Hitting the Comic Books

As comics become more mainstream, Harvard professors begin to use them in the classroom

Perched atop Dr. Manhattan’s Martian crystalline palace, “Watchmen” hero Laurie Jupiter gazes deeply into his white eyes. She pleads desperately for him to prevent the Earth’s impending nuclear destruction but Manhattan continues to stoically admire the surrounding landscape. His reticence is motivated by the saddening knowledge that the beauty of the universe is independent of human existence.

This philosophical scene in the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel—bereft of flashy slow motion action or stereotypical “KA-POW” heroics—seems at odds with the standard notion of the comic book as a simple diversion for children, and it has set a higher standard since its creation, which other comics artists and writers have sought to emulate.

Driven by the philosophical influence of “Watchmen,” the past few decades have witnessed a dramatic shift in comic books, from childhood escapism to serious art, a development noted by fans and scholars alike. Though some professors have introduced the medium in the classroom, the graphic novel has still not been fully integrated into the Harvard curriculum.

FROM PAGE TO SCREEN



As the quality of comic books has improved, there has been a proliferation of film adaptations, the most recent of which is “Watchmen.”

Many of these films have been box office hits, with movies such as “The Dark Knight” grossing over $1 billion worldwide. But such movies have also received widespread critical acclaim. The late Heath Ledger, for example, won Best Supporting Actor at the 2009 Academy Awards for his portrayal of the comic book villain “The Joker.”

“I think that more and more comic books are catering to the movie industry,” says Billy Tan, a Marvel comic book artist and guest speaker at last Sunday’s Boston Comic Book and Toy Collector’s Spectacular. “Comic books are becoming and more and more popular.”

Over 40 comic books have been adapted to film over the past 10 years, many grossing as much as $100 million. Developments in computer technology have made it possible for improved visual effects to convincingly translate fantastic images from the comic page to the silver screen.

In “Watchmen,” director Zack Snyder employs a speed-ramping technique to place emphasis on dynamic moments in his action sequences, inviting the viewer to study the image in much the same way one would pause to appreciate a single comic panel. Moreover, Snyder endeavored to ensure that “Watchmen” maintained an aesthetic similar to that of the comic by working closely with Dave Gibbons who illustrated the 1986-87 novel.

“In a lot of ways Dave is like the visual author of the movie,” Snyder says. “If you think about the movie as a normal book, Dave becomes in some ways like the imagination of the reader. I think that that is an amazing gift that he gives the movie, because the movie is not only the texture of what Alan wrote, but it’s also the mood that’s set by the drawings of Dave Gibbons.”

But writer Alan Moore has divorced himself from this and other adaptations of his comics after the critical failure of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Moore’s refusal to work with film teams forced Snyder to construct “Watchmen” from the viewer’s perspective. “In some ways it’s a truer experience for the viewer,” Snyder says, “because what I did was try to make the movie based on the experiences I had when first reading the graphic novel in 1988.”

FICTIONAL CHARACTERS, REAL QUESTIONS



Though it was written towards the end of the Cold War, “Watchmen” expresses timeless, fundamental concerns with the corruptive nature of power.

Anthony F. Davis, owner of Harvard Square’s cornerstone comic store “Million Year Picnic,” says, “A lot of those writers of Moore’s generation were products of Thatcherism....When you think of ‘V for Vendetta’ or ‘Watchmen,’ they’re all about power. What do you do when you have great power? Even when you’re thinking about using it for the best of reasons, how close do you come to Fascism when attempting to implement that?”

These questions can be extended beyond the world of superheroes. Snyder says the movie’s depth lies in the parallels that can be drawn between its costumed adventurers and real life political figures.

“Superhero politics and superpower politics are similar,” Snyder says. “What we learn from ‘Watchmen,’ from the graphic novel and hopefully a little bit from the movie, is that the morality of policing your neighbors, the morality of being a vigilante in the case of superheroes, is a slippery slope.”

Snyder says he hopes the film will prompt the viewer to further ask, “‘Who polices the police?’ or ‘Who watches the Watchmen?’ or ‘Who governs the government?’”

Focused more on illustration than narrative, comics did not always spark such philosophical debates. The switch that occurred in the second half of the 20th century transformed the genre into a more serious venture.

“When I first started collecting comics and working the store in the 80s, it was about the guy who drew the book,” Davis says. “And there were well-known writers, but they weren’t the ones who moved the industry. That has flipped over the last 10 or 15 years. There are artists, but really the medium is being driven by writers.”

“I think it started in a large part with Alan Moore and his work on ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Watchmen.’ What you wound up with is a host of more intelligent works.”

While other comic book writers of the time shied away from the subtler nuances and deeper philosophical dilemmas, Moore welcomed them.

