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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Reading the English translation of Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work makes me wish I could read it again in its original French—not for any imagined flaw in its translators’ fluid prose, but the opposite: I can’t imagine this intensely personal memoir existing in any different form.

No translation is simple. Every language has not only its own sounds, but no two words share exactly the same set of connotations either, even when their dictionary definitions appear identical. Sometimes differences are overt, as when Delporte declares: “the grammar I was taught still hurts,” she must add an explanation in an asterisked note at the bottom of the page: “In French, the masculine takes precedence.” It would be a fitting subtitle for her memoir.

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Graphic works add another level of complexity to language because a choice of font—something readers of prose-only novels hardly register—is a visual element embedded into each page. Translating the effects of graphic design is even more complicated when the words aren’t contained by talk balloons and caption boxes of conventional comics. Delporte’s words are all unframed. Her script winds around and between and sometimes overtop her drawings in similarly penciled lines, dissolving the differences between handwriting and drawing style, diary and sketchbook. Few comics are composed of more thoroughly integrated image-texts.

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Whether composing letters or images, all of Delporte’s lines are evocative lines, each color carefully chosen. When she depicts herself having sex with a lover in an attempt to become pregnant, her drawn self exists only in blue pencil and he all in orange, their lines almost but not quite touching. When she lists the promises she wishes he had said to her afterwards, most expectant mothers would probably like to hear the three she scripts in blue: I’ll take care of her, change the diapers, nurse her. But Delporte pencils the most important unsaid assurance in orange: “You’ll be able to draw.”

Delporte is a female artist documenting her private and professional search for her own place in a male-dominated field and world. The search is life-long and takes her in a non-linear path around Europe and North America and deep into her own past. She fills her story with personal reproductions of works by female artists, each linked to critical moments in her own life. When she imagines having to raise a child on her own, she sketches a Mary Cassatt painting of a mother holding a child, giving the image a double meaning since it both represents her possible self and the artistic lineage she is constructing.Related imageDelporte travels to Finland to write about Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, cartoon trolls who are “happy idiots who forgive one another and never realize they’re being fooled.” That description is Tove’s, but for Delporte it encapsulates the role of women. She claims she’d “give almost anything to be like” the Moomins, but her memoir is her struggle to escape that past—including the darkest moments of her childhood. She received her “first lesson in sex” by a slightly older cousin, but when she later dreams about the trauma, it’s not the event but how the adults in her family never responded, never spoke about it.  Now she looks at her family tree and wonders: “which of these women were raped?”

That central trauma permeates but does not define Delporte’s work. The memoir is much more of an attempt to construct something new, even if it is necessarily incomplete and tentative as she wanders between continents and decades of memories. When she grows frustrated with writing and drawing, she turns to ceramics for something more tangible. The pages of her memoir have a similarly tangible aesthetic. The ghostly edges of transparent tape seem to hold the scissors-cut images in place. Some words are written on strips of paper, their near-whiteness almost but not quite matching the white of the book’s actual paper. Several pages are reproductions of her sketchbooks, their bent corners creating a book-within-a-book illusion.

Some of her images are precisely finished, while other seem gestural and preliminary, a face left blank within the frame of a head. That incompleteness is essential to the larger project, as when she describes herself “struggling to draw” her own vagina because she “lived so long without an image of one.” She sketches the character Rey from Star Wars for the same reason, delighted to see “a self-sufficient woman, on the screen.” When she was growing up, she only had Wynona Ryder playing Jo in Little Women, a character who marries an older, more accomplished man—the plot closure Delporte now rejects.

She also varies her layout style, creating a cramped intensity for pages relating her physical travels, but rendering certain memories and dreams more sparsely.  Her hand-written script grows in size too, with only a few words filling an entire page, often juxtaposed against a single image on the facing page. The switching styles give the memoir a visual rhythm, while also accenting the literally larger-than-real-life content. Delporte dreams of magically appearing babies, and strange bristles growing from her legs, and stabbing a polar bear in the heart to save her own life—each a bright fragment in the not-yet-complete puzzle of her search.

It’s fitting that this French memoir ends with a dream sequence situated around an untranslated term. A community of female poets live in a “béguinage,” a building complex for religious lay women who don’t take the vows of nuns. Though Delporte earlier glossed the male-dominance of French grammar for English-only readers such as myself, here she appropriately leaves us to find a dictionary ourselves. But this utopian vision, where women work together making art and raising children who venture out into the world when ready, ends on a far more ambiguous note—a page seemingly torn from Delporte’s sketchbook diary as she draws herself in bed while her lover sleeps downstairs because they’re just fought. She writes: “I’m scared to death I’m pregnant.”

That poignantly open-ended conclusion seems the best closure possible for a memoirist still struggling to make her life work.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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[Inspired by Rodin and Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note in the new Shenandoah.]

