Artists as Illustrators: Promoting Visual Literacy

Visual art and literature have a great symbiotic relationship of supporting and influencing each other in profound ways. When visual artists collaborate with writers, they illuminate certain areas of a written narrative. Whether an artist takes a more literal aesthetic approach or interprets the plot more abstractly, the juxtaposition of text and image can be a powerful means of symbolic communication.

In a previous post (see: Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language), I describe how artists incorporate literacy and language into their work via the written word. This post will explore the work of specific artists who have taken direct inspiration from literature. Some artists are influenced by previously published literary works, such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Nina Katchadourian, or Joan Mitchell.  Other visual artists, like Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold have created illustrations for several books, particularly within the children’s literature genre. This post will focus on the latter two artists, and the significance of making imagery in conjunction with a literary narrative.

Ringgold has written, illustrated, and published 17 children’s books and received the prestigious Ezra Jack Keets New Writer Award for her debut book, Tar Beach (1991), a book based on her quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). Tar Beach tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Quilts are relevant as an illustrative medium because of their history as a vehicle for telling stories. Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to a traditional American craft movement, which has strong associations to the collaborative labor of women and African aesthetics. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980).

Tar Beach is an empowering work of art and literature that sends a whimsical message of self-liberation, agency, and intersectional feminism. Within the totality of Ringgold’s Women on a Bridge quilts, the patriarchy is deconstructed through strong and influential women who take control and confront towering infrastructure such as a bridge, which according to Ringgold, is symbolic of masculinity (see: Spector, n.d.).

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A selection of books illustrated by Benny Andrews.

As an artist whose work expresses the individual and communal American Southern experience, Benny Andrews was a good choice to illustrate books such as Sky Sash So Blue (1998 by Libby Hathorn, Simon & Schuster, New York), Pictures for Miss Josie, (2003 by Sandra Belton, Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York), Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (2005 by Jim Haskins, Candlewick, Cambridge), and John Lewis in the Lead (2006 by Jim Haskins & Kathleen Benson, Lee & Low Books, New York); which feature subjects and themes relating to the African-American experience in the American South.

Most of the books Andrews illustrated have a socially engaged focus, which is befitting of Andrews’ legacy as an activist for the equal and equitable representation of black culture within American society. In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested museum exhibitions over the whitewashing of African-American themed exhibitions (see: Cotter, 2015), and the lack of consideration for black artists by curators, critics, and museum professionals. In 1982, Andrews became the visual arts director of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he personally was instrumental in providing valuable resources and support to contemporary black artists.

As a result of Andrews’ own captivating art and his socially engaged activism, he was clearly a strong candidate to illustrate books that are geared to inspire understandings and expressions of community, creativity, and empathy. In addition to illustrating books on renowned Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis and W.W. Law, Andrews’ own life is the subject of a book by Kathleen Benson titled Draw What You See (2015). Andrews was the illustrator of course, represented posthumously through his paintings.

In education, storytelling is an important means for incorporating multicultural learning and inspiring students to make connections. Illustrating or responding visually to literature is beneficial for students of all ages. Utilizing illustrative texts is a helpful way of scaffolding multidisciplinary learning, because it incorporates multiple intelligences such as visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal abilities. The first two modalities are fairly self-evident because picture books offer the benefit of descriptive words and imagery. The presence of descriptive imagery accompanying written language is very beneficial to students who have difficulties expressing themselves linguistically and students who are emerging bilingual learners. Storytelling is both a personal and collective means of communication and therefore it requires an understanding of archetypal imagery, signs, and symbols that can express both individual and collective relevance.

Images and text offer different ways to convey a story, and because everyone learns differently, there are enormous teachable moments resulting from reading and comprehending illustrated books. When reading illustrated book, it is important to scrutinize the images in a similar manner as the written words (see: Robertson). When reading as a class, the teacher should make sure students can see the illustrations clearly, and ask questions (i.e. What do you see? What is happening in this illustration? How can you tell?). Personally, I alternate between showing students the illustrations before and after I read the text. In either case, the students are encouraged to make their own observations and make inferences based on what they see, what they’ve read/heard, and what prior knowledge they have.

As Robertson notes, discussing the subjective and descriptive significance of formal elements of art and principles of design, is another way to strengthen reading comprehension, especially with young learners and emerging readers. A way of doing this is asking students to make associations between colors and feelings; and relating texture, lines, and shapes to movement, actions, and relationships.

