Kealey and co-instructor Adam Johnson taught a winter course titled The Graphic Novel, and assigned their students to write, edit and illustrate a collaborative final project. The result is a 224-page graphic novel titled “Shake Girl,” based on the true story of a Cambodian karaoke performer named Tat Marina who was the target of an “acid attack” after she had an affair with a married man.
“In a normal writing class, you'd write a poem or finish a chapter and you'd own it,” Kealey said. “In this class, we had to collaborate every step of the way, every idea, and make compromises. It was the most difficult and rewarding class I ever taught.”
While the study of comics and graphic novels has steadily become an acceptable part of college curricula – “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman taught a course at Columbia University last year – the project-based graphic novel class offered at Stanford appears to be the first of its kind.
Karen Green, a librarian at Columbia who has been acquiring graphic novels for three years, said Yale and Cornell have growing graphic novel collections, and Michigan State, Ohio State and Duke all have archived comic strips and books that span decades.
Yet for the graphic novel, the leap from archived material to in-class study and production at a major university marks an upgrade in status.
“It's a different way to tell a story that has specific rules,” Green said. “And to have somebody teaching those rules, that's impressive.”
Kealey and Johnson accepted 40 applications from undergrads and graduates in the English and art departments, and accepted 14.
Kealey said most of the students were already familiar with the works of Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi's “Persepolis,” set in post-revolution Iran, and were aiming to tell a complex, serious narrative.
Eric Pape, a journalist studying at Stanford on a Knight Fellowship, offered the class his nonfiction piece published in 2006 by Open City magazine about the phenomenon of acid attacks against women in Cambodia.
“It was clear from the outset while we were discussing ideas that the class wanted to do some sort of good with this project,” Pape said, “not make it just a vanity project.”
Pape said even though the basis of “Shake Girl” is rooted in actual events, the graphic novel genre gave the story more dramatic energy, while maintaining the theme of love gone horribly wrong. He said he wanted to see out the adaptation in part to attract readers who prefer visual to text-only stories.
“Young people read graphic novels,” Pape said. “The newspaper industry is struggling, and it's looking for new models to tell stories. Journalistically speaking, this is a domain worth exploring.”
One reason graphic novels are being read in university classrooms is that the term sounds more academic than comic books, said Ivan Brunetti, a lecturer at Columbia College in Chicago and the University of Chicago, who has taught the course Writing the Graphic Novel on both campuses for the past three years.
Brunetti says the phrase “comic book” still rings childish to administrators; “graphic novel” is more acceptable when pitching a class.
“Graphic novels are really comic books wrapped in book covers with spines,” Brunetti said. “But for some reason, 'graphic novel' sounds more lofty and people have bought into it. The term has helped to create a distinction in people's minds that there's an important art movement occurring that is more concerned about long and serious work; and that's partially true.”
The US retail market for graphic novels has grown precipitously over the past decade, reaching $375 million in 2007, up 12 percent from 2006, according to a report last month from ICv2, a trade company that tracks pop culture industry trends. Much of the growth is due to the mainstreaming of the genre by specialty publishing houses, such as Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal and Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, and more recently to traditional houses like Pantheon, which has a graphic novel imprint that publishes Spiegelman, Satrapi and Daniel Clowes, among others.
Thomas LeBien, publisher of Hill and Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, who oversees the company's 2-year-old graphic novels division, attributes rising sales to the medium's growing storytelling capabilities. He refers to Hill and Wang's “The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation” by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, a controversial work he said forced mainstream book reviewers to ditch the “graphic novel” term for “graphic nonfiction” and “sequential art narration.”
“There's an audience out there that doesn't view this as 'comic books,' but as sophisticated storytelling,” said LeBien. “The reason professors and universities are so interested in teaching it is the form is so versatile. It does very particular things just like movies do, and just like books of prose do.”
At Stanford, Kealey and Johnson knew asking 14 students to collaborate to produce one book was an ambitious task. And their class had six weeks to do it.
“Co-writing with one person is difficult,” student Pape said. “Co-writing with 14 was extremely difficult.”
After the writing, students cut the story into five acts, and the art students created storyboards from a rough draft. The illustrators mulled over the “page flips” – the kapow-y action sequences often found on the right-hand panels. When the flips are done to maximum effect, the time it takes the reader to turn the page can serve as a dramatic pause.