Before I retired, I regularly taught a sophomore-level course on comics, one I developed out of my interest in the rhetorical power of images and one that brought me into contact with very interesting students from across all the disciplines. During the time I was developing and refining this class, some of my colleagues in the Creative Writing wing of the English department (particularly Adam Johnson and Tom Kealy) began to offer a course for students interested not only in studying and analyzing comics, but in producing them as well. Out of this impetus grew Stanford’s Graphic Novel Project (not to be confused with Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project, a research group that has also been very successful). That course has now grown into a two-term, twenty-week course with the following goals:
- To tell a compelling real-world human story that is “worthy of study and creative devotion” and that seeks “to do good, seek justice, and bring about change.”
- To teach nonfiction research, visual storytelling, and long-form narrative through a collaborative effort, realizing that “through collaboration, a story can become richer, more inspired, and more layered with human experience.”
These are lofty goals, yet in 20 weeks this small group of undergraduates comes up with a story proposal, outlines the story, thumbnails the scenes, does the inking by hand on Bristol board, and then uses Adobe Photoshop and InDesign to “clean” the text, create word balloons, color, and create the layout. Students carry out every step of this intricate and time-consuming process, through the editorial and printing processes that lead to a finished book.
Given my 40 years of work on collaboration, not to mention my love of comics and my delight in teaching them, you can bet I’m a big fan of this project, which to date has produced seven graphic novels: Shake Girl (2008); Virunga (2009); Pika-don (2010); From Busan to San Francisco (2012); A Place Among the Stars (2014); American Heathen (2015); and Luisa (2017).
What makes this series so compelling to me is its insistence on “real life” stories that students feel need to be told, and heard, today, striving in each volume to call attention to issues and places and people that should be remembered. That is certainly true with the current volume, which tells the story of Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922), born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and destined to become one of its most famous labor organizers. As the students say, in the aftermath of the American annexation of Puerto Rico,
Feminist, anarchist, labor organizer, Luisa Capetillo. . . saw the advantages—the possibility of unions—and the disadvantages—the exploitation that made them necessary—of American rule. She set out to fight for the rights of the workers. Luisa believed in good hygiene, free love, and human dignity. She was also an impassioned, trenchant writer, famous in her day for her book, Mi Opinion Sobre las Libertades, Derechos y Deberes de la Mujer. With her tenacity, faith, and oratory, Luisa was the perfect advocate—except for one problem. She was a woman.
Luisa was known for wearing white mens’ suits, as in the photo below, and throughout the graphic novel she is depicted as rejecting clothing as well as other norms, acts which led to many threats against her, including the threat of jail. She persisted, however, organizing not only in Puerto Rico but in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Florida, writing and speaking out for women’s rights and for the vote.
When I read Luisa, I was reminded once more of the strength, ingenuity, passion, and capabilities of undergraduate student writers, and I celebrate the work they are doing to keep the memory of social justice advocates like Luisa Capetillo alive. I also celebrate the power of collaboration: this project demonstrates how, working together, students can pool their talents (even the font used in this book was created in their class from the handwriting of two of the student writers/artists), drawing on the artistic abilities of some and the storytelling abilities of others. I hope to see projects like this one—“comics advocacy”—blossoming all across the country.