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Acid Trip
By Karen Green
Friday July 11, 2008 09:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Man, that's a cheap-shot title for this column. But I couldn't resist.

But first: as you'll recall from my first column (you've been reading them all, right?), I made some cogent points about why graphic novels belong in the libraries of research institutions like Columbia. My focus in that article was the literary and artistic merit of the format, and mainstream critical recognition of same. And all my columns so far have examined why certain titles belong in our collection from that perspective: what do they have to say? How do they say it? Where do they belong on the continuum of artistic and literary expression?

But…what if there's another way to teach these books? What if it's not only about the story, the art, their inspirations and their influence? What if it's not even about teaching people how to "read" a comic (that's the Scott McCloud "read" I'm invoking)? What if you tried to teach graphic novels from the inside out, instead of the outside in? What would that look like?

It would look a lot like the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, that's what.

In the winter 2008 academic quarter, two Stanford English Department instructors—Tom Kealey and Adam Johnson—convened a class with the goal of creating an original graphic novel as a class project.

There were three simple guidelines: the story should
• be adapted, rather than created.
• be adapted from the real world, rather than from fiction.
• have the opportunity to do some good in the world.

Many students applied but fourteen were chosen, eight writers and five artists. A majority of the fourteen, I'm delighted to report, were women (originally, there were 12 women and 4 men, but two of the men dropped out—possibly because they learned the comic wouldn't be about superheroes). A visiting journalist, Eric Pape, an investigative journalist with a history of writing articles on the subject of war and its costs, was auditing the class as part of a Knight Fellowship and became an adviser, which was understandable given the non-fictional aspect of the story. And, together, these fourteen students, two instructors, and one journalist created something which—I think—is unprecedented: a truly collaborative sequential art story…in six weeks.

The students started their project by reading Scott McCloud—obviously—and a handful of other important works as well. Not everything on their reading list was non-fiction. For example, they read Watchmen because—well, because you have to read Watchmen, right? They read Journey into Mohawk Country, Epileptic, The 9/11 Commission Report, and a couple of anthologies. And they talked about stories.

Many topics were entertained as potential subject matter. The students looked at blogs of soldiers serving in Iraq. They looked at the story of Ishi, a California Native American born in the mid 19th century, who is believed to be the last Native American to have lived completely outside of contemporary western culture. But, in the end, they turned to a story that had been written by their auditor, Eric Pape, a story about a young Cambodian woman, originally the operator of a shake stand, named Tat Marina.

I always seem to go back to movies—they're such a natural complement to comics, aren't they?—so today's movie question involves a show of hands for everyone who's ever seen the movie "The Killing Fields." If you've seen it, besides discovering what Sam Waterston looked like before he was in "Law & Order" and how lousy his Boston accent is, you learned a bit about the rise of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and the horrific toll they exacted on the Cambodian people, best exemplified by the expanses of land filled with the dumped bodies of the roughly 1.7 million Cambodians they slaughtered during their four years in unchallenged power. Sadly, the legacy of those horrible days lives on in ways both expected and not—many of the Khmer Rouge officials managed to stay in power long after their reign ended. The Khmer Rouge practiced a particularly nihilistic version of Communism, in which one of their mottoes was, "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." In his story, Pape mentions a common Cambodian warning aimed at young girls: "Beware of powerful men: They may kill you if you refuse their advances. And beware of their wives: They may kill you if you do not."

Marina was caught in this paradox, involved with a seemingly-kind man she did not even know was married. She suffered a gruesome fate—possibly better, possibly worse than that of the Cambodian movie star Piseth Pilika, who was shot and killed in 1999, most likely by the jealous wife of Pilika's lover, the Cambodian prime minister. Pilika appears in the class's project, giving her own [fictional] warning to Marina.

