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Fall Comics Courses: “American Manga” and “Coming of Age”

[ 36 ] July 23, 2010 |

I’m teaching two sections of my comics course in Fall 2010, and instead of relying on all the Batman or Alan Moore material, I decided to test-drive chapters from the upcoming book.

The first is called “American Manga,” and in it I’ll be teaching the first book and the film adaptation of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. You’ll note that I’ve chosen three series that have been adapted into films, but am only teaching one of the films.  The idea is to get them to write about the films I’m not teaching with the tools they acquired from the one I did.  Or they can focus on what the process of Americanization actually entails.  (To that end I thought about including Cowboy Bebop and Serenity because they act like mirror images of each other: the former imagines fleeing a barely inhabitable Earth into a universe that is ostensibly Japanese, but heavily indebted to an explicitly American cultural ethos; the latter imagines fleeing “Earth that was” into a universe that is ostensibly frontier America, but heavily indebted to an explicitly Chinese cultural ethos.  But then I tried lesson-planning that transoceanic cultural exchange and my head exploded.)

The second is called “Coming of Age” at the moment, but could be changed into something along the lines of “Confessional Comics” depending on what other material I include.*  To date I’ve selected Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and while I know there are a million other indie comics that fit the bill, outside of Ghost World I can’t think of any other “Coming of Age” comics that have been adapted into film.  (My general aversion to Clowes is the only reason I’m disinclined to use it.)  As this is certainly a byproduct of a general summer malaise, I wonder what obvious item I’m overlooking.

*If I lose the focus on “Coming of Age” and switch to the more general “Confessional Comics,” I could obviously include Pekar and his film.

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  1. Julian says:

    I studied Fun Home in my comics class at Binghamton, and I loved it (and the course). I applaud your pick. We did read another comic that qualifies as “coming-of-age”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Born_Chinese

    It was my least favorite of the comics we read, but I still liked it. It explores the Chinese / American culture clash for sure. Also a lot of reference to Chinese mythology and the monkey king, who is always cool.

    • SEK says:

      For a second there, I thought you were saying American Born Chinese had been adapted into a film, which would have been incredible. No, I actually considered that for inclusion in the course—it will be in the book, so long as we can get publishing rights—but decided against it because it chronicles an experience so close to that of many of my students.

      I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that when students write about matters they can relate to, their essays become deeply personal instead of analytical, and that when you try to point out that this deeply personal essay they’ve written isn’t the rhetorical analysis they were asked to produce, they’re deeply and personally offended. Basically, it makes criticism impossible. However, once it’s established that they like the genre, I point out books like that instantly and they write me back later saying how much they loved them.

      Because teachers must be, to some degree, benevolent dictators.

  2. sjc says:

    This may be obvious (or maybe you don’t consider it a comic)- but what about Persepolis?

    • SEK says:

      I did consider it, but there’s a problem: it’s French, and I won’t stand for that. Plus, belonging to the French instead of Anglo-American means that I’d have to teach an entirely different set of conventions … or have my students pretend that it’s simply a very innovative Anglo-American book. In ten weeks, two comic and one set of film conventions is just too much to handle.

      I can get away with the manga and anime in the other class because my students are predominantly Asian-American and read manga and watch anime on their own, and thus have an intuitive sense of their conventions … and yet, it’s still a risky proposition. We shall see how well it works out.

      • sjc says:

        No, I think that’s fair. It’s drawn in that French style – kind of like Tin Tin. And, yes, it would require another style.

        Too bad – I think it would otherwise fit in well. Cool course ideas though.

  3. As this is certainly a byproduct of a general summer malaise, I wonder what obvious item I’m overlooking.

    12th of june, a gibbous moon
    Was this the longest day?
    I’ll walk down to the bay
    And jump off of the dock and watch
    The summer waste away

    Then, I’m bailing this town-or
    Tearing it down-or
    Probably more like
    Hanging around
    Hanging around
    Just hanging around

  4. Rob says:

    So you’re forcing them to watch the film version of Avatar:TLA as homework? Doesn’t that violate some university guidelines on harming test participants or something?

