Dr. William Kuskin has been teaching at colleges for more than two decades, more than half of which has been spent teaching comics. Last year he launched a Super MOOC at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a massive online course open to anyone interested in studying comics. The class attracted more than 39,000 students and helped both long-time fans and new readers alike explore the medium. Dr. Kuskin launched the second round of the course this week, which is still open to enrollment. He also took some time at San Diego Comic-Con to speak with Comics Bulletin reporter Chase Magnett about his experience as an educator and comics scholar.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: You’ve been teaching at a collegiate level for over two decades now. At what point in your career did you start bringing comics into the classroom?
Kuskin: That’s a good question. I had read comics as a kid and I was at a real low point in my life and my career. I guess it was 2003. I was at a regional university, a fine school, but it was a regional university and it seemed pretty clear I wasn’t going to get tenure. I had some medical issues at that time and my wife actually left me. So I was at a low point in my life. I was walking down the street and I saw a comic book store. I walked in and I said, “Okay, it can’t get any lower than this.” So I stumbled into the comic book store.
I had this real moment of discovery. The Ultimates andBatman: Hush were just wrapping up. Those were two really powerful returns to me to earlier stories of comics that I’d grown up with. Well, Hush was just a return to Batman, but Hush is so gorgeous. It was a real moment. So I had mark that as the beginning of me teaching comics, because after that I began to think, “Wow, there is so much here.” It’s not just complicated. Even superhero comics are intertwined with literature. For instance, Hush is intertwined with Poe. It is aware of Poe. It restages Batman as a detective, though he was kind of a sloppy detective in that story, maybe against Jeph Loeb’s plans. He doesn’t really figure out obvious things out, and that is part of the story.
So at that point I really started teaching comics. Since 2003 I would say I have been teaching, if not every semester, then every third semester, something. Now that I think about it, teaching comics really began for me when I was a graduate student. In 1991 I was a TA (Teaching Assistant), and I was TA’ing for this course at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. It was in twentieth century literature. The professor was Jacques Lezra, who is a colleague now and an absolute wonderful super hip guy. He is Spanish and he is very theoretical. When you walked into his lecture, you realized, “Well, this is it. I don’t understand a word he is saying and it’s being delivered at a level so high that I can’t follow.” For me, that was great; it was the definition of a large lecture where some really smart guy stands up and lays it out. Very exciting. But it also is great for the TA’s because the TA’s basically have to interpret what he was doing.
Don’t you know – this was ’91- he assigned Dark Knight Returns, which hadn’t been out that long at that point, right? It came out in ’86, so it was five years out. It had been out long enough to seep into the echelon of the academy, but it wasn’t what it is now, which is kind of canonical and storied. I taught that course and that put on my map that there were serious comics out there.
I’ve been teaching since 2003, so that makes it eleven years of teaching comics seriously. And originally it just started as a graduate course. And then I moved in, I got to the University of Colorado- Boulder, and I put in for a summer short course. It’s a three-week course they teach in May. The chair was a little bit reticent. I said I wanted to do comics. She said, “Well if you can get this summer course grant, you can teach comics.” So I applied for the grant. I got it. That was, and remains, the best course I ever taught in my life.
The reason is because I hadn’t really figured out my take on comics and I didn’t really understand what I understand now- and we can disagree about this- that comics exist in a very clear canon right now. I was very much a student at that point with my students; it really felt like a discovery group. So exciting. From there the department instantly drafted me into teaching a large lecture, which was funny because the department didn’t do large lectures. I started doing a large lecture on comics, and I’ve done that since ’08. Then I became chair of the department and my teaching really was decreased. I had a sabbatical last year, and that is when I did the MOOC.
CB: Going back to the reception of that first summer course and moving on from there, what was the reaction of your colleagues? How did students react to bringing comics into the classroom?
