Comic Books and Visual Literacy

Yesterday I gave one of the keynote addresses at our annual Faculty Retreat at Harper College. This year, the Retreat Committee decided to devote the day to the topic of visual literacy, and they were kind enough to ask me to give a talk and to facilitate some of the afternoon discussion sessions. I’ve included Part 1 of my lecture here in honor of my blog’s one-year anniversary, and in honor of my grandmother’s 101st birthday–March 1, 1913. Some of Part 1 is based on a section of Brass City, my zine from last summer.

In Part 2 of the talk, I offered a short history of American comics, and in Part 3 I discussed John Porcellino’s “Comix Dream” from King-Cat Comics and Stories No. 73. John provided copies of that issue for all of my colleagues. I took great pleasure in watching everyone read his work. At the end of the lecture, I discussed the issue of teaching comics to visually impaired students. I shared my experience of working with a blind student two years ago in the course on comic books and literature that Dr. Rich Johnson and I taught at Harper. I’ll include those sections of my talk here on the blog over the next two weeks.

My presentation went well yesterday despite a technical glitch. When I got to the photograph of my grandmother included in the Power Point, the laptop crashed. She stared back at us from the white screen. After several minutes, one of my colleagues rebooted the machine. My grandmother always had a sense of humor and mischief. I hope she enjoyed the lecture.

I’ve also included a copy of the lesson that accompanied my speech. After the morning session, many of the other Harper faculty shared with me their memories of buying comic at the local drugstore or newsstand. They also drew some wonderful comic strips.

Here is Part 1 of my lecture. I hope it doesn’t cause your computer to crash as you read it.

“A Procession of Walking Meditators”: Comic Books and Visual Literacy (Part 1; Presented at the Harper College Faculty Retreat, February 28, 2014, at Chandler’s in Schaumburg, IL)

American comic books are notable for their obsession with nostalgia, especially for lost worlds, missing parents, vanished cities, and broken families. For example, Superman is an orphan from Krypton; Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker lives with regret over the loss of his Uncle Ben. Bruce Wayne, of course, vows to avenge his murdered parents and transforms himself into Batman. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the celebrated graphic novel about his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz, is ultimately a story about the tragic loss of Spiegelman’s mother and brother.

We’ll talk about a definition of comics a little later. First, I’d like to read a quotation that has shaped my thinking about visual literacy and about comics. Marianne Hirsch has written extensively on family photography, and representations of the Holocaust. In the first chapter of her recent book The Generation of Postmemory, she analyzes Art Spiegelman’s comics and W.G. Sebald’s novels. Sebald’s novels and essays are filled with photographs that are an essential and distinctive element of his narrative practice. For Hirsch, “surviving images from the past” including family photographs “require a particular kind of visual literacy, one that can decode the foreign language that they speak, for in Sebald’s formulations, they don’t just utter “small sighs of despair,” but they do so in French, “gémissements de désepoir” (52).

So, according to Hirsch and her studies of comics and family photography, visual literacy requires that we translate from one language to another—from pictures to words and words to pictures.

Before we talk more about comics, let’s spend a few minutes, then, thinking about what Hirsch calls these “surviving images from the past” and the role they play in visual literacy. Most superheroes have an origin story. What is your secret origin as a student and as an educator?

I’d like to begin by asking you to remember your first day of school.

When I say the first day, I mean the very first day when, as a child, you entered a classroom. I’m not interested, however, at least at the moment, in your narrative of that day. Rather, I’d like you to recall an image from those first few moments as you made the transition from home to school. What do you remember?

As I considered Hirsch’s definition of visual literacy as an act of translation, I performed this memory experiment at home. When I think about my first day of kindergarten in the fall of 1978 (my mom didn’t want me to go to nursery school, and my sister was later a nursery school drop out), I remember the gunmetal blue color of our front porch. I lived in Oakville, Connecticut from 1973 until just before my senior year of high school in the summer of 1990, when my family moved to the house they’ve now lived in for almost 25 years. My mother, father, my sister, my grandmother, and I lived across the street from my great grandmother, who was born in Lithuania on April 8, 1890. My great aunt and uncle lived with her, too. In the summer, I sat on the porch with the grandmother. She read romance novels and I read comic books.

Sitting in a rocking chair painted the same gunmetal blue color as the porch itself, my grandmother would often shout across the street to my Aunt Annie, who answered in English or in Lithuanian. (I don’t remember much Lithuanian, by the way, other than a nursery rhyme, a couple of insults, and a few dirty words.) That porch was a gathering place just as significant as our kitchen or our living room. In fact, it was probably more significant, because, for my grandmother, it was stage, a place to see and to be seen. In summer, she told stories, or listened to my Aunt tell stories, or called out, “Take a picture!” to passing motorists who made the mistake of staring too long. So when it was time for me to step on the bus for the first time, I was afraid, startled, a little confused. Would I be allowed to come back home? I was about to cross a border, a boundary from here to there. I had no idea what I would discover on the other side of that border. I began to suspect, I think, that I would never return, not completely.

For me, school and comics and family are inextricably linked. So when I ask myself the question I just asked you—think of and share with me an image of the first day of school—I immediately think of that blue porch. Although I have not been able to find a photograph of my first day of school, I have several other photographs of the house on Bamford Avenue. I’d like to share four of those with you now.

Taken together, despite the huge gaps of time and space between each one, I read these photographs as a four-panel comic strip:

Scan 4 Scan 2great grandmaphoto (15)

Here is the first:

Scan 4

This is a photograph of Anthony Budris, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family. Like my great-grandmother, he was born in Lithuania in the late 19th century and immigrated to the United States a century ago. He is sitting on the front stoop of the house on Bamford Avenue, sometime in the early 1940s. The photograph does not have a date, but, as my sister Alison pointed out to me, we know this must be the early 1940s because of Service Flag in the window just behind him. The sign with the star reminded visitors that this house included family members now serving in the war effort overseas.

