Q & A re Essays for Graphic Narrative course
Below are slightly edited inquiries that I've received about the essays in the Graphic Narrative course and my slightly edited replies which, I hope, may be helpful to other students in the course.
Sent: Monday, January 10, 2011 10:17 AM
To: Rabkin, Eric
Subject: Shorter Paper for Graphic Narratives
Do you have a more detailed write-up of what you want from us for our shorter paper on the children's book? I would like to start searching for my subject for that paper now, and want to make sure I consider candidate books according to appropriate selection criteria.
I'll see you tomorrow.
One can distinguish between the subject and the object of an argument. If the subject of an argument is the possible virtues of marriage, the object of inquiry might be a positive example, say the marriage of John and Abigail Adams, or it might be a negative example, say the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; it might be factual, like those just mentioned, or fictional, like the marriage of the Macbeths. In the first essay for this course, I begin with no preconception about limiting the subject of your essay or the object of your essay. However, I do begin with the presumption that you proceed as a good scientist would; that is, you study something (in this case an object) that you sense may have value but in the course of studying you constantly test your observations to see if they are indeed true, refining or rejecting them as you go, until you evolve a sense of the overall pattern of your observations--which is to say, until you perceive some pattern in the object of study that matters not only to you but to your potential readers. Put another way, you should arrive at a subtle and significant observation about how a work works and argue for the significance of that observation. By "observation," I mean something overarching, not merely the individual pieces of observation. For example, one might ultimately arrive at an observation about how gender in Where the Wild Things Are influences our understanding of the work as a whole. This could include the fact of the protagonist being a boy rather than a girl, the adult being a mother rather than a father, and the uncertain sexuality of the wild things. Given our culture's stereotypical understanding of females as nurturers and males as explorers, the book might come to be seen as offering a successful negotiation between radically different types. And much more may become newly or more deeply clear by attending to gender in this work. Why is Max in a "wolf" costume, and what are our associations with the word "wolf"? In short, the subject here is gender; the object is the Sendak book; the essay deals with both, but its argument is about its subject (gender), here more narrowly and properly advertised as "gender in Where the Wild Things Are."
What is most important in selecting a book as the object of study for the first essay is that (a) you find it admirable in some way and (b) you find it worthy of your extended, detailed attention so that (c) you can come to and convey a deeper and richer understanding of the value or values of the work. Since those values will vary with the work, I can't define them in advance. What I always recommend is that you find a few books that you think worth your time in this regard, works that you can enrich by your attention to them, and then bring those to my office where we can discuss them and perhaps settle on one. What I want to underscore about your intellectual process is that it should be honest and open. The aim at first is to imagine a hypothesis. That arises out of close attention to anything and everything you can think of in the work. Once you have a hypothesis, the aim is not to confirm it but to test it, which may mean modifying or even discarding it. Once you have a hypothesis that you believe stands the test of your own skepticism, you can lay out that hypothesis, arguing for how one can see it working in the work and why understanding that is important. And that hypothesis might not be the one with which you began. So, I do not particularly advise you to pick a subject--although I wouldn't try to stop you from doing so--but I do advise you to find at least some specific objects (candidate books) and bring them to my office so we can consider them together as you seek to shape a simple proposal for what you want to study and why, at least initially, you think that might be worthwhile.
I hope this helps.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [...]
> Sent: Thursday, January 13, 2005 4:47 PM
> To: Rabkin, Eric
> Subject: question about children's book paper
> Prof. Rabkin,
> I was looking at the assignment for the children's book paper and
> wondering if we could write about a theme in children's books, as
> opposed to just discussing a single book. For example, if I wanted to
> write about the depiction of reality in children's books, would this
> be a possibility?
> any thoughts?
I think that it may be quite reasonable in our course to write about a theme in children's books, but I think that such work should be reserved for the second paper. In our course, the first paper asks for a close focus on a single work. As we saw in class yesterday, even a one-page graphic narrative like [...] can have a lot worth exploring about the text, the graphics, and the ways text and graphics interact to create effects, thematic and otherwise. I think it's important for many reasons that people hone their critical skills on single works. One reason, of course, is that when we read, we are reading a single work at a time, so of course we want to be able to be good readers of single works. But another reason is that to discuss a whole class of works (such as children's books), one must also be able to discuss the members of that class. So, from an intellectual standpoint, the second paper both grows out of and is more challenging than the first. Therefore, doing the first paper is in a sense a preparation for doing the second, just as paying close attention to detail in your journal is a preparation for the first paper and seeking general observations in your journal is a preparation for the second.
