It almost goes without saying that we live not only in the age of the image, but also in the age of a comics/graphic narrative renaissance. Since Art Spiegelman burst from the comics underground with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, we have witnessed an outpouring of comics art, and of the very highest quality. Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, Gene Luen Yang, GB Tran, Dwayne McDuffie, Marjane Satrapi, Neil Gaiman, Chris Ware—all are now household names. A dozen years ago, when I started teaching a course on graphic narratives, students signed up, but with some trepidation: they had been taught that comics were juvenile, jejune, eye candy. By the time I retired in 2014, this attitude had changed: students signed up in droves, stayed on waiting lists, eager to learn about how words and images work together—or don’t.
So I keep an eye on graphic narrative publications and read as much as I can (though it’s getting harder and harder to keep up!) Right now I am deeply engaged with Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters, which has gotten stunning reviews across the media and rapturous shout-outs from fellow comics artists (Chris Ware calls it “Absolutely astonishing,” and Alison Bechdel a “spectacular eye-popping magnum opus”). I’m halfway through the book (it’s unpaginated but well over an inch thick), and so far I agree. Completely. (You’ll want to read about Ferris too, in order to understand the struggles she had completing this ten-year project!)
Karen Reyes, the 10-year-old narrator, sees monsters everywhere: indeed, she becomes a monster (werewolf) herself, off and on. But these monsters are friends, for the most part, not to be terrified of but to be learned from and with. When a neighbor, Anka, is mysteriously murdered, Karen sets out to solve the mystery and, along the way, meditate on the nature of loss and on being human. Set in Chicago in the ‘60s, Monsters weaves in historical events of the era, such as the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. And she does so in a spellbinding way, with drawings that are, as Paul Tumey describes them in The Comics Journal:
Sumptuous, skillful, articulate, intelligent, passionate renderings with pencil and pen lines. The cross-hatching used to both vividly delineate detailed forms and evoke a wide palette of emotion rivals the mature work of Robert Crumb and evokes numerous graphic masters (for me, Maurice Sendak, among others).
Ferris’s book convinces me, once again, that if we aren’t teaching comics in our writing classes, we should be: we should be thoroughly engaged in the multimodality of graphic narratives and providing opportunities for our students not only to read but also to create them.
Doing so will take us toward a new frontier described and inhabited by Jason Helms, creator of a new work called Rhizcomics: Rhetoric, Technology, and New Media Composition. Available from the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative in open access form, Helms builds upon layers of multimodality, arguing that what he calls “Rhizcom(ic)position writes from the middle: between words and images, visual and verbal, author and reader, material and idea, concrete and abstract, real and virtual.”
In this text, which grew out of Helms’s dissertation work at Clemson University, he demonstrates how fundamentally our visual and aural environments are shifting, deepening, become more and more richly layered—and he does so in a startlingly nonlinear way. In doing so, he challenges all of us who teach (as well as read and write) to join him in exploring this new landscape, and not only in our teaching but in our research and scholarship as well.
I have often said that during the course of my nearly 50-year career, I have had to learn a new field—from the ground up—at least once a decade. But this new challenge—and opportunity—may be the most daunting but also exciting yet. So if you haven’t already done so, go to the open access portal and enter Jason Helms’s Rhizcomics—and prepare to be changed by it.