  5. NickS says:

    Looking at the Wikipedia list of films based on comics there are a couple of others that would count as coming of age stories.

    “Art School Confidential” (another Clowes/Zwigoff collaboration that isn’t as good as Ghost World)

    The various Archie comics adaptations.

    Also, oddly, they list “Weird Science” as a comic book adaptation. According to wikipedia, “The film’s producer Joel Silver acquired film rights to the pre-Comics Code Authority 1950s EC Comics magazine Weird Science, from which the plot is developed as an expansion and modernization of the basic premise in Al Feldstein’s story “Made of the Future” in the fifth issue. “

    • SEK says:

      That list is really interesting, thought a bit depressing, as it seems to limit me to Ghost World. I could try and shoehorn “For the Man Who Has Everything,” but then I’m back in tights and writing about Moore again. Although that could really be interesting as a sort of this-is-what-breaks-Superman story.

  6. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    Does Spiderman count as a coming-of-age story?

  7. Rob says:

    Actually have you thought about using Teen Titans in your American Manga class? Looking at how the TV series took the stories in the classically done comic format and translated it to a manga style framework.

    • SEK says:

      I’ll admit to not having seen it. (Seriously, I’m not the nerd you think I am … but would be, were my wife more amenable, i.e. less cool. I had to watch the Justice League by myself on my computer.) Any individual episode play with the transition in a particularly interesting way?

      By which I mean, the A:TLA I’m teaching is the one near the series end in which the kids see a play about themselves, only it’s their story as told (badly) by the fire-benders. Which is a brilliant way to 1) remind children of everything that’s happened before they see how it all ends, and 2) a meta-commentary on how devotees of anime might feel about the series itself.

      • Rob says:

        I’m not the biggest New Teen Titans resource so I really only know of those used for long story arcs. For example the Judas Contract was told in S2E2, S2E8, S2E10-13 and a coda in S5E13. Terror of Trigon is told in S4E3, S4E7, S4E11-13 with foreshadowing in S1E6, and S2E5.

        I think S3E3, “Betrothed” is based directly on a comic where Starfire is called back to rule but I really can’t say for sure.

        If you are looking for the show to directly address it anime qualities the best bets are S1E4 “Forces of Nature” or the DVD movie “Teen Titans Trouble in Tokyo”

        That probably doesn’t help much for a class (though if say I was researching a book on the topic…).

  8. DocAmazing says:

    Maybe a bit metaphysical, but would you consider Pizzeria Kamikaze to be a coming of age (post-mortem) story?

    • SEK says:

      Your name does you justice: you just gave me an excuse to play Gogol Bordello and look at Tom Waits in class. You are through the roof, and underground!

      • SEK says:

        Only but maybe. I’m remembering the book was more American-style than French, but I could be wrong and don’t have a copy handy. Hm…

        • DocAmazing says:

          Israeli, actually, but heck, that’s close enough…

        • Hob says:

          I guess it depends on what you mean by “an entirely different set of conventions”. It does seem closer to a North American style than French, but the format and the approach to the adaptation don’t fit totally comfortably in either tradition. Either way, it is a real good book.

          • SEK says:

            Not fitting totally comfortable in either tradition might be a fine way to conclude the class, though. Grist for their recently developed critical mills and what-not.

  9. heckblazer says:

    Would The Road to Perdition count as a coming-of-age story? If it does it wasn’t just made into a movie, it was strongly inspired by Lone Wolf & Cub.

    • SEK says:

      I haven’t seen it, as I have thing about Sam Mendes, and by “thing” I mean hatred, because plastic bags ain’t art. However, I didn’t realize it was based on Lone Wolf & Cub, which I’ve read about half of to date.

  10. whetstone says:

    Slightly OT since it’s Japanese manga, but I’ve been enjoying Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture. It’s about a college freshman at an ag school who can see bacteria.

