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.

Learning from the Pros: Interview with Graphic Novelist Keith McCleary, Part One

posted: 5.24.12 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander


Writer Keith McCleary brings to his work as a composition teacher a distinctive publishing past creating text and images for graphic novels. His stories are populated by a diverse cast of zombies, porn stars, Hindu deities, circus animals, and multiethnic frontiersmen, and they include dystopian futures and alternative histories.  McCleary is currently completing an MFA in Literature at UC San Diego in a graduate program known for experimental practices and mixed media exploration.  You can follow his mini-stories created in GChat every day at http://gchatus.tumblr.com/  He also teaches in the writing-intensive Culture, Art, and Technology core curriculum at Sixth College at UCSD.

Recently McCleary was asked to do a large lecture to freshmen tackling the basics of the graphic novel format in a course that allowed students to create a graphic novel as an alternative to a traditional research paper.  McCleary had initially been asked to focus on character development as a means for students to start brainstorming, but he was concerned that “that wouldn’t be a good entrance point for every student— those who had an easier time coming up with plots, settings, or thematic concepts might feel that their own creative process was being shoehorned.”  Instead McCleary “changed the direction of this lecture into developing stories, broadening the conversation from one of character sketches into the different ways we can find inspiration.”

McCleary began his talk to students by emphasizing constraints.  He asserted that “the limitations we put on ourselves in order to generate ideas” are critical to the creative process and talked about “how multiple story elements, put together in new ways, was an easy way to generate stories with a critical spin.”  He offered this mash-up as a sample: “What if Don Draper, top of the food chain in Mad Men, suddenly had Pris, the killer replicant from Blade Runner, as his secretary? What would that dynamic be like?”

Then McCleary took the idea of the what-if scenario even further: “What if, in fact, Don Draper the brilliant adman was living in a world of replicants, in which humans were only valued as slaves? How could he use his skills to survive in new ways? What kind of commentary would this be making about the traits a society values?”

This led to the other “big C” in McCleary’s lesson on graphic novels—the idea that he wanted “to address the concept of ‘criticism’ that a lot of [students] are still working out.”  He observed that many first-year college writing students often see “being critical” as “pointing out why something is bad.”

“I wanted to show that the same way they are learning to be intellectually critical of the media they consume, they can be critical of their own ideas,” McCleary explained.  Although it might be “natural for inherently problematic ideas to surface — marginalized minority characters, gender imbalances, etc — especially when using pulp and genre as source material,” it was important for students also to address the importance of challenging existing structures of injustice.

“The overall point was to illustrate that creative constraints and self-criticism are two ways we build our sandboxes and get ideas flowing,” McLeary said.

He also featured a few simple exercises to create opportunities for interaction during his lecture:

1.   Ask students to make lists of things they like and would want to incorporate into their projects (settings, characters, plot devices, etc) and another list of things they don’t want, all in a very fast, stream-of-consciousness style. Then have them compare notes with the person sitting next to them and write down anything the other person says that strikes them as strange or funny.

Point out that generating ideas is easy; narrowing should be the focus. Further, comparing notes can help map out the kinds of things that aren’t on a student’s radar — opportunities to brainstorm in other directions than the ones we’re used to.

2.  In order to show them how cultural criticism can be incorporated into a story, watch the first ten minutes of The Warriors with students. Encourage students to shout out all the different ways the film set up its characters and plot while making critical moves about race, class and gender at the same time.

…More with Keith McCleary in my next post!


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