catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Comic lessons

I double-checked the class list—there were seven students here, not eight. One was already a no-show.

"Does anyone know if Gabe dropped the class?" Shrugs circled the table.

"I think he may have switched book discussions," said Ian, one of the students. Ian was six years my senior, a non-traditional pre-seminary major who was in many ways my mentor. The role-reversal was already sinking in.

I put an "X" by Gabe's name and turned my attention to the remaining seven students. Nine had signed up for the book discussion at first. The list dropped to eight when one student got into a study abroad program in Cairo at the last minute, after they'd printed my class list. Then seven: Gabe was…who knows?

When I began my job at Geneva College last summer, I learned that both faculty and staff were permitted to teach book discussion for the humanities department. Provided that you could justify the book.

Last school year, several students and faculty had worked to get the humanities department to consider including graphic novels for their new curriculum. I'm pretty sure the effort was successful, though one piece—one I value—was rejected. So I decided to use it to teach a book discussion.

The graphic novel was Watchmen. Created in 1986 by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons, the twelve-part comic miniseries was intended to be a "comic Moby Dick." I thought there was a lot going on in Watchmen; not only was it revolutionary in structure, utilizing numerous literary devices and elements uncommon in comics at the time, but it also dealt with mature and complex themes. And I wasn't the only one who thought a lot of this particular work: Time magazine named it one of the best 100 English language novels of the past 85 years, and it's racked up abundant awards and acclaim. Not bad for a literary form that's still looked down upon by many.

Watchmen is set in 1985 in a fictional alternative United States that is on the brink of nuclear warfare with the Soviet Union. The story follows a group of former costumed crime-fighters as they investigate the murder of a peer. As the plot progresses, the characters' frailties, fears, hopes and, ultimately, their humanness (or inhumanness in one case) come to light.

I'd scheduled the class during this spring semester, a nice Tuesday morning time slot that was readily available. I kept the class limit to eight people; aside from Sunday school, I’d never formally taught anyone. The college bookstore ordered in some copies of Watchmen, the bright yellow cover sticking out amidst the drab textbooks on the shelf. For the first month I was known as "that guy teaching the comic book." I didn't mind.

The seven students who attended the first class heard a run-down of what awaited them: we had one 55-minute class each week, and we'd cover one 32-page chapter in that time. We'd finish in twelve weeks. I typed up a brief discussion of what Watchmen was and wasn't. And I told the class that the work contained harsh language, violence and sexual content that some may find offensive. I had no desire to see brothers or sisters in Christ stumble because of this, so I let them know that if they wanted to switch to another book discussion, I would not be offended.

There were six students the following week: two females and a male who had not read it before, and three males who had. Several of the students were friends, peers and, as previously mentioned, mentors. One of the females thought I was a student when she had come to the first class. I was hardly a few years older than most of the class, with no formal collegiate teaching experience under my belt. And I was trying to not only get them to dig into a complex, multi-layered and mature work of art, but—in hindsight, I realize—I was also trying defend the genre against naysayers, the people who dismiss comics out of principle.

The next four months were some of the most rewarding of my life. Not only did the students dig into the material, but they also provided some incredible discussion based on what they'd read. Characters were discussed in detail, plot elements were dissected and the overarching themes were debated. Entire class periods went by as students talked about their favorite literary techniques utilized in Watchmen. There were polite but lively disagreements on the validity of characters' worldviews in the story's context, and back-and-forth dialogue on the worth of some plot points.

I chose not to have the students do any written work; the students would either pass or fail the class with no letter grade, and I decided that I would rather decide whether they get the credit or not on how much they participated in class. And participate they did—I was proud to teach the six students, as their insight rang around in my head in the adjoining weeks between each class period.

We had our final class at a nearby coffee shop, sitting on the porch on one of the first warm spring days. We sipped our coffee and gestured to emphasize our points, straining to be heard over the mid-day traffic that crawled by. Not everyone loved Watchmen by the time we'd finished it, but we all agreed on one thing: Moore and Gibbon's work reached for the realm of great literature, a deeply moral story told in colored panels and text bubbles. Whether the creators realized it or not, Watchmen underlines the fact that all humans are created in God's image, and should be treated as such. Not bad for a comic.

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