Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication
by Michael MacBride
Teaching the “huge” text s-l-o-w-l-y: taking your time with Dickens and Comic Books
How do you teach a 500- or 900-page Dickens’ novel—heaven forbid a 1,500-page Richardson novel? (1) How do you teach a comic book, like Detective Comics, that has been running since 1937, or a comic strip, like Katzenjammer Kids, that’s been around since 1897? These texts are culturally rich, offer a unique snapshot of a historical period, and are relatively untapped, but their sheer length can be daunting. While serialized novels (usually) offer a consistent narrative, comic books and comic strips frequently diverge into “alternative universes” and offer new tellings of old stories. Spider-Man, for example, offers several books that take the hero in different directions–The Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Friendly Neighborhood, Ultimate, and, most recently, Superior Spider-Man. Where do you start? How do you dig in?
My contention is that the best place to start is one issue, or one monthly, at a time. Then the class, high school or college, will spend a month with that issue or monthly–just like the original audience would have. Comic books are (mostly) published on a monthly basis, and Charles Dickens released (most of) his works on a monthly basis as well. Taking time with a smaller text has many benefits, which will be enumerated shortly.
The critics and some background
This is not a new idea. The New Critics had “close reading” which scoured texts (usually shorter ones, especially poetry) for meaning. Within the last two decades, the idea of “slow reading” or “deep reading” has gained momentum. Why read slow? Umberto Eco suggests, “Quick reading doesn’t work . . . Quick reading immediately superimposes on the text the first interpretation that comes to mind” (Gopnik 172). Initial reactions and spontaneous discussion can be useful tools in the classroom, but if the hope is to hone the critical thinking skills of our students, then the “quick reading” isn’t going to serve our needs. They need time to process the material in front of them, and that means time to reflect.
Reflection is frequently cited as a “best practice” for reinforcing learning, and it can be achieved in a number of ways. One of the ways that’s been neglected is the “art” of slow reading. John Miedema, in Slow Reading (2009), makes that very claim: “slow reading is about reading at a reflective pace . . . reading a book slowly allows for a deeper relationship with stories and ideas” (1). Thomas Newkirk, in The Art of Slow Reading (2012), reiterates and then builds upon Miedema’s claim:
to read slowly is to maintain an intimate relationship with a writer . . . We commit ourselves to follow a train of thought, to mentally construct characters, to follow the unfolding of an idea, to hear a text, to attend to language, to question, to visualize scenes. It means paying attention to the decisions a writer makes. (2)
In allowing a student to slow his or her reading, we allow the student to notice the nuances that are lost when he or she reads quickly. But, it is very important to differentiate slow reading, as in students who just take a long time to get through a text, from reflective reading–the latter being what educators really desire: a thoughtful, slow, attentive, read. Indeed, as Newkirk states, we should “slow down so we can hear the voice of texts, feel the movement of sentences, experience the pleasure of words—and own passages that speak to us” (41). Because students are not trained to slow their reading, and will likely see a shorter reading assignment as something they can easily speed through, we have to model the desired behavior and find ways to focus their attention.
Beyond the desire to get students to connect with the author, and to reflect on what they’re reading, it’s also important to “slow” their reading because it puts the emphasis on process, instead of on product. Rather than seeing the book as an obstacle to overcome, slow reading more closely aligns the student with the creative process that initially generated the text: “slow reading is something different from the retarded pace necessary to decipher an obfuscated text or slack writing, although it shares with that task an analytical inclination . . . and thus it is closer to the creative act itself ” (Dickie 819). It is important to give students permission to take his or her time with the text, and to be able to form a relationship with it. And then, once it has been read, it’s essential to make students return to the text again, and again, and again. Because, as Newkirk points out, “collections of writing were called treasuries. These books could not be consumed, exhausted of meaning, or fully understood. They offered something new with each rereading” (7). Some texts continue to repay dividends to attentive readers, and it is the educator’s responsibility to ensure that course texts are carefully selected to avoid ones that do not. That said, even a reader of a “pulp” novel can gain additional insight into the story and the way it unfolds by rereading it. Each time a reader returns to a text, he or she does so with a greater understanding of the text. The first time, that reader is (often) ignorant of the plot or story that will unfold before him or her. Each time after that, the reader can see the whole scope of the story and begin to anticipate how the author manipulates the text to drive it towards the conclusion.