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Sales of Charles Forsman’s 2013 End of the Fxxxing World spiked last year with the Netflix release of the eight-episode British adaptation.  Originally serialized in French, Max de Radiguès’s Moose premiered in the U.S. in 2014, followed last year by Bastard. Where Forsman draws two teen runaways, Radiguès focuses on a bullied teen and then a mother and young son running from the law. Their collaboration, Hobo Mom, takes those elements and scrambles them into the tale of an absent mother returning to her estranged husband and daughter. In terms of both subject matter and style, it’s difficult to imagine two comics artists better suited to work together.

I’m curious how the authors evolved their story content and the idiosyncratic back and forth of conceiving characters and developing situation and plot, because the finished pages erase that dimension of their collaboration. If the two worked from a script, no hint of it remains. But I was surprised at how seamlessly the pages also merge and so disguise the artistic process. While collaboration is standard in comics, scripter-artist combinations are more typical, and when two artists collaborate, one is often the penciler and so the primary visual storyteller laying out pages and panel content for an inker to finish. (An exceptional exception is the 1988 Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown mini-series, where painters Jon J. Muth and Kent Williams divided not only pages but areas of panels, inserting their distinctively drawn primary characters into the other artist’s visual environment.)

Opening Hobo Mom, I expected a similar distinction, with the marks of each artist clearly defined at the page and pen levels. The graphic novel instead presents artwork so unified it seems to have been created by a single author. The success of the merged style is due in part to the artists’ already similar tendencies. Both work in black and white, with simple, clean lines and virtually no cross-hatching. Their settings are minimal and their figures largely naturalistically proportioned, and while facial features obey cartoonish conventions of exaggeration, the degree is relatively slight. But it’s those distortions that identify each artist: the wide, round jawline of Forsman’s father, the small, triangle nose of Radiguès’s mother. Appropriately, the features of the daughter are more difficult to differentiate, as if the two artists, like their stand-in parents, have merged at the DNA-level of the line.

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Layouts are equally merged, with a range of constantly varying rectangles, sometimes gridded in 3×2 or 4×2, other times in uniform rows of shifting panel counts, often with sizing accents on images enlarged by merging panels within an implied grid. Because the frames and internal figures share the same line quality, with the sparse whiteness of a background identical to the white of the margins and gutters, the shifting layouts not only shape the story content but take on a visual significance of their own. The authors occasionally add blocks of black, usually in night scenes or to distinguish objects, plus the slight color effect of hazy pink Benday dots to define shadows. But rather than adding richness to the images, the minimal techniques emphasize the starkness of the artwork.

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The artists also treat pages as the primary units of composition, ending scenes on final page panels and giving the overall book a visual rhythm synchronized to page turns and the gutter of the book spine. When, for instance, the daughter spends two pages feeding her pet rabbit, the scene ends on an enlarged panel revealing that she has climbed inside the enclosure, the angled grid of the fencing evoking the gridded frames of the layout in a way that indirectly suggests why the mother left in the first place. The facing page expands that visual suggestion with a full-page image of a train in an open landscape. A later scene change employs a similar leap, with a 3×2 page of the parents arguing over whether the mother can stay followed by a full-page of the family seated at dinner. After two two-page spreads of night-darkened interior panels culminating in a one-panel sex scene, the page turn marks a scene leap to the next day, with the mother and daughter outside in a white-dominated landscape.

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While there are no formal chapters, a visual motif of a pull-page panel with a single inset further punctuates the novel, producing an additional rhythm that culminates in a mother-daughter pairing near the climax. While the novel is largely dialogue-driven with no narrating text, later page sequences switch to a purely visual approach that expands the emotional tension through images of silently content mother-daughter interactions in natural landscapes and the brooding father alone in his truck with visions of his wife. The most ambitious page in the novel pairs a close-up of his face with a contextless nude of the mother. Because the face consists of two black circles for eyes and a continuous squiggle of a line to form nose and mustache, the close-up pushes style into nearly pure abstraction—intensified by the naturalistic shape of the more distant nude and its hair-obscured face. For a moment I forgot I was reading a novel and not poring over a concept-rich graphic design (which I guess I was).

While the novel is successful both in its minimalistic visual approach and its realistic treatment of the emotional dynamics of an estranged but well-intentioned family, I still question the premise of its high-concept title. Since the word “hobo” evokes Depression-era homeless men hopping rides on agricultural trains, I assumed this contemporary story would use it only metaphorically, the phrase “hobo mom” evoking the title character’s inability to remain in the rabbit cage of traditional motherhood. But, in fact, no, the mother’s opening scene is literally set on a train, in one of those inexplicably empty cars with a sliding side door ubiquitous in film lore. She also faces a would-be rapist who tears open her shirt to expose her cartoon breasts before she manages to shove him out into a dust heap beside the rails. The burly rapist is apparently a “hobo” too, imported from the same bin of clichés, making any metaphorical or thematic reading of the word and its reflection on the mother’s character difficult.

