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American Comics Against the Code: Autobiography and Journalism in Graphic Novels


Admission requirements

Note: This course A is intended for students from a limited number of programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for each programme, all students who will enroll are placed on a waiting list. Students in the MA program in North American Studies (NAS) –and if their places are filled, those in Literary Studies—will have priority. The definite admission will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of places that will be available after the NAS students have been placed. The definite admission will be made (by August 25) according to the position on the waiting list and the number of places that will be available after the North American Studies students have been placed. In total there is room for 24 students in the seminar; the estimated number of NAS students who will follow the course is about 15.


Spiegelman has described comics as “a gutter medium; that is, it’s what takes place in the gutters between the panels that activates the medium.” On the face of it, Spiegelman refers to how to read comics, but implicitly, he also attends to a common American perception of comics as ‘low’ culture.
Comics and graphic novels have only recently come to be recognized as a serious art form, requiring specific reading skills and literary sensibility. Although hybrid forms of word-and-image storytelling have been around since the Bayeux tapestry, comics became a mainstream commercial product in the 20th century. Our starting point is the American tradition, but we will also study transnational graphic novels and comics as a globalized form.

In the United States, comics were made acceptable and non-controversial through the ‘Comics Code’ (1954), which forbade comics to portray nudity (and sexuality, idealizations of crime etc.). This led to a strong and creative movement of underground comics artists. This underground tradition of graphic narrative saw a pivotal moment in the genre’s road to mainstream recognition with the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980).
This course approaches comics and some of its subgenres – graphic memoir, graphic journalism – from various vantage points: as a means of narrating trauma and memory, as a form of resistance to dominant culture, and as a mode of transcultural communication. We will investigate how graphic novels can be read, what modes of storytelling and what kinds of stories they promote, and how they negotiate memory, identity, culture and politics.

We will also attend briefly to forms adjacent to graphic novels, such as political cartoons, animation, manga, and commercial comics.

Course objectives

This course aims to:

  • develop students’ analytical and critical skills through in-depth reading of graphic novels and other image-text-hybrids in their historical and cultural contexts;

  • introduce students to theoretical concepts in memory, identity, journalism;

  • develop critical understanding of the field of comics, and the place of the US tradition, and specifically American graphic novels within that;

  • develop students’ skills to conduct independent research;

  • develop students’ oral and written communication skills;

  • develop their ability to apply theoretical and critical insights in a research essay.

  • Research MA students should reveal in their coursework a more nuanced understanding of the complex relationship between social formations and cultural productions by means of a more detailed and thorough theoretical/methodological framework.


See timetable.

Mode of instruction


Attendance is required. If a student cannot attend class, he or she needs to contact the instructor in advance with an explanation. The instructor will then decide if it is excusable and if and how the student can make up the missing work.

Course Load

Total course load 10 ec x 28 hours = 280 hours:

  • hours spent on attending seminars: 40 hours;

  • time for studying the required literature and film screening: 120 hours;

  • time to prepare presentation and write a research proposal and essay (including research): 120 hours.

Assessment method


  • oral presentation (25%)

  • Active discussion participation (25%);

  • research essay (c. 4000 words; 50%).

  • Research MA students will have to write an extra 3000 word paper on a topic to be decided in consultation with the tutor.


The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average. Presence and participation in class is required.


If the final grade is insufficient, only the research essay can be rewritten.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will be organized.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • announcements;

  • assignments;

  • literature.

Reading list

  • Will Eisner, A Contract with God (1978)

  • Art Spiegelman, Maus I & II (1980-1991)

  • Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)

  • Harvey Pekar & Joyce Brabner, Our Cancer Year (1994)

  • Guy Delisle, Pyongyang (2004)

  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (2006)

  • Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (2006)

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2007)

  • David Small, Stitches (2009)

  • Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (2014)

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Panther #1 (2016)

  • Octavia Butler, Kindred, the Graphic Novel Adaptation (2016)


Via uSis.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. Sara Polak.