Teaching Gender Through Comics With Christina Blanch, Part 1

Christina Blanch is teaching a Massive Open Online Course titled Gender Through Comics, beginning [...]

Christina Blanch is teaching a Massive Open Online Course titled Gender Through Comics, beginning in a little less than two weeks. Sponsored by Ball State University, Blanch's class will bring together comics luminaries like Terry Moore, Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Scott Snyder in a course that examines how gender is depicted and perceived in culture and entertainment--all through the lens of (mostly mainstream) American comic books. You can sign up for the course here, which does have some required reading--about $75 worth of textbooks in the form of comics available at deep discounts through ComiXology. If you want to know more about it, here's an introductory video created for the course, narrated by Stan Lee.

Blanch, who has taught comics in her classes for some time, also works with CAPE, who go into conventions and teach educators how to use comics in the classrooms--so while it might be the first time she's taught thousands of students in an online course that is likely to generate a ton of media attention (after all, getting Mark Waid and Gail Simone to talk on camera about sociopolitical issues in comics is just begging for some discussion to come out of it that extends beyond the limits of the classroom), this isn't her first rodeo. Blanch joined ComicBook.com to talk about the course, what she hopes to accomplish, and her approach to teaching this thorny subject. We'll be breaking up the interview into pieces and releasing between now and when the course begins on April 2..

I think it's interesting that you chose to go with a title that's Gender THROUGH comics, rather than Gender IN Comics. Certainly the latter has been discussed a lot lately. What made you decide to go broader than that? The reason I'm doing it is sometimes gender is a topic that people don't like to talk about and I've noticed that when yous ay gender people automatically go to females, they go to feminism and that's not what gender is about--gender is about males and females and their relationships--similarities, differences, how they're both represented, how that affects the other. I teach with comic books in a lot of different subjects and by doing it through gender it lets people relax and they end up talking about the gender in the comic book and by the time they're at the end of their conversation they realize they're really talking about themselves. So it takes a subject that sometimes people don't want to discuss things and it gives them a way to discuss things. I think that comic books are an excellent teaching tool. It's a good way to get people to pay attention--to realize also that gender isn't just in the classroom; it's everywhere, it's in their everyday lives. If they take something that they learned from me and they apply it to their everyday life, that's a win. What's the subject matter you'll be teaching in the class? The names on you guest speakers skew surprisingly mainstream. I didn't want to use Persepolis and Fun Home because those are used a lot and I wanted to say, "You don't need to have this certain type of comic to teach--you can use any comic." So we're starting with Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore which is a great comic to talk about, period, because one people also associate comic books with superheroes and this really startles them. They keep waiting for the superhero to show up in the story and it doesn't. I taught this class on campus last semester and even though in my lectures I would tell them, "superheroes are not an equal thing with comics--you can have a comic without a superhero," three people who had never read a comic before came into class when we were having our discussion on Strangers in Paradise and they were surprised there was not a superhero in it. So it's something that's really out there--so we're starting with that Terry Moore and we're also going to read Rachel Rising. Then we're going to talk about the development of comics over time, comics history and how what goes on in society is affecting comics and we're going to do that through Superman so we're going to read Action Comics #1, we're going to read a Silver Age Superman and we're going to read Birthright to see how Superman is reflected in each of those periods. Because he changes over time--he changes depending on the writer but he also changes really drastically in those three periods.

Then next we're going to talk to a couple of Marvel editors--we're going to talk to Steve Wacker and Sana Amanat, and we're going to read Captain Marvel--the new Captain Marvel, starting with Ms. Marvel the original, Marvel was kind enough to put that up. We've also got ComiXology on board so that people who can't get to a comic store--or a comic store that doesn't have Ms. Marvel #1 or Action Comics #1--they're accessible to them. They're working with the publishers to get a discounted price so we can have it as a "here you go." We're going to read those to see how she has changed over time. Ms. Marvel was, you know, a big step forward. We're going to have hopefully a short interview with Kelly Sue and we're going to go from there and we're going to talk to the editors because a lot of people don't realize that the writers can't just write whatever they want. it goes through a whole process; there's so many more people involved in one single comic book than just the artist and the writer. When we interviewed Greg Rucka for my class, one of my students asked him "Why did you pick this costume for Batwoman?" and he said, "I didn't--this is what was given to me so I had to make the best of it so I made her have a wig," and how he had to work around that and it got the message across that there are liberties he couldn't take--he had to follow these rules. So we're going to talk to them and kind of get a different perspective there. Then we're going to talk to Gail Simone--we're going to read Secret Six, we're going to read Birds of Prey, some of her Batgirl, her Wonder Woman. We're going to read several selections from her and talk about women in refrigerators. And we're going to talk to Scott Snyder. We're going to read some Batman, some Swamp Thing, and that's when we're really going to talk about...you know, when we talk to Gail Simone, it's really going to be, "How is femininity represented in comic books?" When we talk to Scott Snyder it's going to be "How is masculinity represented in comic books?"

Because you know, men are represented a certain way in comic books, too. Even when you go through time--you know, in the '70s and the '80s you have this kind of reaction to feminism happening--and then in the '90s if you notice, all of the comic book men get really buff. It's like, "Okay, we're going to show our manhood here," so there was this huge change. So we're going to talk about that with Scott and then we're going to end on a high note with Brian K. Vaughan and we're going to read Y: The Last Man and Saga. Becuase Y: The Last Man is like a gender textbook. It's just this amazing book. All then men on the planet die and so everything changes. With culture, it's like if one thing changes, it affects everything else. When women went to work outside the home it affected everything from lawyers to food companies to daycare companies to clothing lines--everythign changed. And if all the men die, that's a pretty drastic change. I mean, it's even language: do you call a manhole a manhole anymore? How does that change our kinship? How does that change social stratification? So it's a great way to kind of bring this all together and say, "Okay, how do we talk about these issues?" And throughout the way, we'll have little mini-interviews. I call it the John Stewart interviews where I'll show a little clip in the lectures and say, "if you want to see the whole interview, click here and you can go." I don't want to just run a series of interviews becuase the class is really about gender; we're just using the medium of comic books to teach it--and it'll be fun.