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Here I suspect Radiguès, who lives in Brussels, may be the primary hand at work, since the Depression-era tropes are reminiscent of westerns written by European authors who preserve their own pseudo-version of U.S. historical fiction in an even more distorted form. But who knows? Perhaps Forsman, who lives in Massachusetts, has a thing for trains and hobos.

Happily, this one too-literal scene only briefly mars an otherwise warmly intelligent drama as the returned mother tries to make amends and reintegrate into a lifestyle that continues to grate against her wandering impulses. Since her husband is a locksmith who drives a truck adorned with the wordless logo of an antique key, and the daughter plays on a swing made from a tire tied to a tree branch, readers can probably sense the plot trajectory of those metaphors, but the pleasure is in the author’s dual execution.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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This is a sincere question asked recently by a fellow member of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society. Usually I’m surrounded by family and friends who take the answer for granted, but RCDS is a group of Democrats and Republicans trying to build understanding across the partisan divide. Which means I have to give the question more serious thought than I would normally. That’s a good thing. Having to explain myself to someone who doesn’t already agree with me is an even better thing. So this is my sincere attempt at a thoughtful response.

  1. I didn’t like Trump before I didn’t like Trump.

Before he was a politician, I knew Donald Trump only as one of those self-fulfilling celebrities famous for being famous. I never watched an episode of The Apprentice, but everyone knew the one-man promotional brand playing himself on TV. I categorized him in my head with Hulk Hogan. Saying I didn’t like him is misleading. He was no more real or relevant to me than Paris Hilton or a Kardashian. Except his caricature was even less savory. A serial adulterer marrying absurdly younger trophy wives while flaunting his comic wealth. None of this has anything to do with politics.  It never occurred to me to wonder what political party he might belong to because political parties involve groups of people banding together to pursue common goals. The goal of Trump was exclusively Trump. This was before 2014—before I knew he was running for office. At first I didn’t believe it, not really. It had to be another gimmick product, Trump Wine, Trump University, Trump for President, one more way to expand his business brand, pump up his ratings with more outrageous showmanship. It didn’t occur to me that he could win a primary let alone a nomination. It didn’t occur to me that someone, anyone, could view him as anything but a pop cultural personification of ostentatious greed, because I sincerely understood him to be that and only that.

  1. Trump says things that aren’t true.

Some people call that lying. Others say he’s only using exaggerations—or just savvy business practice. Whatever you call it, Donald Trump knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are not true. He also knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are true. The accuracy of his statements is irrelevant. He says whatever is most useful to him. His 1987 memoir ghost-writer called it “truthful hyperbole,” a way of playing “to people’s fantasies,” “a very effective form of promotion.” Admittedly, an indifference to truth sounds useful in a cutthroat business environment, and as long as Trump remained in that environment, his exaggerations, lies, and hyperboles were no concern to me. Then he became a politician, a profession known for its own brand of mistruths. But Trump is different. Look at all the presidential nominees of my adult life: Mondale, Reagan, Dukakis, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Gore, Bush, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, Clinton—all of them were constrained within a similar range of allowable spin. I’m not arguing any are better, more honest people. If they could have gotten away with Trump’s level of mistruth, they probably would have. But his go unpunished. Maybe it’s his business savvy, his ability to sell anything, but its application to U.S. politics deeply disturbs me. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. If Donald Trump had run as a Democrat, he would be the same democracy-gaming salesman appealing to a slightly different set of voters with a slightly different set of self-promotional hyperboles.

  1. Trump says things that offend me.

I’m not going to say Donald Trump is a racist. Conservatives tend to define that term as a necessarily conscious belief, that only a white person who actively believes he is superior to non-whites can commit racist acts. I don’t know if that describes Trump or not. I suspect when he refers to Central Americans as rapists, murders, etc., he is not expressing deeply held personal convictions but politically useful hyperboles of the kind discussed above. That doesn’t make it any less offensive to me. I also don’t know if he ever committed sexual assault, but I know he bragged that he did. Some defended his words as “locker room talk,” that it’s normal and therefore okay for men in the privacy of other men while unaware of being recorded to brag about assaulting women. I never have, and I have never heard any male friend or acquaintance of mine brag about assault either. Maybe I’m the wrong kind of man. Maybe Trump is no different from all our other white male presidents, saying out loud what the rest privately thought and privately committed. If so, then they all offend me equally. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. No one who brags about sexual assault and expresses offensive stereotypes about ethnic groups should be electable, and I’m offended that Donald Trump got elected anyway.

  1. Trump thrives on the political divide.

It never even occurred to me that he would keep using Twitter after the election. It never occurred to me that he would continue to attack and mock his political opponents at literally a daily rate. Maybe I’m just old. I remember when George Bush’s campaign rhetoric went into panic mode a week before the 1992 election. He said, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.” He nicknamed Gore “Ozone Man” because “we’ll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American.” Those sound like presidential tweets now, and during a Trump presidency, it’s always a week before the election. I’m not suggesting Trump created the political divide. Exactly the opposite. He got elected because the divide was already so extreme, and he is the perfect salesman to thrive in that political marketplace. And even this isn’t about political parties. I want a president—preferably a progressive one—who tries to bridge differences, not focus exclusively on his base by stoking their outrage in an endless get-out-the-vote campaign.

