ENGL 386: The Graphic Novel

Where: Combs 111
When: Monday, Wednesday, Friday 10:00-10:50 and 11:00-11:50
Who: Dr. Zach Whalen
Office: Combs 308, TR 9:00 – 11:00 or by appointment

In this class, we’re going to study “graphic narrative:” the combination of images and text in order to convey a story. While the graphic novel will be the primary genre we focus on, other specific forms and genres such as comics, comic strips, and webcomics will also provide relevant primary material. Ultimately, the term “graphic novel” will be interrogated for its cultural significance and relevance to specific texts. Of particular interest in this version of class will be the influence of digital technology on the design, distribution, and consumption of comic texts, but thematic links among the primary texts will speak to issues of cultural memory, nostalgia, and identity. Primary readings will include the works listed below, and these will be supplemented by relevant literary theory and comics-specific criticism and theory.


This class serves as an introduction to the academic study of graphic narrative within a literary framework. Students will

  • gain knowledge of the unique expressive affordances and formal qualities of the comics medium
  • learn about the history and cultures of the comics medium and graphic novel genre
  • explore the theoretical and critical discourse around Comics Studies
  • develop skill in the critical analysis of visual texts and
  • gain experience producing graphic narratives in a digital context


Required Texts

The following books are required reading for this class. All should be available at the bookstore. You are welcome to share or purchase these electronically. Just make sure that you have access to the book on the day we’ll be discussing it. These are listed in the order we’ll read them.

Masereel, Frans. The City (Die Stadt): 100 Woodcuts. Dover Publications, 1925. (freely available online)
Eisner, Will. A Contract with God. W. W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.
Moore, Alan. Watchmen. DC Comics, 1988. Print.
Barry, Lynda. What It Is. 1 edition. Drawn and Quarterly, 2008. Print.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Mariner Books, 2007. Print.
Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March: Book Two. Top Shelf Productions, 2015. Print.
Carroll, Emily. Through the Woods. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014. Print.
Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. This One Summer First Second, 2014. Print.
Kindt, Matt. Mind MGMT: Vol 1. Dark Horse, 2013.
DeConnick, Kelly Sue, and Valentine De Landro. Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine. Image Comics, 2015. Print.
McGuire, Richard. Here. 1 edition. New York: Pantheon, 2014. Print.

Technology Requirements

In this class, we’ll be making use of technology in some specific ways. You’ll be blogging at, you’re encouraged to use Twitter (hashtag #engl386), we’ll be using Slack almost constantly, and you’ll be working in a team to produce your own web-based graphic narrative. These are all tied in to the content and outcomes of the class.

In addition, you may also need the ability to scan comic images and manipulate them in software. The Library and Convergence Center both have a scanner you can use, but obviously it’s more convenient if you have your own or can borrow one. Scanned images can be manipulated in GIMP, which is a free program that can be a bit of a challenge for first-time users. I will instruct you in its use, but I recommend downloading and trying it out sooner rather than later.

We will also be using Zotero. Like GIMP, it takes some practice or training to get used to, so I recommend using it early and often.

Assignments and Grading

The various items for this course will be graded such that everything adds up to about 1000 points. In other words, an assignment listed here as 10% will involve 100 points.

Participation [20%]

A participation grade is a determination of how much and how well you’ve contributed to the success of this class. This means being present every day we meet, and adding substantively to our online community, using the hashtag #engl386 where appropriate.

Blogging Community [30%]

At the class blog, you’ll create several blog entries for grades, including “article” posts and “review” posts — two of each.

Disassembly [10%]

Your first analysis essay will involve deconstructing a comic panel and writing a short essay in the “close reading” modality.

Annotated Bibliography [10%]

Working collaboratively, we’ll develop an annotated bibliography of comics scholarship. You will be responsible for contributing and annotating 5 items for our database.

Webcomic [20%]

Working in a team (assigned in the first or second week of the semester) develop and publish online a graphic, serial narrative that runs for at least three weeks. Deliver a presentation to the class about your project.

Research Project [10%]

In your final assignment, expand one of your blog entries and, using sources collected in our bibliography, develop a sustained critical engagement with a comic text.


Each assignment can earn one of three possible grades: No Credit (0%), Partial Credit (75%), and Full Credit (100%), and each assignment’s description will include the list of assignment criteria necessary for partial and full credit, respectively. Any assignment that is submitted after it is due (after a 12 hour grace period) is only eligible for a partial credit grade. Otherwise, work that receives partial credit because it is missing elements or lacking in some way may be re-submitted for re-evaluation any time before the last day of class.

Specific feedback on assignments will be conveyed via direct message in Slack or, preferably, in person.


We will be using three web-based platforms for this class:

  • – Here you’ll post blog entries, host your webcomics, and find information about the class. This is our primary public-facing website.
  • Canvas – We won’t do as much with Canvas. It will basically be the gradebook and (possibly) the means by which I send announcements to the whole class.
  • Slack – Slack is a real time messaging and collaboration app. We’ll use this for discussion, backchannel, file sharing, and many other things. I recommend you download both the desktop and mobile app.

Classroom Policies

The polices and expectations for this class follow the conventions spelled out at my website.