When I was younger, my dad gave me the graphic novel “Welcome to the Jungle,” the prequel to Jim Butcher’s novel series “The Dresden Files.”
“It’s about a detective who’s also a wizard,” my dad told me. “I think you’ll like it.” Sure, I liked science fiction and mystery, I read the work of authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Sebold and Stephen King. But those books consisted of thousands of words and dragged along for hundreds of pages. No images or drawings or graphics. “Welcome to the Jungle” would be my first graphic novel, so I wasn’t quite sure what to think.
Flash forward to this past Friday when Dave Carter — video games archivist, comics librarian and reference services coordinator at the University of Michigan’s Duderstadt Center on North Campus — asked me: “So are you much of a comics person?” I was nervous to say no. I enjoyed the idea of comics as an artistic platform and as a method of storytelling, but I never read any except for the one my dad gave me. But there I was, interviewing a comics aficionado and the man who runs the comics collection, and I was giving him a blank stare.
“My dad’s really into them,” I told him. “What’s the one about the detective but he’s a wizard?” He politely told me he hasn’t heard of it, so I was back to square one: naïveté about comics and little to no connection with them. I soon realized those notions would quickly change.
About 13 years ago, the University opened a collection devoted to comics and graphic novels, mainly for Art & Design students and anyone else who was interested. Now with around 10,000 graphic novels and 700 to 800 mini-comics (self-published, “grassroots”-type comics), the collection has made a hefty dent in the University’s libraries and provides a service for a variety of students.
Carter is responsible for selecting the comics that go into the collection, mainly ordering from Vault of Midnight, a comic shop right here in Ann Arbor. Regardless of the new comics Carter orders, he’s also in charge of selecting comics from donations.
I walked into Carter’s office when suddenly, I was hit with piles — loaded piles — of donated comics and graphic novels. But it’s not that people get sick of them or that they’re outdated — like any good story, you pass it on, and that’s what the donations do for the future students who will access the collection.
“I’m building a collection for the person who’s going to be researching comics 20, 50, 100 years from now,” Carter said. “Today’s trash culture is tomorrow’s high culture.”
Gathering comics in today’s age, even the less popular ones, will be relevant for someone in the near future. Comics are on the rise, and therefore the next generation of comic book readers need a collection worthy of their time.
Carter went on to explain his process in choosing which comics go into the collection. His goal is to “identify key comics from around the world,” where he finds a wide variety in the world of comics. He tackles projects where he chooses to focus on comics and comic series from certain regions of the world, ranging from Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and soon South Asia. And before Friday, I only knew of “Superman,” “Peanuts” and anime, let alone comics originating from all around the world.
In the mindset of diversifying the collection, Carter also looks at marginalized authors and stories. Instead of solely stories about white, male superheroes, comics about magical realism or realistic fiction are chosen. He will choose comics that reach out to different audiences, like children, college students and adults. Additionally, female authors, authors of color and queer-identifying authors are factors in the collection selection.
Another essential part of Carter’s job is going around to different classes and telling students and professors about the comics section. Communication Studies and English are two courses Carter speaks to because they discuss how comics are both a form of storytelling and entertainment. But the classes finding it most useful are foreign language courses like German, French and Italian.
Instead of reading novels with texts, students are reading graphic novels in these classes. Carter described how graphic novels give the reader “visual clues” that allow one to better understand phrases or words because of their coinciding images. These graphic novels have a “big use of colloquial language,” he added, which helps students further their comprehension of the language.
During the interview, Carter showed me pieces that were not displayed in the public collection but instead were stored privately due to older, more fragile binding or ones that are oversized.
He pulled out a book that had to be 3×3 feet, opening it gently to show me the fluorescent drawings of the famous comic “Little Nemo” by Winsor McCay. Dating all the way back as early as 1905, the story of Little Nemo dreams these extraordinary dreams, only to awaken by the end of the strip. Carter explained to me how comics used to be full-page spreads in these old-fashioned newspapers, not the tiny, two to three block comics we get in print now.
There was something about it: its vibrancy, its imagery, its eye-catching size, its age. I was absorbed into the strokes of “Little Nemo.” Though anyone could pick up a paper and be entertained by McCay’s character, it hit me how much comics have evolved from newspapers to web-forms and now to full-length pieces of literature. Comics have made and continue to make a distinct impact on society, both educationally and socially.
Carter’s phone sat on the table during the interview. His phone case has the image of the Superman “S,” big and bold in red and blue. In that moment, the connection occurred to me: his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I chose that (username) back in 1989 when I was a freshman in Engineering,” he said. They told him to “pick something you’ll remember.”
“So I picked ‘Superman’ as my ID,” Carter said. Not knowing he would be the librarian for comics here at the University, Carter’s username suits him quite nicely — little did he know he would be saving the world of comics for students.
As comics make an appearance in the library and foreign language courses, they’re also beginning to make their way into teaching styles and other areas of academia. Gina Brandolino, lecturer in the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English, and Ali Shapiro, lecturer in Sweetland, the School of Art & Design and the English Department Writing Program, are setting the stage for the future of comics in academia.
To truly understand their love and admiration for comics, Shapiro sent me a self-designed graphic, which resembles both her and Brandolino at their individual desks, reading comics and continuously passing on information and commentary about them. While both are avid comic book readers, the two have the opportunity to discuss and teach comics (yes, just comics) in a classroom setting this summer.