Kuskin: Fascinating. A university is different than a high school. I have never had a negative reaction on the part of a university to teaching comics. In fact, people who are skeptical of the humanities like our old dean at the University of Colorado-Boulder who has since moved on. He did integrated physiology, so he was kind of a biologist, kind of a phys. ed. teacher. But he was dean. He loved it. I walked into his office one day, and he had this kind of enormous collage that he had gotten from the art department. One of the students had made it. It was essentially a collage of comic books. It was all these panels. It was very comics oriented. He called me in because he wanted me to see that he loved comics. He wasn’t a guy who read comics, but he got it. He got that this was effectively outsider art, and that comics that were tapped in in some wonderful way.
I was having a meeting with the provost of the University of Colorado- Boulder, the highest academic officer. And he is so sold on the idea. It was his idea to do the MOOC! He’s another integrated physiologist. I don’t know why all these guys rise up in administration, but he is another integrated physiologist. And he is completely sold. His argument is that we need to start strategizing ways of using comics to reach non-comics readers, but not in a sense of beginning comics readers, just to teach intro. literature. He thinks comics is the way to go. He wants to create really some online programs using the MOOC to tie in.
These guys get it. Academics get it. They see it as an avant garde literature. It’s funny because my training is medieval literature and I’ve written two books on it and edited a third. All my chops are in medieval literature, not in comics. Medieval literature is gorgeous. It is so precocious. In the late 1300’s about five major London writers get together. They don’t get together in that there is no Marvel, DC, or San Diego Comic-Con to pull them together, but they are very aware of each other. They are talking to each other. Their writing reflects knowledge of the other guy’s writing. At that moment they really realize post modernity, before modernity. It is a fascinating moment where they realize what the power of telling stories are and then how the power of telling stories refracts against biography or reality or religion and creates a very porous world. So they realize that in 1370- Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Hoccleave, Lydgate, Strogg, Shirley- these writers, they realize it and they create some great literature. Now, cut to 2014, that literature is so alien to us in its language and its history. It’s so hard to get into that it has become insular. It takes so much knowledge to read in it that a lot of that vibrancy that it had in 1385 let’s say is opaque to us now. You know if you study it for six semesters or so, or three courses, you begin to see, “Holy moly, these guys are like cutting edge and they know it!” But you know it is hard to get into.
Comics are that now. You know? They are on the cutting edge now. I think on university levels, administrators and faculty, they see that; they know it. They may not read comics. A lot of them think comics are superheroes. They quickly go beyond that though. It is really on the high school level that you find resistance to comics. Those teachers are much more assailed and live in a culture of regulation in a way that a university professor doesn’t.
CB: Continuing along those lines of thinking about comics place in education, right now they are still a sub-section of most English departments.
CB: There really is no comics minor or major.
Kuskin: This is a good question.
CB: I make analogies to film a lot. Where film is already getting taught and what began with little classes led us to now where we have film departments. We study film because we recognize it as a unique medium with its own set of tools. Where do you see comics right now, and where do you see them going in academia?
Kuskin: That is a great question. I can’t divorce that question from the question of where is the university itself now and where is it moving to? The humanities have experienced a tremendous decline in enrollment. I think the humanities are at – at least for the twentieth century- a low. The humanities have bounced back before. In the 70’s or the early 80’s the humanities hit a tremendous low as well and they bounced back. However, the university structure has moved to a false promise. The false promise is that we can provide jobs. The university can provide some skills, but it really can’t provide jobs. People going to college now are really given a narrative that they need to go to college for a job. The fact of matter is the university at best can provide some skills. Many of those courses are routine and almost boring.
What the university can provide is a way of expanding your own intelligence. Now, that’s a hard sell: “Come to school and expand your own intelligence.” That is why I went to school. To anyone who reflects upon it, it is obvious and wonderful. It’s a hard sell in an economy where the rhetoric is governed by jobs. How do the humanities – which have never offered jobs in any degree, they have offered thoughts – how do the humanities deal with that? And how do comics play into it?
