Comics Course Gives Jewish-American Literature Different Spin

Posted: 8/26/11

UTEP students will learn about various aspects of the Jewish-American experience this fall through a special form of literature popularized by two teens from Cleveland in the 1930s who created the character “Superman.”

This is the first time graphic novels will be used at The University of Texas at El Paso to examine cultural understanding along a broader context associated with American literature in general.

The class was devised by James Bucky Carter, Ph.D., assistant professor of English education and a national expert in the use of “sequential art” publications in academia. He has taught similar courses at UTEP and at his previous employer, the University of Southern Mississippi.

Among the 18 or so texts that Carter will use is the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus volumes I and II by Art Spiegelman. In them, the author makes the saga of the Holocaust accessible through a metaphor where Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.

“I’ve wanted to present a class where graphic novels are offered as literature since I arrived at UTEP four years ago,” he said as he scrolled through the course syllabus on the computer in his first floor Hudspeth Hall office decorated with comic book memorabilia. “I’m really excited about this.”

Apparently the feeling is mutual. Almost 30 students pre-registered for this English 3327 course weeks before the first day of the fall semester, Aug. 22.

Among them is Rebekah Grado, a senior English and American Literature major with a minor in Inter-American Jewish Studies. She said that she always has wanted to take a graphic novel class because of her interest in how the genre would be different in terms of the author’s voice and the artist’s imagination.

Grado, who has taken two classes that involved Jewish-American novels, said she expected the graphic novels to deviate from the common themes and devices used by classic Jewish-American authors, but stay true to the cultural and religious ideals of protagonists who struggle with identity in modern society.

“I think this class will supplement knowledge of great works with the lesser known – though highly acclaimed – authors and novels we may otherwise never have the opportunity to explore,” she said.

While the texts involve comic strips, the content will involve such genres as memoirs, historical fiction and nonfiction, and autobiographical fiction written by the best-known creators in the industry, including one book that deals with Superman, who was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. 

Approving the course was a no-brainer for Ezra Cappell, Ph.D., associate professor of English and director of the Inter-American Jewish Studies Program, because graphic novels written by Jewish authors are among the most important contemporary Jewish-American works of fiction and nonfiction. 

Cappell recalled how his father forbade him to read comic books when he was young and encouraged him to read classic texts of Jewish-American fiction authored by the likes of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. That changed after his father read Maus.

“Here was (Spiegelman) using the graphic medium to tell his father's story of surviving the Holocaust – clearly this method of storytelling deserved more critical attention,” he said, and added that since reading both volumes of Maus, he has read numerous equally important Jewish graphic novel works.

As for his decision to approve the course, he said the program always looks for new and intellectually vibrant opportunities to offer UTEP students. He said Carter’s classes will challenge students to think about the relationship between text and image in our increasingly visual culture that has a growing interest in sequential art publications.

He added that a possible secondary benefit to the class might be to persuade students to pick up a classic Jewish-American novel.

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