contemporary graphic literature 1

drawing on culture

english literature 3771
avi sato (


there are few places where “literature” meets “pop culture” but the graphic novel is certainly one of them, whether we call it a collection of drawings, manga or comic, the merger between images and storytelling is a medium that, while it has been around since before written language, has found a new way of connecting with its audience over the past century or so. visual elements can do things that traditional novels, poetry and non-fiction works simply can’t do and, when combined with the written word, the result is a powerful fusion of styles that has the power to tell stories in a way that traditional media cannot emulate and to attract a huge segment of the population for whom pleasure-reading is not part of their lives, while still captivating a literary audience. the language of visual literature has shifted dramatically in the twenty-first century and we are going to investigate what’s been done and what’s been done differently in the past decade of graphic lit.


we will be meeting three times a week for ninety minutes each session. these will all be seminar blocks – tuesday, thursday and friday, 14.30-16.00.

note, this course outline has been updated since this instructor last taught it and scheduling information reflects its last instance, not its next.


this course focuses on you achieving the following. by the end of this course, you should be able to…

  • understand and discuss contemporary graphic literature in terms of its words, its images and its overall meaning.
  • have a clear definition of concepts including visual expression, mixed-media literature and popular culture.
  • make comparisons between diverse forms of graphic literature both in discussion and in writing.
  • understand and discuss the relationship between graphic literature, literature, visual art and their culture and society.
  • discuss the relationship between image-focused literature and social issues, location, extremism, tribalism, politics, race, gender, sexuality and norms.
  • contribute to general understanding in a group setting of motivation, outcome and context of visual and literary expression.

learning outcomes

during the course, you will be able to demonstrate…

  • creative and technical reflection on works of graphic literature.
  • social and cultural understanding of the place of visual literacy, graphic literature, comic/manga understanding and visual propaganda in the contemporary world.
  • understanding of the relationship between content and expression across cultures and personal experiences as expressed in mixed-media literature of various types.
  • cooperation within a group-editing situation.
  • self-directed and self-motivated working under short-term deadline and iterative workflow requirements.

curriculum details

this is a seminar course. this means that you will be responsible for participation at a level of engagement and depth in keeping with the level of this course. you will be called on occasionally to answer specific questions but most of your participation will be because you decide to contribute something. if you don’t contribute in class, it will be you who misses out on improving your understanding. you will not be graded on your talking but the effect will be visible in how well your submissions engage with what we have discussed. relevant discussion is encouraged and some of the topics will be those about which strong views are held but it is expected that you will be mindful of the emotional effect of your words.


while there will be the occasional supplementary piece assigned and distributed, this course uses fifteen graphic texts. it is my assumption that you will have read each of these completely at least once, start to finish, and to have studied several pages in detail as to their visual style and content. you don’t have to purchase each of them but, in the interest of fairness, i encourage you to buy as many as you are able. i have several copies of each, as does the department – the library may also have several but i wouldn’t count on them being available. if you wish to get together with other students and share the cost of the books, that has worked well in the past for these courses, as long as you take responsibility for reading the work before class.

it would be great if you could bring them to class with you but it’s more important that you could let me know whether there will be enough copies to share and look at or if i will need to provide copies on the day — no need to do this at the beginning of the course but the week before, i’d love to know who’s got their own copy, in the interest of saving trees. everything we study will be displayed on screen but it’s not always a great idea to rely on the technology to work. i am not going to ask who has read the works. if you haven’t, you won’t be able to contribute constructively to the discussion and i would ask you not to try to fake it. you are welcome to attend anyway. we will not be talking about every page in each work but we will talk about the book as a whole and then do some close investigation and analysis of specific pages — this means, in short, don’t just flick through the books, assuming an overall understanding of the plot and style will cover it.

isbn numbers may vary by edition, printing or format. you are welcome to acquire the electronic versions of any of these but i will give you the code for the paperback, when possible, more as a way of being standardized than as recommending that format. the dates are given as the date of the edition, not the date of the original pressing, although this is often the same. if you have access to another edition, that’s perfectly fine as long as the content is largely the same — many of the more popular works have been issued in various editions and it’s mostly the cover art and additional content that shifts from one to another.

  • a bride’s story (volume 1) by kaoru mori (2014, yen press, 978-0316180993)
  • american born chinese by gene luen yang (2008, square fish, 978-0312384487)
  • anya’s ghost by vera brosgol (2011, first second, 978-1596435520)
  • are you my mother? by alison bechdel (2013, mariner books, 978-0544002234)
  • death note (volume 1) by tsugumi ohba and takeshi obata (2010, viz media, 978-1421539645)
  • embroideries by marjane satrapi (2006, pantheon, 978-0375714672)
  • grass by keum suk gendry-kim (2019, drawn and quarterly, 978-1770463622)
  • i want to eat your pancreas by yoru sumino (2019, seven seas, 978-1642750324)
  • jerusalem by guy delisle (2015, drawn and quarterly, 978-1770461765)
  • my lesbian experience with loneliness by kabi nagata (2017, seven seas, 978-1626926035)
  • paper girls by brian k vaughan (2016, image comics, 978-1632156747)
  • plum village, an artist’s journey by phap ban (2019, mandala publishing, 978-1683836407)
  • tales from the inner city by shaun tan (2018 arthur a levine books, 978-1338298406)
  • through the woods by emily carroll (2014, margaret k mcelderry books, 978-1442465961)
  • waves by carole maurel and ingrid chabbert (2019, archaia, 978-1684153466)


