November 17, 2023
Thanks to Chad Greene, a 2023 Fellowship in Ideas recipient, for today’s blog.
Of the classes I teach at my community college, the closest to a Great Books class is a course called “Masterpieces of World Literature” that the English department offers every fall. In this class I ask students to apply frameworks of shared inquiry that I have learned from taking Great Books classes for my professional development to our readings of classics such as the Epic of Gilgamesh of Sîn-lēqi-unninni, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and The Histories of Herodotus. “Masterpieces of World Literature” was also the first class for which I assigned a graphic novel, and – this fall – is the first in which I will ask students to make a comic as a way of visualizing the Great Conversation.
These intersections of classics with comics may at first seem strange, but – through research conducted during my year as a Fellow in Ideas at Harrison Middleton University – I have found scholarly support for the use of comics as a form of literature as well as a form of composition.
Comics as Literature: 300 and Beowulf
When we read The Histories of Herodotus, the tale I tend to concentrate on is the legendary last stand of the 300 Spartans attempting to defend the Hot Gates – Thermopylae – against a force of Persians that some modern estimates suggest may have numbered up to 300,000. If my students are at all familiar with the Battle of Thermopylae before we read about it in The Histories, it tends to be because they have watched Zack Snyder’s 2007 movie 300. In my own case, I will admit my first encounter with the legend of King Leonidas and his doomed men was through Frank Miller’s 1998 comic 300. That was the graphic novel that inspired Snyder to make his movie – and inspired me to assign my students in “Masterpieces of World Literature” to read a comic.
Of course, my students and I are not alone in this experience of first encountering an ancient classic in the form of a modern comic or a movie. In “Comics and Classics: Establishing a Critical Frame,” George Kovacs writes that “we must acknowledge that students are most likely to have had their first exposure to the ancient world through some expression of current media” (7). Kovacs, an associate professor of Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Trent University, and C.W. Marshall, a professor of Greek at the University of British Columbia, are the co-editors of Comics and Classics, a book published by the prestigious University of Oxford Press. In their introduction to Comics and Classics, Kovacs and Marshall concede that some classicists criticized 300 because of its historical inaccuracies, yet argue those were less important than the positive impact of first exposing readers of Miller’s comic – and, eventually, viewers of Snyder’s movie – to one of the most important tales in Western literature and history. “These certainly existed, but they matter less than the impact of a mass media presentation of this crucial event for Western history, an impact that expanded when it became a film in 2007” (Kovacs and Marshall, ix).
Another criticism of Miller’s comic and Snyder’s movie is the level of violence in both these impactful mass-media presentations of the tale of the 300 Spartans. However, in “Visualizing the Classics: Frank Miller’s 300 in a World Literature Course,” Paul Streufert – a professor of English at the University of Texas at Tyler – suggests that violence presents a powerful opportunity for shared inquiry. “There is no doubt that 300 is a profoundly violent text,” Streufert concedes. “In class discussion, students express horror at the images, yet this shock has proved a useful tool, prompting another look at the violence in so much of ancient literature” (212). From his experiences teaching 300 in his own world literature class, Streufert has found that “Miller’s text invites readers to consider whether violent acts should be celebrated or condemned” (212).
When I teach this classic in my “Masterpieces of World Literature” class, I combine that insight on Streufert’s part with his suggestion to ask “students to speculate on the similarities and differences among three different narrative modes” – historical account, comic, and movie (211). So we concentrate on three different representations of the same moment, when a Persian ambassador attempts to intimidate the Spartan soldiers by boasting that their arrows will block out the sun. This leads to one of the truly exceptional examples of a laconic phrase in human history, when one of the soldiers playfully replies that’s good news, because, if the Persians hide the sun, the Spartans will be able to fight them in the shade instead of in the sun. In The Histories, this statement is attributed to the historical person Dieneces. In 300, it is instead attributed to the fictional character Stelios, who punctuates it with the profoundly violent act of severing the ambassador’s arm, which holds a whip. The questions for shared inquiry that my students and I settle on for analyzing the three representations of the moment by Herodotus, Miller, and Snyder tend to look like these:
1) What is gained, if anything, in the translation of the historical account into the comic/movie format?
2) What is lost, if anything, in the translation of the historical account into the comic/movie format?
3) How does Miller’s/Snyder’s graphic depiction of the fictional event of the severing of the Persian ambassador’s arm change the effect of the laconic phrase? Considering the ambassador’s actions in this sequence, what is significant about Miller’s/Snyder’s decision to make it his arm that is severed?
Because shared-inquiry questions such as these have consistently led to thoughtful conversations, in a couple class sections of “Masterpieces of World Literature,” we have similarly looked at three different representations of another profoundly violent moment, when the hero Beowulf rips off the monster Grendel’s arm in Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation of the epic poem Beowulf, in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s 2016 graphic novel Beowulf, and in Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 movie Beowulf.
In these animated discussions, I have found that comics such as 300 and Beowulf can effectively – as Streufert suggests – “serve as an entry point for a discussion of the problematic nature of studying ancient texts” (209).
Comics as Composition: “Great Conversation!”
