When you think about typical college English courses on literature, you likely assume that the students in the courses are focused on the meaning behind the words of each text they read. Saint Leo University is excited to be currently offering two English courses in the fall of 2019 that instead examine the visual aspects of stories.

Dr. Burgsbee Lee Hobbs, an associate professor of literary studies at Saint Leo University, is teaching two undergraduate English courses with a literature focus along these lines. One course is character-focused on popular characters. The other is a genre-focused course covering graphic novels. In addition to English and some of its concentrations, majors among the students in these classes include political science, elementary education, psychology and sport business.

Studying Superheroes and Villains

One of the courses is titled "Speculative Fiction: Metahumans, Super-Villains and Alien Heroes." This catalog class is taking an in-depth look at the characters people of all ages just can't get enough of in pop culture.

"The recent profusion of Oscar nominations for Marvel films inspired me to present a class that asks, 'Why is there so much interest in superheroes?' and, "How does culture benefit or suffer from this phenomenon?'"

The class has nine students, making it perfect for discussions and the opportunity for all students to contribute to the conversation. According to Hobbs, the curriculum looks at some of the most popular archetypes, which are rooted in both ancient legend and World War II propaganda. Students are exploring why these characters have become so prevalent in both film and on television, what they can tell us about ourselves and why they've gone from subculture to mainstream in popularity.

"Discovering the formulaic approach that Hollywood takes to adapting works of fiction for the big screen is always eye-opening – and disappointing – to students once they understand the inner-workings of the monomythic trope."

Hobbs admits that some might raise an eyebrow when hearing about college English courses in which students are reading comic books. However, he is confident in the rigor of the curriculum.

"The reality is that we are reading critical theory alongside the primary texts and applying philosophical concepts to the material to test its validity," he says. "Much like other courses in Literature, this one is largely about breaking down prior assumptions, deconstructing culture, making connections and learning to read closely."

Some of the texts the students are reading and discussing in this course include:

  • Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
  • Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals
  • Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?
  • Captain Marvel, Earth's Mightiest Hero, Vol. 1
  • Luke Cage: Avenger
  • Blade: Black & White
  • Astonishing X-Men: Storm

Exploring Graphic Novels

Another special topics English course Hobbs is teaching this fall is titled "Reading with Pictures: Graphic Novels as Literature." This course also uses novel-length works of sequential art.

"I'm a lifelong fan of both comic books and graphic novels," Hobbs says.

This course, which has seven students, allows learners to examine prehistoric cave paintings, comic strips, animated cartoons from TV and film and other visual stories.

"Storytelling with visual images has an extensive historical connection to popular culture," Hobbs says. "Students are learning how to read, translate and analyze these cultural artifacts while discussing how they are created, how they operate and how they contribute meaning to the ongoing literary conversation."

A few discussion points have focused on the role of an artist in society and the types of work he or she produces.

"They've been posing questions among each other about whether artists should constantly try to please their fans or create art for art's sake, as well as whether there should be a barrier between art for the elite and art for the masses."

Examining the level of detail to which artists go in their works compared to how this art is later reflected in other forms has been a big topic of discussion.

"One takeaway is how complex and sophisticated the presentation of the narrative can be in these original works and how the movie industry feels compelled to 'dumb down' this material," Hobbs explains. "General audiences rarely read books, which takes some degree of active engagement. But they do watch a lot of film, which is a much more passive form of entertainment."

Some of the texts the students are studying in this English course include:

  • A Contract with God by Will Eisner
  • Maus I and II, aka The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
  • American-born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  • God Save the Queen by Mike Carey, John Bolton and Todd Klein
  • The Red Diary/The RE[a]D Diary by Teddy Kristiansen (French and Danish) and Steven T. Seagle
  • Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

Overview of These English Course Assignments

These two seminar-style English literature courses are based on engaging discussions among the students. So, students must come to class having already read the required material so they can talk about the deeper meanings behind it and debate how it is constructed. Plus, an online discussion forum allows students to "continue the conversation" and make additional points about the various texts. They must also respond to each other's discussion posts.

Each course has several writing assignments with a focus on the three main genres of literary theory – reader response, formalisms and contextual approaches.

In addition, students must lead a class with handouts and digital visuals with either a close reading or visual analysis of a panel, page of panels or a two-page spread.

To wrap up each course, students must prepare a major written analysis that compares and contrasts two of the works presented in the class and examines a theme that is prevalent in both of these works. This allows students to demonstrate their understanding of how the works are crafted and how they relate to one another.

More Exciting Saint Leo Literature Courses to Come

Did you miss out on this semester's comic book and graphic novel courses? Have no fear. Dr. Hobbs will be offering the Department of Language Studies and the Arts' inaugural run of ENG 343 in the spring of 2020. This edgier course will explore mature content that will focus solely on the controversial graphic novels of award-winning writer Alan Moore, the author of V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Batman: The Killing Joke, the last of which served as a partial inspiration for the latest Joker film that premiered in theaters in October 2019.