Wednesday, October 29, 2014


That's me (in Spring 2014) trying to convince some 10th graders that learning is good...
[NOTE: Whereas with the Prezi, I was trying to convince the students, this is where I am trying to convince my colleagues… Obviously I could never send this around any school where I worked; I’d be out on my butt if I tried, but let’s pretend…
Mr. Lerner preaching to the choir
Additional note: Although I have been an assistant teacher for both 7th and 10th grade ELA, I have not had to deal with the interoffice memos, etc. that a “real” teacher would have to deal with in a "real" high school. Let’s say this is idealized… In other words, allow me some fun before I’m in the trenches…And yes, the teachers I make fun of have the names of those I’ve worked with in the past. Like I said, let me have some fun…
My “character” is of the teacher who has been trying to open the minds of the other teachers to the concept of multimodality and digital literacies—unsuccessfully, but who hasn’t stopped trying. All of the readings from our Digital Literacies class that I mention in this blog-post have been sent around to the other teachers at this hypothetical/imaginary school, but it’s doubtful any have read them. But my “character” keeps trying.]

MEMO TO FACULTY: regarding Mr. Lerner’s upcoming Advanced Writing class

Since some of my colleagues here at Shellac Technical School have expressed concern—if not downright disapprobation—over my choice of a textbook for next semester, I felt it was necessary to present a defense/explanation/review in a format you might appreciate—although I know Principal Krulwitch would prefer parchment or smoke signals (so reactionary, he even distrusts the telegraph! Ha-ha, just kidding, Bob!).

I have created this webpage/blog to defend and present Marc Di Paolo’s 2011 textbook War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. I think this is an excellent book in and of itself—a great read for the beach or anywhere, which makes it even better for the students: let us break out of the rut that danah boyd accuses us of, with “continuing to prefer familiar, formally recognized sources” (It’s Complicated, p. 187). If we must use a textbook—something that gives our students hives the moment they encounter it—then let us use a textbook the kids might actually open and read—and who knows, maybe even enjoy.

As many of you know, my attempts at introducing multimodal teaching techniques have been routinely thwarted by Assistant Principal Chung, but at least try and open your minds to something that we all have experienced: comic books.

As Selfe & Takayoshi mention in the first chapter of their Thinking About Multimodality, “A student’s experiences outside the formal educational setting...should play a significant role in defining the purpose of the educational enterprise.” (p5) Whether it’s Sponge Bob, Archie or Wolverine, all my students read comics (or graphic novels, as many prefer to call them), and I believe that by asking them to consider the world through the creatively-transformed lens of the word/illustration combination—a medium that combines words and images into new forms—forms that can then be expanded upon (like the work of Roy Lichtenstein) or that comment on the “NOW” (to be discussed below) or that are a major part of the culture we now live in (also to be discussed below)—we can enable our students to engage the world in new and communicative ways.

Meanwhile—and I can already sense the sneer on Ms. Camacho’s face—I will say that to consider comic books as “less than” is unforgivably stupid: According to The New York Times, ticket sales for comic book conventions in the US alone totaled about $600 million in 2014, and that the New York Comic Con puts about $70 million into the city’s coffers annually. This disreputable convention—as Ms. Stroup would call it—has grown 40% year-over-year (2013 to 2014), and organizers are expecting it to “grow even more.” Ladies and gentlemen, this is big business, and to ignore it is plain stupidity.

For the class, students will be asked to examine and critique the world around them, but they will be able to present their cases in “metaphorical” (superhero/comic book-ian) terms—in other words, it does not matter HOW they talk, as long as they TALK. Illustrations, collaborations, mash-ups, whatever (or “watt-EVAH,” as so many students say)…I just want input and creative thought: let a student reimagine their life in a comic book (and work with a student who has art skills), or else in a collage, or via video, or computer, or ANYTHING. Just give me something that you have put some heart into! I tell the students that in my class effort is more important that end result—because NOW is the time when they should try stuff and be willing to fail. I just want to smell the circuits of their brains cooking! There are no wrong answers in my class—except zero effort. Don’t do anything, and I will SLAM you. Give 110%—and even if it “sucks,” I will regard your effort beyond the end result.

Artist Jack Kirby creates a Max Ernst-style
collage to show the Fantastic Four travelling through
the "Negative Zone," the only type of "hyperlink"
available in the psychedelic 1960s
That said… For my colleagues, before we begin, just in case some of you aren’t familiar with the concept: This is a HYPERLINK. Click on it, and it will take you someplace else. Don’t worry, it is your friend. Additionally, if you want to get a better look at one of the illustrations or photos accompanying this post, just click on it, and it will be opened in a sort of slideshow!

Meanwhile, THIS is the Prezi (a type of online mega-PowerPoint) that I engineered to convince my students, and I am glad to say that I won them over. Hopefully I can do the same with you.

And now, my defense of War, Politics and Superheroes

War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Marc Di Paolo (2011) Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 336 pages

First off, War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film (WP&S) is an incredibly fun read that will make the imagination crackle and awaken the debater within.

Despite a title that threatens to suck all the air out of the room (a legacy of its history as a textbook; Di Paolo is an assistant professor of English and Film at Oklahoma City University), this is quite the page-turner, with plenty of research, attitude and heart. The author believes in the transformative power of art, even pop culture “junk”/termite art like comic books. Meanwhile, he writes, “the seemingly simple-minded medium of the superhero story raises questions that few products generated for mass consumption have dared ask.”