Obviously, the confines of a semester restrict the number of times students can be expected to return to a text, and the objectives of courses most likely require that students read more than a single 32-page monthly. (3) There is a need to “complete” a work, and to be able to view it in its entirety. My plan, which is outlined in “the plan” section below, is to teach “slow reading” for a month, before throttling up to “quick reading” once again to finish the text. The hope is that by modeling slow reading students will become more perceptive readers or reflective readers, and, with the groundwork laid at the beginning of the text, they will have a greater appreciation for the themes, foreshadowing, and symbols established early on that continue throughout the text. Traditionally, it falls on the instructor to make students aware of these layers to the text, but by reading and re-reading a single monthly, these “writerly” techniques can become clear to students without the instructor having to intervene.
What educators are up against
Unfortunately, slow reading and focusing on slow serial publication fly in the face of the current trend. While students might complain that they’re not used to reading so much, and that these novels are too long, they certainly are partaking in a sort of novelization of other media—particularly television shows. The latest trend over the last couple of years is “binge watching”: ingesting an entire season, or series, in a short period of time. John Jurgensen, in his Wall Street Journal article, recounts how “binge viewing” has resulted in “lost weekends” where fans dedicate a weekend to watching an entire show. Beyond these “lost weekends,” viewers are simply watching more TV in general: “in 2009, Netflix members would watch an average 4.5 episodes per week of a serialized show. Now they watch 6.1 episodes per week, an increase of 38%” (Jurgensen). Helen Popkin supports Jurgensen’s findings, and reports that “88 percent of Netflix users and 70 percent of Hulu Plus will stream three or more episodes of the same TV show in one day.” Popkin and Jurgensen discuss how “binge viewing” is changing the face of television, and how series (like Breaking Bad) are having to become “hyper-serialized” to engage viewers who are going to watch episodes back-to-back, rather than the way the episodes initially aired.
Of course, “watching” a television show can be a passive activity and frequently is; however, the latest crop of television series, which tend to “top” the binge lists, are of higher quality than traditional TV and are nearly, if not, film-caliber. In fact, there is a critical field of scholarship dedicated to evaluating and studying television and its programming. (4) The gauge by which television scholars measure “quality television” is “narrative complexity.” The more complex the narrative, the higher the quality of the program. Some examples of high “quality television” programs are: The Twilight Zone, The Sopranos, Oz, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards. A similar standard of “narrative complexity” could be applied to literature, and indeed is often applied to it when determining the literary canon and defining “great” literature. The point is, these programs that qualify as “quality television” are the very shows that bear repeat viewing, and, perhaps even, “slow viewing,” not the current trend of speedy “ingestion.”
Scott Meyer’s webcomic, “How to ‘Binge Watch’ a TV Show,” offers a succinct discussion of the some of the benefits, and drawbacks, of the novelization of TV.
Burns’ documentary originally aired January 8, 9, 10, 15, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, and 30, 2001, over the course of ten episodes and a total run time of 19 hours. Meyer rightly points out that there are benefits to be gained by binge viewing, namely the “insights you might miss otherwise,” but then he’s also quick to point out the overly simplistic “insight” that one of his characters has gained. On one hand, by watching an entire series (or reading an entire novel) in a short period of time, the reader has the benefit of having the material fresh in his or her mind, and can indeed make connections that someone who views (or reads) the text slowly over time might miss. But, by rushing through the episodes (or chapters) to get to the end, the viewer (or reader) overlooks nuances and subtly on the way.