“A lot of the superhero comics have always dealt with these characters with enormous abilities, if not enormous powers,” Davis says. “But not the realistic, ‘If I’m living in the world and I have the power to reshape it, why don’t I? Why don’t I end poverty? Why don’t I end injustice? Why don’t I end famine and draught?’ Superman never considers these things, or if he did, they were pretty quickly dismissed. I think Moore looks at more of those big picture issues.”



TAKING COMICS SERIOUSLY



The quality of the graphic novel continues to improve today, with writers such as Art Spiegelman producing Pulitzer prize-winning works. “I think that graphics as a medium has grown up with people like Marjane Satrapi and Speigelman,” says Adam L. Kern, an associate professor in the Department of East Asian Languages who teaches a class on Japanese literature. “And I think that’s been something that’s revolutionized comics. It’s no longer superheroes in underwear. Now comics have become more respectable and a more serious medium.”

This evolution has led to a subversion of the traditional boundary between comics and literature.

“You could be reading ‘Batman’ and ‘Daredevil,’ and it feels that you’re in a Dashiell Hammett novel,” Davis says. “In general the best comics nowadays are much better written than the comics written 20 or 30 years ago. The boundaries have changed.”

Affirming this notion, Kern has integrated graphic novels into the curriculum of Japanese Literature 123: “Manga.” “I think that graphic novels, comics, manga, are a mode of expression, just the way the novel is a mode of expression,” Kern says. “Traditionally in the West, the novel has been accorded increasingly over the centuries more and more respect. Although, when it first began appearing, people looked at it askance. Graphic novels in the West have been systematically looked at askance and only within the past decades have people begun to give them a little bit more validity as a means of expression.”

Many believe that comics are the Greek myths of our time, and as such, are worthy of critical attention. Considering the moral quandaries posed by a graphic novel like “Watchmen,” Dan I. Mazur, one of the founders of the Boston Comics Roundtable, a group of comic enthusiasts says, “I think these myths and legends are like if you grow up with the Greek Gods and then start exploring them in different ways.”

“I don’t think that there is anything non-intellectual about superheroes,” Snyder reiterates. “There’s the perceived danger that we’re ‘dumbing’ ourselves down with superheroes but superheroes have the ability to be as intellectually stimulating as anything. I just think that people fight it a little bit.”

Despite this perceived resistance, the demographics of the comics readership have been rapidly changing to include adults.

“We’ve seen the young part of the readership fall away from the American mainstream comics,” says Davis, whose store just celebrated its 35th anniversary. “We don’t get the 10-, 12-, and 14-year-old boys that we used to get. They’ve been replaced by a more female readership, by more people in their 20s and 30s.”



GRAPHIC SYLLABI?



In addition to changes in content and readership, comic books are beginning to secure a new place in academia, albeit an incipient one. In addition to their place in “Manga,” Dr. Katherine Stanton, who currently teaches a freshman seminar called “American Splendor: Alternative American Comics,” includes graphic novels at the core of her curriculum.

According to Dr. Stanton, both professors and students have noticed the change in comic books, which has prompted them to read these works more closely. “The quality of graphic narrative itself is better—there is simply more good stuff out there that’s worth our attention,” Stanton says. “Our students’ interest in comics and comic book form has also inspired us as teachers and scholars to pay more attention to the form. I think I’ve learned a lot from students for the last few years about why I should be paying attention to this medium.”

Kern, who has also noticed this growing intellectual interest, attributes the trend to a generational attention to visual-based media.

“I think that [increased interest in comics] probably has to do a little bit with the visual turn in our culture,” he says. “I think students are much more interested in consuming media that credit their capacity for what might be termed the visual-verbal imagination. So television, film, and the internet allow students to develop their visual-verbal imaginations. And, in the case of Japanese novels and graphic novels, students are also given an opportunity to give their visual-verbal imagination free expression.”

Harvard professors who integrate comics into their coursework benefit from this enthusiasm, witnessing dramatic increases in class size.

“I think that there has been something of a paradigmatic shift in recent years in which students entering Harvard over the past decade have become increasingly interested in comics and graphic novels,” says Kern, whose categorization of manga as Japanese literature has been questioned by various faculty members. “Professors who are able or willing to integrate comics into their courses have a tremendous opportunity to generate interest.”

Despite the efforts of a few professors and a contingent of passionate students, the place of graphic novels in the Harvard curriculum remains marginal.

“Graphic novels are so tragically understudied,” says Paul B. Vankoughnett ’12, a student in Stanton’s freshman seminar. “In college I will be taking tons and tons of classes that deal with reading books or reading papers or reading articles. This is probably the only class that I will ever take that deals with reading comic books.”

—Staff writer Edward F. Coleman can be reached at efcolem@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Bram A. Strochlic can be reached at bstrochl@fas.harvard.edu.