Keeping Costs Down When Teaching with Comics

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This semester I am teaching a comics and graphic novels course. As I often do when teaching about new media for the first time, I consulted the blog of one of my mentors for meaningful instruction, Henry Jenkins. In addition to posting a sample syllabus, Jenkins discussed the cost of graphic novels in comparison to more traditional print texts and offered a clever solution:

 A Word to the Wise: Comics are expensive, and we are going to be reading lots of them in this class, so my recommendation is that you form a buddy or club system, much as you did when you read comics when you were younger. Go in together with 2-3 people and swap off the comics, so you each carry a more reasonable part of the price.  

 In the spirit of Jenkins’ pragmatism about the needs of cost-conscious students who are already worrying about student loans and the job market, I thought I would compile some other ways to teach about comics while also keeping costs down.


Go Old School

Because comics have a long history as a medium, it is possible to take advantage of comics no longer under copyright because over seventy years have elapsed since the author’s death. I am particularly fond of assigning Little Nemo by Winsor McKay as a way to discuss panel design and color choices. Over 400 flippable pages from 1905 to 1914 are available as a digital collection at the Internet Archive. The dirigibles, exotic animals, and vast metropolises in Nemo’s dreamscapes are breathtaking. Classes can also critique the antiquated ideas about race and gender on display. This classic in comics history still feels fresh to students, and you can ask them to illustrate their own dreams as a class project.


See a Museum

Now that comics are more likely to be recognized as an art form, museums are mounting exhibitions and may also post some materials from past shows online. For example, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California, mounted Masters of American Comics a few years ago to enthusiastic crowds. The website for the exhibition includes a gallery of images that range from the days of yellow journalism to the millennial work of Chris Ware.


Peer at a Periodical

Speaking of Ware, some of his spreads for the New Yorker are available online, which offer opportunities to discuss how a cartoonist depicts everyday life and then chooses to organize scenes from the present moment into building blocks on the page. Ware’s view of the tech world is particularly incisive, whether he is illustrating commentary about specific companies (like Snapchat) or general group behavior at Silicon Valley-style conferences. For comparison, Ware’s New Yorker covers are also on display.


Dig a Digital Library  

Many campus libraries have licensed digital collections that can be useful to classes with comics and graphic novels assigned.  When I teach about the comics panic of the fifties over the possible effects of violent horror comics on young people, I love having access to the database for Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels Series from Alexander Street. Your campus library might already subscribe.


Watch Web Comics

Internet comics made available online for free can also be wonderful resources for classes about ways to read images as well as words. For example, Scott McCloud’s The Right Number zooms in through successive windows on the viewer’s screen as a bizarre tale of coincidence and romance unfolds. You can check out more of McCloud’s webcomics and see how he uses the seemingly infinite resource of pixelated space.

About the Author
Elizabeth Losh is a Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego. Elizabeth is collaborating with 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.