Comic Feature Image

Union Tribune: The graphic novel — an American art form — assigned reading at SDSU

After studying classic graphic novels like ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and ‘Ghost World,’ SDSU students create their own


Students in instructor Neil Kendricks’ “Comics and Sequential Media” class at San Diego State University found the following on their spring semester’s required reading list: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller, “The Complete Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Ghost World” by Daniel Clowes. Each, says Kendricks, is an “iconic work” in graphic novels, a genre that grew from comic books, a uniquely American idiom.

“Comics are one or two of the most important art forms in terms of coming from America,” says Kendricks, who’s also a filmmaker, visual artist and writer. “It’s basically jazz and comics — you can trace their origins to the United States. Students start to realize that some of this stuff has become part of our culture, our mythology. It’s just as legitimate an art form as a novel of prose. It’s just as important to be visually literate as to be literate with words.”

As their final projects for the spring term that ended in May, Kendricks’ students were assigned to create not an entire graphic novel, but something perhaps more challenging: a two-page-maximum comic that told an entire story, beginning to end, and adhered to the theme of immortality. They also had to do so remotely from halfway through the semester on when in-person classes at SDSU and elsewhere were forced to go online. The students’ comics will be published in the next issue of the comics anthology edited by Kendricks and Neil Shigley, “Word Balloons.”

In short, the students’ journey to their own graphic novel started with two pages. Their exposure to the estimable canon of American graphic novels, which includes not only those that are required reading in Kendricks’ class but also titles such as “Watchmen” by Alan Moore, “American Splendor” by Harvey Pekar and “A Contract with God” by Will Eisner, is “an introduction to the range of possibilities with a graphic novel,” Kendricks says. “They need to learn the language and how the masters have done it before they tackle putting together even a two-page comic.”

As their spring semester wound up, five of Kendricks’ students — Ricardo Charavin Acosta, Alyssa Legaspi, Annika Butler, Ivy Liew and Katelyn Pecha — shared via Zoom their comics-creation experiences during the semester.

They all learned the importance of the synergy between words and visuals in effective storytelling.

“This process for the class made me think about the writing first, and then thinking after about how I wanted to do it visually,” says Legaspi, a film student at SDSU. “Comics in general have had a bad reputation where people don’t see them as something that has much value. What makes them so beautiful is that the type of art and the types of stories you can tell together are unique.”

Charavin Acosta said he adopted a “visual approach” to his storytelling, “but I tried to incorporate the best of both worlds.”

Butler’s two-page comic, about the aftermath of two missile strikes on civilization, features two life forms as characters: a mutated crow and an “unbranded pastry” that looks much like a Twinkie. This was only her second attempt at drawing a comic, but she’s taken to the medium.

“With traditional media, you can only leave so much to the imagination,” she says. “You’re always going to have your readers’ interpretation of what you actually meant. With comics, it removes a little of the element of surprise, but you can use your own expression in terms of what you’re trying to say to people.”

Lieu, who returned to Australia mid-semester and completed her project from more than 7,000 miles away, collaborated Down Under with a former high school classmate, Lunlana Thorpe, who illustrated the story Lieu wrote. “The challenge was not having full control of the work,” Lieu says, “but it turned out amazing.”

From her collaborator’s perspective, “As an artist, you have to have your own understanding of the comic so you can execute it in a coherent way but understand the intent,” says Thorpe, who’s been doing digital art for 10 years. “Trying to find the balance was interesting for me.”

Pecha, an art education major, created her two-page comic completely by hand, using pencil drawings and then watercolor. “I’ve always been interested in film and photography as well as art,” she says, “and I thought comics was a good intersection between those.”

Even starting with just two pages, “The class is their entry into diving into the classics of graphic novels,” Kendricks says.

Most of these classics can be found on the shelves of the San Diego Public Library’s 36 branches.

“Graphic novels are an important part of the library collection for a couple of reasons,” says library assistant Eric Rife of the Mission Valley branch. “The first is that they provide a lot of entertainment for readers. They also can introduce very complex issues in an easy-to-understand way.”

The library system’s collections include children’s graphic novels, young adult graphic novels and adult graphic novels, each, Rife says, popular with their target readerships. “They communicate higher ideals that break out of those of traditional comics (good vs. evil, for example),” Rife says. “Whatever resistance that once existed to them has ebbed away to the point that I don’t know if anyone actually criticizes them anymore.”

In the libraries and in classrooms, as in American culture, the graphic novel is here to stay.

Coddon is a freelance writer.