked + The Divine, are conceptually dynamic enough to keep me hooked. But I’m a sucker for new concepts, and since the above creators are largely white folks writing about white characters, I’ll pick up G. Willow Wilson’s and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, in which a Muslim teenager inherits an Avenger’s mantle and romps around NYC. The book’s a great stride for nonWASP superhero comics, but equally important are the conversations it spurs: what identities is America uncomfortable with exploring? There are millions of Muslims in America–so why do we treat narrative explorations of their lives as evangelism?

2. What are you writing now, graphically, and what particular composing challenges are you setting yourself?

I’ve been working on a story about characters in a Massively Multiplayer Online game. Game companies are getting scary good at giving us what we want. It’s easy to criticize escapism–but what about mobile and tablet games that insert gaming everywhere you go? Instead of distinct in-game-selves and IRL-selves, mainstream mobile gaming is blurring our identity. Spike Jonze’s [film] Her illustrated this perfectly: the real horror is when nobody’s anxious about new technological interaction but you. The challenge, I find, is to light on our discomforts as humans and peer beyond that edge. It’s easy to write a topical version of “Sinking Into The Matrix,” about humanity’s addiction to indulgence. It’s much harder to present complex characters in repulsive situations they’ve gotten themselves into and find it hard to break out of. Discomfort and change have always been bedfellows, but the real fun comes when different characters reach those thresholds at different times–just like us humans!

3. What would you recommend writing teachers who want to teach with graphic books teach–and why?

Writing teachers who have been adventurous enough to share comics almost always use seminal comic texts–Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, etc. Those are critical artistic and narrative texts, to be sure, but more important in historical context. We’ve been living in a post-DKR world for thirty years now. We surely don’t need Marvel or DC to save comics, especially now that they’re both making billions off their IPs in the theaters. As a conservative medium, comics has honored predecessors for generations. It’s time to talk about why we have come far from it–and why we haven’t. Go pick up a few single issues from a comics store and let’s talk about why some books are way better at serialization and others are clearly chopping up a five-issue arc into arbitrary chapters, if not just making it up as they go. Should we even support serialization?

Note that I said “pick up at a comic store”–because graphic stories really haven’t grown out of the “comic book store ghetto” as comics legend Gerry Conway puts it. The much-hoped digital marketplace for comics is thinning: the death of Graphicly means Comixology is now by far the most visible place to get comics online or on mobile–and yet, thanks to its purchase by Amazon earlier this year, the most visible digital comics outlet is enmeshed in the Amazon-Apple war. This is obviously very granular for the classroom, but it’s important to discuss how the medium’s growth is being helped and hampered by its wild Hollywood and digital success. We have the potential to crowdfund comic projects, but how are we going to make these projects visible and accessible when corporations have digital distribution by the short hairs?

 4. Any special exercises you might recommend that writing teachers have their students do–or do with their students?

The more interactive experiences, the better. There’s certainly fear on both sides that personal work isn’t good enough, but sharing builds trust. There are more tools and frameworks helping writers every day. Even though Sturgeon’s Law still applies, you have things like the Storyline Productivity Schedule that motivate writers to plan, schedule, and set goals for their days. It’s a terrible admission that I often don’t get to writing by the end of the day, but tools eliminating obstacles between a writer and her work will make that work pleasurable again. There’s an assumption that folks in the orbit of academia have more time on their hands–but it’s not the quantity of time that keeps us from writing, is it? It’s the obstacles inside, the hesitation sandtraps that bog down what kind of writers we want to be. More directly, I think exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones are exceptional for chopping rules and getting you back to writing things that breathe. Get your zen on!

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