    It’s weird light entertainment with discourses on sake and the bacteria involved in making it. Very well drawn with endearing characters, though the fact that it’s apparently very big in Japan still kind of surprises me.

  11. Left_Wing_Fox says:

    So are you going to deal with the sad little turd that was “Warriors of the Wind?” when discussing early americanization? If so I think I still have it on VHS around here recorded off the original Canadian premium movie cable channel back in the 80′s.

  12. JamesP says:

    I’m intrigued by your claim about FIREFLY, but there’s almost no attempt to capture a Chinese cultural ethos in the show in the way that COWBOY BEBOP does – it’s all decoration and slang, while remaining culturally utterly American. (Hell, there aren’t even any major Asian characters in the show.)

    • JamesP says:

      … that COWBOY BEBOP does for US culture, that is.

      • SEK says:

        What Hob said below. If you read the comics–and, I assume, the soon-to-be-released, Whedon-penned graphic novel–the Chinese dominance of all but the outer rim planets becomes more apparent. (Though, admittedly, you’d think the Alliance ships and their culture would’ve been more prominently Chinese.)

  13. T. Greer says:

    I am curious – what episodes of Avatar the Last Airbender are you having them watch?

    • SEK says:

      The third-to-last one, in which the entire series was meta-recapitulated for the kids. It’s a good way for them to try to understand how actual anime fans might feel about the show, as well as a way to discuss self- versus counter-narratives.

  14. Thers says:

    My excuses to the 10 Year Old as to why he has not yet seen Avatar/Airbender are becoming threadbare even to his easily snookered behind. Which is surprisingly not my fault; the 20-Year-Old stepdaughter is a manga snob and can’t bring herself to actually make good on her pledge to take him.

    Of course this is the same person who occasionally glowers at me because when she was 11 I made a joke the punchline of which was “DragonTales Z,” which I still find sublimely amusing, ruinous to the family dynamic as later proved.

    Never read the Serenity books, though from the show, I am left puzzled about how the conceit of Chinese cultural importance means no significant Chinese, like, characters….

    • Hob says:

      Thers: It’s a frequent complaint about the show. Whedon (I think, or maybe one of the writers, or maybe just a helpful fan) said something along the lines of “China became the dominant culture on Earth, but it was mostly non-Chinese who ended up emigrating… and we meant to deal with this more in the show but we got cancelled first”. Who knows.

  15. nick says:

    I would like to second the nomination for Road to Perdition. Great pacing for a slow burn kind of movie, and a really other-worldly soundtrack by Thomas Newman.

    Also, this scene:

    which just aches.

    And no, plastic bags are not art, but fuck, man, American Beauty is great in spite of the plastic bag thing, not because of it.

  16. Halloween Jack says:

    Coming-of-age comics? Oh man oh man.

    I Never Liked You and The Playboy by Chester Brown. It’s an interesting period in Brown’s work, coming between Yummy Fur and Louis Riel.

    Awkward, Definition, Potential, and Likewise by Ariel Schrag. Autobio comics started when the author is still a teenager, done shortly after the events depicted. It’s fascinating to watch her artistic style evolve, and while a lot of her early strips deal with typical adolescent obsessions with/crushes on people like Juliette Lewis and Gwen Stefani, it moves into her developing relationships, and the last one is kind of hard to get through as she lives with the agony of not being able to be with the woman she loves.

    Schrag also edited an anthology of middle school/junior high autobio stories, Stuck in the Middle. Just look at the contributors. (I wanted to add Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button to this list, but the author insert character is a little too old, and it might not be strictly autobiographical, for that matter.)

  17. bartkid says:

    What about Akira?
    What about Kick-Ass?

    By the way, Persepolis is available in both French and English versions. Hearing Sean Penn and Iggy Pop as Persians is mildly disturbing, tho’.

    I never saw it, but there was a made-for-tv-movie Power Pack.

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