When my father was teaching me how to ride a bike without training wheels, he told me stories of comic book superheroes he read about growing up in the Bronx in the late 1950s. There were stories about Captain America and the Green Hornet. At the time I thought comics were childish and beneath me. I was five. He was trying to instill the lesson that the only way to get somewhere is to never give up.
At Paul Smith’s College, according to data collected by the Academic Success Center, our students struggle with confidence in writing. They prefer to do things with their hands, and visualize their learning experience. Well, comics do that directly. Ikea instructions, in-flight safety instruction, even a presentation you see in class are comics. They are everywhere and you don’t need to know who Spider-Man is or who created him to understand them. They are a natural part of how the human brain works. In fact, studies show that when you couple words with pictures you have 90 percent retention of that information.
In my English 102 class, all you need to come with is curiosity. The biggest barrier that graphic novels have to break through is the perception that you have to come with background knowledge of the medium to understand what’s going on.
That’s not the case for this class. It’s why it’s called “Introduction to Graphic Novels”; it’s meant to introduce you to the medium, and works with the belief that you have no previous knowledge of comics or graphic novels. I do this in a variety of ways: I talk about the history of the medium, we reverse engineer comics into script form, which helps Paul Smith’s unique visually-oriented student body gain confidence in writing – because comics are visual writing. We profile the creators in the medium, like Brian K. Vaughan who wrote for Lost and quit to come back to write comics, and Robert Kirkman, the creator of everyone’s favorite zombie show The Walking Dead. To reading the Lumberjanes – an award-winning comics series created entirely by women outdoor enthusiasts. The point of the class is to make writing and reading fun, and ultimately more diverse and engaging, than reading essays and writing research. While writing an essay and doing research is a part of this class, that is not all this class is: students gain the opportunity to create their own comic book.
But the real beauty of graphic novels is that they pushed me to try new things. When I managed to ride my bike on my own without my dad’s guiding hand, he took me to a hot dog shop and bought me my first comic book – an Aquaman annual. Since that day I’ve become obsessed with comics literature and the art of writing in a visual medium. In seventh grade I started reverse engineering my favorite issues of The Flash into prose short stories. This passion became an obsession by the time I started my graduate work at Brooklyn College.
In order to complete my degree, the English department required English Education courses to prepare for a job as an English teacher. The goal was to diversify graduate student CVs to teach college and high school. As a part of my requirements, I had to tutor a senior in high school who struggled with writing. This student was a visual learner, so I employed a technique that I learned while teaching myself to write comics. This technique is reverse-engineering a comic into script format. As you can see here from this page in the Death of Wolverine #1. (I’ll spare you the background on Wolverine and assume you’ve seen the X-Men movies. He’s the one played by Hugh Jackman. Wolverine copyright Marvel Entertainment. Please don’t sue me.) Doing this helped my tutee have fun with writing, but also the student was writing with a stronger and more succinct descriptive tone, and with an ear toward dialogue. The student went from a D average to a B student in six weeks.
I believe in what Harvey Pekar, writer and creator of the underground (self-published) comic American Splendor, said: “Words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” That’s why I teach this class: to help Paul Smith’s students who struggle with writing unlock their creative and imaginative potential and gain confidence with writing.
The class is offered in this summer’s Block A, starting May 16, and in the fall semester. Talk to your advisor about it. I’d love to have you.
David Press lives with his librarian/musician wife in New York’s Adirondack Park. By day he teaches writing, comics, and film at Paul Smith’s College. Dave has been obsessed with writing comics since he was thirteen-years-old starting with Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s run on The Flash. He’s a part of the comics-writing collective Thought Balloons. His current project is rewriting a novel called Emerson, which follows two high school students who realize that their writing can alter reality. He graduated from Brooklyn College and St. Bonaventure University. He leaves his notes at davidpress.net, and sends a monthly newsletter about what he’s reading, learning, and creating.