17 February 2007

Graphic Narrative

I feel bad that, as one of the founders of this blog, I've posted so little in recent months. One reason, of course, is the time involvements of doing something related to the means of expression discussed in this blog -- namely, I run a small press, and do so more or less in my so-called "spare time."

Teaching 4 classes this semester, Starcherone Books is enough of an additional chore to keep me pretty busy, and behind in my obligations. But this semester particularly has been one in which I've attempted to bring my teaching in line with my other interests. I teach in a college, Medaille College of Buffalo, which has no graduate Creative Writing program; we barely have an undergraduate English major. The main constituency for my pedagogy is undergraduate students who are pre-professional in inclination, and the professions are much more likely to be elementary school teaching, police work, or veterinary technicians than more literary-minded professions such as the law or those requiring grad school educations. The anti-reading figures cited by Lance from the NEA report are realities for my students -- they do not read, not even bestsellers, and Literature to them is primarily something that other people do, somewhere else, with more than a little presumed class advantage.

Nevertheless, I wished this semester to engage them and, sad to say, had had my fill (at least temporarily) of trying to force them through "difficult" work. Doing so is not without its converts, of course -- I've had students in recent years who were very moved and even permanently changed by being introduced to works by Lance Olsen and Ralph Berry when they each visited Medaille, and by texts by Ben Marcus, Williams Burroughs, and Nina Shope, among others. But I was tired of writing off the vast majority of Medaille students. Was there nothing that could engage their creativity? Was I writing off 80-90% of the college's student body, the imaginations of 19-20 year olds which should have some potential for unscrewing the doors from the jambs, and then the jambs themselves? Wouldn't they also derive some life benefit from kicking out the jambs, muthafucka, just once in their narrativally pre-prescribed lives?

I went into the trenches -- I am now teaching 3 sections of General Education 230 - Creative Expression, a sophomore-level creativity class in a Gen Ed curriculum that students by and large hate at Medaille. I decided to try, instead of a more standard Intro to the Arts class, a more populist version of avant-garde. I called the class Punk Rock & Comics. We began with the Sex Pistols movie, The Filth & the Fury, and from there moved into the McSweeney's anthology of avant-comics. Not so populist, really (only 2 of 50 students in 3 sectionshad ever heard of the Sex Pistols!), but with more potential for populist consumption -- and from there inroads into theory and the avant-garde, via Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces & its connections to Dada & the Situationists. I also (as noted in a comment below) showed Lars von Trier/Jurgen Leth's The Five Obstructions, which they are currently wrestling with. Next up is Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel/memoir, Persepolis. I'm trying to keep them drawing, doing cut-ups, etc., the whole time.

This could go in various directions, but my focus for this post is this: What do you folks think about the revolution going on in comics today, toward, it seems to me, a lot of the issues our fiction is interested in? That is, like punk and like us, the alt-comics scene is very much fueled by an anti-corporate aesthetic; it's likely to draw attention to its own act of creating, to be self-referential and question easy assumptions of representation; it's also drawn ("drawn") to depictions of the margins of culture, those left out of the airbrushed versions of American (and world) existence which are the subjects of mainstream books & movies; as well, it is a medium that is, in essence, a post-medium-- it refers to the tradition (see, for instance Art Spiegelman's peon to 100 year-old daily comics, in In the Shadow of No Towers) but sees such as a lost time that cannot be repeated given what we know now, our current complexities; finally (rhetorically, anyway), it engages the "creative non-fiction" debate in a striking and fresh way: artificial and discredited as a serious discourse by its very nature, it nevertheless engages the notion of factual experience, and indeed, history, writ large and small. I think, in this last formulation, of such texts as Spiegelman's Maus, Satrapi's Persepolis, Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl, or in the McSweeney's book, Joe Matt, Lynda Barry, Jeffrey Brown, etc. As well (the hits just keep happening...), is this in any way an extension/reenactment of fiction writers' own desires to create visuals -- Vonnegut, Sebald, Marcus, Federman, Shelley Jackson, etc.?

What say ye?

(Above: Gloeckner's cover for J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition.)