If the standing-room-only master’s tea with acclaimed comics artist Will Eisner is any indication, students’ interest in comics is on the rise.
Eisner spoke to students about the history of comic strips and critics’ perception of comics at Berkeley College Tuesday. His visit comes on the heals of the inception of “Comics as Literature, Comics as Art” into the Residential College Seminar Program.
“[Eisner] is the most influential living American comic books artist,” said Michael Wenthe GRD ’04, who organized the event. “At every stage in his career he has been an innovator.”
Eisner, whose works include the detective character “The Spirit” and the graphic novel “A Contract with God,” was thrilled to see students discussing comic books in a critical and academic manner.
“I am grateful to you people for introducing and studying this medium in a serious and honest way,” he said. “By studying this you are raising the standards of this medium.”
Indeed, interest in both the study and the creation of comic books is increasing on campus. Isaac Cates GRD ’02, who teaches the seminar, said that after his initial proposal for the class, 10 out of the 12 residential colleges were interested in approving the course.
“I sort of stopped reading comics when I got into college,” Cates said. “This [course] is a resurrection that is mostly recent and inspired by a few comics that have come out in the last year or so.”
The seminar looks both critically and analytically at comics as varied as Batman and Maus, asking the question — as it reads on the syllabus — “are [comics] the new literature of the twenty-first century?”
Eisner certainly seems to think so.
“I engage you as a reader,” he said. “Comics do what text alone does — it asks you to imagine.”
In the early 1930s, Eisner produced his first comic strip for his high school newspaper. After a short stint at “Wow What a Magazine!” and then as co-founder of the Eisner-Iger studio, he began running a nationally syndicated newspaper comic strip featuring “The Spirit” in 1939.
“My literary nutrition was completely short-stories,” Eisner said. “I created a character [The Spirit] that would not impede my short-story telling. It began for me as an opportunity to reach over the hill into what I wanted to do.”
Eisner conveyed his passion for comics to his audience by explaining how his work has influenced readers of all ages — not just the stereotypical child reader.
When Eisner was drafted during World War II, he had the opportunity to give comic strips a more practical purpose by designing the comics for military weapon instruction manuals.
“The use of imagery for instruction was a phenomenal success,” Eisner said. “It proved the point that [comics] could be an effective teaching tool.”
A growing number of Yale students seem to be equally captivated by comic literature.
“Comics artists have started to become a community in the time that I’ve been here,” said Shawn Cheng ’02, an aspiring comics artist. “When I started out there were only two to three people into it and they drew me into their circle.”
Cheng’s work discusses people’s inability to communicate. His comic strip, called “behindtheboathouse,” appears in The Yale Herald and often depicts unrequited love or failed social interactions.
“A comic is really immediate,” Cheng said. “It’s a very intuitive way of receiving information.”
Eisner considers comics one of the oldest forms of communication. He said that the arrangement of images in a sequence dates back to the Stone Age. Eisner’s work and Cates’ seminar attempt to illustrate the tradition of comic strips and dispute the perception that comics are childs’ play.
“I don’t think anybody who’s actually read [comics] are going to think of them as kid stuff,” Cates said.
Lindsay Nordell ’03, an English major enrolled in Cates’ seminar, agrees.
“When you’re interpreting things as an English major, you’re just studying words,” Nordell said. “When you supply images, it allows you to say a lot more.”
Nordell also pointed out that for comics to become more accepted as literature there needs to be more serious critiques of comic books by non-comic book artists and an improvement in the industry itself.
Cates hopes his seminar will continue in the following years, and considering the high interest from students this semester that is not such a far-fetched idea.
“This is a course that needs to be taught because these are books that I want to spend a few hours talking to people about,” Cates said. “It’s clear to me that there’s a demand for the course.”