Guest Post by Barbara Jolie: Comics Storm the Classroom


Barbara Jolie, Comics in the Classroom, Guest post

The comics medium has become increasingly accepted within academia, as a legitimate art worthy of not only scholarly analysis but a fine-arts approach to teaching the craft itself. There remain pockets of old-guard resistance, due mostly to a gaping generational chasm, but the overall trajectory suggests it’s basically a done deal. Most large campuses these days seem to have at least one professor teaching a graphic novel seminar, or throwing in a graphic title to jazz up the syllabus and teach a subject in a more exciting way.

Heck, for AP European History in high school I had to read Maus I & II, titles which historically might have marked this paradigm shift, starting in the 1980s. And it’s not surprising that this invasion of the ivory tower by comic books for the past generation has coincided with an explosion of non-genre-based (some like to use the word “literary,” but I find that opens a whole other can of worms) graphic novels that use the form’s tremendous power and immediacy to explore the lives of non cape- and tights- wearing protagonists. The line has grown ever-blurrier between the worlds of “serious” fiction and comics, perhaps to the dismay of purists from both sides.

The MFA programs that have become de rigeur for American “literary” writers are beginning to reflect this merger. For instance, at the prestigious Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, novelist and comics writer Mat Johnson (Incognegro, Hellblazer Special: Papa Midnite, Dark Rain, Right State) has been teaching a workshop where MFA and PhD students not only read and discuss a graphic novel per week, but work on treatments and finally a finished comic book. Here’s last spring’s reading list: ever had a class with a syllabus this fun?

  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud 
  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
  • Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
  • Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
  • Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
  • Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman
  • Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
  • Best of American Splendor by Harvey Pekar
  • Miracleman: The Golden Age by Neil Gaiman
  • Berlin: Books 1 and 2 by Jason Lutes
  • Black Hole by Charles Burns

At the end of the semester, the student work from the class was gathered for an exhibition at Houston’s Joanna Gallery entitled Graphic Content. The stories ranged from dark and gritty police procedurals to postmodern superheroes to drug-addled suburban teenage freakouts. Check out for a look at one standout, “A Conditioned Reflex” by Andy Dimond and Cristina Tortarolo, which is a look at Dr. Pavlov’s lab in post-Revolution Russia from the perspective of a young street urchin who becomes one of his subjects. This comic and the others on display point to the value of increasing university-backed opportunities for creative expression through comics.

This is a guest post by Barbara Jolie. She is a freelance writer and blogger who contributes most of her work to She writes about the advantages of online college and is particularly interested in writing and language education. If you have any questions, please email her at [email protected]

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