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COURSE NAME: "Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Visual Storytelling"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2018

INSTRUCTOR: Peter Sarram
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 3:00-4:15 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.

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.


The course will articulate itself through a series of readings, lectures, class discussion and screenings. Students will be encouraged to read at least 3 additional comic-books or graphic novels in addition to those assigned and be ready to discuss these in class.

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 Edition Randy Duncan & Matthew Smith Continuum978-1472535702   
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art Scott McCloud Harper978-0060976255   
Comic Book History of Comics Fred Van Lente &Ryan Dunlavey IDW Publishing 978-1613771976   

Course Assessments:Course grade will be determined by two short written assignments (15% each), a midterm (20%), a presentation (15%) and a final analytical paper (25%). Attendance and participation are also key factors in the course (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 course.
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.

Also consider that three unexcused absences (those not justified by a medical certificate or a note from the administration) will result in your final grade for the course to be dropped by one 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.


Topics and  Course Schedule:

Part 1:

The Aesthetics of Graphic Storytelling

                The Image & The Frame

                Words and Images: The Interstitial

                Film Animation: Cross&Transmedia Experiences

Part 2:

The Historic Evolution of the Comic Strip

                Early Masters

                The Aesthetics of Early Comics

                Seduction of the Innocent: Culture Wars, Youth Culture and Moral Panics

                Superheroes: The Classic DC Superhero

                Superheroes: The Marvel Way: Genre and Authorship

                Revising The Superhero: Watchmen & The Postmodern

Part 3:

Alternative Traditions

                Underground Comics

                The Autobiographical School

                Documentary Comics

                Experiments in Narrative and Narration

                The Graphic Novel as Literary Discourse

Part 4:

Comic-Books in Global Popular Culture

                Japanese Manga

                Underground Political Cartoons in Italy

                Punk U.S.A., DIY Comics and ‘Zines

Part 5:

Audiences, Fans and Reception

Comics and Gender

Comics, Race and Ethnic Identity

Fan Cultures

Part 6:

Digital Culture

                Reinventing the Comic Book Online

Final Presentations