On the one hand I think we can say the humanities should just soldier on the way they have, spin off a comic department the way you suggested with film departments. I don’t think we can do that. I think our resources are too strapped. If you think about what kind of hires is a humanity unit going to make, they’ve got to hire some guy to teach writing. Maybe he loves comics; that’s great. But he is going to have to be situated in a unit that serves the needs of the university. To cater to his particular specialty in the way we used to is going to be tough. To make a long thought poem short, I think the humanities need to change and I think the university needs to recognize this false covenant it’s made that it is going to provide jobs. It may not be able ever to move away from that rhetoric, because it is a very powerful rhetoric. Why is someone going to spend forty thousand a year to go to a public school now unless they think they have a tangible return? That’s tough.
My plan for comics would be that we really need to integrate units. We need to reach out beyond the humanities, make connections to marketing, to economics, to film, and to computer design. Charles Hatfield, a friend of mine and a great comics scholar, labeled comics an antique discipline. I think that is really important because comics, though they are centered around English currently, they don’t belong to English. They belong to many different disciplines. We need to maximize that to continue the university’s promise to educate.
CB: I wrote a piece not too long along ago where I talked about comics in the English department, then explained why they should be in art departments or film departments. I went through a slew of areas and concluded that comics need to be taught as comics.
Kuskin: So what do you think about that false promise? You just graduated.
CB: I think you touch upon a lot of very, very potent stuff. Going to university, my parents told me, “you need to get this job.” They recognized, as I do now having studied economics, that there is a growing social disparity and there is a growing wealth gap. That without that degree, without that piece of paper, it is much harder to even try to compete and make sure you aren’t on the wrong side of that gap.
Kuskin: Yeah, you better be on that side.
CB: I’m also a juvenile diabetic, so I need good health insurance. I need good corporate healthcare under our current system in the United States. I studied economics because I knew I could potentially get a good job with that degree. Having come out of university, I look back and I am glad that I studied English and philosophy as well. I’m glad that I tried to, as you say, expand my knowledge. I almost regret not making that my entire focus though. Not going for it and obtaining my masters and PhD, and pursing the thing I am really passionate. I didn’t because I was frightened about not being able to provide for myself and obtain the healthcare I require.
Kuskin: Fascinating. I mean I haven’t know you more than forty minutes now, but I would say you played your cards in college incredibly well and logically. I would say from just the few things you’ve said to me that you are actually at a very good point because you are doing what you want to do and you are treating it as a professional endeavor, not as “now I write sometimes.” You are obviously serious about it. I would say, don’t back off. I think moving into the safety notion is a good notion; that’s smart. Though, don’t back off. I wonder if the comics entertainment industry is expanding at such a rate to also include this reflective, critical apparatus, then you are on the cutting edge of an industry. So keep your day job. But stay up nights, you know, and keep doing that.
CB: It is amazing what you can do if you give up sleep.
Kuskin: Well, yeah, it is amazing. Or if you just cut back a little bit on some.
CB: To put the focus back on you, you mentioned growth earlier and that is something else I want to talk about. In terms of comics growing, we are seeing small strides. In comparison to something like film or books or television, comics is still a very small subsection of American entertainment. What are the necessary steps to take in helping comics to grow? Is education an important part of that?
Kuskin: This is a good question, and I may be more pessimistic than you on this. For me, comics are essentially married to the format of the book. In the 90’s everyone was saying how the book was dead and it’s not going to continue. It turns out that books still have their place, either in e-books or in paper creations. Comics are a wonderful reading tool, but there are now so many different media for communication and artistic expression. Comics have always been relatively small. I think there is a ceiling to their growth. I think that that the great thing we can do is A, is bring in more and more sophisticated creators. I’m recently in love with this story Pretty Deadly.
CB: It’s very good.
Kuskin: It’s great.
CB: Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios.