[Meanwhile, notice the leap in budgets from the cheap cartoon Hulk of the 1960s (above) to the insanely expensive hyper-real, but also cartoon (it's animated, after all) Hulk of the recent film, The Avengers](below)
This book is like the best midnight “bull” session you might have ever had in college, with your fan knowledge, intellectual curiosity and debate skills functioning at their highest levels.

Di Paolo sticks primarily to the specific books as sources, rarely bringing in outside commentators or philosophical texts unless they relate specifically. Thankfully, WP&S embraces superheroes and all their inherent goofiness, and does not try to “rehabilitate” comics as something more than they are—I have a gripe with those who pooh-pooh some elements of comics while elevating others. I get it, but when, for example, fans of the French Nouvelle Vague praise the genre they love, they don’t do it at the expense of the genres they do not love.

Despite the tawdry reputation of superhero mags, “superhero movies and video games are currently a national phenomenon, and their success cannot be accounted for by fanatical fans alone,” author Marc Di Paolo writes. The nerds have won!

[Wait a minute! Are the Joker and Two-Face discussing...philosophy?]
That said, I am not innocent: Since a certain age, I have looked down on the exploits of costumed heroes, while still enjoying massive, convoluted, excessive spectacular, especially involving spaceships, monsters and robots—which might be why I enjoyed films like The Avengers, Thor and X-Men: First Class so much: they were more like mash-ups/remixes of sci-fi-space war, sword & sorcery and spy genres, respectively, than merely “costumed crime-stoppers.”

Probably the most iconic comic book image of the 1940s
As WWII comics propaganda, one of the most resonating images is Jack Kirby/Joe Simon’s cover art of Captain America delivering a powerful punch to the jaw of Hitler; a scene parodied in the 2011’s film Captain America, but also a moment that becomes a thematic talisman for the film’s main character, as well—in a sense its own propaganda. (Wait one minute, are we getting Meta?)

Di Paolo doesn’t waste time: comic book characters are a big part of the media industry and while they may not be used as pure government propaganda as they were in the 1940s, the entertainment’s politics reflect its time, and this includes comic books. How does a pop phenom reflect the politics of its age?

Spiderman fist-bumps President Obama; surprisingly Fox News
doesn't criticize the web-slinger (perhaps leaving that to
publisher J. Jonah Jameson)
Conservatives won’t like WP&S, if it even comes on their radar, and may even consider its overall tone anti-American. Di Paolo writes, “One of the appeals of the zombie… is that they give angry Americans something to shoot at…. Since the pleasure provided by killing a zombie is escapist and regressive, it offers little hope of any real solution to such abstract problems.”

He continues, “Americans have no tradition of respecting intelligence, or of applauding the reforming of outdated legislation, or of appreciating the moral courage and fortitude it takes to stand in opposition to corporate moguls and members of the military industrial complex.”

One of Di Paolo’s understandable gripes is the lack of genuine thinking and problem solving promoted in many of these books and the shows and movies they inspire: “By 1992, all of the bestselling comic book characters on the market were variants of the Punisher—mentally deranged murderers who killed their enemies without remorse.” These included Wolverine, Lobo, Deadpool, Venom and others.

The Punisher’s “logic that the problem of crime can be solved by killing all criminals is akin to Victorian-era serial killer Jack the Ripper’s reasoning that killing prostitutes can rid the world of venereal disease.”

Galactus, the planet-eater, was created when it
was suggested that the next foe the Fantastic Four
encounter would be God Himself
Providing cogent arguments, terrifically researched with plenty of footnotes, the book is left-leaning only in that it is a humanist tome, regarding brutality and hate as values to be shunned. “Americans have become more and more cynical since the 1960s, embracing a purely gothic worldview in which hope, virtue and love are nonexistent, society is in a state of perpetual decay, empathy is for fools, and all that matters is power and self-defense,” write the author.

Referencing the Harry Potter and Matrix films, as well as several others, he adds, “All of these stories represent fantasy escapes from reality, but offer no real guideposts to how to live in the real world.”

Sticking to the post-WWII English-speaking world (sorry, no cultural deconstructions of manga here; that in itself is its own encyclopedic tome), fans of Slavoj Zizek’s lectures (lively affairs compared to his often dry texts) will enjoy WP&S’s constant political/comic book cross-referencings, examining the neoconservative warmongering beliefs of Tony Stark/Iron Man, or Bruce Wayne’s latent feudalism (it’s about inheritance). (By the way, I feel that Batman is the biggest crybaby ever: my dad died almost 25 years ago, and you don’t see me going on and on about it…)

Wally Wood's lesson in comic book layout
On the flip side, Di Paolo rehabilitates Superman as a transcendental and egalitarian New Dealer, and casts a new light on Wonder Woman and Spiderman, borderline anarchist and passive-aggressive social climber, respectively.

It will help if you’re somewhat familiar with the various superheroes of pop culture (because this book includes England’s Dr. Who and 24’s Jack Bauer—as diametrically opposed political viewpoints as you might guess), as well as who the major players in the creation of contemporary comics are; but these are not essentials to your appreciation/enjoyment.

If you grew up with comics, or consider them a valid storytelling form, and you enjoy quasi-leftie contemporary pop-culture critical theory, then War, Politics and Superheroes should be on your shelf—especially if you’re in Mr. Lerner’s Advanced Writing class!

[And by the way, comic book movies are NOT going away anytime soon...]

No comments:

Post a Comment