Thursday, September 4, 2014

UW Comics Theory Syllabus

English 26-399
Comics Theory
Dr. Dale Jacobs  CHN 2114; ext. 2309;
Fall 2014            Office Hours: T 10-12, M 1-3, or by appointment

Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.
— Harvey Pekar

Course Description
Over the last several years, comics and graphic novels have been an ever more visible and well-regarded part of mainstream culture, reviewed in major newspapers and featured on the shelves of both independent and chain bookstores. Major publishing houses now publish work in the comics medium, while both school and public libraries are building graphics novels collections in order to try to get adolescents into the library. Through a combination of sequential art and words, comics function as multimodal texts that both create and communicate meaning. This combination of words and images – what Gunther Kress calls multimodality – creates meaning in very particular and distinct ways that play out differently in a variety of genres. In this course we will read a number of comics theorists and examine a number of comics and graphic novels in order to think about how meaning is created in the comics medium, how we read comics, how narrative operates in comics, how comics differ across genres, and why we should take comics seriously. In particular, we will explore the following questions: To what purposes are comics used? In what situations? With what audiences? How do writers and artists create multimodal meaning – through the interaction of words and images – within specific texts? How do we read them?  How does the sequential nature of comics work to create meaning and structure narrative?  What is the relationship in these texts between the writer and his or her social context, and how is that represented by the visual codes and multimodal rhetorics of these texts? How do word and image work together to create narrative within the comics medium? How do stories function within comics? In what ways do comics participate in multiple genres? In what ways does the multimodal form change the genres and vice versa?  How do multimodality and the material form of comic books and graphic novels intersect? How does the production and consumption of these texts represent a distinct form of multimodal literacy? How can thinking about these literate practices complicate our ideas of literacy and of rhetoric? In pursuing these questions, we will read a range of comics and think about them in relation to a variety of theoretical ideas so that we will be continually making links between theory and practice. Through our readings, writings, and discussion, we will explore the possibilities of word and image in contemporary comics.

Course Texts

Ba, Gabriel and Fabio Moon. Daytripper. New York: Vertigo, 2011.
Brunetti, Ivan (ed). An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, Volume 2.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
Carroll, Emily. “Out of Skin.” (Available at
Clowes, Daniel. Eightball #23. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2004. (Available through the Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels database).
Fraction, Matt and David Aja. Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon.  New York: Marvel Comics, 2013.
Groensteen, Thierry. A System of Comics.  Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Lemire, Jeff. Trillium.  New York: Vertigo, 2014.
Matz and Luc Jacamon. The Killer #1. Hollywood: Archaia Studios Press, 2007 (Available free from
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
Rucka, Greg and Rick Burchett. Batman: The Ten Cent Adventure. (Available free from
Smith, Jeff. Bone #1. Columbus, OH: Cartoon Books, 1991. (Available free from
Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. This One Summer.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2014.
Vaughan, Brian K. and Marcos Martin. The Private Eye (Volume 1). The Panel Syndicate, 2013. (

Please note that An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, Volume 2
contains some graphic images and adult subject matter.

Each of you will also purchase one current monthly title for the duration of the course.

Reserve Reading
Some of these readings are available as ELECTRONIC RESERVES (see attached list). Simply go to the library homepage and click on Course Reserves. You can search for the readings under 26-399 or Comics Theory. All materials on reserve are available as pdf files or web pages that you can print.

Course Requirements

Annotated Comics Page Assignment (20% of final grade) – For this assignment, each of you will be annotating a single page of a comic or a two-page spread to demonstrate how meaning is created in a comics page and how one reads a comics page. Choose a graphic novel from the Leddy Library collection and then from that graphic novel, choose either a single page or a two-page spread for your analysis. Think about these questions: How does the artist/writer create multimodal meaning – through the interaction of words and images – within this comic page or spread? How do word and image work together to create narrative within the comics medium? How do you practice multimodal literacy as you read the comic? Utilizing the theory we read during the first few weeks of the semester, examine how the section you have chosen works to create meaning, and how/why one would read it. Along with your annotated page(s), please include a 2-3 page reflection in which you discuss the choices you made in choosing the graphic novel, in annotating, and in presentation format.  Use MLA format. This paper will be due Tuesday, October 28, 2014.

Final Project (30% of final grade) – For your final project, you are free to pursue any question you like in terms of contemporary comics or graphic novels. You can write on any comics or graphic novel(s) (including the course texts) for this project and use any theoretical approach you would like. Use what you have learned in this class and in the course of your degree as you approach this final project. You might begin with one of the questions you wrote over the course of the semester, with class discussion, or with issues that have been raised in the blog; each of you will come to a conference with me the week of November 4 to discuss your topic. Use MLA format. This paper should be 6-8 pages in length and will be due Thursday, November 27, 2014.

Final Exam (30% of final grade) – The final exam will ask you to respond to questions that connect the theory and practice of comics.  It will take place on Thursday, December 11 at 12:00.

Class Participation/Class Blog (20% of final grade) – Every member of the class is important to our community of learning and so everyone will be expected to participate fully in class discussions and activities. In preparation for each class, each of you will be expected to do all assigned readings and be prepared to discuss them in class. Each of you will write and bring two questions for discussion based on the readings for that class; these questions will be used to generate much of the discussion in class. In addition, each of you will write at least 2 blog entries for the class blog ( on the current monthly comic you have chosen to read and 1 blog entry on a graphic novel from the collection at Leddy Library; in these entries you will connect the comic to the theories we are reading.

Grade Distribution

Annotated Comics Page Assignment            20%
Final Project                                             30%
Final Exam                                               30%
Class Participation/Class Blog                     20%

Semester Schedule

September 4               Introduction

September 9               Understanding Comics Chs. 1-3

September 11             Understanding Comics Chs. 4-7, 9; “Out of Skin”; AGF 65-67

September 16             *Horrocks; * Beaty et al; Bone #1; AGF 48-49, 99-105, 140

September 18             *Jacobs; *Wolk; The Killer #1; AGF 150-53, 187-94

September 23             *Duncan and Smith; *Hatfield; Batman: TTCA; AGF 181-84, 209-16
September 25             *Jesse Cohn; *Lefevré; AGF 9-13, 35-43, 68-70, 130

September 30             *Hill and Helmers; *Jones; AGF 50-61, 157, 305-10, 328-29

October 2                   *Magnussen; *Rabkin; AGF 154-56, 161, 176-77, 227-41, 259-67

October 7                    The System of Comics Introduction and Ch. 1; AGF 291-304

October 9                     The System of Comics Chs. 2-3, Conclusion; Eightball #23

October 14                    Reading Week

October 16                    Reading Week

October 21                    *Baetens; *Hague; AGF 333-48, 392-97

October 23                    *Carrier; *Kannenberg; AGF 355-81

October 28                     Understanding Comics Ch. 8; The Private Eye #1-2

October 30                     *Bauman; The Private Eye #3-5

November 4                    Hawkeye

November 6                    Hawkeye

November 11                   Trillium

November 13                   Trillium

November 18                   This One Summer

November 20                   This One Summer

November 25                   Daytripper

November 27                   Daytripper

December 2                      Review

December 11                    Final Exam

*             On electronic reserve
#            Given as handout
AGF - An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, Volume 2.  

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