In the second photograph, my grandmother, Patricia Budris Stango, poses for the camera just a few steps down from where my great grandfather sits in the first image:

 Scan 2

Was this photograph taken on the same day? She cradles two dogs. Behind her you can see a blue spruce tree. It’s much smaller here that it was in the 1970s and in the 1980s, when it was so tall it shaded my room on the second floor of the house. Both trees are gone, but the porch itself, now painted red by the home’s current owner, is still there.

In the third panel my great-grandmother, who died just short of her 91st birthday in March of 1981, when I was 7 years old, holds two kittens. It is August of 1949. One of the cats is black. The other is an orange tabby. You’ll begin to notice a pattern now. Each photo is taken from roughly the same angle. In all four, the photo was taken on a bright, clear day:

great grandma

Twenty-five years later, I am wearing a blue shirt. I am sitting with my Aunt Annie’s dog Spooky. I am two or three years old:

photo (15)

I am not far from where my great grandfather sat in the early 1940s, nor am I far from my grandmother and her two dogs or my great grandmother and the kittens. All that separates us is time. As I place these four images together, and as I tell you these stories, I have what cartoonist Will Eisner called sequential art, storytelling with words and pictures—comic strips, comic books, graphic novels. I have taken these four family photographs and, through research, imagination, and analysis, I have begun to write a narrative. But what story am I telling?

According to Susan Sontag, whose work on photography has had an enormous impact on the research of other scholars writing on comics including Marianne Hirsch and Hillary Chute, this is the story of a family as only a series of photographs bound together in an album can tell it. A family album, even a digital one, might be read as a kind of novel. Sontag explains,

Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family—and, often, is all that remains of it. (Sontag 8-9)

The front stoop as a stage, a place where we could see and be seen, a place to perform for the camera: first my great grandfather, smoking his pipe, watching his grandson, whose face you will see if you look carefully behind the potted white viburnum. Then my grandmother, as sly and stoic as she was when I knew her, years later.

Of the four of us starring in these photographs—or, I should say, of the ten of us, including my cousin, the three dogs, and the two kittens—of the ten of us who sat on this stoop and posed for these pictures, I am the only one alive to tell this story, to look for what’s missing in the spaces between the images. As Sontag reminds us, these four photographs, now archived on my computer, are “all that remains” of these moments in time, and of this family, my family. I wonder, as I shape this narrative, if we somehow recognize each other, sense a presence, as we sit patiently—or, in my case, not so patiently—and wait for our pictures to be taken.

Anyway, when I try to remember my first day of school, I see that front stoop, and when I recall that front stoop, I think of family photographs and comic books.

Several of the most influential comics and graphic novels of the last twenty years—books that you might use in your classrooms—are also about time, and family, and memory, and nostalgia. Cartooning—storytelling with words and pictures—is, I think, the art of nostalgia, one that requires a very special form of visual literacy. According to Svetlana Boym,

Nostalgia (from nostos—return home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.  (Boym xiii)

Comic books test our memories and our visual acuity. Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, for example, tells the story of his parents Vladek and Anja, who survived Auschwitz. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a memoir about the mysteries of her father and of her childhood. Raymond Briggs’s Ethel and Ernest is a history of his parents, their love affair, their struggles in London during the Blitz, their old age and their passing. Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix is a journey inside, an adventure in consciousness, a transgender odyssey. Fake’s hero, on a desperate search for his lost lover and for his memory, blurs the distinction between past and present, male and female, comics and fine art. Lastly, Congressman John Lewis’s March, created in collaboration with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, and published last year by Top Shelf, is a record of his youth, of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Each one of these narratives, all of which I recommend to you and to your students, is about nostalgia—not just the desire to recover the past, but to understand how memories of what is now distant from us have shaped our present.


Here is the lesson I designed to follow my lecture. Feel free to use this in one of your classes. If you do, let me know how it goes.

Part 1

In the space provided, write about an image you remember from your first day of school. When I say your first day, I mean the very first day—the moment you left home to go to school. Don’t tell a story. Describe an image that stays with you from that first day:

Part 2

Now, draw the image you wrote about in Part 1. Do not worry about the technical perfection of your drawing. Drawing is another form of writing or storytelling:

Part 3

Now you’ll combine the words and the pictures from the front of this sheet of paper into a narrative of your memory of your first day of school. Use the Peanuts strip as a template. Limit yourself to four panels only. As Scott McCloud suggests, also consider what happens in the blank spaces between the panels. Draw your four panels in the space provided below:

Part 4

Read a colleague’s comic strip. Then, ask your colleague the following questions:

1. In writing about your memory, and then in drawing it, did you notice any discrepancies? What happened when you combined the words and the pictures in your comic strip?

2. What action is taking place between the panels (to borrow an idea from Scott McCloud)? What has been left out in the blank spaces between the panels?

3. How much of what you remember about that first day of school has been shaped by your subsequent experiences as a student and as a teacher? What is the relationship between past and present in your comic strip? Who were you then, and who are you now?

Part 5: Recommended Readings

If you like the following books, remember that we have many, many more in the Harper College Library. These are a few places to start:

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner Books, 2007. Like Art Spiegelman, Bechdel looks for clues about her father’s mysterious past. How has that past shaped her?

Jay Hosler, Clan Apis. Active Synapse, 2000. The life and adventures of a honey bee named Nyuki, written and drawn by a Professor of Biology from Juniata College.

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March: Book 1. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2013. Representative John Lewis’s autobiography and his memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington. A new classic.

Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon, 1986. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust.


Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador: 1977. Print.

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