  • 10% reading & reflections journal (due friday of week 12)
  • 25% bi-weekly assignments (each worth 6%, due friday of weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10)
  • 25% independent assignment (due friday of week 12, although i encourage you to think of this as a midterm project and submit it no later than week 6 for its first marking)
  • 40% final assignment (due friday of week 12)


  1. you are expected to keep a journal throughout this course to document your reading and share your reflections on what you have experienced. getting in touch with the in-the-moment experience of graphic literature is one of the keys to understanding its appeal and its underlying message, something that is often far more complex and nuanced than the overt, frequently child-friendly visual message. the minimum requirement for this is three entries per week, a minimum length of two hundred words per entry. you are encouraged to complete these on an ongoing basis throughout the duration of the course but, as there is no way to check that this is being done, you are welcome to write as many of these at a time as you desire. as the course extends for twelve weeks, this works out to be a minimum of 36 entries and 7200 words. while absolutely daily entries are not a requirement for an excellent grade on this assignment, you are encouraged to write thoroughly thought-out, short reflections often rather than longer ones that attempt to do more than tackle a single idea. reflect on the work, how it was written, how it felt to you, whether you think it was effective and why, how it relates to your experience of life. you can be as analytic or personal as you like and these works will not be shared beyond the bounds of the course without your express permission. they will also not be shared with other students in the course, even as examples, without that permission. no matter what length this works out to be or how many entries, i will be happy to read it completely and offer suggestions on anything you submit. you are welcome to submit this assignment as often as you like for ongoing commentary and suggestions rather than waiting until the last day to send it for the first time. frequent and repeated submission of the work is optional but highly encouraged. it may be useful to keep in mind that while this is called a “journal”, it is expected that it will be submitted in digital, typed format, not handwritten in a physical book.
  2. we will be working our way through fifteen books in thirty-six classes, which works out to be, other than a few classes devoted to more general topics at the beginning and end, a new work every two classes. that means that every two weeks we will have covered three new books. you are expected to write a deep-reading analysis of one or more pages/images from one of those books. you may approach this in any way you like but these questions may be helpful. please don’t feel like you should be trying to answer all of them – just pick one and answer it in some depth. it is expected that these be submitted for the first time on friday of each even week (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) except the last week of the course. while word count is not the important thing here, a minimum of 1500 words would be expected. if you are not certain about whether your approach will be well-received, you are welcome to discuss it before you begin.
    1. what is the underlying meaning?
    2. how do word choice and style of visual art contribute to communication?
    3. how does the choice of what to illustrate and what to leave to the imagination relate to the experience of the reader?
    4. what is the intended audience and is that different from the group to which the author/artist belongs?
    5. will this work still feel contemporary in the future? the distant future?
    6. what is the historical place this story inhabits? is it important that it is told using this medium?
    7. what effect does the choice of words have to how the visuals are perceived? how about the inverse, the visual art’s effect on how the words sound in the reader’s mind? would this effect be (or, if the original language was other than english, is it) different if the words were (are) in another language without changing the visual presentation?
    8. what is the importance of the location and culture of the author/artist to the understood meaning of the work as a whole (or individual sections)?
    9. why was this work created at this time and in this place?
    10. does this work reflect a greater cultural or social experience or is it specific only to the author/artist?
  3. an independent assignment will take a work of contemporary graphic artist/author published in the past 15 years either originally in english or available in translation and in approximately 2500 words, answer the following question. why was this experience written using the combination of words and images, in this place, at this time, by this author/artist? how you wish to approach the answer is up to you but my guidance is to focus on specifics rather than general commentary and reflection. i recommend submitting this for the first no later than the halfway point of the course, to allow you to focus more thoroughly on the final assignment. if you are using pre-publication work (by an already-published author), please check with me first to ensure it is a good fit for the question. in theory, it may be possible to use a work whose english translation is not yet available if the language of the work is one in which you are comfortable and you complete the assignment in english but please discuss this with me before you begin.
  4. similar in form to the independent assignment is the final assignment. this assignment can be one of two possibilities. please complete one of them rather than both. it is expected that the length be a minimum of 2500 words and you are welcome to submit it at any time during the course. it is expected that you explore the question and the piece(s) you are studying thoroughly in terms of their language, their context, their creators, their audiences, their culture and society and their relationship to the present.
    1. select two works we have discussed during the course and answer this question along with a comparison between them. who is it created for, an individual, a group, a culture, and does it matter? an alternative to this is to answer the same question in more detail about a single piece and you are welcome to do this if you prefer.
    2. select a single work we have discussed during the course and answer this question. why was this story told now in this medium?