The syllabus definition of the second paper ends by suggesting that that paper might be on x, y, "or on some aspect of the work of a single important graphic narrative artist, series, or genre." Since you are asked to prepare and discuss a proposal with me about each paper before settling on it, you could in fact propose a second paper on some specific theme (aspect) in some specific class (genre) of works like children's books. But sometimes this may not be an easy task. For example, it is not clear to me that "the depiction of reality" is a "theme" (rather than a practice) very often in children's books, although in some works, like The Phantom Tollbooth, the depiction of reality is arguably of thematic concern in the work. I can imagine a fascinating study about the theme of the depiction of reality in children's books, but I'd want to talk with [...] to make sure that that was in fact what [...] had in mind, and, of course, I'd want to know which books [...] had in mind as exploring that theme.
As you can see, understanding what even an apparently simple proposal entails may present thought-provoking specific difficulties but the proposal [...] offers raises some important general difficulties as well. Here are two: (1) What is the writer's definition of children's books? (2) Which books fulfill that definition? Obviously one minimizes both those problems if one proposes, say, writing about the representation of animals in the work of Maurice Sendak, but even in so straightforward a proposal, there are matters of concern. Do we want to include all works by Sendak including work not in book form (e.g., stage design)? Do we want to explore the differences, if any, between works that Sendak illustrates for others and those he writes wholly on his own? Do we want to consider his work on received materials, like fairy tales, as potentially different from his work that is wholly made up by him (e.g., Where the Wild Things Are)? And what is "an animal"? Are Sendak's "wild things" animals (the protagonist, Max, rides one) or are they "monsters" that somehow occupy a different category from either humans (like Max) or animals (like Max's dog, shown at the beginning of the book)?
Matters like these are worth exploring for a lot of reasons that I won't try to enumerate here, but I do want to note that in the work [...] proposes, difficulties (1) and (2) raise problems that may be even more challenging than in the Sendak case. (1) Let's say you decided that a children's book is a fictional work that is told using pictures and that seems to aim at a pre-literate audience. That's not an unreasonable definition of the category (class, genre) of works in which you might want to explore a theme, but does it include primarily didactic works as well as primarily diverting works? Does it include works that are aimed at a wide audience only part of which is pre-literate? Does it include works that use illustrations of the text, so that text alone could make the story clear, or only works that tell the story with visuals that are themselves crucial to getting the story told? Etc. (2) Once you settle on a definition, it is not always obvious (a) that you and your reader will agree that any given work fulfills that definition or that (b) you have taken account of works that truly represent the definition. (a) is an issue in practical criticism of single works. One person might think that Alice in Wonderland is for pre-literate readers because some four-year-olds enjoy having it read to them while another person might think that the four-year-old's enjoyment is so much dependent on sharing time with the older reader and is so incomplete an understanding of the book that it is wrong to put Alice in that category. One needs to pick books that arguably fulfill one's genre definition. (b) is an issue in breadth of knowledge. A writer may think s/he has dealt with works that truly represent all relevant aspects of the genre s/he has defined but a reader may not. To overcome this problem, one must strive for wide knowledge of the field both by direct acquaintance (e.g., read all of Sendak's work, read lots of children's picture books) and by secondary acquaintance (i.e., read works about works in the genre).
In sum, the proposal [...] advances is a very reasonable one, a potentially exciting one, but it is also one that (a) should be reserved for the second paper and (b) presents conceptual challenges that I hope [...] and I can work on together.
Our syllabus says that "[t]he topics for the two papers must be approved by the instructor in advance." You are required to have my signature before you proceed with writing. You should not assume that my signature will be given automatically. In fact, I want to have the chance to discuss each paper in the course with its writer early and I may well suggest further efforts in the proposal process before I sign off on a proposal.
