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COURSE NAME: "Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Visual Storytelling"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2017

INSTRUCTOR: Antonio Lopez
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 4:30-5:45 PM

The course will be devoted to ‘comics’ (understood as both serialized comic strips and comic-books) and the more contemporary format of the ‘graphic novel’. Other forms of graphic storytelling, ranging from tapestries to children’s book illustrations to the underground graphic productions of the counterculture, will also be investigated, including traditions of sequential art in a global context. An initial historical contextualization will be followed by analyses of the form’s specificity through a number of theoretical perspectives (including visual culture studies, critical theory, narrative and narration, authorship, ideology, postmodernism, fan cultures, and reception), allowing students to critically engage the works as ‘texts’. The relation of the specific visual culture of comics with other mediums -particularly the cinema and gaming- as well as its influence in other realms of popular culture will also be explored.

The course serves as a further investigation into the critical methodologies in popular culture studies. The focus of this Special Topics course will be devoted to comics (understood as both serialized comic strips and comic-books) and the more contemporary format of the ‘graphic novel’. Other forms of graphic storytelling ranging from tapestries to children’s book illustrations to the underground graphic productions of the counterculture will also be investigated. The course will begin by investigating some of the groundbreaking work which helped define comics as a medium in the early part of the 20th century –indissolubly tying the form with the rise of visual culture within mass culture and the political economy of publishing- as well as cutting edge work in classical and contemporary comic books (both independent and mainstream, both within the commercial realm and a more discursively valued literary and artistic sphere). Although the focus of the course will be on the comics tradition developed in the US, special attention and specific sections of the course will also be devoted to the traditions of ‘sequential art’ in a global context with case studies on the Japanese ‘manga’ tradition and the underground politically infused ‘fumetti’ of 1970s Italy. The relation of the specific visual culture of comics with other mediums –particularly the cinema and gaming as well as the influences within other realms of popular culture such as popular recorded music will also be investigated.


In addition to this historical perspective the course will investigate the nature of the medium, the specificity of comics as a form of expression and the theoretical perspectives (including visual culture studies, narrative and narration, myth and genre, authorship, ideology, postmodernism, fan cultures and audience/reception studies) that have been brought to bear on the form and that will allow us to critically engage these works as ‘texts’.

Finally we will consider the contradictory ways in which difference, power and knowledge are articulated in cultural production and the ways in which they circulate within the social field as meaning and ideology, linking the methodological framework of the course with those encountered in other realms of ‘media studies’. The comic-book medium, at the intersection of image and text, is particularly suited for the development of specific and theoretically informed analytical skills while the growing importance of graphic novels within the contemporary cultural sphere attests to the need for a critically informed engagement with this medium as it comes into its own after years of marginalization.


By the end of the course students will be able to demonstrate an informed appreciation of comics as an artistic and cultural practice and conceptualize graphic storytelling as a cultural and artistic process that is productive of complex meanings within the circuit of culture. Students will also be able to articulate their knowledge of a history of the medium and of its intersection with wider social, cultural and historical processes. More generally the course will constitute an important element in strengthening students’ core analytical, rhetorical and theoretical skills. 

Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberComments
The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, Second EditionRandy Duncan & Matthew SmithContinuum978-1472535702 Please order through Almost Corner Books
Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtScott McCloudHarper978-0060976255 Please order through Almost Corner Books.
Comic Book History of ComicsFred Van Lente and Ryan DunlaveyIDW Publishing978-1613771976  

Short written assignment 20%
Midterm  20%
Notebook 10%
Research paper 25%
Final presentation 5%
Attendance and participation  10%
Reading quiz 10%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the cours
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.


Please note that frequent absences automatically lower your participation grade.

Three unexcused absences will result in your final grade for the course to be lowered by one full letter grade. Anything above five unexcused absences will result in failure.

Lateness: Students more than 10 minutes late are marked as absent. Late arrival (less than 10 minutes) is marked as such, and 3 late arrivals are counted as one absence.

Class procedure:   Students are requested to make sure their cell phones are turned off (and not just muted) at the start of class. 

As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


Note: This schedule is subject to change.

Week 1-3: What Comics Are and What They Are Not, and Form

Reading: McCloud, All; Duncan&Smith, Chps.1, 4-5

Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics Chapter 1: “What Comics Are and What They Aren’t
Dylan Horrock’s Critique of Scott McCloud: Inventing Comics
Groensteen, “The Impossible Definition
Madden, Excerpts from “99 Ways To Tell A Story”
Nick Sousanis, “The Shape of Our Thoughts” (from The Unflattening)

Review: Andrei Molotiu’s essential “List of Terms for Comics Studies“; “Terms for comics studies–some illustrations

Examples of comics that we can use to continue our discussion of what comics are and what they are not. It is also a good excuse to test out your comic book readers (.cbr and .cbz). Let me know if you encounter any problems reading these files.

Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy, selected Sunday Comics, 1941 (Click through to Save)
Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905-1914 (Click through to Save)
Robert Sergel, “Up Up Down Down” from Eschew 2011
Richard Outcault, The Yellow Kid
George Herriman, Krazy Kat & Ignatz
Frank King, Gasoline Alley

Week 4-5: The History of Comic Books I: Origins and Development

  • The Sunday Supplement
  • Seduction of the Innocent: Culture Wars, Youth Culture and Moral Panics
  • Superheroes: The Classic DC Superhero vs The Marvel Way


ReadingDuncan&Smith Chp. 2, 10; Will Eisner’s The Spirit

From Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comics:
Gabilliet, “Calls For Censorship
Gabilliet, “Production
Gabilliet, “The Business of Comic Books

Wertham: “Seduction of the Innocent“; Self-Regulating Codes of the Comics Book Industry

Honers students only:

From Comics Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America:

Wright, “Confronting Success: Comic Books and Postwar America, 1945-1950
Wright, “Youth Crisis: Comic Books and Controversy, 1947-1950

Week 6: The History of Comic Books II: Maturation of the Medium

  • Alternative Traditions
  • Underground Comix: R.Crumb
  • The Autobiographical School: Art Spiegelman


Reading: Duncan&Smith Chp.3;  Art Spiegelman’s Maus

From Comic Book History of Comics, “Pop Art & the ’60s Batman TV Show
From Comic Book History of Comics, “All Lawsuits Issue
From Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art:
Sabin, “Going Underground
Sabin, “Alternative Visions

For Adult Intellectuals Only: A Zap Oral History by Patrick Rosenkranz

*Please note that the images included in this chapter are offensive, crude, anarchic and disturbing as comix are known to be; also, be aware that the files are quite big and might take a little time to load.

Week 7-8: Experiments in Narrative and Narration, defining genre

Midterm: TBA

  • The Deconstruction of the Superhero
  • The Graphic Novel as Literary Discourse


Reading: Duncan&SmithWatchmen, 6-8; Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth

from Comics Versus Art Bart Beaty:  “Searching for Artists in the Entertainment Empire”
Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965): Part1 + Part2

Week 9-10: Production

  • The Comics Book Industry
  • Genres
  • Comic Book Creators
  • Reception: Comic Book Readers: Audiences & Fan Cultures


Reading: Duncan&Smith 9

Jeffrey A. Brown – Ethnography: Wearing One’s Fandom
Brian Swafford – Critical Ethnography: The Comics Shop As Cultural Clubhouse
Joli Jenson – Fandom as Pathology
John Fiske – The Cultural Economy of Fandom
Henry Jenkins – “Super-Powered Fans”: The Many Worlds of Sand Diego Comic-Con
You can also access a copy of the Boom: A Journal of California printed version on Slideshare here.

Week 11: Doing Comic Book Analysis

  • The Vocabulary of Comics
  • Narrative and Form: Time, Space, Text and Image


Reading: Duncan&Smith Chp. 11
Hatfield, “An Art of Tensions
Beaty, “Autobiography as Authenticity

Sample analyses of comic art and auteurs:

Hignite, “Jamie Hernandez’s LOCAS
Kannenberg, “The Comics of Chris Ware
Newgard and Karasis, “How to Read Nancy

Weblink: What is comics journalism?
Weblink: The Bechdel Test
Weblink: Joe Sacco on satire and Charlie Hebdo

Week 12: Comparative Media Analysis: Film and Comics
Adaptation: Scott Pilgrim vs The World & Ghost World

Ann Miller, Narrative Theory and Bande Dessinée from Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-Language Comic Strip (Intellect, 2008)
Hillary Chute, “‘The Shadow of a Past Time’: History and Graphic Representation in Maus
Amy Kiste Nyberg, “Comics Journalism: Drawing on Words to Picture the Past in Safe Area Goradze” from Duncan& Smith (eds.), Critical Approaches To Comics: Theories and Methods
Pascal Lefèvre, “Incompatible Visual Ontologies?”: The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn Images” from Gordon, Jancovich & McAllister (eds), Film and Comic Books

Week 13: Comic-Books in Global Popular Culture

  • Japanese Manga
  • Underground Political Cartoons in Italy
  • Punk U.S.A., DIY Comics and ‘Zines


Reading: excerpts from Mangas; Frigidaire + Persepolis
Roger Sabin, “International Influences” from Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (nb. This is a large file because of the hi-res scan and many images it contains)

Week 14: Digital Culture
Reinventing the Comic Book Online

Week 15 (Final):
Presentations (These will be held during the regularly scheduled Final Exam session)