  1. I don’t like his politics.

Now, finally, this is about political parties. I’m a Democrat. Democratic candidates more often reflect a larger number of my political preferences than Republican candidates. That’s an absurd understatement. I have never seen a Republican candidate that came even close—though McCain during the 2000 primaries did make me sit down and really look at his plank-by-plank platform. I long for that.  Still, if Romney had been elected in 2012, or McCain in 2008, or Dole in 1996, I wouldn’t have responded to their presidencies in any way like I’ve responded to Donald Trump’s. When Bush was reelected in 2004 and elected in 2000, and when his father was elected in 1988, and Reagan in 1984, I had voted against them but accepted the outcomes with disappointment and only disappointment. November 2016 was nothing like that. I felt personally betrayed. I felt that the norms of decency had either been overturned or revealed to have never existed. Even when Clinton’s polls dropped three points after the release of the Comey letter in the last days of October, it still never seriously occurred to me that Donald Trump—a man who to me represented misogyny, bigotry, narcissism, and greed—could be elected. Clearly, I was wrong. But I maintain that it is not possible for anyone to have voted for Donald Trump if they understand Donald Trump to be the person I understand him to be.

And maybe I’m wrong about that too.  Maybe my impressions of him from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s unfairly biased and blinded me to his real character on the campaign trail. Maybe I have an idealized, antiquated notion of proper politics and my disappointment isn’t against Trump’s divisive style but the political arena that makes it effective. Maybe most or all white men who rise to power are at least latently prejudiced and abusive, and Trump has merely revealed that fact. Maybe it’s okay to use mistruths when it’s for a cause you and your followers deeply believe in. It’s also possible that my dislike for Donald Trump is really motivated by political preference, and that if a Democrat with the same traits had risen to power I would have accepted his shortcomings and supported his agenda. I hope not. But I fear it is possible. It’s also one of the things I most dislike about Donald Trump. He’s motivated a lot of good people to embrace a lot of very bad things.

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Sometimes I think I’m reading Michael DeForge the wrong way. His Instagram strip Leaving Richard’s Valley is out as a book collection from Drawn & Quarterly, but I’m catching up on Brat released last fall from Koyama Press. It’s a story of an aging celebrity, a former juvenile delinquent still renown for acts of vandalism appreciated by her now middle-aged followers as art installations. But I’m not sure “story” is the best word to describe the graphic narrative. Or rather it’s one perfectly accurate description that might accidentally obscure what’s most interesting about DeForge’s art.

At one level, Brat is simply a cartoon—albeit an extreme one. While all cartoonists simplify and distort natural proportions, few stray quite so far from recognizable anatomy. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters have impossibly large and round heads, an effect further exaggerated in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park cast. The character Brat’s head is large and round too—at least five times larger than the tiny circle of her torso, with pipe-cleaner-like limbs extending almost tenfold.  If any other male artist drew his female protagonist in a nude shower scene on the second page of a comic, I would worry, but there’s not even the most remote element of eroticism here. While still somehow registering as “human,” the level of abstraction breaks even the most expansive norms of cartooning.

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That abstraction applies to the rest of the story world too. While DeForge is capable of drawing geometric depth, complete with multiple planes and vanishing points, he prefers flat surfaces that evoke while also rejecting the illusion of three-dimensional space. Sometimes he combines the approaches for discordant effects. As Brat spray-paints the cascading walls of a building complex, the street beyond features solid red vehicles above a grid of sidewalks squares. Not only is the 90 degree angle entirely flattened, the cars look like stenciled cut-outs reduced to their absolute minimal shapes. Any further reduction and they would cease to represent anything at all.

While dimension-deforming environments are another norm of cartoon worlds, few wander this far to the edge of pure abstraction—let alone cross it. When I say I’m reading Brat the wrong way, it’s because I’m spending too much time actually reading. DeForge’s layouts are traditional grids, most often 3×2 with a range of full-page and other variants to give the reading paths some visual rhythm. Most panels also feature a cluster of words, usually in a talk balloons as characters converse or Brat’s monologues break the fourth wall. Both acts—following a sequence of images and decoding written words—are considered “reading” when it comes to comics, often with an emphasis on the literal, word-focused sense. That’s also usually where “story” happens. And DeForge supplies plenty of that—Brat torches a police car, Brat reads her fan mail, Brat shits on the floor—but there are other kinds of stories on these pages too.

