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One Class, One Day: Studying Comics as Literature

CAS course explores ways graphic memoirs convey great themes

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Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Jessica Kent

Jessica Kent says graphic books’ pictures enhance their accessibility for students. Photo by Cydney Scott

Having plowed through their 232-page assigned book, members of Jessica Kent’s class are discussing a revealing scene near the end, in the midst of a halting, come-to-Jesus chat between the protagonist and her closeted gay father, who has always withheld intimacy.

The scene is six comic strip panels without dialogue.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s 2006 best-selling graphic memoir about her relationship with her troubled dad—who nonetheless helped her discover and accept her own queerness—is among the illustrated autobiographies read in Kent’s Graphic Representation class, offered by the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program. Unlike Twain, Tolstoy, and other staples of lit classes, Fun Home braids words and pictures to plumb its weighty themes: sexual orientation, family dysfunction, and the tragedy of a man whose 1950s upbringing smothered any honesty about his own identity.

Today, Kent’s students study a scene just before the book’s conclusion, where Bruce comes out to his college-age daughter and tells her he’d dressed in girl’s clothes when he was little. “I wanted to be a boy!” Alison replies, grasping for emotional connection. “I dressed in boy’s clothes! Remember?” For six panels, the two stare ahead silently, Bruce unable to venture further onto terrain that terrifies him. The students try to extract meaning from their wordlessness.

“We can see they’re close, but not close enough,” says Richard Ji (CAS’18). Another student is struck by how the silence, depicted visually, reinforces the father’s earlier, awkward confession of his sexuality. “Yeesss!” agrees Kent (GRS’06,’15), a Writing Program lecturer. “Six panels of silence?…Brutal.”

Befitting a class that stresses the visual, she uses compulsively watchable teaching strategies, from the “wheel of death” (an on-screen roulette wheel with students’ names that she spins to call on folks) to a thesis-pitching version of speed dating (students line their desks face-to-face in a single row and discuss their paper ideas with peers for 90 seconds, then switch seats and partners, all timed by Kent).

As with the other texts in the course, Bechdel’s well-known volume (it inspired a Tony-winning Broadway musical) requires both literary interpretation and understanding of the meaning of the pictures.

“Graphic memoirs and graphic novels are really hot right now—there are a lot of them,” Kent says in an interview. “And even though they can be sort of deceptively quick to read…they actually offer, I think, more challenges to analysis than sort of a regular literary book. You have to be an expert in literary analysis, and you have to have sort of literacy of the image as well.”

Prose and pictures don’t always align, as her students learned in the class’ first book, Hyperbole and a Half. Adapted by Allie Brosh from her popular blog of the same name, the drawing style is “as childish and basic” as you can get, Kent says, while the written content is, um, not, as evidenced by the f-bombs throughout.

Bechdel’s illustrations, adult and detailed, will never be confused with the simpler, cartoonish, sharp-edged pictures by Brosh. With both words and pictures, Kent says, her goal is for students to “leave the class and feel like they could then read any other graphic memoir and get that richness out of it.”

For neuroscience student Devon Kloth (CGS’17, CAS’19), the class has been an enjoyable gateway to an otherwise difficult discipline. “English isn’t one of my favorite subjects at all, actually, and I’ve always felt weird about how teachers would interpret analysis of books and writing. But I find it way easier to understand in this kind of class because there are pictures,” Kloth says, “and the way they go with the words…I actually know what they’re thinking about and how they feel.”

That comprehension, Kent says, is precisely why she likes offering this new class—she’ll teach an expanded version this fall—rather than the “very dense, difficult” texts you might expect from a woman with a PhD in English literature. Graphic books are serious and deep, she says, but their illustrations leaven the text, making them accessible.

Still, familiarity with un-illustrated literature can help when reading this genre. Fun Home has allusions to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Colette’s Earthly Paradise. And to the myth of Daedalus, who designed waxed wings for himself and his son, Icarus, so they could fly, only to watch his son plunge into the ocean and die when he flies too near the sun, melting his wings. At the start of her book, Bechdel says she and her father reversed the mythic dynamic, with Bruce the one “who was to plummet from the sky.”

“But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories,” she writes at the book’s conclusion, “he was there to catch me when I leapt.” You need to see the final picture to feel that line tug at your heart. Suffice to say that it suggests, as Kent tells the class, that perhaps whatever Bechdel got from her intimacy-averse father wound up being “good enough.”

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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