While literacy is a major focus in educational environments, visual literacy is just as important. Both the written word and the visual image play an important factor in how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. The arts teach us to read visual cues, by acutely interpreting the aforementioned aesthetic and emotional facets in a manner that takes account of our experiences and prior knowledge. Besides the clear benefits on learning, visual imagery is a great way to captivate the attention of students and inspire thoughtful participation in class and beyond.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cotter, Holland. “What I Learned From A Disgraced Art Show on Harlem.” New York Times. 19 Aug. 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/arts/design/what-i-learned-from-a-disgraced-art-show-on-harlem.html

Morris, Laura. “Joan Mitchell and the art of painting a poem.” Poetry Magazine. 1 Feb. 2013. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69917/introduction-56d2499348f8a

Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publishing.

Robertson, Katrin Oddleifson. “‘Read’ Illustrations to Improve Literacy Skills.” PBS Parents. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/reading-language/reading-tips/read-illustrations-to-improve-literacy-skills/

Spector, Nancy. “Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series).” Guggenheim Online Collection entry for Tar Beach. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/3719

Zucker, Adam. “Benny Andrews: Illustrator.” Rhino Horn. 1 Mar. 2019. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/benny-andrews-illustrator/

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Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language

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Barbara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989, photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 112 x 112 inches. collection of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California

When used as both object and subject (objectively and subjectively), written words open our minds to an endless array of meaning. All letters in every written language have an aesthetic quality to them. They can add substance and context to a work of art, such as in the work of Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein (who used text in his comic strip inspired paintings to make socially conscious statements and satirize popular culture), or become works of art in their own right such as the New York City subway car graffiti murals by Lady Pink and others. Text carries archetypal and personal significance depending on an array of factors, not limited to how they are arranged, accented, or inflected.

Artists including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Lorraine O’Grady, Yoko Ono, Shadi Harouni, Linda Herritt, Meg Hitchcock,  JF Lynch, Tim Rollins and KOS, and Howard Schwartzberg, have each created visual artworks by literally and figuratively using letters and words. These letters and words hold significance to the maker, however, the viewer ultimately becomes an active and crucial participant in reading, comprehending, and interpreting the piece in their own way.

According to educator and reading specialist, Gail E. Tompkins, comprehension is a “creative, multifaceted process” dependent upon four language skills: phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (Tompkins, 2011). In addition to understanding the formal aspects of the text, the viewer gives new meaning to the work through their engagement with the text based upon a myriad of different facets including education, experience, spirituality, and culture. Visual art and visual culture (such as comics and graphic novels, see: Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture) can strengthen comprehension skills through an experiential application of the studio habits of mind, multiple intellegences, Socratic seminars, and critiques. In visual art, comprehension is both an individual and interpersonal activity. According to Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, and Baker (2001), there are several strategies for comprehending a text. Seven of these strategies are:

  • Making Inferences: In everyday terms we refer to this as “reading between the lines”. It involves connecting various parts of texts that aren’t directly linked in order to form a sensible conclusion. A form of assumption, the reader speculates what connections lie within the texts.
  • Planning and Monitoring: This strategy centers around the reader’s mental awareness and their ability to control their comprehension by way of awareness. By previewing text (via outlines, table of contents, etc.) one can establish a goal for reading-“what do I need to get out of this”? Readers use context clues and other evaluation strategies to clarify texts and ideas, and thus monitoring their level of understanding.
  • Asking Questions: To solidify one’s understanding of passages of texts readers inquire and develop their own opinion of the author’s writing, character motivations, relationships, etc.
  • Determining Importance: Pinpointing the important ideas and messages within the text. Readers are taught to identify direct and indirect ideas and to summarize the relevance of each.
  • Visualizing: With this sensory-driven strategy readers form mental and visual images of the contents of text. Being able to connect visually allows for a better understanding with the text through emotional responses.
  • Synthesizing: This method involves marrying multiple ideas from various texts in order to draw conclusions and make comparisons across different texts; with the reader’s goal being to understand how they all fit together.
  • Making Connections: A cognitive approach also referred to as “reading beyond the lines”, which involves (A) finding a personal connection to reading, such as personal experience, previously read texts, etc. to help establish a deeper understanding of the context of the text, or (B) thinking about implications that have no immediate connection with the theme of the text.

If you compare these strategies with the studio habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) it becomes evident how nicely they align. Additionally, applying Feldman’s Model of Art Criticism is essentially using literary comprehension strategies for visual works of art. The overarching artistic experience enables us to process a work of art, analyze and interpret its meaning, and integrate the aforementioned processes with our prior knowledge and lived experience. The artists featured in this post present us with challenging compositions, which can be deciphered in novel ways based on our ability to comprehend visual and written language and make associations to what we are already familiar with in regards to text and imagery.