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As I wandered deeper into the story-world narrative about the narcissistic crises of a still-profitable has-been depressed by her nostalgia-driven fanbase, I found myself more interested in the surface qualities of the images themselves—how the identical black dots of Brat’s eyes and nose shift within the panel frames, or how an x-shape of a cat wraps itself around the column of Brat’s nominal leg, or how two figures move through a landscape of … are those clusters supposed to be stars or tumbleweeds or just random shapes? When the young Brat narrates in a flashback, her body’s tiny shapes occupy only a fraction of panels that alter color with each iteration. The colored squares do not represent the actual colors of walls or anything else in the story world. They’re just squares of color arranged on the surface of the pages. Even their sequence breaks down since there’s no narrative logic to which color appears when in the story and so where on the page. The effect is closer to one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe grids than to visual storytelling. It’s just abstraction.

And what would happen if there weren’t any words? The back of Brat’s head—two yellow swaths above a black semicircle–is visually undecodable out of context. Many of these panels would lose all representational meaning. DeForge is of course fully aware and manipulating these effects, and some of the book’s strongest episodic sequences take full advantage of them. “Tantrum,” for instance, begins with Brat crying and swearing as her body warps into even more impossible proportions, deeper distortions of her already cartoonish distortions. In “Hi Mom,” the figure of Brat’s crying father bends and merges with her mother until the two are a single yellow pyramid. “Immodest” features Brat’s drunken form devolving into squiggly shapes and then retracting into single lines before shrinking into literally nothing. While the images do nominally represent events in the story world—she’s depressed, she’s drunk—the “story” is about the shifting relationships of shapes on the page.

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There’s plenty more of the conventional kind of stories too–a fling with an interviewer, the corruption of an intern, a kidnapping, various more meltdowns—but while each is entertaining, the bigger conceptual picture and its baseline pseudo-reality of extreme abstraction is the novel’s main strength. Because comics are traditionally understood as literature rather than art, and so are “read” rather than viewed, it’s possible to appreciate Brat as just a fun riff on a comically and nihilistically self-involved performance artist-criminal twirling through a sequence of chaotic plotlines. But that requires looking not at but through the images, attending less to their actual qualities, and understanding them primarily as symbols and so almost as words that represent events in some other far-off place and not as arrangements of ink on the physical pages in your hands.

While DeForge offers both kinds of stories, Brat is at its playful best when viewed rather than merely read.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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Last week I received a copy of a document titled “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L.” It begins:

“Over the last several years, a number of courses have been added to the curriculum which seem of dubious academic value, dedicated to the espousal of a political agenda, trivial, inane, or some combination of the above. A review of the current catalogue by departments is revealing.”

It then lists twenty courses beginning with: “1. Creating Comics- English Department,” followed by “2. Superheroes (i.e. comic book characters)- English Department.”

Both of those courses are mine.

Creating Comics is a hybrid creative writing and studio arts course that I conceived and co-teach with Leigh Ann Beavers in the W&L Art department. We have offered it during two spring terms, in 2016 and 2018, and we intend to offer it again in 2020. Leigh Ann and I are also under contract with Bloomsbury press to produce a textbook developed from our course. Superheroes was originally an English course that I taught at the request of a group of honors students in 2008, and it is currently the topic of my first-year writing seminar, which I typically teach each spring. Presumably because the document was dated November 2018, it does not include a course I taught this last winter, Introduction to Graphic Novels.

After the course list, the document asks:

“Do we really need classes in comic books with so much great literature to study … Would it not be possible to save money by eliminating some of these courses and eliminating some of the professors who teach them? Such questions should at least be asked and considered.”

I agree that questions should be asked and a wide range of answers considered. This is the core of my teaching philosophy. Students in all three of my courses mentioned above write interpretive questions in response to reading assignments, which then become the focus of discussion during the next class meeting. The open-ended, student-focused approach encourages a wide exploration, which sometimes results in consensus but more often reveals differences of interpretation grounded in textual evidence.

The document’s next two listings, “3. Literature, Race, and Ethnicity- English Department” and “4. Representations of Women, Gender and Sexuality in World Literature- English Dept.,” is more representative of the overall list, drawing the criticism:

“As in many other colleges, many of these courses seem to exist to meet the ever narrowing and increasingly politicized specializations of the professoriate. This is reflected in the increasing number of course which focus on race, gender, class, etc. … Surely, these topics would arise naturally without having whole classes dedicated to them.”

Ironically, I had considered naming my first-year seminar “Race, Class, Gender, and Superheroes,” but decided against it since I have found that those topics indeed do arise naturally. When I last taught the course in fall 2018, I was struck by how consistently my students focused on gender analysis, returning to it even after I attempted to nudge conversation to other, equally important topics.

So while my position in the list’s top two slots appears only to reflect the authors’ concerns about the “trivial” and “inane,” I suspect they would also fault me for what they imagine to be “the espousal of a political agenda.”

All three assumptions are incorrect.

