May 22, 2017

Graphic Novels: The scourge of the humanities?


I am only thankful that Leef and Watkins avoid discussing why this book isn’t worth teaching in class

Who on earth reads graphic novels? I’ll tell you who: special snowflakes and social justice warriors. And you know what? They’re the only ones who even call ’em “graphic novels,” which is lib-speak for “comics.”

This, at least, is the contention of conservative higher-ed watcher George Leef, and the spirit behind a piece he wrote for the saintly National Review last week. And he’s pretty confident about his argument, thanks to an op-ed published through the conservative education policy non-profit he works for, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. That article—“Graphic Novels Are Trending in English Departments, and That’s a Problem” by Shannon Watkins–-introduces the stakes:

Many English departments are now beginning to offer courses on graphic novels, which integrate text and visual imagery. Graphic novels are increasingly studied alongside traditional literature, in some cases supplanting more standard text-based curricula.

For example, one course at UNC Chapel Hill titled “The Visual and Graphic Narrative” can be taken to satisfy the literary appreciation part of a student’s general education requirements. (Students are only required to take one literary appreciation class.) The university also offers a course titled “Comics as Literature” as a first-year seminar.

OK, so the stakes are pretty low… because you took the BLUE PILL, idiot college student.

If you would have taken the red pill you would understand what Watkins and Leef are trying to say: that graphic novels are too easy to read for tomorrow’s leaders of America, and that this newfangled literary form is simply a vessel for the left-wing agenda.

In support of this first point, Watkins offers this: “The level of reading and thinking called for when the subject is a comic book is far lower than the level called for when the subject is, say, The Iliad.” Here, I think he may have overlooked some of the formal complexity of the graphic novel, which by its very nature has a whole other textual dimension. We might remind him, too, that The Iliad began its life as something closer to popular history than its afterlife in that most deeply constructed concept we call the Western Canon might suggest. The same could be said for Dickens’s serials in widely circulated magazines. Or Shakespeare’s nods to the drunken groundlings.

In support of the second point, Watkins insists that:

the “graphic novels” [scare quotes his] chosen for these courses tend to have a leftist slant. They are another way for professors to promote their views through their choice of course material. According to a professor at UNC, graphic novels are a “unique… medium for the marginal and oppressed in the 21st century.” Just what college students need — more class time spent on the oppressed (as viewed by “progressive” profs).

Here, Leef takes a cue from Watkins who laments the homosexual themes shoved down students’ throats via Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or the feminism force-fed through Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet.  To which I can only say thank god there is no homosexuality, feminism, or oppression worth academic unpacking in The Illiad. Nothing to distract students from their dactyls.

If you, like Mr. Leef, could stand to know a bit more about how classroom dynamics really work, or, better still, what the these higher-ed watchers should be watching, give this excellent book a try.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.