Spring 2013 Graphic Novel Syllabus

by Salvatore Pane


I’ve been trying to get a comic book survey course off the ground since spring 2010. It’s finally happening in the form of Contemporary Lit & Culture: The Graphic Novel, and I could not be happier. The majority of this syllabus is my own design (the essay topics and many of the readings), but I took cues from the graphic novel survey course I took as an undergraduate at Susquehanna University led by Dr. Laurence Roth. Please let me know what you think. I’m still tinkering with details.

ENGL 415: Contemporary Lit & Culture

University of Indianapolis

Assistant Professor Salvatore Pane

Office Hours: 12-1 MWF, 3-4 MW

Credits: 3.0

The Graphic Novel


Course Description

In Contemporary Lit & Culture, we’ll survey a vast array of graphic novels. Students will read and analyze texts from a number of different genres. We’ll discuss the deconstruction of the superhero genre in Watchmen alongside the story of a young Iranian woman coming of age in Persepolis among many other seminal works of sequential art. Students will familiarize themselves with the terms and structures of the comic book.

Welcome to Contemporary Lit & Culture: The Graphic Novel


What are comic books? What are graphic novels? What is sequential art? And what is their connection to us as students, scholars, and citizens of the globe? Together, we’ll close read and analyze a number of texts to answer these very questions. We’ll examine the complicated history of the comic book medium abroad and right here in America. We’ll look at comics that examine global politics as diverse as the Holocaust and the Islamic Revolution. We’ll question the reinvention of superheroes and how creators have used those familiar tropes to say something larger about our burgeoning humanity in the post-atomic area. We’ll discuss critiques of the military industrial complex and global imperialism. And finally, we’ll study the so-called “new masters” of comics and try to understand the limits and potentialities of the graphic novel as a recently legitimatized art form in the 21st century.

Each student will be asked to write two research essays totaling 17 pages of polished material. You will add to the ongoing discussion of the course and participate in a group presentation. By course’s end, you’ll be able to display a thorough understanding of a burgeoning medium that combines both prose and art using a scholarly vocabulary and framework.

Required Texts

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

Persepolis I: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

The Manhattan Projects: Volume 1: Science Bad By Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Criminal: Volume 6: The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Course Objectives:


  • To develop our skills as critical writers, readers and thinkers, and to understand the interdependence of these three skills
  • To improve our writing skills in several genres, including the research essay
  • To develop our appreciation for literature and the thoughtful discussion of texts and ideas through multiple theoretical perspectives.
  • To discuss the rise of the comic book as a “new” art form that marries both prose and art.


It is your responsibility to bring the books and readings we will focus on in any given class session. Everything you will need is explained in the Course Sequence. If you do not bring the books, I will mark you absent.


You will be asked to write two papers, to participate in one group presentation, and to add to the class discussion every single class. The grading breakdown follows:

Essays                                                                                                                                     70%

Class Participation                                                                                                     15%

Group Presentation                                                                                                     15%

IMPORTANT NOTE: Classroom participation will affect your grade. Lack of engagement or preparation will lower your grade. Regular comments and involvement with moving the ongoing conversation of the class forward will increase your grade.

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT NOTE: If you turn in a paper late, you will lose an entire letter grade. If you turn in a paper more than 24 hours late, it is an automatic failure. Automatic failures WILL impact your final grade in the class. No excuses.

All papers must be written in Times New Roman 12 with one inch margins. Failure to comply will result in a lowered grade. Also, please title your work. Do not generically title your papers, “Essay 2” or “Essay on Watchmen.”


If you miss class five times, you will fail. The ONLY excuses I will accept are a doctor’s excuse or some kind of family emergency. I am not going to make any exceptions on this front.


You should always be on time for class. If you are late, you will not get credit for attending class.


If you are unprepared for discussion, I cannot give you credit for attendance that day.

Special Assistance

If you have a disability that may have some impact on your work in this class and for which you may require accommodations, please inform me immediately so that your learning needs may be appropriately met.  Students with a disability must register with the Services for Students with Disabilities office (SSD) in Schwitzer Center 206 (317-788-6153 / www.uindy.edu/ssd) for disability verification and for determination of reasonable academic accommodations. You are responsible for initiating arrangements for accommodations for tests and other assignments in collaboration with the SSD and the faculty.




During the first week you will sign up for one of four presentation groups each with its own topic. Your group will be responsible for leading one class over the course of the semester. You will be asked to give an overview/history of your assigned topic. Lead us into territory that you most care about. Feel free to be creative. Use technology, come prepared with a game, discussion questions, or whatever you feel is necessary to best serve the material being presented. We’ll talk about this more as we get further into the semester.

At the end of the course, you will be required to give a much more informal presentation for no more than five minutes. You will be asked to purchase and read one brand new comic book (they’re usually less than four dollars) from a local comic store here in Indianapolis. I will provide a list of stores and transportation options. You will then be asked to describe the store, the book, the publisher, and whether the comic was new reader friendly or not. This feeds into your participation grade, not your presentation grade.


Intellectual theft, like any other kind of theft, is a crime, and is especially dangerous on a college campus. Plagiarism is defined as any use of another person’s thoughts or words as your own. I don’t expect to see plagiarism in this class, and if I do each case will be dealt with on an individual basis, but the MINIMUM penalty will be failure for the assignment in question. Failing the entire course is not out of the question. If you are doing research and are unsure how to incorporate someone else’s work into your own in a valid manner, please ask—I’ll be more than happy to help you out so that there’s no danger of confusion.