Between services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Redbox, and others, viewers have an enormous library of video at their fingertips, and if something’s to their liking, they can binge away. To help viewers sift through the selection websites have compiled lists of “binge-worthy” shows. IMDB offers several (including: “The 151 Best, Smartest, Most Binge-Watch Worthy TV Dramas Available Online” and “The Top 40 Best TV Shows to Binge On…”), and even the AARP has offered a “10 Great TV Series to Binge Watch” list. Carol Memmot, author of the AARP article, points out that it’s really the “millennial audiences [who] are the most apt to binge, but about half of viewers over 55 also watch more than one episode of a show in a single sitting.” Memmot also references Pamela Rutledge, head of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, who suggests that binge watching is empowering because, “it allows viewers to watch TV the same way they might read a book.” But, neither Rutledge nor Memmot address whether readers do, or should, consume a book in a hurried manner, nor do they address how often viewers re-view episodes or series as they might reread a book. Ironically, despite the current culture’s desire to “binge watch,” Miedema claims that “our brains have evolved to use slowness as part of our overall information processing experience” (61). This would suggest that hurried reading, or viewing, short circuits the brain’s ability to process and reflect on what it has seen, or read. While that might be fine getting caught up with a show, it hardly allows for the critical thinking that we want our students to engage in with a text. Because, as Stanley Fish points out, “the text is always a function of interpretation” (342). Without critically processing the text and making meaning from the words on the page, students are simply reading words to achieve the end goal of “finishing” the book.
In Dickens’ day, his audiences had to wait a month to read the next installment, and they had to pay dearly to obtain it. Each of Dickens’ monthlies cost his readers 1 shilling. While that might not sound like a lot, a large part of his audience “surviv[ed] on ten or fifteen shillings a week” (Patten 34). That his readers were willing to buy his stories at all, instead of necessities like meals, suggests the intense connection his readers felt to these works. And they bought in droves–usually selling between 25,000 and 100,000 copies per month. (5) Based on the sales of monthly numbers (rarely falling below 25,000 per month and sometimes exceeding 100,000), and the wages of workers, Altick and Patten have concluded that, “readers pooled together to buy texts and that three readers per copy was the absolute minimum . . . [and] the working classes must often have read communally if they were to read at all” (Patten 35). This communal reading, as Patten says, is “one of the most important gifts of serial fiction: it cements social bonds, providing neighbors or workmates who might otherwise have no interests in common with an instant topic of conversation” (31). Just as viewers of a TV show gather around the water cooler to discuss the latest episode of House of Cards, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, so too did Dickens’ work bring the community together to discuss what they had just read. Book clubs might be analogous to the communal experience with books that Dickens’ audience had, but the numbers of viewers far outweigh the numbers of book clubs these days. With so many modern viewers watching programs asynchronously from their family and friends, it’s difficult to construct a “communal reading” experience that once existed (these are now sometimes artificially constructed by friends simply choosing which shows to communally watch). By pushing students to read one month at a time, for one month, the hope is to recreate this experience for them in the classroom.
So, how do you do that? Any number of Dickens’ texts would work well in this type of class, as he wrote most of his work in a monthly format. (6) But, for the sake of this essay I am going to use two examples, Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit–one short, and one long. Either of these novels can be a challenge to teach to modern audiences, but Little Dorrit’s length is particularly daunting to less experienced readers. The key in either case is to take the first monthly number and devote a month to reading it. For Oliver Twist, the first monthly number was published in February 1837 and includes only chapters one and two. In the Penguin edition, this amounts to 14 pages, and includes 2 illustrations. (7) For Little Dorrit, the first monthly number was published in December 1855, and includes chapters one through four. In the Penguin edition, this is 44 pages, and includes 2 illustrations. This is all students should be assigned to read for the first month. Each week of the month, students will return and re-read the same section again until the month is over.
The first week, students will read the monthly without any prompting. In class, students should identify the major characters and the basic story that is unfolding. Discussions should be geared towards anticipating which direction the story is headed, and Dickens’ use of the cliffhanger. To encourage the idea of a communal reading, the monthly number should be read aloud in class.