Although the thought of comics as a form of literature is not new to me, the thought of comics as a form of composition is. Through research conducted during my Fellowship in Ideas at HMU, however, I discovered a 2015 special issue of the scholarly journal Composition Studies dedicated to “Comics, Multimodality, and Composition.” The articles in it have inspired me to ask my “Masterpieces of World Literature” students this semester to compose a comic as a way of visualizing the Great Conversation.
It was in the article “Illustrating Praxis: Comic Composition, Narrative Rhetoric, and Critical Multiliteracies” by Kathryn Comer, an associate professor of English at Portland State University, that I first encountered the argument that, “in addition to the benefits gained by reading comics, the act of composing comics has a great deal to offer students and teachers at the college level” (76). But it was while reading the article “Beyond Talking Heads: Sourced Comics and the Affordances of Multimodality” by Hannah Dickinson and Maggie Werner that I first thought of asking my students in “Masterpieces of World Literature” to compose a comic. In their article, Dickinson and Werner – an associate professor and professor, respectively, of Writing and Rhetoric at Hobart and William Smith Colleges – describe a “sourced comic” assignment that “requires students to depict imagined conversations with and among published scholars” (51).
This struck me as an elaboration on the type of “invented dialogue” that I first started to ask my students to write after reading Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross’s book Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers in my early years as a professor. In Angelo and Cross’s conception of the activity, there are two levels: “On the first level, students can create invented dialogues by carefully selecting and weaving together actual quotes from primary sources. On a second, more challenging level, they may invent reasonable quotes that fit the character of the speakers and the content” (203). In my “Playwriting” and “Screenwriting” classes, for example, I assign my students to script an invented dialogue between Aristotle and Gustav Freytag about dramatic structure after we have read excerpts from their respective classics Poetics and Technique of the Drama. But I had never thought to have my students adapt those “invented dialogues” into “sourced comics” before reading Dickinson and Werner’s “Beyond Talking Heads.”
In their experience, a sourced comic “simultaneously expands and demystifies – through invention, play, and reflection – the strategies students might use to engage scholarly sources” and “enable[s] students to rethink scholarly conversation in ways that both allow and encourage their participation in varied roles” (Dickinson and Werner 52, 67). I immediately saw sourced comics as a playful, yet effective technique to visualize the Great Conversation as well as the critical role of inquiry in Great Books classes. Because they can make “visible the range of roles available to students as they negotiate their own power and authority in relation to source material,” I could encourage my students, for instance, to picture themselves in the same space as a great author and to depict themselves with the same stature – as equals, essentially (Dickinson and Werner 52). And I could instruct to them to ask for something simple, yet useful: a piece of ancient advice.
For professionally produced samples, drawn in a simple style, I have settled on excerpts from John Porcellino’s book Thoreau at Walden and the “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” strip from Corey Mohler’s online Existential Comics. I’ve decided we’ll start our discussion of them by looking at the different ways in which the two comics creators incorporate one of Henry David Thoreau’s most famous lines from Walden: “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Porcellino illustrates it in the first panel on page 87 of his book; Mohler incorporates it into the sixth and seventh panels in his strip.)
And I’ve made my own sample sourced comic of my own, in which I ask the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger for a piece of ancient advice:
After making my own sourced comic, like Erin Kathleen Bahl – an associate professor of Applied and Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University – declares in her article “Comics and Scholarship: Sketching the Possibilities,” I believe “that the comics form has much to offer contemporary scholarly composing practices: they invite attention to alternative ways of meaning-making, new spaces for thought and dialogue, new questions about what scholarship can and should do, and perhaps even a sense of fun” (180).
Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. 2nd ed., Jossey-Boss, 1993.
Bahl, Erin Kathleen. “Comics and Scholarship: Sketching the Possibilities.” Comics, Multimodality, and Composition, special issue of Composition Studies, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 178-182.
Comer, Kathryn. “Illustrating Praxis: Comic Composition, Narrative Rhetoric, and Critical Multiliteracies.” Comics, Multimodality, and Composition, special issue of Composition Studies, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 75-104.
Dickinson, Hannah, and Maggie Werner. “Beyond Talking Heads: Sourced Comics and the Affordances of Multimodality.” Comics, Multimodality, and Composition, special issue of Composition Studies, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 51-74.
Kovacs, George. “Comics and Classics: Establishing a Critical Frame.” Classics and Comics. Edited by George Kovacs and C.W. Marshall. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Kovacs, George, and C.W. Marshall. “Introduction.” Classics and Comics. Edited by George Kovacs and C.W. Marshall. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Mohler, Corey. “Walden; Or, Life in the Woods.” Existential Comics, No. 120. https://existentialcomics.com/comic/120 Accessed 30 Oct. 2023.
Porcellino, John. Thoreau at Walden. Disney + Hyperion, 2008.
Streufert, Paul. “Visualizing the Classics: Frank Miller’s 300 in a World Literature Course.”
Teaching the Graphic Novel. Edited by Stephen Tabachnick. The Modern Language Association of America, 2009.
Photo credits: original work provided by Chad Greene.