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March 1, 2009

Graphic Teaching: Watching a Book Come into the World

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This is the second year of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, an endeavor to teach narrative through graphic storytelling. Our goal is to treat the graphic novel as a collective, collaborative project and as a team create a book during the winter term of each year. With co-instructor Tom Kealey, our 2008 class wrote, storyboarded, illustrated, designed, and published a 224-page graphic novel called Shake Girl. Fifteen students drew the 700 illustrations for Shake Girl in six weeks. This year, our students are currently at work on a 256-page graphic novel set in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 
Such a huge collaboration is pretty challenging—we have two writing teams, two thumbnailing teams, a research team, an eight-person illustration team, and two experts on layout. One of the aims of the class is to find important stories from the real world and adapt them to the graphic-novel format. Hopefully, they’re stories that need to be told, and hopefully they have the capacity to do some good in the world. By taking a documentary approach, students learn aspects of research, representation, and responsibility to source material. Also, by agreeing on an existing story, we save the time and headache of creating one from scratch. Shake Girl told the story of a young woman in Cambodia who was the victim of an acid attack. Our current graphic novel takes as its backdrop the real-life struggle to save the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in eastern Congo.
 
Personally, I’ve fallen in love with the graphic novel, but my route to the form was about as backward a journey as possible. When I was a kid, I had this friend named Lawrence who was really into comic books. We were both about nine and his parents and my parents both had just gotten divorced. He was always going on about his comics, about heroes and their superpowers and so on. He pushed them on me, and I read some, but I was a jaded little tyke. The comics really spoke to him with their narratives of saviors and justice and people with capes who swooped in to set things right. I was dubious of that, knowing in my world-weary little way that nobody was waiting on a cloud to come save the day.
 
I guess I never really thought about comics again until I was a creative writing teacher. I started asking my students during workshops to illustrate the story under consideration. On the whiteboards, all the students would draw the story, and suddenly, visually, there was the story’s architecture, its scenes, its important character moments. We’d talk about what parts of the story didn’t make into the comic representation, and from there, it was easy to redraw the comic. I didn’t do this on all works of fiction, only ones with shaky legs, so to speak, but I was struck by the way that a simple translation into graphic form was more than just a visual summary—it was a useful explication. It made the revision process open, active, and collaborative. Not long after I started doing that, I worked on a movie script with a friend who storyboarded, and again, it was so useful to see the skeleton of the story made suddenly visible.
 
Somehow, I don’t really remember how, I got my hands on a copy of Maus and was blown away. Then I read Persepolis and Blankets and Pyongyang. I fell in love with American Born Chinese and Laika and Fun Home. What I loved about those books, it turned out, was that they were documenting stories from the real world, in the form of oral history, biography, memoir, or literary journalism. It didn’t have to be about superpowers. It’s my sense that the fantasy dimension of most comic books has inhibited them to some degree, and while many people don’t like the term graphic novel, it is in the nonfiction realm that comics have found a large, satisfying literary arc.
 
I found it really useful to teach a graphic novel in my novel class. Novels are very complicated things that work on many levels. They have large structures, intricate plots, meaningful settings, scenic movement, world views, and complex characters. It’s hard, as an aspiring writer, to disentangle these elements, especially as the novel’s artifice is working its magic on the reader. But by examining a graphic novel like Blankets, which exposes all its mechanisms, students are more capable, I feel, of later seeing more clearly the inner workings of The Sun Also Rises, rather than being carried away with the characters of Jake and Brett. So Shake Girl was the kind of book I wanted to read—sourced from the real word, with a large human arc and a story that works on many levels. Not to mention a character that was irresistible. And in making that graphic novel, I think the students truly learned to make a literary novel—they made all the same kinds of considerations that a novelist does. The only difference was that the process was visible and collaborative. I think the making of Shake Girl gave the students the ability to tackle whatever novel idea that might come their way, later, as lone literary artists trying to tell a large story that mattered enough to dedicate a couple years of a life. And they did it in one term.
 
So often, I’ll see chapters of novels in my courses, and never more. They’re orphans, these excerpts, and I never know what happens to them, let alone the rest of the novels. With our graphic novel course at Stanford, I get the rare experience—like witnessing an entire train, engine to caboose, one day in Nebraska—of beholding an entire book come into the world.—Adam Johnson