Comics textbook focuses on nonfiction

Published November 15, 2015 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

David Stoddard, from left, Randy Duncan and Michael Ray Taylor are co-authors of Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir and Nonfiction, a textbook the three published as part of their push to integrate comic art and storytelling in non-fiction while teaching students at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

ARKADELPHIA — In 1992, something happened in the world of comics. The comic books were given recognition.

“It was the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize, and it changed the way comics — the term seems wrong for Maus — are viewed in America. It proved they could be serious art,” Dwight Garner wrote in a 2011 article for The New York Times. Maus is a nonfiction graphic novel written and drawn by Art Spiegelman, based on his father’s time in concentration camps during World War II. The book received a special Pulitzer Prize, a first for graphic novels.

Although comics enthusiasts would tell you that comics had been serious since they began, the general public did — and still does, to a degree — see comics as a childish fascination. A Pulitzer Prize validated what true fans already knew: Comics are serious art.

Another thing happened in 1992: Randy Duncan, Henderson State University professor of communication and theatre arts, co-founded the Comics Arts Conference with fellow comics scholar Peter Coogan.

The conference started as part of the programming at the now immensely popular Comic-Con in San Diego but has since been included in the programming at Comic-Con International and Wonder-Con. The mission of the conference is “to bring professionals and academics together with the public to discuss all aspects of the medium of sequential art,” according to the Comics Arts Conference website.

Duncan has written seven books in the comics studies field, including one published Oct. 31 called Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir and Nonfiction. His two co-authors are Henderson professors Michael Ray Taylor and David Stoddard. The foreword was written by critically acclaimed cartoonist Josh Neufeld, whose A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is a nonfiction graphic novel focusing on New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Creating Comics was assembled based on a class taught at Henderson called Nonfiction Comics that will be offered again in the spring. Each professor brought a different skill set to the book’s production.

“David Stoddard, from the art department, is covering some of the nuts and bolts of the production aspect and how to get a book ready for publication in both print and digital,” Duncan said. “Then Mike Taylor, from a journalism perspective, is talking about how you find stories, how you gather facts, and then David is talking about how you gather visuals to go along with those facts. So it’s kind of laying out some of the basics of reporting … and having an ear for dialogue, since you have to have characters in these nonfiction comics. I am looking at it as a comics theorist, at how you use the art form to tell these particular stories.”

The book will be used to teach the course, an elective under the mass media and communication umbrellas. A comics studies minor will begin accreditation in the spring, and the nonfiction course is among the electives that can be used toward this minor. Other electives include graphic-novel seminar courses that cover different material each semester they’re offered and special-topics courses in the art, communication, English and psychology departments.

“[The course is] designed for a class in which people are going to make comics,” Duncan said. “They don’t have to be artists; they just have to have ideas for comics, even if they can only use stick figures to lay out those ideas. So we are not grading them on the finished product, although we hope to get some good finished products out of the class, but it’s more on understanding the form and the process.”

The book will also feature a chapter on comics history.

“We have this one long chapter that we figure no one is going to read on the history of nonfiction comics, but that didn’t exist anywhere else,” Duncan said. “So for comics scholars, it’s kind of a history of not only comics in general, but of nonfiction comics specifically.”

Taylor said anyone interested in learning about comics can pick up the book and use it for a reference. Even though the book was designed with creators in mind, the professors made sure the book is informative. They included interviews with professionals who work in fields related to respective chapters of the book.

“The longest chapter in the book is Randy’s history chapter,” Taylor said. “We had to keep making him cut it shorter than he could have made it. He could have made a whole book about the history of nonfiction comics.

[For] some comics scholars, that’s probably the only reason they’d even buy the book — for that comics history. So it’s a good reason to have there.”

Taylor said he hopes the book will make its way out of classrooms and into the hands of fans. He even plans to use the book to help veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I think that most likely it will be used in classes, but there are so many kinds of storytelling you can do. Ideally, it will get used in all sorts of contexts,” Taylor said. “For example, there’s a movement that’s been going on for a while to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress [disorder] in dealing with things they’ve experienced by writing memoirs and stories about it. One way veterans could do this is with nonfiction comics. We envision maybe giving workshops to veterans sometime.”

Students involved with the comics department at Henderson are excited about the possibilities of working with renowned experts in the field of comics studies. Senior Ashley Bles is on schedule to be the first student to graduate with a minor in comics studies. She is the station manager at Henderson’s radio station, KSWH 102.5 FM.

“I was a late starter to comic books,” Bles said. “I didn’t start until I was in college because I lived in a really rural area, and I was poor, and I didn’t have good Internet, so I didn’t really start getting into them until I was around

people who were into them and could start showing them to me and stuff.”

Once she became involved with comics, Bles dove headfirst into comics studies. She has been focused on examining the role of women in comics, as evidenced by her senior seminar project on the representation of women in comics. All mass media and communication students must present a year-long research project in their field of study to graduate. Bles hopes to have her research included in next year’s Comics Arts Conference at the San Diego Comic-Con in July.

Bles’ research is focused on the Bechdel Test, coined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The test is simple — whether there are two female characters who have a conversation with each other about anything other than a man. Because of the inherent simplicity, the test leaves a lot out when trying to determine whether women are fairly represented. In this way, Bles hopes to improve on the test by adding more criteria.

“I am creating my own version of the Bechdel Test,” Bles said. “I’m finishing up the research now. We’re getting close to the end of the semester, but I looked at a whole bunch of different tests, including the

Bechdel, and people’s suggestions for how to fix the holes in the Bechdel Test. And then I looked at the research in comics, and I think it’s going to be more of a checklist than anything else. It’s going to look at stuff like the realism of their costumes, it’s going to look at backstory, and it’s going to look at how they were introduced.”

Henderson is now a hub for comics scholarship. Travis Langley, a professor of psychology, is also a noted comics scholar. He has written Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight in the comic genre and has appeared as a source in other works.

The university’s Huie Library has a room, called the Greene Room, specifically for the library’s comic book collection. All of the walls are lined with comics, save one: a digital art piece by Stoddard adorns the wall between the two doorways. The piece features distorted pen knives. Stoddard, along with his colleagues, are working to help bring recognition to comics studies as an academic endeavor.

Staff writer Morgan Acuff can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or macuff@arkansasonline.com.

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