Social issues through comic books with Christina Blanch

credits: Christina Blanch
credits: Christina Blanch

Social issues through comic books with Christina Blanch

Christina Blanch, who taught the tremendously popular “Gender Through Comic Books” on Canvas last year is back and gearing up for the next stage in her master plan. Her goal, to share how richly nuanced comics are with the public at large through the introduction of a NEW online comic studies course. This time around, the topic will be social issues through the lens of comic books. Alter Ego Comics, which Christina co-owns with Eisner award-winning author Mark Waid, has called upon fellow shops, fans and authors to provide guest commentary for the course. Some of the notable guests will include:

Mark Waid (Captain America, Daredevil)

Denny O’Neil (Batman: Venom, Green Lantern)

Scott Synder (Batman, Superman)

Jason Aaron (Scalped)

Matt Fraction (Hawkeye)

Jonathan Hickman (Nightly News)

Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan)

Greg Rucka (Lazarus)

Enrollment is free and currently open, with the actual course beginning March 10th

Christina has taken time out of her busy schedule of prep to share a bit about the
upcoming course, her thoughts on comics as a tool for teaching, and what we can
expect. So, sit back relax and enjoy the read in part one of our Social Issues Through Comics online coverage.

MT: What made you decide to use comic books as a teaching tool? How has your perception of the medium changed since undertaking this endeavor? What lessons have you come away with from your first experience (the original online course) of such a massive undertaking?

CB: I was teaching a course on cultural anthropology and was preparing a course on culture change. At the same time, I was reading Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. For those not familiar with the series, in the first few pages, all the males on the planet sans one man and his monkey, drop dead for an unknown reason. The rest of the series shows how this affects culture – kinship, politics, marriage rules, social equality, gender, and more – everything that constitutes culture. I usually had my students create a culture and then have something occur that affects it, but I thought that using the comic book would be much more engaging. That’s one of the things that educators always struggle with and is so important: engaging the students. And it worked. The students were all engaged, and even better, they talked to each other about the book and even took it to other classes. It was amazing. Soon after that, I started using other comic books, such as The Walking Dead, and using the character of Dr. Strange in several books to teach the supernatural. There is really no limit to what comics can teach.

I have always loved comics. But I think using them as teaching tools has really made me even more appreciative of the medium. I had to reread all these books (I know, what a hardship!) from a different perspective. I paid more attention to how the art and the words meshed and I really thought about how the themes and characters were reflective of society. So, it’s really increased my love for the medium, which I would have sworn wasn’t possible.

The first online course was amazing. It really was one of the best experiences of my life. The students were simply fantastic. I was overwhelmed with the amount of enthusiasm they had for the course and how that translated online. I learned that I tried to cram a lot of information into 6 weeks. The thing is, most of the people taking this course had other responsibilities and this was a course that was not for credit and was simply for life-long learning (which I think is amazingly important!). So, I decided to extend the time of the course to six months which will give people more time to enjoy the course instead of rushing through it. I also learned that the course will take a lot of my time, so I have warned my family.

MT: Not only do you use comics as an educational tool, you also create comics and are co-owner of Alter Ego Comics. It is obvious that you love the medium. Where/When/How did this deep fascination begin?

CB: I do love the medium! It is a huge part of my life. I started reading my mom and dad’s copy of Prince Valiant when I was young. I thought it was great that this book, a grown up book, had words and pictures. I read it all the time. My parents gave me the book a couple years ago and it is one of my favorite things I own. I don’t think I appreciated how much Hal Foster was ahead of his time when I was young, but I most certainly do now.

MT: What made you decide to focus on social issues for this course? Do you envision an entire series of courses using comics as the medium to explore various topics? What is the appeal of using comic books to do this?

CB: I have so many ideas for comic book classes. I think about it constantly. I want to offer all of them now, but that’s not realistic. I was trying to think of a topic that would touch a lot of areas and be very engaging and interesting to a large group of people. I asked a few friends of mine what were the major social issues of today and they all came back with basically the same ones. Then I asked them if they thought a class on those topics using comics would be interesting to them and they all thought it would be amazing. So, that’s how it came to be. Now, with the backlash against the Coca-Cola commercial and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think the social issues that we are talking about have really been brought to the front lines lately and it’s important to have open conversations about them, but in a welcoming environment.

MT: What are some of the social issues that you will be hoping to examine during the course? Will guest speakers assist in covering specific topics or will their role be broader and much more generalized? If they will be speaking on specific topics, can you share which creators will be speaking on what topics?

