Comic Books

Comics-Based Research

Last week I was in San Francisco for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference. Among other things, I was presenting a paper on Comics-Based Research, the use of comic-book style art and storytelling in educational research. When I got there, I found an entire panel presentation on the topic! For the past five years I have been exploring how to use comic-book style art in my research on cultural organizing, but until last week I had never met someone else doing the same — and I came away both awed and excited by what I saw.


A Page from Nick Sousanis’s Dissertation

One member of the panel was Nick Sousanis, a doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College. He is currently doing his dissertation entirely in comics form. His complex black-and-white layouts are stunning, and he uses the comic form to concretize big, abstract ideas about visual/verbal knowledge and how comics work. You can see pages from his dissertation on his website:

Another panel member was famous activist, educator, and author Bill Ayers. He was there to speak about the process of turning his book To Teach into a graphic novel with the help of artist Ryan Alexander Tanner. He spoke eloquently about how his thinking shifted through the process — from thinking they were merely going to illustrate his writing, to understanding that they had to write an entirely new book using this unique form. You can read my review of the resulting collaboration here: To Teach: The Journey in Comics


From Jones & Woglom’s TC Record article

The third panelist was James Woglom, a comic artist who has been working with researcher Stephanie Jones to translate her research on feminist pedagogy into comic form. The two have developed an intriguing collaborative system of analysis and writing, and have published in Teachers College Record and the Harvard Educational Review.

And chairing the panel was Marcus Weaver-Hightower, a professor at the University of North Dakota whose research, in comic form, explores the incredibly difficult topic of losing a child at birth, with a focus on the experience of fathers. His work has recently been featured in the new book Qualitative Research: The Essential Guide to Research and Practice.

What struck me, as I listened to these writer/artists was the wide variety of approaches they brought to the table. Some wrote and drew alone, some struggled through the difficulties of collaboration. Some spoke of their work in terms of narrative, others in terms of the arts. They came with different levels of knowledge about comics. But it meshed better than many panels I have seen because of the obvious passion for the form, and the wide possibilities in using comics in research and writing in the field of education.

As soon as I got home I was inspired to get back to drawing!

Lauging, Healing, and Resistance on 9/11

The jokes didn’t stay down long. Sure, there were a few days after 9/11 when comedians — on TV, in clubs across the country — were still so thrown off and scrambling after the towers fell, that they wouldn’t have known where to start writing a joke. But by the following week comedians were taking the mic and beginning to search for the humor — both in the tragedy itself, and in the aftermath, as the story of the tragedy began to be used and abused.

A new movie making the rounds, The Voice of Something, features comedian, and now podcast superstar, Marc Maron through his day on September 19th, 2001, including a stop in a comedy club. While talking heads (more…)

The World Still Needs Heroes

“The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time.”
– Dr. Philip Zimbardo

This past week DC comics — home of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman — began rebooting 52 titles, starting them at #1 and rewriting decades of complicated, often contradictory, fictional history. While this is a rather cheap ploy to excite readers and lift up declining sales, I’d like to use this moment in comic publication history to muse on the power of superhero myths, and the usefulness of these myths for social justice organizing.

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the ways that power is wielded in our society is through story and myth. Myths like the American Dream, or the Thanksgiving creation story, help to uphold the status quo as good or at least natural. At the same time, myths like the story of Rosa Parks help us to envision ways that individuals can change unjust systems. While the term “myth” is often used to refer to something that is not true, I’m using it here quite differently. A myth is simply a story that is retold time and again, and helps us to understand something about the way things are, and how the world works. The “truth” of a myth lies not so much in its literal truth (though that varies) but in its ability to guide our lives in useful and positive ways.

One set of myths that are as alive as ever in our society, marked by a current deluge of movies, are those surrounding the superhero. U.S. superheroes are a modern extension of the eons-old hero mythologies most famously outlined by Joseph Campbell — though they have arguably been adapted in peculiarly American ways. Superhero tales, introduced in their current form by Superman in 1932, offer us models of morality, and of how “wrongs” are made “right.”

