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The Four-Color Phenomenon: A Historical Survey of American Comic Books and Graphic Novels, 1938-2000

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

This course surveys the history of American comic books. It utilizes the study of the medium as an entry point to engage broader trends and issues in American society and culture throughout the twentieth century, like race, class, and gender. Generally, comic books have long been seen as ephemera designed for children, but today, with the rise in popularity of superhero movies and critically acclaimed graphic novels, we find that the material within these publications is more relevant than ever, for their characters and narratives speak to the contemporary attitudes and anxieties that affect our daily lives. Here, we examine how comic books have both shaped and been shaped by American society, exploring the reasons for their resurgent popularity and how, in spite of changing technological advances in entertainment, they have remained as an important part of our popular cultural heritage.

Throughout this course, we explore the history of American comic books from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, beginning in 1938 with the introduction of Superman. Presented chronologically, it focuses on key moments throughout the history of the medium. In particular, we will examine its use as political propaganda during World War II, the critiques of crime/horror comics and debates over juvenile delinquency in the postwar era, the superhero revival of the late 50s and early 60s, counterculture comics and the "realistic" turn of the 1970s, the emergence of "dark" comics, graphic novels, and the direct market in the 1980s, speculation and the industry crash of the 1990s, and the popular resurgence of the medium in 2000. While showcasing the evolution and development of comic books throughout these eras, we also draw connections between the stories, characters, and themes, and larger events in American history.

Students will read a selection of comic books, graphic novels, secondary histories, and printed interviews with writers and artists. We will also read a series of scholarly articles and book chapters that provide the larger context for the primary texts and supplement their understanding of the material. While each class begins with a short lecture that lays the groundwork for that session, the course will be primarily discussion-based, requiring students to engage with the assigned texts, and more importantly, with one another.

By the end of course, students will:

-Know how to read and interpret images
-Understand how comic books relate to larger issues in American society and culture
-Have a working understanding of the core methods and approaches in the emerging field of Comic Studies
-Have an appreciation for how the study of comic books and graphic novels relates to broader disciplines within the Humanities like Literature, History, and American Studies