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Shadi Harouni, MOSADEGH, 2017, plexiglass, light, fixtures, 16 x 40 x 2.7 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon.

Shadi Harouni’s artwork scrutinizes the history of resistance in marginalized communities and the creative strategies that individuals and groups use to resist erasure. She uses linguistics in an expressive way to symbolize the social and emotional relationship between communication, people, and the culture at large. For example, her sculpture MOSADEGH (2017), illuminates the narrative of Reza Nik, a shomemaker from Hamedan, Iran who named his shop Mosadeqh (the name of the first elected prime minister of Iran who was overthrown in a CIA coup) several days after the Revolution. Harouni’s poignant adaptation of the neon sign (one that is very familiar to commercial establishments throughout the world) installed by Nik, plays with the way the original letters that in Farsi read as ‘MSDQ’, were changed over time due to orders from the local authorities. After he was told to change his shop’s name, so that it wouldn’t bear likeness to the deposed prime minister, Nik dropped the first letter. The sign then spelled out the word “Sedqh,” which in Farsi means “truth.” As fate would have it, the light in the ‘S’ burnt out after a few years and the sign spelled “Deqh,” which means death by heartbreak. While there is a substantial amount of unpacking and prior knowledge that is needed (especially if you are not familiar with Arabic linguistics), the imagery of a neon sign with burnt out letters is a familiar sight within cities and towns throughout the world. We have likely encountered a sign advertising or describing something that is missing letters, thereby altering the meaning.

Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger’s oft-monumental conceptual artwork, utilizes words and phrases that address modern clichés, stereotypes, and proverbial ideas about identity and materialism. Kruger generally applies bold lettering (typically using the typeface Helvetica) with black and white photography, which raise our awareness about the ways in which commercial advertisements, news and mass media information affects the decisions we make (such as the products we buy, the way we act towards each other, the ideologies we hold as truth, etc). Kruger’s application of pronouns (ex: “you”, “your”, “I”, “we”, and “they”) give weight to her tabloid-esque satire of patriarchal systems and other social, political, and economic hierarchies.

While Kruger’s most iconic work (see: I shop therefore I am, 1987; and Your body is a battleground, 1989) fuses text with imagery, both she and Holzer suggest that the words themselves are aesthetic. The bold letters form engaging sentences, which interact with the public space or environment (such as a gallery or museum) where they’re displayed and implore us to comprehend them in conjunction to out prior knowledge and personal experience.

Holzer’s Truisms (1977-79) are a series of slogans and maxims addressing the “usual baloney they are fed” in daily life (Tate Modern, “Jenny Holzer,” gallery label, October 2000). Holzer constructed her Truisms in a manner akin to subversive popular advertisement so that they reach and captivate a large and diverse audience. A close attention to the detail of Holzer’s work by the public, reveals that these dictums are in fact, works of creative provocation. Holzer makes reading comprehension a fun, humorous, and engaging activity.

Another artist who mines through mass media information and profoundly changes the way it is comprehended is Lorraine O’Grady. Her Cutting Out the New York Times (from 5 to November 20, 1977) series combined disparate sentences from New York Times headlines in order to make relevant connections to her lived experiences. Through an artistic process of employing the cut-up poetry technique, this body of work makes uniquely introspective statements derived from public information. These works of art humanize headlines and other mass media buzzwords, which are generally used to captivate and attract viewers (to sell papers or generate online ad revenue via ‘clicks’) by sensationalizing the human experience. Cutting Out the New York Times largely commented on her intersectionality as a woman of color within the arts scene.

Yoko Ono uses words in an expressive and symbolic manner to encourage participation between the artist and viewer and raise awareness about ourselves, each other, and the collective environment we share. In artworks such as her Instruction pieces, Ono presents written instructions for us to comprehend, synthesize, and engage with in a meaningful manner, which requires deeply personal connections to be made from Ono’s often open ended sentences. These text based works place creative responsibility on the viewer and are intended to be visualizes as “paintings to be constructed in your head” (Persse, 2010).

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Meg Hitchcock, Mantras & Dragons, Letters cut from “The Confessional: A Full and Free Inquiry into the Right, Utility, Edification, and Success of Establishing Systematical Confessions of Faith and Doctrine in Protestant Churches,” holes are burned in paper, 26 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

While artists like Holzer, Ono, O’Grady, and Kruger alert our sensibility to the way linguistical phrases affect our social and emotional lives, Meg Hitchcock explores the way that written words influence religion and spirituality. Hitchcock creates awe-inspiring artwork using letters, phrases, and mantras, which she cuts out from major religious texts and appropriates in order to reveal a similar thread between the world’s major religious faiths. Hitchcock’s interpretation and appropriation of passages deconstructs the exclusivity it was originally intended to be representative of. She does this by selecting words from the Christian bible and arranging them into a passage from the Koran, or the Torah, and vice versa. Hitchcock’s arrangement of spiritual verses from sacred texts exposes the commonality that exists between religions, which are often perceived to be at odds with one another due to social, geographical, and political issues. In addition to the conceptual poignancy in Hitchcock’s work, her intricate designs draw a strong visual recollection to ornamental and sacred objects and patterns that are central to all the major faiths.