While some inquiries, like this one [...], turn out to be very apt via email--apt because it gives me a chance to explicate issues with some care and share that explication with our whole group--in many instances face-to-face discussion is by far the more efficient and helpful. In general, you should suppose that I will not approve a proposal that arrives as an electronic message. (In fact, I may not be willing to reply at all electronically except to ask you to see me in the office. This message, it turns out, has taken me more than an hour to compose and I do so gladly because I hope it will be of use to all of you. I simply wouldn't have the time to do this for each of you.) And you certainly should not suppose that I will approve a proposal presented at a moment (say just before or after class) when it is impossible for me and you to think about the proposal together. While an initial feeler, like [this], certainly can arrive as email, at some point, and maybe more than one point in the approval process, I want to have each student in our class come to discuss his/her proposals with me during my office hours. Given the approaching proposal approval deadline, the number of people in our class, and the number of office hours I have available, I urge everyone, as [...] has already done, to get started. My aim, of course, is to help you frame your work so that you produce the most probing and valuable studies. At this stage in our course, I believe that that will happen best if everyone begins by honing his/her skills through a tight focus on a worthy single work.
I'd be happy to pursue any of the matters with any of you.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [...]
> Sent: Sunday, January 16, 2005 2:43 PM
> To: Rabkin, Eric
> Cc: [...]
> Subject: Question re: second paper
> Hi Prof. Rabkin,
> I had an idea for the second paper but I wanted to float it past you
> before coming to office hours. If I drew a 10-15 page narrative that
> incorporated graphic & storytelling elements discussed throughout the
> term, and provided a short analytical paper explaining what I was
> I was inspired by reading Molly's Bang's theoretical underpinnings of
> how pictures work and I'd be interested in applying/exploring her
> findings in an actual work. However, I realize this is a little
> different from what you mentioned
> re: second paper, so I wanted to email first to see if this idea had
> potential. Thanks
The short reply is that (a) what you propose is probably too limited for what I have in mind, but if that turns out not to be true, I need to warn you that (b) what you propose is very difficult.
(a) Under normal circumstances, as the syllabus [suggests, ...] these papers are [already] expected to include appropriate graphics [...]. [Since] I'm expecting pictures already, [...] a short paper is quite likely to be too short. Of course, you're proposing that creating the graphic narrative, unlike mere scanning, is part of your work, and I would agree. However, before I would approve such a project, I'd need to discuss with you--one-on-one--more precisely what you have in mind. A lot can be done with stick figures, and these take very little time or effort to create. Other things can be done with scrupulously detailed painting, which takes great skill and time to create. What techniques would you be using? How extensive a story would you be creating? And how much solid criticism would result? Remember, the point of this is to produce good criticism; producing a graphic narrative no matter how good will not satisfy the assignment unless it participates in the production of good criticism. In short, I don't say no, but I say that this is a matter that needs negotiation and that to negotiate I must be able to see a sample of the artwork and you must be able to give me some specifics about the total work you propose to create.
(b) Explaining what you were attempting to do in a piece can doubtless be of great interest to you but is only likely to be of great interest to others--that is, to function as useful public criticism--if (i) your graphic narrative is itself worthy of wide readership and/or (ii) your graphic narrative is representative of the process of creating a graphic narrative and/or (iii) your graphic narrative is itself on same level revelatory criticism. It is possible that (i) and/or (ii) could be true, but I have no way to know that yet. (i) might be true, but I certainly can't assume in advance that all students can create top-flight graphic narratives. (ii) might be true, but I don't know how one would demonstrate that within the context of what you propose in our course. (iii) can be true, but (and this is why I say that what you propose is very difficult), to create good criticism in graphic narrative form, as Scott McCloud shows, is possible but not at all easy. If it were, there would be lots more books like McCloud's.
Let us say, though, that you still feel you want to and should proceed. Remember, the assignment for the longer paper is for something fairly general. One option is an exploration of the work of one graphic narrative artist, but it is unlikely that a current student would have a sufficiently large body of work. Another option is to study, say, framing. I can imagine a graphic narrative that both uses techniques of framing and explores them in ways that are revelatory and also serves as an object for general discussion about the techniques of framing. Would that be as easy as scanning in examples of framing techniques in published graphic narratives? Undoubtedly not. But would the result be potentially fascinating and perhaps quite impressive because more unified? That very well could be.
And so, the long answer to the question is that I want you to be very cautious and thoughtful in proposing such a means to fulfill the second assignment and I want the opportunity to discuss it with you in detail and I want you to understand that you might be setting yourself a weightier challenge than required and I want you to realize that I very well may say no, but I will not give a blanket rejection because I believe that it is possible to construct that challenge in such a way that succeeding at it will produce something extraordinary. And if you or anyone else in our class takes up such a challenge, I will be glad to help if I'm able.
I hope this reply clarifies the situation.
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