In Oliver Twist, the first two chapters establish the narrator’s voice and his involvement with the story. There is a playful tone to the narrator, and he establishes himself as a citizen that is very familiar with the landscape and culture of London–all things that will become increasingly important as the novel progresses. That the narrator is one of the characters, and also one of the citizens of this city, lend credibility to the story that is being told–he is an observer, a witness, and also “one of us.” Though far from an uplifting beginning to Oliver’s tale, the first two chapters also establish a sense of humor that resonates throughout the novel. And, it is in the second chapter that Oliver famously asks, “please, sir, I want some more” (15). Because this is such an iconic scene, it might also help to show students various film versions to reflect on the numerous interpretations of that particular moment. The humor present in the novel is perhaps best illustrated in David Lean’s 1948 version of the film; whereas, Roman Polanski’s 2005 version offers a stark contrast, devoid of humor and instead overly dramatic. Some students, like Polanski, might fail to see the humor in the text, and by showing Lean’s take it will help them see the novel in a new light.
In contrast to the many versions of Oliver Twist, there are only a handful of versions of Little Dorrit–most of them from the 1920s and 30s. The 1988 version is split into two films and effectively tells the same story from two different perspectives–one from Arthur’s and another from Little Dorrit’s. The beginning of the film is drastically different from the novel, as it has dropped the entire Rigaud storyline, but the BBC (2008) mini-series is very well done and would work well to offer a possible interpretation of the novel. What’s really established in the first monthly number of Little Dorrit, is the function of light and darkness, sun and shade, light and shadow. This imagery is repeated throughout the novel, and can be seen in the descriptions of the environments and the characters. These first four chapters, included in the first monthly number, are also essential because readers are introduced to the environments–the prisons, metaphorical and real–the characters, and the major themes of sickness–both metaphorical and real. Little Dorrit makes an appearance, but it isn’t until the second monthly number that she is formally introduced and the story begins to unfold.
For weeks two, three, and four, students will be given short research assignments to compliment their reading. These mini-research projects will require them to investigate a topic that will help contextualize the events of the monthly number. Both novels wrestle with similar issues of poverty, criminality, punishment, society, justice, class, religion, identity, treatment of children, prison culture, morality, and many others. Students should be assigned topics to investigate the historical context for these issues, such as: the Poor Laws, periodical publication, Victorian culture, the illustrations within the novels, the Industrial Revolution, Newgate prison, John Sadlier (a famous embezzler and key figure in Little Dorrit), to name a few. Each week, students will be asked to re-read the same section of the novel with the new understanding that they’ve gained from their research. On these additional readings, they will look for possible connections to their research and for symbolism that they might have missed on previous reads. A “reading log” would be useful here. This would allow students a place to respond and react to their reading, but also, with this particular class structure, it allows students an opportunity to reflect back on their previous readings and track how their understanding of the novel has progressed. To maintain the communal reading environment, it’s essential that students are prevented from reading ahead, or reading plot summaries.
Maintaining control over the text is a tall order in the classroom, let alone a world where there are nearly infinite resources to spoil plots and give away story. But, there is hope. Amazon has recently released their “Kindle Series” product line, and part of that release is a serial publication of Dickens’ work in their original monthly installments. (8) According to the Amazon site, “Kindle Serials are books published in episodes. When you buy a Kindle Serial, you will receive all existing episodes on your Kindle immediately, followed by future eposides as they are published.” Because Dickens is in the public domain, all the Dickens’ texts are free. If students do not have a Kindle, a monthly installment could be readily downloaded from the internet, printed, or read on (just about) any electronic device.
Amazon’s assist aside, the only other technique I can recommend is giving a convincing sales pitch. I find part of my job every semester is to “sell” students on things they would rather not do. In this way, I’m a bit of a used cars salesman. (You know, “don’t buy the new car when you can have this beauty!”) What’s lost by reading ahead or “cheating”? Most essentially, the very idea of attempting to recreate the environment that Dickens’ first readers read this text–gone would be the suspense, the curiosity, and the drive to continue exploring the monthly number in greater detail. In short, cheaters will ruin the class, and “you don’t want to be a cheater, do you?” (I’m not above shaming as long as it achieves learning.)
