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Show and Tell: Comics and Graphic Narratives


The assignment: Work in teams to create a comic that seemingly embraces but actually subverts the stringent rules set forth in the Comics Code Authority of 1954, which was the industry’s attempt at self-regulation.

Nhora Lucia Serrano, visiting assistant professor of comparative literature, issued the challenge to students in the course Show and Tell: Comics and Graphic Narratives. At the height of the code’s influence, Serrano says, it was a de facto censor because a comic couldn’t be published without a Comics Code seal of approval on its cover.

Comic Collage
It isn't about the artwork, but the comics had to be neat and contain color.

The assignment wasn’t about the artwork, although the comics had to be neat and contain color. Among Serrano’s objectives: students would engage in hands-on, collaborative, interdisciplinary work and develop a deeper perspective about censorship.

Show and Tell is not an art course: it’s offered through the literature and art history programs. It’s an introductory study of comics across cultures and in global contexts, covering works from the turn of the last century up to 1986. “This class reinforces that comics is a sophisticated and complex medium that bears close affinities with art, film and literature,” Serrano says.

By today’s standards, the Comics Code wrapped comic book creators in a straitjacket of rules like, “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.” Or, “In every instance, good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”

The code endured until 2011, when it was abandoned by the last two publishers that abided by it.

Here’s a look at three of the comics Serrano’s students came up with:

Comics: Happy Birthday
A detail from "A Not So Happy Birthday"
A Not So Happy Birthday

By Neema Lema ‘17, Claire Keyte ’17, Mackenzie Bettmann-Adock ’18 and Ashley Wu ’17

A trio of primly dressed young women arrives bearing dinner to celebrate Alice’s 21st birthday, and by the end of the meal, the birthday girl is dying from a nut allergy as Tamara smashes Alice’s Epipen on the floor. But wait! The birthday girl is seen awakening in her own bed. The nightmare dinner party was just a dream. But was it prophetic? Alice arises to answer a knock at the door and finds her three friends, bearing dinner, just as in her dream.

“I really like the fact that even though it was all a dream, part of me still wants to know who the culprit was. Was it one friend? Was it all three friends? Was it the main character herself who may have used a plate that her little brother used to eat a PB and J sandwich off of so it still had traces of peanuts on it?” says Neema Lema, an economics major who did the line drawing for the comic.

The Trial
The conclusion of "The Trial"

By Brady Bruno ’17, Kevin Carey ’17, Julie Lin ’17 and Rob McClure ’17

A big man wearing a purple, super-hero-style cape, is charged with a bloody, unspecified capital crime, possibly the slaying of a young woman. The accused speaks not a word in the courtroom during his trial. When it’s over, as he sits in the electric chair, a witness to the execution says to another observer, “I heard he was trying to save the girl. People say he’s a hero.” That’s the final panel of the comic.

“We wished to create a lot of ambiguity about the identity and innocence of the protagonist, whoever it turned out to be. Kevin and Rob came to us with the idea of a super hero on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed. In either case, some emotional turmoil keeps him from defending himself in court, which should generate anxiety in the reader as the hero goes to his execution,” says Brady Bruno, a physics major. He and Lin drew the comic.

"Dad of the Year": A joint effort.
Dad of the Year

By Matt Goon ’18, Min-J Lee ’17 and Winston Schromm ’17

A bereaved and vengeful father, depicted as a rooster, is determined to kill the villain who slaughtered his chick before his very eyes. The dad is a former police officer; the murderer a slavering ex-offender fox that he’d once put behind bars. The father tracks the killer to a dive bar, pulls out his pistol and invokes his son as he fires the weapon. Nothing happens. The father had accidently been packing the toy pistol he’d once given his late son.

“I rarely work on group assignments where there isn't a right or wrong answer. This project redefined collaboration for me. Each of us found that every contribution we made had something we could keep, something we could take away, and something that significantly improved – or was significantly improved by – one of our partner's contributions,” says Winston Schromm, an economics and Russian studies major. The group jointly illustrated the comic.

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