Kuskin: Yeah. It’s just great. Jordan Bellaire is doing the colors.
CB: I was just talking about her work last night.
Kuskin: That to me is not quite mainstream because it is Image and a little bit separate. But it is still comics. It is pure comics. It’s shoot ‘em up. It’s sexy. It’s violent. It’s comics. But it is sophisticated. I want more of that. I want more Chris Ware. There will always hopefully be Batman but I think that there is a ceiling to how many people are going to go out and read Pretty Deadly. There is always a ceiling to how many people are going to appreciate a sophisticated art form. There is always a ceiling. I think that the all the tie ins that we see from Lego blocks to movies are all to our benefit. We need to encourage that cross-over because not everyone is going to be sophisticated about it or wants to be.
CB: There also has been growth outside of the big two. We have seen The Walking Dead rocket into popularity on television, which has pulled people to Image. We’ve also seen successes that aren’t based on multimedia. There’s Saga, which sells really well and people really seem to respond to it.
Kuskin: You’re right. So you may be less pessimistic than I am. I hope you are right. Quite frankly, I don’t really like movies. I go to some, but I’m not a moviegoer. I like a few TV shows and I don’t game because I would lose myself in it. To me comics are everything. I hope that if other people feel that way, then that would be great. Look at Chris Ware, the Building Stories sold eighty thousand copies in its first year. I mean that is incredible for a fifty-dollar box book.
CB: Landing in The New York Times, it helps.
Kuskin: It really helps. So lets not be too pessimistic. I mean that’s great; it’s growth. There are people there. It turns out that human beings, no matter the media, they need to read and they need to reflect. That’s wonderful. One thing that English majors often say to me after taking my courses, “You know, I got really bored with the English major. I’d lost my passion for it, but your course reawakened that passion for me.” And why do they say that? They say that because, although the format of the novel is great and you can read wonderful novels, it is a kind of a lousy use of a book, isn’t it? It’s just a big rectangle of paper. It’s not really inventive. It’s not like Promethea, right? Where you think, “Holy Jesus! I can put this together in a different way.” Chris Ware, where it is like, “What is this? Where do I begin? Anywhere!”
Optimistically, one could imagine a world in which comics were fully integrated as a literature and grade school children were reading comics. They could take it for granted, just as they would read a book or poems. Comics have the capacity to renew our relationship to poetry in a wonderful way because comics aren’t really bound to prose in any way. That could be great. Pessimistically you are going to get a maximum amount of people who actually want to invest long hours over a book and money in a collection, but want entertainment. There is going to be a gradient.
CB: You talked about the possibility for cross media to promote comics and the classroom to promote comics. What about the transformation of digital media? That is something you are obviously experienced with because you translated your classroom to a digital medium. Do you that is helping to lower the bar to entry? And what outcomes do you see coming from the transition to digital and the growth of digital as its own market?
Kuskin: Digital is a complicated thing. I’m surprised to find myself reading digital comics through the MOOC. I have my own comic in the MOOC. Every week is my own comic. Some of them have complicated links, and you are looking through them. I am surprised to find myself participating in the digital world.
What is my thesis on the digital world? My books on the middle ages happen to be on the development of printing and the relationship between manuscript technology and older technology and print technology. The fallacy of printing is that it revolutionized everything. In fact, people were making hand manuscripts all of the way into the beginning of the twentieth century. It is the typewriter that changes our relationship to writing and to copying things. On the one hand, technologies don’t replace one another; they augment each other. On the other hand, it is still free to put your work on the web. In that, the web becomes a test space for creators who are not yet affiliated with a distributer. Distribution in my mind still looms large.
I had been teaching comics online for four or five years before I did the MOOC, but I didn’t have a distributor. Coursera is my distributor and they almost instantly reached 39,000 people. I mean, holy Joe! For education that is unheard of. That’s never been done before. Let me make myself clear: Coursera has created courses that have reached more than 39,000 people. I’m not saying the numbers in my comics MOOC had never been reached before. They’ve done many more. I think 160,000 is their limit. That is all within four years. That kind of educational dissemination has never been done before.