Linda Herritt, JF Lynch, and Howard Schwartzberg utilize the aesthetic properties of letters and words to form insightful connections with regards to the artistic process. Through this endeavor, they assume the role of a narrator who playfully and poignantly engages and confounds viewers.

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Linda Herritt, Seafoam Spectra, 2016, Handmade paper and photo transfers; Text lists wall paint color names, 30 x 40 inches. Produced as part of the Workspace Residency, Dieu Donné, New York

Herritt uses written language as an element of art and principal of design, as well as a means of conceptual expression. Herritt’s text-based work builds upon subject matter that ranges from lineups of bands playing shows in Brooklyn, a compendium of traditional Chinese brushstrokes, or a catalog of common side-effects from pain medications (to name a few). She composes these elements as a shorthand, a method of rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols, to talk about specific cultural phenomena. The way that Herritt arranges and distorts the form of each letter confounds a simple reading of the text and challenges the way we perceive the combination of image and text. Additionally, the unique juxtaposition of words creates the effect of traditional drawing techniques such as cross hatching and shading.

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J.F. Lynch, Beautiful (Full of Beauty), 2017, Courtesy of the artist.

J.F. Lynch also arranges letters and words in a manner that is indicative of language’s dual aesthetic and conceptual possibilities. To J.F. Lynch, words are everywhere. They exist alongside other sensory information as memories of stored information that amplify what we see, and stay with us when we travel. Lynch’s subtle word paintings and drawings play off of Surrealistic biomorphisms as well as the tromp l’oeil text found in contemporary graffiti and Medieval illuminated manuscripts. He combines these decorative lettering constructs through a dramatic value scale that calls to mind the tonality in the work of contemporary artist Robert Longo. Similar to Longo, Lynch uses graphite to ‘sculpt’ his letters to give his paintings and drawings the illusion of being three-dimensional. They appear and disappear within his black-and-white charcoal works. They give a conflicting emotional sensations appearing both beautiful and foreboding. Despite the conflicting feelings, there is an overall playfulness within his typographic expressionism. The letterforms in his work are often jumbled or distorted, blurring the line of legibility and enticing the viewer to try and decipher them. Lynch gives some hints within the titles of his artwork for those painstakingly searching for the message. One example is Beautiful (full of beauty), 2017. In this drawing, Lynch creates a portrait of the word “beautiful” by pulling each letter apart and arranging them throughout the picture plane. His dramatic chiseled treatment of each letter makes them feel like they’ve come into our realm. As word-portraits, Lynch’s primary objective is to establish these words as tangible objects for us to engage with.

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Howard Schwartzberg, from “The Muse ic Series,” 1995-96, pen and dirt on paper.

Howard Schwartzberg incorporates specific words, sentences, and organic materials such as dirt, wax, fish scales, and dust within his drawings. Similar to Lynch and Herrit, the line, shape, and placement of the words represent formal elements of art and are used as the focal point for these aesthetic compositions. Schwartzberg’s drawings symbolize the process of making art and give us an introspective view of the thought process he engages with inside his studio. Words are repeated as if re-occurring in thought or rubbed and crossed out as if it were a mistake. Furthermore, the phrases depicted in each drawing suggest a play on words, which enables the viewer to construct their own visual imagery by interpreting and deciphering their multiple meanings.

These previously discussed contemporary artists are several of many visionaries whose work provides varying examples of how viewing text and imagery together can lead to an enjoyable and profound engagement with particular messages, themes, or vocabulary. While some of the work would be challenging for emerging readers and language learners, the aforementioned artists and artworks can help students with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, sentence construction/cohesion, reasoning and background knowledge, working memory, and paying attention (being active and observers. See: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

All of the strategies for reading and comprehending text can be supported in creative and unique ways within the educational sphere. In the art classroom, students can start the year by creating fanciful text based artwork. This not only helps assess where they are at artistically, but also what their comprehension skills are. Additionally, it is a great way to learn names and get to know the students in a meaningful way. For inspiration and motivation, students can look at examples of graffiti from the 1980s (see: Style Wars) through the present, as well as illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. After scrutinizing these aesthetic movements, they should compare and contrast the two text-centered art forms, decode symbolic meanings, and make inferences about the content. After discussing the properties and analyzing the contents of each art form, students should be prompted to make connections between these works of art and their own lives. They can then create a work of art focusing on the embellishment of their name (nickname, or initials) that is self-aware and cognizant of their relationship to the world around them. This project challenges students to relate what they learned about text based art by employing several different comprehension strategies. It is a fun way to introduce visual vocabulary (the elements of art and principals of design), and strengthen students’ understanding of written language.

Another idea is a unit inspired by the cut-up poetry technique of Lorraine O’Grady, Barbara Kruger’s juxtaposition of words and media imagery, and the truisms of Jenny Holzer. This unit might be well served in collaboration with the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum when students are learning about strategies for reading and writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Students should analyze the work of the aforementioned artists, and discuss how they each re-present mass media stereotypes, clichés, and contemporary narratives within their artwork. Students should research several different newspaper, magazine, and journal articles (appropriate for their reading levels), follow the strategies for reading comprehension, and suss out important information from the publications, which they can use to create an aesthetic response to an issue that holds significance to them.

An additional way of strengthening literacy and critical thinking via visual art is by connecting art projects to literature that students are reading in other classes. Again, such a unit/learning segment can be designed and implemented in coordination with the ELA curriculum. The work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S is a prime example of how contemporary art practices can bolster reading comprehension skills (see: Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy and What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017) ). Starting in the 1980s, Rollins and his middle-school aged collaborators (who named themselves K.O.S.) started to make work in response to the books they were reading for class. By focusing in on common tropes, themes, and important passages, K.O.S. synthesized literary narratives into abstract works of art, replete with sociocultural symbolism.

There is a current traveling exhibition called Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, which showcases the work of contemporary artists who re-imagined themes from fairy tales. The realized works comment on stereotypical treatments of gender and power dynamics in several traditional fairy tales. This exhibition is emblematic of how developing strong reading comprehension techniques enables us to understand and digest problematic themes in existing literature and expose them in novel perspectives for renewed evaluation.

Students can comprehend, analyze, and critique a text they’re reading in class in terms of whether it conveys pertinent and/or problematic issues, as well as the ways it might hold significance to specific contemporary social, political, and cultural issues that they are aware of.  Several visual responses can be implemented to exhibit what the students have comprehended from literature. A few of which include: producing graphic novels that are adapted from their assigned reading; re-imagining a story line or dialogue through performance; and creating a mixed-media typographic portrait of a character in relationship to their intersectional identity (ex. using key passages from the book and media sources to form a symbolic image of key character traits of literary figures).

Literature, language, and the visual arts are all essential modes of expressive communication and therefore can be creatively synthesized in order to sincerely portray and contextualize the human condition. Understanding text and written language in terms of aesthetics and visual culture is beneficial to professional artists and educators alike. The examples of how visual artists utilize written language and are inspired by literature, provide ample opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration within a pedagogical framework. It would benefit the scholastic community if art departments and literary departments work towards incorporating strategies and habits of mind in each discipline in order to make developing literacy (both visual, oral, and written) relevant and engaging for students.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). “Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research.” Review of Educational Research, 71, 279–320.

Lee, Andrew M.I. “6 Essential Skills Needed for Reading Comprehension.” Understood. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/reading-issues/6-essential-skills-needed-for-reading-comprehension

Persse, Jason. “From a Whisper to a Scream: Following Yoko Ono’s Instructions.” Inside/Out. 10 Jul. 2010.

Quinn, Chase. “How Lorraine O’Grady Has Challenged a Segregated Art World.” Hyperallergic. 3 Dec. 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/473547/lorraine-ogrady-rom-me-to-them-to-me-again-scad-museum-of-art/

Tompkins, Gail E. (2011). Literacy in the early grades: A successful start for prek-4 readers (3rd edition), Boston: Pearson. p 37

 

 

Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture

Throughout his 70 year-long career, Stan Lee (1922-2018) created many of the major comic book superheroes that are known throughout the world. He introduced us to a diverse array of characters with varying degrees of superpowers and complex personal narratives, such as Spider Man, The Black Panther, and the mutant collective known as the X-Men.

Lee’s work in comics impacts our collective culture in a manner that goes above and beyond mere entertainment. Through the many comics that he published under his company, Marvel Comics, Lee has inspired generations of children, adolescents, and adults to think critically, develop their literacy skills, and expand their imaginations. His comic books are embedded with real life issues, which makes his otherwise superhuman characters appear approachable and….well, human. In Lee’s comic book universe, traditional linear storytelling and simple dualities are turned upside down and revised to reflect a more Humanist form of fiction. His comic book stories surpass the obvious tried and true tale of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong, where the bad character(s) commits a crime, which the good character(s) solves. Instead, the Marvel characters and their associated problems represent similar multifaceted issues that we all face in our daily lives. Issues such as race, gender, violence, corruption, and authoritative governments, are common causes for the characters in Marvel Comics to grapple with. The typical ‘good-guys’ and ‘villains’ are actually well-rounded individuals with traits that are both admirable and problematic. This is because Stan Lee incorporated very humanizing elements into each character that he introduced into the realm of visual culture.

For example, Magneto, the main adversary that the X-Men faced, was once an ally and collaborator of Dr. Charles Xavier (Professor X), the founder of the school for mutants that supports the X-Men. Both individuals are portrayed as influential leaders who stand up for the rights of marginalized groups, however, their methods of working towards achieving this goal are in stark contrast with one another. While they are each important advocates for mutant rights (which can be interpreted as being symbolic of all marginalized groups within society), Professor X calls for a diplomatic approach of integrating mutants and non-mutants together, while Magneto calls for the use of force against non-mutants, who have treated the mutants as second-class citizens. Parallels to historical and current events and figures can be made using the two ideologies to express different forms of activism and sociopolitical organization. For example, some critics have suggested that they are both inspired by historical Civil Rights leaders. Dr. Xavier is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, while Magneto has been compared to Malcolm X (Godski, 2011). Lee’s narratives regarding the relationship between Magneto and the X-Men tread carefully as to not express moral superiority of one ideology over another. Instead, the characters are portrayed in an open-ended manner, which is indicative of multiple social, cultural, and political thoughts. Lee himself stated that he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.”

Blurring fiction and non-fiction is something that makes Marvel Comics a socially engaged form of art and literature. Stan Lee and his collaborators kept their comics relevant with the times, which is poignantly evident in the creation and development of Captain America. Captain America is a patriotic hero, introduced during WWII, who initially defeated Fascist regimes, and embraced the progressive idea of multiculturalism. However, over the course of the comic’s ongoing story line there have been ominous warnings that patriotism could lead to the same oppressive ideologies that Captain America opposed. At one point, Captain America represented zealous Nationalism and right-wing propaganda. This happened when Captain America’s original alter-ego, Steve Rogers, had taken a hiatus (he was thought to have been dead) from society and Captain America’s persona was taken on by an admirer named William Burnside. Through Burnside, Captain America embodied a darker side of patriotism. Burnside represented all that could go awry when blindly led by specific dogmatic ideologies in lieu of facts, critical thinking, and empathy.

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Stan Lee’s ‘Soapbox’ on bigotry and racism.

While Captain America addressed Fascism, Lee’s character, The Black Panther, took on racism. The Black Panther character was introduced in 1966, which makes him the first black superhero in mainstream comic book culture. The complex and compelling narrative of the Black Panther was inspired by the Afrofuturist genre, where the culture of the African diaspora is combined with fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, and non-Western metaphysics. Afrofuturism envisions a world that overcomes White Supremacy and oppression of Africans by Western forces. In the Black Panther series, the protagonist is T’Challa, the king and guardian of a fictional African nation called Wakanda. Wakanda is a thriving nation where scientific advances go above and beyond the scope of the science introduced by Western civilization. Most significantly, Wakanda is a place where blackness is celebrated and issues such as discrimination and racism are confronted directly. When the comic book character was adapted into a film in early 2018, an educator by the name of Tess Raser, designed and implemented a curriculum around the major themes (multiculturalism, feminism, racism, scientific progress, etc.) of the Black Panther narrative.

In addition to encouraging social justice, diversity, and critical thinking, Lee was an advocate of visual literacy. In 2010 he formed the Stan Lee Foundation in order to bring attention to the integration of literacy, pedagogy, and the arts. The mission of the foundation is to support programming and methodologies that expand student’s access to literacy resources that promote cultural diversity.  The fact that Lee was a strong supporter of literacy is not surprising, considering that comic books and graphic novels provide an excellent framework for developing and strengthening reading and creativity. Because comic books combine visual and written language, they’re a prime resource for learning to make associations between language and other forms of expression. This can be especially beneficial for students who are emergent language learners (or developing bi-lingual learners) because the sequential narratives within comics are presented in an accessible manner that uses symbolic and descriptive imagery to bolster the written dialogue.

As a result of the wide range of themes and symbolism present in comic books, several contemporary artists have been attracted to them. Artwork by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Linda Stein, Raymond Pettibon, Chitra Ganesh, re-present comic book imagery in order to address contemporary sociocultural themes.

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“Slave Traders” (Captain America), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983.

When assessing his prior artistic experiences, Jean-Michel Basquiat stated “I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist…really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.” Despite this claim, Basquiat developed a highly personal database of symbolic imagery, which is as iconic as the Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters that inspired him. While comic book superheroes make up a relatively small part of his prolific oeuvre, it is obvious that Stan Lee’s creations represented an important part of Basquiat’s artistic development.

Basquiat’s use of superheroes in his paintings make connections and create new meaning around issues of intersectional identity. Basquiat’s incorporation of different sources from popular culture, visual culture, and history, reflected his poignant responses to the pandemic of bigotry and violence against black individuals. The superheroes in his paintings included both fictional Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters, as well as real-life African American influences such as Mohammad Ali and Charlie Parker. Basquiat’s heroes are both triumphant and tragic and embody the many trials and tribulations of black culture within the American landscape.

While satire and political critique have ancient roots (see: Elliot, 2004), the origin of the comics as a socially engaged visual artform dates back to the 18th century in England, where individuals like William Hogarth and James Gillray created the precursor to the modern comic strip. Hogarth’s series of politically inspired satire was called “modern moral subjects,” his most famous of which included A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode. Gillray was a renowned caricaturist, who famously created burlesque criticisms of authoritative figures such as King George III (see: Farmer George and his Wife) and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1841, Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells founded a magazine called Punch, which mass produced politically charged comics by a variety of artists. The magazine was highly successful and lasted until 1992.

Hogarth, Gillray, Mayhew, and Landells’ work inspired many other artists to take a socially conscious approach to their work. For example, Thomas Nast, one of the seminal American satirists of the 19th century used the power of visual imagery to make sweeping statements about corruption. His 1874 wood-engraving Jewels Among Swine, which depicts the police as swine with batons, engaging affably with gangsters, while arresting women activists that were protesting against the lack of enforcement against crime. This graphic style of shocking and captivating satirical narration is evident in the work of many contemporary artists such as Spain Rodriguez and Raymond Pettibon.

Rodriguez’s inspirations came from underground comix scene (see: Estren, 1974), motorcycle culture, and progressive politics. His 1969 comic strip Manning, is a film noir inspired narrative of a crooked detective who takes little issue with using his authority to lie, cheat, steal, and brutalize innocent civilians. The graphic nature of Rodriguez’s art is reminiscent of  modern comic book artists such as EC Comics‘ Wally Wood.

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Raymond Pettibon, No Title (We destroy the), 1983. Private Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Raymond Pettibon’s artistic origins manifested within the punk rock music scene during the late 1970s. He made artwork, zines, and album covers for punk bands such as Black Flag. Pettibon’s unique style of brash line drawing combined with symbolic text, poignantly connect fine art with popular and underground visual culture. His drawings establish a contemporary dialog with the socially charged political cartoons of Thomas Nast and the expressive art of Goya (among others). Pettibon frames his imagery in a novel way that references both past and present narratives while consciously leaving room for interpretation. As an artist whose inspiration frequently is derived via comic book culture, Pettibon uses the comic strip format to deconstruct certain sociocultural frameworks (see: Zucker, 2017). For example, comic book icons depicted as homosexual lovers (Batman and Robin), or his 1983 drawing No Title (We destroy the), can be interpreted as a mocking rebuttal to Fredric Wertham’s condemnation of comic books as being degrading to culture because of sexually suggestive themes (see: Wartham’s Seduction of the Innocent, 1954).

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Linda Stein, Justice for All 698, 2018, collage/archival inks, paper, wood, 79 x 24 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Linda Stein and Chitra Ganesh each implement comic book styles and themes into their artworks, which focus on the intersectionality of identity and systemic marginalization. Linda Stein portrays archetypal superhero symbolism and iconic characters to comment on the strength, audacity, vitality, and perseverance of ‘the other’ throughout history. Steins Knights of Protection series (2002-) is inspired by armor and uniforms worn by superheroes and other powerful figures throughout time. These “androgynous sentinel-like figures” are intended to stand guard against oppressive and demeaning forces. Stein also creates wearable sculptures, which she calls Body Swapping Armor (2007-) that embody guardian-like qualities and give the wearer a sense of self and collective value. Some of the symbols on these protective suits resemble insignia affixed to the outfits worn by comic book heroes. In addition to her sculpture, Stein’s ongoing mixed-media series Superheroes, Icons, and Fantasy Females (2007-), appropriates the likeness of women from comic books to question what makes a hero and address stereotypical gender references in popular culture.

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Chitra Ganesh, Forever Her Fist, 2006, digital c-print on archival inkjet paper, 21 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon, New York.

Chitra Ganesh’s artwork articulates new meanings from both personal and recorded history and mythology in order to address gaps in collective storytelling. Similar to the Afrofuturist movement, Ganesh’s work envisions alternative multicultural scenarios, where gender, sexuality, race, and spirituality are re-presented in a nonlinear fluid state that is devoid of preconceived identity constructs and hierarchical structures. Many of her artworks take the recognizable format of comic books, although Ganesh is much more interested in creating open-ended dialogue than with presenting a sequential narration. She stated:

Much of my visual vocabulary across media engages the term ‘junglee’ (literally ‘of the jungle’, connoting wildness and impropriety), an old colonial Indian idiom (still) used to describe women perceived as defiant or transgressing convention. I’m deeply indebted to and inspired by feminist writing that dismantles traditional structures in favor of radical experiments with translation and form including that of Clarice Lispector, Anne Carson, and books like Mrs. Dalloway, and Beloved. In layering disparate materials and visual languages, I aim to create alternative models of sexuality and power, in a world where untold stories keep rising to the surface.

Because of the previously described social, emotional, and cultural connections within comics (and the work of visual artists inspired by comic culture) and their strong ties to literacy, comic culture should be recognized, studied, and widely utilized in the educational sphere. In 2001, Michael Blitz organized The Comic Book Project, which supports curricular connections between the visual arts and language arts. When the project was initially implemented at a public elementary school in Queens, New York, many of the students responded to the task of making a personal comic strip by depicting specific social issues that they experience on a daily basis within the urban environment. The benefits of the students’ engagement with the comic book genre included a noticeable increase in artistic and literacy development, as well as a strong sense of efficacy, social awareness, and empathy (Blitz, 2004).

Additionally, comics and graphic novels (a comic inspired long-form book) are a great accompaniment to history and social studies curricula. The aforementioned Marvel comic book characters such as the X-Men (Civil Rights and Holocaust studies), Captain America (immigration and Fascism), and the Black Panther (multiculturalism, the African diaspora, and Racism), each provide elements of historical fiction that can be analyzed and discussed as students learn about related historical accounts. Additionally, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, is an essential graphic novel that tells a social and emotional story about the Holocaust; while John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s graphic novel March, expresses a jarring and uplifting account of the Civil Rights era. Like Spain Rodriguez, Spiegelman got his start in the underground comix scene. After listening to primary accounts of his father’s experiences during Holocaust, Spiegelman created a moving tale of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival during the Nazi regime’s reign of terror. In Maus, Spiegelman symbolically represented the Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats. In March, John Lewis tells his own biographical story as an activist during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Stan Lee’s legacy lives on in everyone who opens up a comic book and feels empowered to live, love, and learn through the socially engaged content. While we’re unlikely to develop superhuman powers, it is our human elements (which happen to also be Studio Habits of Mind) such as exhibiting empathy, thinking critically (self-reflection and assessing our actions), and taking bold actions to confront difficult situations, that might just save the day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Blitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: The Lives of Urban Youth.” Art Education, 57 (2), 33-39.

Bitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (7), 574-588.

Dittmer, Jason. (2013). Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Elliott, Robert C. (2004). “The nature of satire”, Encyclopædia Britannica.

Estren, Mark James. (1974 and 1992). A History of Underground Comics. New York: Straight Arrow Books/Simon and Schuster, 1974; revised ed., Berkley: Ronin publishing, 1992.

Godoski, Andrew. (2011). “Professor X And Magneto: Allegories For Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X”. Screened. Archived from the original on 2011-06-18. Retrieved 2018-11-16.

Johnson, Jason. “How Stan Lee, Creator of Black Panther, Taught a Generation of Black Nerds About Race, Art and Activism.” The Root. 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.theroot.com/how-stan-lee-creator-of-black-panther-taught-a-genera-1830406797

Taylor, Paco. “Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artwork Reveals Powerful Superhero Influences.” 28 Sept. 2018, Medium. https://medium.com/@StPaco/artist-jean-michel-basquiats-artwork-reveals-powerful-superhero-influences-811a1c6673e7?fbclid=IwAR0khXZe5UCcUzJlpsfsUfNY1ZIX27Tm6slItFKLapECOc3Lspf8F9vOS1g

Zucker, Adam. “Raymond Pettibon: Visual Vehemence.” Rhino Horn. 20 Feb. 2017. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/raymond-pettibon-visual-vehemence/