On a literal level, traditional superheroes offer us a pretty weak model for how to improve the world. They generally function in stark binaries of good and evil, and their solution is almost always physical violence. There is no real accountability — people just have to trust that they will do “good.” They often work alone, and are seen to stand apart from the rest of humanity. And when they take on social issues like crime, it is generally by punching and arresting people in alleys, rather than addressing any of the systemic roots of the problem. (This is to say nothing about the underlying racism, sexism, and heterosexism rampant in the superhero genre, but that is a story for another time.)

Some of the best comic book authors have explored these limitations. In one of my favorite examples — Superman: Peace on Earth — Superman takes on world hunger. In an effort to inspire more equal distribution of food reserves, based on the charity model, Superman announces to the UN that he will spend one full day carrying massive amounts of food from rich countries to poor ones suffering from famine. It starts out all right — people are happy to receive free food. But problems begin piling up. In one country the food he brings simply isn’t enough. In another, nobody trusts the food and so it’s left for the rats. In another, a military dictatorship is more than happy to take the food, with no intention of sharing it across the country. Finally, seeing Superman as a threat to national sovereignty, one country fires a missile and blows him out of the sky. In the end it is a failure, both for this particular mission, and for the superhero model of change. (At the end Clark Kent, who after all grew up on a farm, teaches young people to grow their own food. Also not a systemic solution to world hunger, but a human-sized occupation that can have its own empowering results.)

It may be that this model of the individual hero — though not originating with superheroes — harms attempts to organize for social change, as we rewrite our lives to fit our myths. In many ways the civil rights movement is taught as something of a superhero myth, with Martin Luther King as Superman. This has the danger in the moment of discouraging the development of other leaders, leaving the movement in trouble when tragedy takes our hero from us. In the longer-term, it can leave us, as they say, “Waiting for Superman” rather than taking action to change things now. Would we be better off with more focus on stories that highlight the less hierarchical, collective work that formed the base of the civil rights movement? The work of SNCC and the Freedom Schools for instance?

Rosa Parks is a perfect example of this. Her myth is one of a single, principled individual taking a stand, and igniting a movement. This is for sure an inspiring story. But would it be more helpful if the myth clung closer to reality — the story not of an individual making a spur-of-the-moment choice but a trained and committed organizer working with many others to plan out an incredibly successful action?

But I am not ready to throw out superheroes all together. Perhaps it’s simply because I like reading comic books. Or perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up on Superman so much as the X-Men. While the X-Men fall into some of the traps outlined above, they are far from the shiny, American Way Superman, or the rich, unstable renegade Batman. They are outcasts, facing constant discrimination. They have powers, but these powers are often odd and sometimes debilitating. X-Men generally can only succeed when they come together as a team, uniting their diverse skills. And they are flawed in clear and not-so-clear ways.

So to me, superheroes continue to be an inspiration, and a set of myths I come back to. One reason is because of their unabashed celebration of power (or “powers”). As Alinsky wrote decades ago, if we want to change systems we cannot shy away from the idea of “power.” Power does not equal oppression. It is the unequal distribution of power that leads to oppression. Power, in organizing and in superheroics, is where change comes from — whether power from collective social capital, or a radioactive spider.

I personally like to stress the collective aspects of superhero myths, since I believe collective action is the only route to systemic change. (After all, superheroes are forever forming “leagues.”) But we should not be too quick to discount the importance of the individual hero. My partner recently shared with me the writing of Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in which students pretended to be guards and prisoners. It got so brutal that it had to be shut down after six days — and that was already too long. Zambardo writes about the Lucifer Effect, the way that good people can end up carrying out evil acts through obedience to authority or passive observation. His solution? The celebration of heroism, of the individuals who resist inertia and choose to act differently. He has founded the Heroic Imagination Project whose mission is to “encourage and empower individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives. We prepare them to act with integrity, compassion, and moral courage, heightened by an understanding of the power of situational forces.”

Zambardo’s message could be summed up by the inscription Eric Masterson found on the hammer created for him by Odin, after he stopped being the superhero Thor. Despite their problems and limitations, despite their mixed history of success, and despite all the critiques offered above, “The World Still Needs Heroes.”