I have written previously about the apolitical nature of my classroom (“How Not to Help Your Tenure Case”), which I will excerpt here:

“teachers should not abuse their positions by expressing their personal opinions to students who have no choice but to listen and would be wise to at least feign agreement with the person grading them. … Instead of expressing my opinions, I spend most of my class time encouraging my students to express theirs, and then only on the course-related topics that are the focus of our discussion. I encourage them to support their opinions with evidence. I urge them to disagree and to be persuasive but also to be open to changing their minds when someone else presents ideas and evidence they hadn’t yet considered. Does that make my classroom a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology? Only if Republicans are ideologically opposed to conversation, open-mindedness, and the expectation that opinions must be supported.

“Last semester a student in my first-year writing seminar liked to wear a “Make American Great Again” cap to class. I didn’t comment on it. He participated actively, listened closely to others, and enjoyed challenging others’ ideas as well as having his own ideas challenged. One of the hardest workers in the class, he was a gifted writer and achieved one of the highest grades. By the end of the semester, he was considering majoring in English, which I encouraged. I offered to be his advisor, but said he shouldn’t declare his major too soon. Part of the point of attending a small liberal arts college is trying a range of new courses and fields to discover areas of interest and talent you didn’t know you had. At the end of the semester, he told me how much he enjoyed our class and said he hoped to take more classes with me in the future.”

It’s notable that the list’s top seven slots are from the W&L English department. This is likely related to a statement my department issued in response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2018. As the Washington Post reported:

A month after torch-bearing white supremacists marched at the University of Virginia, some members of the English department at Washington and Lee took their own stand. “This community has profited by slavery,” they wrote online. “We are complicit in its harms.”

The college, they wrote, “is named after two slaveholding generals with powerful legacies. . . . If it were ever right to celebrate the contributions of Robert E. Lee as an educator, that time is past. Lee’s primary association, to many Americans and across the world, is with white supremacy.”

That prompted heated backlash.

The three individuals who wrote and distributed “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L” call themselves the Generals’ Redoubt. According to their vision statement, they are “dedicated to the Restoration and Preservation of the History, Values and Traditions of Washington and Lee University and its Named Founders,” and their mission includes seeking to “prevent further retreat from the University’s history, values and traditions; protect revered campus buildings; and continue to honor the magnificent contributions of its Founders.”

Despite our differences in opinion, I had a pleasant exchange with one of them earlier this year:

Dear Mr. Wooldridge,

I’m not sure why I’m included in your mass email. Could you please explain? Also, it was unclear whether you had the permission of the two authors to forward their emails. Could you please indicate whether you did?

Regardless, I am pleased to see alums concerned about the future of W&L. I share that concern. Our school is in a moment of important transition, and it should be accomplished with the committed help of its extended community.

As far as the specifics of the first letter you forwarded, it’s a little odd to suggest the that hiring committee for the director of institutional history should cease their work after so many months of open effort. W&L makes a great many hires every year. The search for the director of the new learning and development center is happening right now too. By the premise presented in the letter, that search should also be halted–though why is not clear in either case.

Still, despite not presenting a clear line of logic, the core of the letter is expressing concern about the future of W&L and how it will present its history. That is an extremely valid concern. I’m glad you are taking it up with the president and, I assume, also with the board. That is your prerogative and perhaps even your duty as a person deeply invested in W&L. I applaud your commitment.

We may not always agree about future steps, but I hope your organization will express their opinions in a respectful manner while acknowledging that everyone involved, regardless of whether they seek change or continuation of the status quo, does so because W&L is so important to them.

If we all move forward with respect and openness then we move forward together and for the good of W&L.

I look forward to your response.



He responded:

Professor Gavaler, I have been a part of an interested alumni group headed by Neely Young, Tom Rideout and myself for about 18 months.  Yes I had permission from my cohorts to send the letter to the Washington and Lee community.  If you read carefully the letter concerning Chavis, my signature was adjacent Neely Young’s.  I did not have permission from President Dudley to forward his response to Tom Rideout but he must have understood that we would forward it to others.  I felt an obligation to include his response to our request for purposes of clarification.  I agree along with our alumni group that we need to move forward in a polite and open manner.  I appreciate your comments.

Our group, The Generals’ Redoubt feel obliged to make an effort to communicate with all constituencies within the Washington and Lee community and share our point of view.  We shall continue to communicate to the administration, the Board, and other members of the Washington and Lee community with their permission of course.

Thanks for your response and questions.

Rex Wooldridge, Class ’64

I then responded:

Dear Rex,

Thank you so much for your response. I assumed you had permission for the first letter, though I would feel more comfortable if you also had permission for the second. In the future, you might simply ask Will directly; as you implied, I don’t think he would object.

I also thank you for your polite and open manner. I think that will serve the W&L community well as we all move forward.

I would also like to suggest two principles that I think everyone involved should be able to agree on:

    1. Change for change’s sake is not desirable.
    2. Tradition for tradition’s sake is not desirable.

In short, what W&L does or does not do should be based on a careful and thorough evaluation of all options, with no prejudice for or against any one option in particular.