“When we learned about the opportunity to teach a class together, it seemed obvious that would be a great class and, for me, a good opportunity to think more about pedagogy and comics with somebody really useful to do that with,” Brandolino wrote in an email interview with The Daily.
In the past, Brandolino has taught all-comic courses through the English Department, with themes relating to fame and infamy, and topics revolving around place.
“Teaching comics is pretty far outside my wheelhouse. I was trained as a medievalist, so I relied on the help of a good number of people to make the class work,” Brandolino said.
Luckily, alongside Brandolino is Shapiro, someone who draws her own comics and teaches in LSA and the School of Art & Design.
“I started drawing comic strips for my high school paper and eventually became the comics editor. My college application essay was a three-page comic essay,” Shapiro wrote. Between them and their dabbles in comics, the two are sure to bring an array of knowledge and enthusiasm to the course.
Comics can be action-packed, entertaining and effulgent — adjectives that a comics neophyte like myself would relate to something along the lines of superheroes — but Brandolino and Shapiro brought my attention to comics that were down-to-earth and realistic. Many of these pieces, though in the genres of magical realism, mystery, fiction, fantasy and even horror, allude to everyday challenges that people face in reality.
Brandolino’s favorite comic, “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” by Emil Ferris, tells the story of Karen, a little girl growing up in 1960s Chicago.
“She has a hard time fitting in at school and, as a way to cope with that and some other hard things going on in her life, pretends she is a werewolf,” she wrote.
Shapiro added that she has “also really been enjoying Michael DeForge, particularly his book ‘Big Kids,’ which is just so weird and imaginative (spoiler alert: people turn into trees).” Despite the imaginary and fantastical elements in the stories, they propose real characters who encounter situations with coming-of-age, murder, Holocaust survivors and complex relationships. We’re not just talking about cute Snoopy comics anymore.
With this in mind, Brandolino and Shapiro described their intentions for their summer comic course and their hopes for students to read comics in a new light. A portion of their class description proposes the analysis of reading comics through a social justice lens:
“Comics also raise great questions about justice, pushing us to redefine ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ explore marginalized perspectives and interrogate our expectations of what people, places and things ‘should’ look like. Indeed, comics are just as worthy of careful attention and analysis as are the literary ‘classics’ we typically think of as appropriate reading for school.”
While we can read comics as a form of entertainment or solely as fictional stories, they exist to serve a greater purpose. As Dave Carter mentioned to me, Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” and John Lewis’s “March: Book 1,” are both nonfiction accounts of activism and calls to social justice. And yes, they’re graphic novels.
We have comics that are fun, we have comics that are serious; we have comics that are magical and comics that are realistic. We have comics about kids getting bit by radioactive spiders (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) and comics reflecting on coming-of-age and sexuality (“Fun Home”). My only question is: Where does it all, this art form and this educational platform, go from here?
“For sure, comics are starting to assert themselves as a serious art form in general, and that, I suspect, will continue to happen. I see comics playing an increasingly greater role in college classrooms in the future,” Brandolino wrote. “Comics are for me, in most senses, just like any other kind of text — they tell stories that demand close and careful attention, that you get more out of the more time you spend looking deeply into them. I don’t treat a comic less seriously than a short story, for instance. I think it deserves the same level of serious consideration as any story.”
Though we see how comics are breaking boundaries and are now being considered pieces of literature, we can’t forget how comics can benefit us as readers, students and educators.
Carter, Brandolino and Shapiro all touched on the idea that reading a comic or a graphic novel is still different than reading most texts. They’re not all necessarily linear, where we can read line by line and left to right like we would with any typical piece of English literature. You’re hit all at once with scenes, images, descriptions and dialogue — details that need to be noticed in order to comprehend and appreciate that of a comic or graphic novel. In some way, graphic novels put us all on a similar scale of reading pace, where we take our time, live in the present of each panel and use our brains to read literature in a way with which we aren’t familiar.
“They’ve (comics) still got a rich history of telling stories that might otherwise be marginalized, or telling stories in weird ways,” Shapiro explained. “I think it matters now, more than ever, that those stories are heard, read, seen, drawn.”
I think about my bookshelf at home, where “Welcome to the Jungle” is probably sitting among the dust of all my other pre-college texts. It sits between famous works like “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “The Shining.” I only ever thought of Harry Dresden, the fantastic wizard detective character, as another figure that young, comic-reading boys would aspire to be. Man, was I wrong.
Nonetheless, I realize now that stories like “Welcome to the Jungle” are no different than if my dad gave me a book from the “Harry Potter” or the “Percy Jackson” series. Their characters, their downfalls and their lessons all derive from a similar place: They all know how to tell a good story. I never thought that something like Butcher’s graphic novel could actually help me learn more about literature, colloquial language, design and formatting, storytelling and so much more.
As the future of art in academia evolves, similar to how we are now analyzing rap songs and children’s television shows, I see the place that comics and graphic novels have in educational settings. I can only hope that my kids grow up reading graphic novels in school and learn to value their importance, which is something I unfortunately missed out on growing up.
To fill my regret and to pursue my new interest in graphic novels, I went to the University’s library search engine, Mirlyn, and typed in “Welcome to the Jungle.” I think it’s time to give it another read.