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Karma Waltonen: The Geek Queen's Tale

A other interview article by: Laura Akers

As a semi-retired geek academic, I look forward every year to the Comic Arts Conference. Held in conjunction with San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon, the CAC brings together scholars and professionals to talk about comic books, the comic book industry, and pop culture. This year, an old school mate of mine is presenting not one but two papers at the CAC at WonderCon and graciously agreed to talk about her work, and her own life as a geek academic.

Karma Waltonen, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the University of CA, Davis who teaches Freshman Seminars in British humor, American satire, and yes, The Simpsons.


Laura Akers for Comics Bulletin: This year at WonderCon, you’re presenting on two panels, one on using The Simpsons TV show in the classroom and the other about the adaptation of television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly into graphic novel sequels. How does a university professor who wrote her dissertation on Margaret Atwood get interested in topics like these?

Karma Waltonen: Well, I was watching The Simpsons when I was a young teenager (way back on The Tracey Ullman Show), before I read some Atwood in high school. Even before that, I was chosen to be Wonder Woman in a parade, so comics/superheroes and Simpsons has been in my blood longer than many other academic interests. I don't see any of these things as all that separate, actually, which is why there are Simpsons quotes in my master's thesis on British drama and Atwood quotes in my Simpsons book -- all of these texts explore the world through overlapping lenses. Atwood and Whedon share an interest in gender relations and sci-fi. They and The Simpsons critique contemporary problems in culture, while exposing cultural misconceptions and myths.

Karma Waltonen, PhD Interview - The Simpsons in the ClassroomCB: A couple of years ago, you wrote The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield with your friend Denise Du Vernay, and you teach courses using the show each year at UC Davis. What does The Simpsons add to the teaching of composition? What are the lessons of The Simpsons?

Waltonen: My first Simpsons class at Florida State over a decade ago was a composition class. While I use The Simpsons in my writing classes, my "Simpsons" class now is actually focused on satire and postmodernism (though the students do write journals and scripts).

However, to answer your question about composition, my students are always surprised by how many revisions a script goes through -- how unlikely it is for any given word in draft one to end up in the aired episode. Many inexperienced writers have a lot of misconceptions about
writing -- that it comes "naturally" for writers and that our words flow easily, ending up on the page in the perfect, predestined order. So The Simpsons illustrates that writing is hard, that it requires revision. Several episodes feature the characters writing -- when Homer writes food reviews, when Lisa tries to write a children's book, when Moe writes poetry, when Marge writes a romance novel, when Bart writes a song, etc. There are writing lessons all over the show! In fact, our book has chapters on The Simpsons and Composition and The Simpsons and
Linguistics.

As for what the larger lessons are for the show, I've chosen five for my presentation [at WonderCon], so everyone will just have to come see it!

CB: How do students react when they find themselves in a Simpsons-based English course? Are they excited, or do you get pushback?

Waltonen: I've only had two students react negatively, both at Florida State. One student took the class because it fit her schedule, not because of interest. She hated the show because she thought that no show should ever satirize the power structure. Another student was a problem
because he thought it would be an easy A. My requirements that he actually do work were interfering with his being stoned all the time. As my class is currently a freshman seminar, no one is forced to take it. Thus, they tend to be excited. I get a good range of students too -- super-fans, people who want to rediscover a lost passion and international students who want to use the show to better understand American culture. Sometimes the students' roommates or parents will say something bad about the course (since it's about a cartoon!), but of course, they aren't in the class, so they just make assumptions about what we do in there.

CB: I understand that one of the assignments in your course gives students the option of writing a Simpsons telescript. Anyone turned in anything good enough to become a Simpsons episode?

Waltonen: Yes. A student named Miguel wrote a sequel to the "Hellfish" episode, entitled "Grumbling Abe Simpson and his Raging Grandson in 'The Return of the Curse of the Flying Hellfish Returns II'" -- it could easily be a draft of a real episode.

Most students find drafting a script to be very hard and come away from the class with a greater appreciation for the writers. Common problems the kids have are finding an idea that hasn't already been done and keeping the characters in character while still being funny.

CB: You’re also talking about turning shows like Buffy and Firefly into graphic novels. Without giving away too much of your presentation, what do you think the impetus for this new kind of adaptation is?

Waltonen: I'm more interested in Buffy than Firefly adaptations, as the former is, I think, creating a truly new form -- the television season in graphic novel form. The impetus for Buffy Season Eight is to continue the series, while the Firefly comics so far have been mostly one-shots that either fill in gaps from season one or do a wrap-up after the movie.

CB: What’s your opinion of the Buffy/Firefly adaptations? Do they work as graphic novels?

