Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
You and I have both taught comics in classrooms. My primary resource is The Dark Knight Returns because it’s a book that I know well-enough to tear apart in a variety of different ways. It stands up to that level of scrutiny. So what’s the one book in your library that you know well-enough to be the only book you’d need to teach?
We’ve discussed teaching in the classroom before, albeit not in the format of a weekly column. When I was preparing to teach some ninth grade sections for the first time this year, I reached out to you for some of your material on The Dark Knight Returns. That’s because Batman requires a lot less context than my own standard. I can pick a few sequences out of the first issue and discuss the medium with students who may never have engaged with comics seriously before. That level of social awareness is just a bonus in addition to all of the other great reasons you teach The Dark Knight Returns and why I teach one comic every year.
But you already know what my answer is to the “what” of this question, which makes me think the question is really more about the “why”.
The “what” is Watchmen. I’ve been teaching Watchmen to International Baccalaureate (i.e. an all AP curriculum with international standards) students in their junior year of high school for over four years now. That wasn’t my choice originally. It was a comic selected by one of my favorite educators of all time in order to include one in her classroom that met the rigorous program standards. However, even when I was first invited to help teach the material it was a comic that I felt supremely comfortable with. I have 3 copies on my library shelf currently with at least one loaner missing, and have all 12 issues on my iPad at all times. It’s a comic I’ve reread about once per year since I discovered it in middle school. I regularly use it as a point of comparison or origin when discussing comics. To put it simply, I adore Watchmen.
I’m comfortable discussing just about any section or aspect of Watchmen at a moment’s notice. That’s valuable when teaching because you have limited time to hold a varied and engaging discussion. There’s no opportunity to tell a student you’ll look into it and follow up when you’re a guest lecturer. You have to be an expert in that position and this is a book I feel comfortable calling myself an expert in, much like you would with The Dark Knight Returns. When students want to discuss the end of the Nixon presidency or feminism in regards to Watchmen, I am all set to go. That’s a good thing too because each year I’m astounded by the connections these students make; they’re smart as hell.
Being comfortable isn’t the entirety of the situation though. You could be an expert in something like Amazing Spider-Man #700, but that’s neither something to be proud of nor a qualification to teach in a classroom. Maybe there’s an amazing lecture on that comic just waiting to be had, but I’m skeptical to say the least. Knowing is just half the battle and there are quite a few more reasons why I have continued to teach Watchmen each year I’ve been engaged as an educator.
The first thing is accessibility. That’s the reason I use The Dark Knight Returns in a classroom where students haven’t necessarily read the material being taught or any comics in advance. Almost everyone knows who Batman is and the first chapter is easy enough to explain for anyone who doesn’t. The key to that is having students who can engage with and form their own ideas on the material. If the only question they’re able to ask is why, then you’re left explaining the work rather than helping students to discover it for themselves.
Watchmen is a dense text, but it’s a pretty approachable read. High school students don’t seem to have many difficulties understanding the plot and reading it in the allotted time (except for those spending too much time on math or science). They can grasp all of the basics and start to make decisions on what the comic is about and how they feel about that. That’s not to say Watchmen doesn’t require some explaining. There are a few subjects that regularly come up as requiring some help. However, the IB students always have a good grasp of what’s going on and a fair portion of the themes and ideas. I can help them run faster, rather than teach them to walk.
The second thing I find important when teaching comics is having art that both the students and I can discuss well. A large portion of my lectures is focused on getting students to engage with the art, not just the dialogue and plotting. The one thing I tell every student is that they already know how to discuss art, they may just not know it yet. Once you get kids talking about how panels make them feel or what thoughts they evoke, the conversation tends to flow smoothly.
Dave Gibbons’ art in Watchmen is outstanding in two ways: he tells the story with masterful clarity and presents each panel with a clear intent. That combination makes it quite easy to teach Watchmen. The comic doesn’t lack in ambiguity, but on each page you can pick out a variety of items worthy of discussion that have an obvious connection to more familiar elements in an English classroom. That’s how I introduce concepts of perspective, color, and size to classrooms not used to examining visual language in almost any capacity.
Finally, it’s important to find a work with layers. The things that you love most about a comic or any work of art are not bound to be shared with others. In a classroom of 20 students, that’s highly unlikely. Each person is going to come at the work from their own unique perspective. If the work in question only functions in a singular manner, then you’re more likely to alienate than invite students. It’s important to have a comic that, even if not everyone likes it, everyone can engage with. Watchmen is a comic that not every student I’ve encountered has loved (although lots do). However, every student has held an opinion about it that they can defend.
Some students approach it through their fascination with philosophy, others love character-driven stories, more still are comparing it to their IB history courses on the Cold War. No matter what though, everyone finds a way into the discussion. The complexity of Watchmen ensures that anyone who reads it can find something not only to discuss, but that they enjoy discussing. That creates engagement and allows the text to be shared with the collective group and not just a few individuals.
My love of Watchmen isn’t the key to teaching Watchmen, although it’s certainly helpful. What’s most important is that it’s a work that holds up under the scrutiny of the classroom, again and again. I don’t go to classes to teach Watchmen. I go to teach comics. And if I want to get pretentious, I really go to teach art, communication, and understanding. Watchmen doesn’t just work because I want to teach it, it works because it’s a great tool. Teaching is an endeavor to build connections and expand minds. That’s a lofty task and it requires incredible tools. I think we’re just lucky to have love some of the comics that can accomplish such a noble thing.