any supplementary works will be provided electronically at least one week before the class discussing them and you will be expected to have absorbed them and be prepared to comment and engage in discussion. it is further expected that you will have read (completely) the work to be discussed in a particular class, although it is not necessary that you have a copy of the work with you. while all discussions will be accompanied by the work being showed on the screen or distributed on paper, it would be helpful if you brought any copies you might have access to to reduce the amount we are relying on seeing details on the screen.

each pair of seminars will be divided into four pieces, each lasting approximately three quarters of an hour — two pieces per scheduled class. the first piece will be a general background discussion of the work and anything that is related to its understanding other than its actual content — the author, illustrator, translator, anyone else who is significant to the creation of the work, this will form the first bit of the discussion. that will be followed by an introduction to the circumstances — the social environment, cultural norms, geopolitical and socioeconomic details that may be useful to think about. the first segment will also (and likely for the largest part of this segment) focus on your emotional reactions to the work, either as a whole or specific pieces within it. this is not a discussion of the technical details of the work, just a way into an understanding of the emotional reaction that has been created.

the second piece will be more specific and will look at the target audience, assumptions about the work, compositional style and visual language. the third piece (first half of the second class) will be a discussion of the words and the individual visual symbols used, their context, their meanings and how they shape the cohesive understanding. the last piece will be a combination of two things, depending on the work. in some cases, it will focus primarily on specific details and look at the combination of words and images, how an individual page or spread, for example, works together to tell a story, provide answers to a question, create an emotional reaction, etc. in other cases, it will look at the relationship between the language of words and the language of images as a more general, theoretical framework and discuss it in the context of contemporary culture, both ours and that specifically of the work in question.

classes without specific works assigned will usually involve discussion topics and this will be linked to short samples from work that is not in the reading list — some of this will be extremely current, things that are recently published or even pending publication, some will be independently-created or unpublished like photographs of visual art, refugee camp walls’ graffiti and voiceovers for graphic media presentation being two that may appear in the context of text-visual art. the final classes will be revision and you are encouraged to have your own questions ready to get the most out of the class and end the term feeling successful.

we are not going to be looking at these works in either chronological or alphabetical order. they are given alphabetically in the materials list for the sake of simplicity but they will be grouped loosely by theme and style to make it easier to transition from one to the next — while chronological organization is typical of literature courses, since these are all works from within a very condensed period of time, there’s no real time-focused difference and the publication date has little meaning in the context of how long each took to create and find publication.

this is the first course in a pair. while you are encouraged to take both, they are both stand-alone in their content and discussions. what i should point out is that the second course takes up some of the same social and cultural topics in greater depth.

class 1

introduction and discussion of the assignments of the course. if we have time, we will look at a few excerpts from graphic novels that i will share in class and talk about what makes graphic literature different from other forms of literature and why contemporary graphic lit is remarkably different from that of only a decade or two ago, not to mention from the early twentieth century. why “if we have time”? that will depend on how many questions there are about the course content and assignments because it’s best to get those out of the way so there’s no confusion later about expectations and grading.

class 2

what does contemporary mean in the context of literature in general, graphic literature in specific and does this vary across cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic or other socially-divergent lines?

classes 3/4

embroideries by marjane satrapi

classes 5/6

tales from the inner city by shaun tan

classes 7/8

my lesbian experience with loneliness by kabi nagata

class 9

what is the place of politics, extremism, tribalism, gender, race and minority in graphic literature? how does this relate to its place in popular culture?

classes 10/11

waves by carole maurel and ingrid chabbert

classes 12/13

plum village, an artist’s journey by phap ban

classes 14/15

through the woods by emily carroll

class 16

is social media graphic literature? memes? what about television and movies, especially when they are subtitled? can we look at these media using the same tools as for graphic lit? for literature in general? or are they so different they require a whole different approach?

classes 17/18

anya’s ghost by vera brosgol

classes 19/20

paper girls by brian k vaughan

classes 21/22

i want to eat your pancreas by yoru sumino

classes 23/24

are you my mother? by alison bechdel

class 25

what impact does society have on this genre of work? what can be published? what can be shared? what can become popular? inversely, what impact can graphic lit have on society? is it revolutionary? can making art be more than just revolutionary in the academic sense?

classes 26/27

grass by keum suk gendry-kim

classes 28/29

death note by tsugumi ohba and takeshi obata

classes 30/31

jerusalem by guy delisle

classes 32/33

american born chinese by gene luen yang

classes 34/35

a bride’s story by kaoru mori

class 36

this class will be open to general questions related to the final assignment and revision of already-submitted work. i will encourage discussion of new topics and provide other sample work with whatever time is not used for these questions. if we have time, the question we will be focusing on is this — with the assumption of a 100% literacy rate (whether that’s true or not is a different discussion) in a modern, digital-focused world, what’s different about the connection between visuals and words now that we have become separated from the notion that writing is only for the educated?


this document was last updated on 2020.1.13 and corresponds to the upcoming version of this course. for earlier course outlines, please get in touch directly as only the most recent version will be displayed here to avoid potential confusion.

share on social media...
thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.