Through comics, profs draw path to visual literacy

In Making Comics, an English course for undergraduates, students learn the theory of comic books while working with others to make them—all in the name of visual literacy.

Robert Berry and JC Cloutier read comics in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Adjunct Professor Robert Berry, left, and Assistant Professor of English Jean-Christophe Cloutier, who teach the undergraduate course Making Comics, enjoy two comics that are part of Van Pelt-Dietrich's collection, available to students, faculty, and staff.

Comics: They’re not just a backburner medium.

So goes the ethos of cartoonist and adjunct professor Robert Berry and assistant professor of English Jean-Christophe Cloutier’s seminar course Making Comics, which explores comic book theory while immersing students in the creative process of making their own comics. 

The idea, germinated by Berry circa 2014, was to wield the course as a tool to teach not just the usual critical analysis of English studies, but visual language.

“I said, ‘I’ve got this idea that comics should be taught through an English department and as a visual language, more than being in the background of an illustration department, where it doesn’t get enough attention on creative writing,’” says Berry, recalling a meeting with English professor Paul Saint-Amour over lunch one day. 

“Or considered just young adult or children’s literature,” Cloutier chimes in. 

Together, they landed on teaching the course as a way to illuminate the subtext of images that contain an overlay of text—not just in comics, but everyday life.

“It’s really visual literacy that we’re teaching, which is very useful these days, considering most of what we encounter is always framed and includes images and texts,” Cloutier adds. “It’s what’s constantly on our phones and laptops. Comics, if you deconstruct and learn how that language works, I think your visual literacy is just going to skyrocket. 

“But at the same time, we’re teaching them how to build their own [comics].”

Student-made comics scattered on a table
Comics created by students as their final project during the Making Comics course.

The course kicks off by exploring what comic books are—distinguishing them from political cartoons and other multi-panel strips—before quickly launching into theory based on the work of cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud. He expands popular perceptions of what comics are—re: superhero books—by looking at what, to cite just one example, poetry shares in common with comics. That is, taking into account shared storytelling elements, like pacing and breaks.

Throughout the semester, students get to try their hand at comic book-making by not only working collaboratively on a longer, final project comic, but by, through smaller assignments, cleverly transforming other works in English into a comic language.

“They adapt poetry, journalism, letters—there are some letters from famous authors [they’ve] then adapted them into comics,” Cloutier says. “One was a funny letter from Scott Fitzgerald for his daughter, berating her for her behavior, and so the students turned that into a fun little narrative comic. Another was about Kafka breaking up with one of his girlfriends.”

Robert Berry at a white board with two images showing a fork, one juxtaposed with text "Rejoice" and another with "Fork"
Robert Berry demonstrates on a whiteboard the significance of text in tandem with an image, showing how it uniquely changes the interpretation of a picture.

Students use a variety of technology tools at Penn Libraries, like a light board and Wacom tablet, as well as Van Pelt-Dietrich Library’s WIC Seminar Room with an extended white board, to work in small groups and eventually bring an entire comic book to life from start to finish. Seeing students go through the creative writing and design process is exhilarating for the duo, they say.

“For me, the best surprise has been in seeing people who don’t think they can draw learn things about their drawings during the course of trying to tell stories with them,” Berry says. (Students don’t need drawing skills to take the course.) “The idea of what it means when they make this thing small or that thing big, frontality in the panel, design elements, having them do those unconsciously and then learn what those are conveying to others, to me, that’s a constant surprise to see that light go on in their eyes when they understand that.”

Suzy Kim, who took the course in Spring 2015 and has since graduated with a degree in English Literature with Honors, decided to take the course as an avid reader of Korean and Japanese comics. A former student of Cloutier, she says he helped her “close-read comic books as one would with a Victorian novel.”

For her final project, with then fellow student Patrick Gabrielli, she created the 14-page comic book Goblin Market. Following the course, the pair worked together to produce—and have since published—The Adventure of the Speckled Band, another 14-page book, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the same name. 

“I found it one of the best and most memorable experiences in my college career,” Kim says. “Despite my lifelong interest in comics and manga, I never finished a complete comic of my own, and this class helped me achieve that and allowed me to explore so many details that one would never know unless one picks up the pen and paper to write and draw a comic.”

Cloutier and Berry in a conference room with foldout Spider-Man comic
Robert Berry unfolds a Spider-Man comic created by a student. It's one way students have used form as a way to innovate comics in the course.

The course also, she says, taught her to think more critically about visual media in everyday life.

“We are saturated not only with literal comic book characters in the various cultural franchises in film and television, but also primed to read into the mixture of visual and textual elements in everything we consume—from Instagram posts to advertisements,” she adds. “Comics is a particular medium in which time and narrative are weaved through text and image that helps us examine the visuotextuality that we are constantly surrounded by.”

This is the third time Cloutier and Berry will teach the course, and, they hope, the best. New to this semester will be a look at how comics can intermix with the emerging field of narrative medicine. Jeff Millstein, a Penn Medicine internist who studies the field—one that aims to harness storytelling as a way to obtain better diagnostic information from patients—has provided vignettes of real Penn Medicine stories they hope to integrate into the course instruction. 

“We’ve asked him to give us his Top 20 or so medical vignettes that he would most like to see adapted, because he feels that medical students already have way too many volumes to read, so if it’s coming at them in the form of comics, it might be more welcoming and a different way to grasp information,” Cloutier says. “It’s always great to work with departments you usually have no contact with.”

Also new this semester is a workshop that Cloutier and Berry will open up to the larger Penn and comic-making communities on Monday nights, from 5-7 p.m. at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library through the end of the spring semester. They hope the meetup will continue to build a comics community at Penn.