Comics: More than Bulging Muscles

Mar 12, 2019

Graphic novels. They're just a fancy name for long-form comics. But when you think about one, you may picture the bulging muscles of Marvel's superheroes. But my guests say not to judge comics by this preconceived imagery.

Cole Closser and Jennifer Murvin teach a course at Missouri State University on creating comics and are paving the road to an interdisciplinary program that is largely unheard of at the undergraduate level. Murvin and Closser share about what keeps them intrigued in this medium.

"It's a different experience when you read comics. Art Spiegelman actually calls reading comics decoding versus reading because it is such a different exercise. You're looking, you're taking in visuals, sometimes you're reading in a non-linear way," Murvin said. "I think it challenges different parts of the brain. It challenges what we think about when we think about the word reading or the act of reading. And it excites students."

Closser elaborates: "When I was a little kid, of course I read newspaper comics, and I got into superheroes when I was around eight. But then when I was 10, I discovered Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's anthology work, Raw. That changed everything for me. I was too young to be reading that, but I would stay up all night with a flashlight, reading it. So that stuck with me forever."

Closser notes that comics are a medium - not a specific genre - and the possibilities are endless.

Since comics have pictures and words, teachers and librarians have often suggested comics, since the pictures offer clues to the narrative and context. This is helpful for someone struggling with reading or lacks the desire to read. But rather than thinking of comics as a door to more traditional literature, Closser and Murvin are introducing students to the complex, mature and nuanced work available in comics. Work that stands alone as phenomenal.

"There's plenty of work in the medium then that kids couldn't possibly process," said Closser. "Not for adults because there's cussing or nudity in it. That's sophomoric. They're for adults because they're complex and nuanced."

This is the type of work they encourage their students to produce.

"Often our students are coming out of comics that they read as children for children, and so part of our work is to get them maybe reading people who they haven't read and really challenge them with the kind of writing that they're doing and the kind of storytelling that they're doing," said Murvin.

Some of the strongest work comes from those students less familiar with comics, noted Closser.

"Those who didn't know about comics, weren't interested in comics. And they're coming in only knowing comics as a medium and only knowing comics as a place to explore poetry or prose, mostly memoir based," said Closser.

Closser brings with him the experience of two published comics, and together Closser and Murvin have been invited to speak at AWP, the largest writing conference in the country. Murvin points out, with the bubbling up of small presses and Kickstarter campaigns, it's becoming easier to put your creation into print. It's an exciting time for the medium, they say, and their students are already having success in publishing their works as well.

"We all reach this point in our life where we look at our work and we decide if it's worth sharing or if we shouldn't share it, right?" said Closser. "Those of us who persist are the ones who become so-called artists. But we all have that natural language of comics, of combining words and pictures."

When they proposed the idea for this course, administration expected that students would pair up - English students would prepare the text while the illustration students would provide the artwork.

"And we had to say, oh no no. Everyone will write and draw, everyone will create their own comics. It's neat to see these writers who stopped drawing in third grade, fourth grade come back and draw," said Murvin. "It's exciting for like me to work with artists who have, like you said, no expectations in the world of writing and then for Cole to work with the writers who have not drawn in years and years."