Course Sequence


Week One

Monday January 14


Action Comics #1

Wednesday January 16

Understanding Comics “Introduction” “Setting the Record Straight” “The Vocabulary of Comics” “Blood in the Gutter”

Friday January 18

Understanding Comics “Time and Frames” “Show and Tell” “The Six Steps”
Week Two

Monday January 21 MLK

The Comics Book History of Comics 7-20, 27-56

Wednesday January 23

The Comic Book History of Comics 79-115, 163-186, 199-216

Friday January 25

Skype with Fred Van Lente
Week Three

Monday January 28

Outside Material – Superheroes in Real World Crises

Wednesday January 30

Outside Material – Superheroes in Real World Crises II

Friday February 1

Group Presentation 1 – Web Comics
Week Four

Monday February 4

Watchmen Chapters 1-3

Wednesday February 6

Watchmen Chapters 4-6

Friday February 8

Watchmen Chapters 7-9

Week Five

Monday February 11

Watchmen Chapters 10-12

Wednesday February 13

Watch Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods

Friday February 15

Watch Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods
Week Six

Monday February 18

We3 Chapter 1

Wednesday February 20

We3 Chapters 2-3

Friday February 22

Outside Material – The Second Image Revolution

Midterm Due
Week Seven

Monday February 25

Persepolis 1-53

Wednesday February 27

Persepolis 53-102

Friday March 1

Persepolis 102-153

Week 8

Week 9

Monday March 11

Group Presentation 2 – Manga

Wednesday March 13

Maus Chapters 1-3 Book 1

Friday March 15

Maus Chapters 4-6 Book 1
Week 10

Monday March 18

Maus Chapters 1-3 Book 2

Wednesday March 20

Maus Chapters 4-5 Book 2

Friday March 22

Outside Material – Comics as a Legitimate Art Form
Week 11

Monday March 25

Group Presentation 3 –Archie

Wednesday March 27

Outside Material – #MakeComics
Week 12

Monday April 1
Criminal: Last of the Innocents Chapter 1

Wednesday April 3

Criminal: Last of the Innocents Chapter 2

Friday April 5

Criminal: Last of the Innocents Chapters 3-4
Week 13

Monday April 8

Group Presentation 4 – Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project

Wednesday April 10

The Manhattan Projects Chapter 1

Friday April 12

The Manhattan Projects Chapters 2-3
Week 14

Monday April 15

The Manhattan Projects Chapters 4-5

Wednesday April 17

Skype with Nicholas Pitarra

Friday April 19

Individual Comic Book Presentation 1
Week 15

Monday April 22

Individual Comic Book Presentation 2

Wednesday April 24

Student Conferences

Friday April 26

Final Due





As we’ve seen time and again, comic book creators continually drop their superheroes into the hearts of real world crises. Whether it’s Captain America punching out Hitler, or Dr. Manhattan blowing up the Vietnamese for President Nixon, or even Dr. Doom crying at Ground Zero, superheroes always seem to get drafted into our real life struggles. Goofy Peter Parker bully Flash Thompson loses his legs in Iraq. Tony Stark builds his Iron Man suit in response to an attack during the Korean War. President Reagan sends Superman to end the Batman problem once and for all. This trend has existed throughout the entire history of superhero comics.

Why? Think of other fantastical genres. Sci-fi. Fantasy. There are always examples to the contrary, but these other speculative characters rarely encounter real life crises like 9/11 or World War II. What is it about superheroes that writers keep trying to use them to solve our real life problems? For as easy as it is to imagine Captain America fighting in Iraq, it’s as difficult to imagine Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter doing the same.

For this paper, you will explore why superheroes are continuously dragged into the real world to solve our actual problems. What separates characters like Superman and Dr. Manhattan from Master Chief and Frodo Baggins when it comes to their ability to enter our worlds? Over seven pages, you will come up with an answer to this question. You are required to use AT LEAST five sources. One must be Watchmen or The Comic Book History of Comics. Two must be comic books or graphic novels you find on your own. Another two must be critical sources. We’ll discuss in class how to find these sources. Make sure that when you’re discussing comics you’re using the language and vocabulary put forth by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics.


Over the course of the semester, we’ve discussed a wide variety of sequential art, everything from textbooks that explore the very limits of the medium to a book where Robert Oppenheimer leads a rag tag group of Nazi-murdering super scientists. We’ve seen the reworking of the superhero, comics as memoirs, war fables, and even the prestige graphic novel. Yet there is always that lingering doubt: are comic books valid? Are they worthy of study in the same way that a masterpiece of a novel is worthy of study?

For this paper, you will form an argument for how/if sequential art can be a viable tool for various disciplines within the university. Comic books have only been seen as entertainment suitable for adults in the last few years. Can they be as useful to the university as prose books? Are the works of Ed Brubaker and Art Spiegelman proof that graphic novels should be covered more thoroughly in English departments? Does Persepolis make a good case for allowing the graphic novel entry into journalism classes? Would the referential works of Criminal: Last of the Innocent and The Manhattan Projects function better in a Pop Culture seminar?

Limit yourself to a single discipline. There are many educators and thinkers who believe that comics books have no place in the university. There are many that do. Find their work and choose a side and develop your argument over ten full pages. For this paper you will need AT LEAST six sources. Three must be books we read in the second half of the course—everything post-Watchmen. And another three must be critical sources you find on your own. As always, make sure that when you’re discussing comics you’re using the language and vocabulary put forth by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics.