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By Russ Cooper
Ask English professor Anthony Sisti about his class in graphic novels and in no time at all you'll have the big picture.
“There aren’t many universities that offer a class like this,” says Sisti. “The graphic novel is really an innovative medium, so it’s fantastic to be able to explore it with students.”
As the name suggests, a graphic novel is a book-length comic. While not drastically different from a comic book, graphic novels separate themselves by exploring much more mature subject matter often in a darker, more sophisticated manner. Sisti’s course texts include Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: Stories of a Childhood – a touching memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.
Sisti is careful to point out that the graphic novel isn’t simply a genre, but a medium unto itself. In blending words and images in complex ways, the graphic novelist is able to provide a unique perspective, aesthetic and thematic, on often powerful and dramatic subject matter.
“There’s a perception of comics being juvenile,” says Sisti. “But the graphic novel can be treated as a serious medium that explores serious issues. “Other popular graphic novels include Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography and Joe Sacco’s Palestine.
Sisti has been in the English department since the late '70s, mostly teaching literature and composition. The graphic novel course was originally a graduate class, proposed and taught twice by former English professor David Wright, but Sisti was instrumental in bringing the undergrad class to life.
“We didn’t come up against much opposition at all,” says Sisti. “The class has been welcomed from the start. The reception has been absolutely great.”
Great, indeed. When it was formally announced, the class’ capacity of 65 students filled up in no time and the response from students has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the class has become so popular, the English department is adding a new section for the winter term.
Graphic novels aren’t limited to investigating political matters. Their prominence exploded in the mid-'80s when authors began to shed new light upon the traditional notion of the superhero; moral roles became a bit more ambiguous, darker philosophical points of view materialized and real-life social issues began to appear. Sisti credits Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Moore and Gibbons’ The Watchmen – both course texts and movie fodder– for revolutionizing the medium.
While Sisti himself has never attempted to create a graphic novel (“I’m just not an artist,” he says), he is extremely proud to be teaching a class where a few of his students are currently producing graphic novels of their own.
“Many of my students have grown up reading comics and graphic novels,” he says. “Our class is more like a animated discussion than a formal lecture. It’s a really stimulating environment.”