CB: We are going to examine the social issues of addiction, immigration, social inequality, the environment, and media/government intervention/information privacy. The authors will be talking about both their books but also about the social issues that helped them to form their ideas. The questions actually come from the students because the interviews will be live. They tweet in questions during the interview or post them earlier in the week on the canvas site and then I will ask them. My partner at the store, Jason Pierce, is going to ‘co-host’ with me and Aly (my teaching assistant for the last MOOC) will be fielding questions and helping with the filming. That’s one of the big differences for this MOOC. The filming and everything is all be done by us, we don’t have all the big, nice equipment we had last time. But, that’s okay, because the content will be the same!

The creators we have lined up are amazing and I can’t express my gratitude enough to them. For addiction we have Donny Cates who wrote the amazing Buzzkill and the legend Denny O’Neil. Jeff Lemire will be talking about environment via Animal Man and we are using Hawkeye #7 by Matt Fraction. Greg Rucka and Jason Aaron are helping us tackle social inequality with Lazarus and Scalped. We have Gene Yang who will talk about immigration, along with Shaennon Garrity and Jeffrey Wells and Scott Snyder. Finally we will discuss media/government intervention/information privacy with Mark Waid, Jonathan Hickman, and Warren Ellis. The questions asked during the interview will be by the students who can post questions and also tweet questions during the live interviews. However, the questions must be on the topic we are covering so there will be no “How did you start in comics” questions.

MT: Which titles are currently inspiring you? How do you choose the titles for your syllabus?

CB: Tough question. There are so many great books that I love and that give so much inspiration. There are the standards like Alan Moore‘s run on Swamp Thing, Promethea, Y: The Last Man, Kingdom Come, and those books. There are a ton of current titles I read, way too many to name. However, just to mention one, I can say that when I read the second issue of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting‘s Velvet, there were moments that I got Goosebumps from some of the panels. Steve Epting is amazing and it was one of the best examples of what makes comics such a great medium that I have seen in a while. It just floored me. There are so many fantastic titles out right now – I really think it’s a brilliant time to be in comics. Plus, I just visited India where the market is only a few years old and there is so much fresh talent there. I bought a pile of books and can’t wait to read them. There is also this group called World Comics that teaches people to write short comics about the issues in their lives. They are quite amazing and inspiring.

Choosing books for the syllabus was terrifically hard. There are so many books I wanted to use but I was trying to keep it to no more than four per module. There were certain books I really wanted to use like Devin Grayson‘s User and a certain arc of George Perez‘s Wonder Woman but couldn’t because they are out of print, which is such a shame because they are fantastic. I tried to mix up the choices with new and old books, superhero and non-superhero, some that people may not have heard of, and some that are standard in education. I think we ended up with a pretty good mix. I plan on talking about many more books in the lectures. Some books I didn’t use because I plan to use them in another class, so there may be some people that ask why I didn’t use such and such. Well, I have plans to and we’ll get to them in time. I hope that the choices of books give people a wide variety of things to read and maybe some that they would not have read otherwise.

MT: Could you share a bit about your online comic. What is it about and where can it be found? How has undergoing the experience of creating a comic altered your perception of the comics medium?

CB: The comic I co-write with Chris Carr is called “The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood” and it is on Chris and I both taught in prison for many years and have tons of really great stories. We decided to write a comic about a fictional teacher but include many of our experiences. However, I must say that the part about getting involved with drugs was not part of our experience. The book is about a college teacher who teaches in prison. He has a very sick son and bills are piling up when a student makes him an offer. The story is about what he does with that offer. It’s quite dark. When people ask us why we hate Charlie (we really don’t) we answer that it’s not called “The Happy-Go-Lucky Life of Charlie Wormwood”. It has damnation in the title. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our incredible artist Chee. The book wouldn’t be the same without him. Every time we get pages from him we simple marvel at the beauty of the art and the amazing storytelling. Not every artist is a great storyteller. Chee is both and simply amazing. And Troy Peteri, our letterer, adds the final touches. This book is truly a team effort and I am so lucky to be a part of it.

By writing a comic I have gained so much respect for comics professionals. It is really hard work! And the type of comic that we are doing, only 6 to 8 panels every week, it is difficult to make it interesting, further the story, and leave a cliffhanger every installment. I’ve learned that sometimes people over analyze certain things in comics. I mean, sometimes we will just put something in or make a big panel because it looks cool. I have learned so much from this experience and can’t wait to write another one. Just like I have many ideas for MOOCs, I have several ideas for my next comic.

MT: Finally, if you could have a superpower, what would it be?

CB: As for a superpower, flying. I decided that one day after a long debate with my kids over what is the best superpower. I think if you could fly, then you would never have a bad day. You could always just take off up into the sky and be free from everything.

Those interested in checking out the upcoming course can find registration info here. Next up, an interview with writer Donny Cates (Dark Horse Comics: Buzzkill, Hunter Quaid). Stay tuned.

Read More by Mark Turner


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s