And so two more specific principles in regard to Robert E. Lee:

    1. Lee should not be vilified.
    2. Lee should not be glorified.

In short, Lee should be presented fully and so without bias in any direction. (I’m reminded of that old Dragnet catch phrase: “Just the facts, ma’am.”)

I sincerely believe that if W&L follows these principles, we will arrive somewhere that all constituents can embrace.

I hope you agree.



He did not respond.

Reading the most recent mass email and its attached documents, I am doubtful that he and his two retired friends are following the principles I suggested. They seem instead to be proceeding on biased impressions. The less significant ones include the assumptions that the analysis of pop cultural objects (including comic book characters) is frivolous, trivial, or otherwise inane, and that all graphic works are inferior to other significant works of art and literature. I do not feel the need to present counter arguments to either impression here–though I will happily do so if requested.

I am more concerned that these three individuals are making incorrect assumptions about the agenda of faculty members and about Robert E. Lee. Their stated third goal is to “Reverse the recent decision to shield the Recumbent Statue of Lee during University events, return the Peale portrait of Washington to Lee Chapel, and modify the renaming of Robinson Hall.” If these goals were the product of careful research and evaluation, they might be supportable. The authors, however, have not provided a well-reasoned, evidence-based argument for why these goals should be adopted. Though they wish the W&L curriculum to focus on “certain skills and intellectual competencies,” they do not display those skills and competencies themselves.

Given their interest in the Recumbent Statue of Lee and the Peale portrait of Washington, they would benefit from the visual analysis skills central to my comics-based courses. Advocating for “eliminating” a professor is a serious undertaking, but the depth of their displayed research begins and ends with a skimming of department course listings. They pose pointed rhetorical questions without having first sincerely asked and investigated why a course might productively focus on such things as race, gender, and sexuality. Their name (a redoubt is a defensive military fortification) communicates not the openness of inquiry that defines an educational institution such as W&L, but an a priori conclusion that undermines inquiry. By defining themselves as reflexive defenders of Robert E. Lee, they violate one of their own “Mission Themes,” to instill “a balanced and unbiased approach to teaching and learning.”

Finally, they claim to prioritize “opportunities for constructive dialogue,” and yet they did not respond to my last email. They also did not contact me to discuss the nature of my courses before distributing a document to thousands of W&L alums, students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees advocating that those courses and I be eliminated. They deleted me from their distribution list instead. I heard about the “Dumbing Down” list from two former Creating Comics students. I welcome constructive dialogue. I am a founding member of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, a local group devoted to building bridges across the partisan divide through meaningful conversation. I would very much like to see such conversation taking place in the extended W&L community. I had hoped the Generals’ Redoubt would include meaningful participants. Instead they are modeling bias, shallow research, inadequate argumentation, and hypocritical rhetoric.

Still, I remain open. Should one of these individuals wish to engage in sincere conversation, my email address is listed on the English department webpage, just a click away from the course listings.

I became Shenandoah‘s first comics editor last fall, and the second issue under new editor Beth Staples just went live. It’s as amazing as her first issue last November, and I’m thrilled and grateful to be a part of it.

The idea that the not-yet-reborn journal might include comics occurred to me a year ago while Leigh Ann Beavers and I were teaching our spring term course Creating Comics. Artist Miriam Libicki visited the art studio and showed us the opening chapters of her current graphic-novel-in-progress. As soon as Beth gave me a thumbs up in August, I asked Miriam if we could feature Glastnost Kids on Shenandoah. I also asked Maggie Shapiro, the person who brought Miriam to campus, to write an introduction. They both said yes.

Meanwhile, Beth added “Comics” to Shenandoah‘s Submittable portal, and submissions started flowing. The stand-out was by far Rainie Oet and Alice Blank’s “Wanting to Erase her Share of the Darkness.” I asked Beth if I could also interview them about their collaborative process, and she gave the thumbs up for that too.

Finally, I’ve also been serving as a fiction reader, and asked Beth if I could solicit one of my favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones. Another thumbs up. The piece he sent though wasn’t the right fit–but for very complicated reasons. So I asked Beth if I could interview him about that, too. Amazingly, they both said yes.

So here are excerpts of all of the above:


from “Animating Questions: An Introduction to Miriam Libicki’s Glastnost Kids

by Maggie Shapiro Haskett

The experience of having one’s expectations violated can take a lot of directions, but I’ve only ever been delighted when, time and again, Libicki’s work surprises, confuses, and challenges me—while also offering unexpected moments of comfort and self-recognition. Starting in 2014, and just as much now, I am captivated by the parallel challenges she poses to both form and content in her work. Graphic novel as memoir? Sure, but as a format for scholarly interrogations or the presentation of rigorous academic research—that was something new and rare. When I found myself installed in the cozy director’s office at Washington and Lee University Hillel, the campus organization for Jewish Life, I was eager to introduce my students to Libicki’s beautiful boundary-busting work. As fate would have it, Chris Gavaler, W&L English professor and Shenandoah’s soon-to-be comics editor, was preparing to co-teach his Creating Comics course during my first spring in Virginia, and his enthusiasm for Libicki’s work was the final push I needed to bring her to campus.

