The Comics Course

By Larry Hertz

Exploring a range of comic forms—from 19th-century drawings by artistic pioneers to today’s engaging graphic novels and web comics—Associate Professor of English Peter Antelyes surveys the history of comic art and even encourages students to try their hand.

Antelyes's students workshop their comics in small groups.
Antelyes's students workshop their comics in small groups.

It’s consistently one of the most popular courses at Vassar, and why not? In English 281, dubbed the Comics Course, Associate Professor Peter Antelyes takes his students on a journey that begins with 19th-century drawings by comics pioneers Winsor McCay and R.F. Outcault, includes old standbys like Batman, and ends with the cutting-edge web comics of today.

“You could argue that there were much older ‘comic strips,’ such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and medieval tapestries, but most historians agree the first true comics were drawn in the 1800s,” Antelyes says.

Some may contend that reading comic books is little more than a juvenile pastime, but Antelyes disagrees. “The poet E.E. Cummings was a big fan of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat in the 1930s, and over the past few decades, comics and graphic novels have increasingly become topics for serious scholars,” he says. “It’s widely regarded as legitimate art.”

Graphic novelists John Jennings and Damian Duffy visit the class.
Graphic novelists John Jennings and Damian Duffy visit the class.

To emphasize this point, Antelyes invited the graphic novel team of John Jennings and Damian Duffy to his class spring semester to critique his students’ first project, an original one-page comic that explores the issue of discrimination. Jennings, who does most of the drawing for the graphic novels he creates with Duffy, was impressed with what he saw. “Many of the students broke out of the traditional multi-panel format and chose a more free-form approach,” he says. “For a first attempt, they were inspiring.”

English major Chris Gonzalez ’15 used multiple images to depict the alienation he feels from other Hispanics because he doesn’t speak Spanish. One image shows a figure standing apart from a group, while another shows Gonzalez wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag, standing by himself. “There’s cultural capital in my community in knowing the language, so in this drawing I’m raising the question, ‘Do I need to learn Spanish to prove my heritage and be accepted by my peers?’” he says.

Sarah King '15 displays her comic.
Sarah King '15 displays her comic.

Gonzalez says the class has taught him how cartoons have traditionally been used to depict racial caricatures. “We’re learning how that started and how it’s advanced since then,” he says.

Cat Morgan ’15, a computer science major, says she decided the take the course because she had been interested in Japanese manga art when she was in high school. “I knew a little about manga but didn’t know much else about the subject, but it’s really been fascinating,” Morgan says. “It was interesting to learn many of the earliest comic artists were Jewish immigrants who were trying to assimilate and comment on their new culture.”

Chloe Jones ’15 drew an African American woman at a beauty salon using expensive hair-care products, while the money for the products flows into the coffers of large corporations. “It’s a commentary about our economic system,” Jones says.

Antelyes says he didn’t read many comic books when he was a child but became interested in the genre when an artist named Art Spiegelman, who contributed to the New Yorker magazine in the 1990s, published a graphic novel about his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Maus, published in 1991, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Antelyes says he enjoys teaching the course as much as his students enjoy taking it.

“Every time I teach it, I change it up a little bit to take advantage of fresh material,” he says. “Today’s students grew up in an age where they relate to things visually, so graphic novels are becoming much more mainstream. Some students may come to the class with the idea that they’re somehow easier to grasp than a regular novel, but that’s not necessarily true. Some of them are quite challenging works of art.”