Waltonen: This is the question I could give too much away on, so I'll be brief now, as my presentation will actually go over the strengths and limitations of the form. A short answer would be that they subjectively work for me as a reader because I enjoy them. However, I can't teach Buffy comics in my Graphic Novel course at UCD because "Season Eight" depends on you having watched one through seven. Students unfamiliar with Buffy would be just as lost as if they tried to come in to the television series years too late -- perhaps even more lost.

Karma Waltonen, PhD Interview

CB: How do you think your academic background feeds into your viewing of shows like those discussed in your presentations? Are you able to just sit back and enjoy an episode, or do you spend all your time analyzing what you’re seeing?

Waltonen: You mean analyzing and enjoying are two different things?

On one level, having a text that's interesting enough for me to want to analyze it and that stands up to my analysis is totally enjoyable. Badly written shows, where the analysis would only consist of "wow, that was the 16th sexist/racist, unchallenged stereotype," wouldn't be enjoyable to just sit through for me.

However, I'm not note-taking on the first viewing. Margaret Atwood (see, she comes back) has said that every first read should be primarily for enjoyment/plot, that you're doing it wrong if you start applying your theory before you even know what happens. On that first viewing, I'll take a mental note that I want to come back to something and see it again. Sometimes I'll know instantly that I want to write about it or teach it. I remember, for example, turning to a friend only a few minutes into viewing Fight Club and saying, "Oh, yeah, I'm teaching this." I ended up writing about it and talking about it at some conferences a long time ago, too.

Maybe the way to think about your question is from the other way around. I don't know that being an academic makes me read or view in a certain way. Being the kind of person who thinks/reads/views in a certain way has certainly made me an academic! Luis Alberto Urrea, a favorite author of mine, has said that you know you're a writer when you see the world in a certain way. I can relate to that.

CB: As someone who has taught classes using Buffy, particularly in relation to gender and power, I have to ask a fellow academic: There has been a lot of discussion of Buffy in academic circles and on the Internet about Whedon’s obvious interest female power. Some have argued that it’s a ultra-feminist text, while others have gone so far as to claim it’s so exploitive and violent towards  women that it’s clear that Joss "rapes his wife and abuses her in various other ways." What’s your take on Buffy in this arena?

Waltonen: Wow, I'd never heard that point of view before. I don't see the show the way that blogger does, which apparently means she's worried about me since I call myself a feminist. For every point she makes, a counter immediately came to mind. The captain gets called "sir" because he's the captain. Men and women have to call him that. If I had a captain, I'd have to do the same. He's rude to every member of his crew, not just the women (though rudeness towards women is all she cites). Some women do opt to be high-class prostitutes, yet the blogger doesn't think that any woman would ever choose that for a living, etc, etc, etc.

I'm wondering what type of show she would want. One where every single woman is treated wonderfully in every single circumstance, by every single character? That's hardly going to comment on real life.

What I find actually interesting about the whole debate is that simply having strong female characters and female leads is "feminist." It's just so sad that we have to mark it that way when it should be the norm. There are weak female and male characters, strong female and male characters, just like in real life -- why can't it be called realistic? Because television is so misogynistic as a whole. I'm not saying I'm against the feminist label at all, only that I long for a time when simple equality doesn't need to be marked as special or abnormal or ideological.

Karma Waltonen, PhD Interview

CB: Other than your presentations, what are you most looking forward to doing at WonderCon?

Waltonen: Well, I'm going to be dressing up on Saturday when I'm not presenting. I'll give you a hint about the costume: There is no Karma, only Zuul. I'm excited to see sneak-peeks of things like The Hobbit and Bongo Comics. I'm going to try to meet Carol Lay, Keith Knight, etc. and hang out with Lonnie Millsap (of Rollyhead Publishing) and other friends. I have to try to see Wil Wheaton, too. He used to have a dog named Karma, and likely I'd tell him that and then he'd shake his head slowly, thinking "God, what a geek!" I am such a loser when it comes to meeting anyone famous. I become a tongue-tied idiot. So I guess I'll be doing that a lot.

CB: Being an academic as well as (obviously) a geek, through what kind of lens do you view cons? How do those two aspects of yourself affect your experience at events like WonderCon?

Waltonen: Overall, I just try to enjoy them, like Renfairs. Some great things can come out of them, too. For example, one year I ended up in a commercial for Kick-Ass because of WonderCon. Another year, I met Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and he ended up giving a lecture to my graphic novel class.

I guess those two parts of my identity are so intertwined that I don't even feel that I'm using two lenses. That's what happens when an academic ends up having a wonderful job that lets me do what I'm interested in. It means my very job becomes geeky. So I teach science writing and political science writing and The Simpsons and science fiction and graphic novels. I do satire units in lots of classes. Weird Al lyrics make appearances, and Eddie Izzard routines find their way into my writing and my teaching. I mean, my latest publication is about time travel in Star Trek. I'm really excited to be presenting at WonderCon instead of just attending. And what with giving two presentations and dressing up, I am the Geek Queen!

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