“So what is a Jew?” Miriam Libicki’s narrator character asks in this excerpt from Glasnost Kids. “What is Jewish community?” I’d argue that those are two of the animating questions of the book as well as two of the questions that provoke and enliven Jewish communities everywhere, and especially on college campuses.

I’d also argue that Libicki’s work is at its most successful and provocative when we readers are forced to ask ourselves, “So what is a comic?” Libicki’s genre-bending work enlivens communities of readers, comics fans, and even scholars. For anyone with more than a glancing familiarity with the world of comics, it is a given that the genre is diverse and expansive. Libicki, though, dwells and works within formal questions that echo the identity questions articulated in Glasnost Kids. Can an academic paper include the use of the first person? What about the author’s personal experiences and connections to the subject? How about visual depictions of the author, cleavage and all? And comics? Can they really be explicitly about contemporary sociological questions? Are they a vehicle for sharing rigorous scholarly research? Given the depth and integrity of Libicki’s research and her mastery of both narrative and graphic, the answer can only be a resounding yes, and thank goodness. We need her stories, but most of all we need her questions and her provocations.

[Read all of Maggie’s Introduction here, and the opening pages of Miriam’s Glastnost Kids here.]


from “Unveiling her Glorious Share: An Interview with Rainie Oet and Alice Blank”

Chris: So you’ve referred to “poems,” “sections,” “narrative,” and “the book.” It’s interesting how those are synonyms and how they’re not. I would probably call “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” a poetry comic, a term I find to be a wonderfully and intentionally under-defined category that encompasses a range of image–text sequences, including formally traditional comics with gridded panels and word containers, but that explore untraditional content in untraditional ways. Do you have a preferred category for you work—comic, poetry comic, sequential art, etc.—and to what degree do you consciously engage with traditions and genres as you collaborate?

Rainie: It’s a funny bunch of classifications. Poetry comic and graphic narrative are interchangeable to me for this work because I see the writing as simultaneously poetry and fiction. The book, Glorious Veils of Diane, as a whole, is a novel-in-verse or a book of poems. The in-progress illustrated counterpart is a graphic novel or a graphic poetry book. The way I think of the project as a whole is like my favorite card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “What are the sections sections of? (Imagine a caterpillar moving).” “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” is one such section. In both my noncollaborative writing and my collaborative work, I try consciously to disengage traditions and genres. It’s an interesting and tricky thing, the idea of unlearning, of being free from. I think the best way to do this is to become as aware as possible of the traditions and genres that we absorb just by being in the world, and then to try to hold that awareness while writing. When I do that I feel like I’m able to bring new ideas to a project.

Alice: I could definitely see talking about this work as a “poetry” comic, but I traditionally just describe my work as comics. I worry about differentiating distinct kinds of writing as different kinds of comics—there are plenty of abstract narratives that I think would blur the line between poetry and prose (and indeed the poem from which this is derived is an example), and I wonder at the sort of comics that get left behind when labels like “poetry” are added to the name. American comics are still burdened with the image crisis brought on by the Comics Code Authority. Bringing in the poetry label might differentiate this work from a colloquially understood superhero punch-fest, but I want to abstain from adopting terms that suggest my work is in any way separate from or superior to those forbearers. I want to play a part in the ongoing cultural project to elevate “comics” as a label past its Marvel-or-DC connotations, so I try to eschew words that shift my work away from the base term.

[Read the rest of the Interview here, and Rainie and Alice’s “Wanting to Erase her Share of the Darkness” here.]


Gutting the Chicken: A Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones submitted “Chicken” to Shenandoah last October after we solicited him. We rejected it—for complicated reasons. Like any horror story should be, it was uncomfortable to read. But did it go too far? Where does fictional uncomfortable become real-world offensive? That dividing line may be hazy, but a literary magazine doesn’t have the luxury of ambiguity: either you publish a story or you don’t. And we decided not to.
Rejections are a necessarily massive, behind-the-scenes part of any magazine, and usually after a nice, thanks-but-no-thanks note to a contributor (an especially difficult proposition after a solicitation), the scene ends. But this time we thought: It’s such a powerful piece, hard to forget. Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to Stephen about our reasons for saying no to “Chicken” and hear his thoughts about writing it? Though that is pretty much the opposite premise for an author interview, we reached out to Stephen anyway and were delighted when he was game. Afterward we realized for readers to make sense of any of this, they would need to be able to read the story themselves. So we are publishing “Chicken” after all, only now in the context of this broader, why-we-rejected-it-before-we-didn’t conversation.

[Read Stephen’s story and the interview here.]


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