The students read this story and the eight writers set about writing, researching, re-writing, re-researching and arguing. The five artists in the class waited for all this to play out, so that they could get their hands on the story and work with the three designers to begin to interpret it visually. Both writers and artists were getting an invaluable lesson in how to craft narrative—more complex for the writers, in many ways, than a traditional creative writing course, as they needed to understand how to let the art tell the story in places (one of my favorite examples of this is a full-page image of shakes spreading out as far as the eye can see, as the Shake Girl thinks about how many shakes she has to sell to afford the things she wants).

The result is a powerful, moving story of the human cost of social chaos, of social and political currents that operate at high levels but manage to filter down to those who have nothing to do with them. You can read the entire book online here, until the day that (fingers crossed) the project finds a publisher—and then you'll understand the title of this column.

Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure this kind of approach to studying comics in academia is unique. There are a lot of courses about reading and understanding comics: Art Spiegelman taught one last year here at Columbia, Ivan Brunetti teaches one at the University of Chicago (which he talks about in this interview); I'm sure you've all come across one somewhere. But I don't think these other courses offer the same opportunity to put up the hood and get your fingernails greasy in the nuts and the bolts of the medium. (If I'm wrong, tell me in the comments!) Faculty wouldn't need to re-create the wheel: in addition to Scott McCloud's Making comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have just released what could serve as the basic textbook for such a course. But Kealey and Johnson have given their students the opportunity to look at comics from both sides now, and that's something that more courses could learn from.
All images may be found at
©2008 The Stanford Graphic Novel Project

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.

Comic Adventures in Academia is © Karen Green, 2010



Gerard Jones (2 years ago)
It does feel as though this marks a big step for comics as an "accepted art form." Like the step from film appreciation classes as adjuncts of drama or art departments to the creation of actual university film schools in which the making of movies is taught, and from which the next generation of film makers will come. An understanding that comics are not just cultural artifacts worthy of study (which still allows room for a great deal of condescension) but a living form that deserves to be nurtured from within the academia.
But, oh horrors, does this mean that comics of the future will be dominated by university graphics-novel program graduates in the same way that Hollywood's been taken over by film-school brats and American fiction is dominated by MFAs? I'd hate for comics to lose the self-taught, cottage-industry quality that they still (pretty much) retain. It does seem to be the way of the modern arts, a price of university support...
Anonymous_2592 (2 years ago)
It's great to see the GN entering the academe for purposes of education, analysis and creative storytelling. I am aware of classes being taught to students by former or current pros. There's even the Kubert school in NY that focuses on drawing out such talents. But, it is great to see collaborations of this scope entering mainstream academics. I hope that this will lead to more and more people experimenting with comics as not only pop culture art or fantastical escapism, but also as a means to explore deeper issues that can move someone to change the world.
klg19 (2 years ago)
Hmmm....a calculus comic. Might be tricky, but I bet it could be done. Who'd have thought Darren Aronofsky could make a film about math?
I'm pleased to see the positive response to the book itself. My column's focus was on the process, not the content so much, but the book is beautiful and fascinating, and has a wealth of lovely details--such as the page-numbering, which is in western numerals on the bottom edge and in Cambodian numerals on the fore-edge.
Damian Duffy (2 years ago)
It's interesting how this sort of program could be targeted for many different subjects, e.g. creating a collaborative research paper on the history of the industrial revolution, or a biography of Rachel Carson, or the way planetary orbits work or whatever. (I'm not quite sure how something like a calculus graphic novel would work, but I think it's possible.)
I think another reason this took weeks instead of years to produce was the fact that there were a number of artists working on different sections of the book. A very impressive work nonetheless.
John Shableski (2 years ago)
Wouldnt it be great to see programs like this at the high school level as well? I am amazed the project took six weeks. At the GN Author's Breakfast during Book Expo, each panelist spoke about the years invested in the creation of thier books. Then again, those were original stories they created so maybe there's no comparison?
I got to see the book myself and I really enjoyed the read. I thought the students put together something very worth while-even award winning.

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