That having been said, one, digital comics are fascinating. They exist in parallel to print right now. That parallel is going to go on and on and on.
Two, digital comics afford a unique entry point for artists. Distribution is still essential and for an artist to reach a large audience. Very few artists are able to generate that on their own recognizance. You need distribution.
Three, it is interesting to look over digital comics. You read a digital comics like Melanie Gillman’s As the Crow Flies. Her digital comics are essentially a graphic novel with pages. If you look at her layouts, they’re really a page. She puts each page up. They are lovingly hand drawn. On some levels, digital is just being considered another vehicle for otherwise traditional modes of comic expression. Then you look at Dax Tran-Coffee’s Failing Sky. In his comics you can still see the page behind them, but he is really trying to play with layout and force you to deal with the mediation of the screen.
On some level, digital represents exactly the strange overlap between media that we’ve been talking about. That’s because comics are an anti-discipline. How long is going to take some great artists (that are already there) to integrate more and more video into comic panels? But at a certain point that’s not a comic point anymore; it’s something else. And God bless that too.
So what am I saying? Comics unique ability to bring together different disciplines is only going to make the way people experiment with digital media more exciting. Nevertheless, I don’t see the distribution going away. Distribution, in reaching different people and providing a venue for people to come and find your work, is critical. As someone who has a lot of work online in this educational format, I still need Coursera. There is nothing I can do without Coursera.
CB: Coursera represents a great means of distribution. You’ve talked about some other means of distributing and expanding the classroom outside of it. What are the key resources you have found to bring comics into the classroom and get the support you need? Are publishers helping at all?
Kuskin: So far I’ve had some contact from Diamond, but no contact from publishers. I would love that. I would be very interested in figuring out ways of bringing the publishing community into my course and letting them teach students what they do. I would see that as tremendous value added to my course. I think that it would only help the publishers as well. I’m not sure if my course simply hasn’t hit a critical mass to reach them. I’m hoping that Diamond takes an interest and works with me on this. So far my courses remains in a kind of academic shell, and that’s a little sad.
I think it would be great to have a few seminars within the course, a few videos really explaining what publishers see themselves as doing, what their hierarchy of production is, and how you enter that hierarchy. It would only be positive. On the other hand, they also haven’t bothered me for using so many copyrighted images, so I am thankful for that.
CB: You have a catch phrase: “onward.” You end every video with it and I think it provides a great theme for a lot of what we talked about in terms of comic expanding into the future, growing, and changing what is happening in classrooms. So moving forward, where do you see your work going in the next five or ten years?
Kuskin: “Onward” does capture my primary goal because my primary goal is, as an educator and something of an authority because I’m a published educator, remind people that the imagination is tremendously valuable and that the imagination really is who you are. It is very easy to live a life that is tremendously dissatisfying because you think you have to do certain things, you have to behave a certain way, you have to put away your childish toys, and with that, you have to put away your imagination. I think a lot of people make that kind of bargain because they think they have to be mature now, and they have to shut down on certain interests. In parts, it’s because we have to pay mortgages and car bills. If you want to buy a Jack Kirby original art, you better make some money.
My primary goal and my primary directive is to the imagination and that will lead me in my own path further into the university structure and further into creating courses and venues that maintain a level of excellence in mentorship, but also are affordable and reach different people. My romance with comics will continue. I really don’t know if the MOOC is the high point. I’m not sure. What I am sure is that I need to bring my energy and my belief in the bedrock of education as a transformative mode to the university at large. I don’t feel that I can do enough just as an English professor. I think that all university students need to be told and need to be reminded that they are there to find themselves. They are not there just to learn how to run an Excel spreadsheet; they can figure that out when they are fifty. They are there to find themselves as growing, confident individuals.