With the first monthly number well-ingrained in their minds and the historical context for the novel firmly established, students will then proceed through the rest of the novel over the course of the next month. By forcing students to perform a slow reading of the first couple chapters, the hope is that their critical reading skills have been honed and that they have become more familiar with the rhythms of the author. Additionally, they will have been made more familiar with the audience that Dickens had in mind when he wrote these novels, and gain a greater appreciation for the way the novel is meant to be “consumed.” Rachel Malik points out that, while the novel is traditionally a “space of private interiority,” students should learn that serial texts are often “noisy,” at times “disruptive,” and laden with “numerous co-texts” (Malik 480). There are many voices chattering away within these monthlies, and references to cultural and historical texts that will (most likely) be missed if students read at “normal” speed. To fully understand and appreciate the text, these voices need to be untangled and these texts need to be explored. These are lessons that can only be learned by slow reading, and then hopefully put into practice by students when they read at their normal speed.
Just as with the majority of Dickens’ serial novels, comic books are also (traditionally) published in a monthly format, and feature 32 pages. Also like Dickens’ work, these 32 pages include advertisements. (9) Julia Chavez points out that Dickens’ serialized texts always sported a recognizable green cover. Readers knew how many pages to expect in each installment, and Dickens’s tendency to craft parts that could stand as coherent units, as well as links in the chain of the ongoing narrative, set up predictable narrative patterns and reading practices. Serialization controlled “the engrossing pleasures of reverie,” for it parceled out novels in small bits over an extended period of time. (798)
Because the story is broken up over the course of a year, or years, this uniformity in structure and format allowed readers a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic text. The same is true for comics, only to a greater extent because the comic serial is ongoing without an end in sight. Also, like Dickens’ work, comics have to stand on their own, and engage in the ongoing saga. In performing both functions, comics and Dickens’ work have to appeal to new and old readers alike. And so, comics might have more in common with Dickens than one might immediately think, and will allow for interesting discussions that span one hundred plus years.
Any number of comics would work for this type of activity, but I chose to focus on The Sandman. (10) If you’ve never encountered it, The Sandman is a 2,000-page story told from 1988-1996 over the course of 75 issues, written by Neil Gaiman. The series has spawned a number of spin-off series, including a prequel series written by Gaiman called The Sandman: Overture (beginning in 2013). The obvious question is: why this comic, over all the other possibilities? First, The Sandman is rich in myth and allusions; which allows for students to dig into the past and find meaning beyond immediately what’s on the page. Second, when compared to other choices (Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, X-Men, etc) it is fairly compact. By that I mean, you could read all of The Sandman in a reasonable amount of time–whereas it would take years to sift through all the iterations of the other titles. And, The Sandman’s continuity is, well, continuous–there are no alternative realities or “what if?” type scenarios at play in it. Finally, because it’s all written by Gaiman, you also have a consistent voice from beginning to end; whereas, with other comics, writers come and go.
While comic books can be expensive choices as texts in the classroom, particularly as “collected” or “annotated” or “deluxe” editions appeal to collectors, there are a number of cheaper alternatives. Single issues can be acquired from comic book stores, and sending students out to experience the culture first-hand might be a worthwhile endeavor. In the case of The Sandman, some of the original single issues can be expensive, but beaten up, well-read copies are generally cheap. (11) Probably the most reasonable approach to teaching a serial comic is the digital format. Just about every comic book is now available via Amazon, or iTunes, or any other digital “store.” Each of the individual issues of The Sandman are currently available via those platforms for $1.99, and then students can read them with their iPad, or Kindle, or even download it as a PDF and read it on a computer (or print it and staple it together).
With that out of the way, where should you begin? Which issue? Should you begin, as with Dickens, with the first monthly installment? I’d suggest not. Some comics start out strong and fade, but The Sandman is really a case where the author gains his stride a few issues in. That’s not to say the first issues aren’t worth reading after all the first issue establishes the foundation for everything to come, but the really great issues are #8 (“The Sound of Her Wings”), #14 (“The Collectors”), #19 (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), and #50 (“Ramadan”). (12) By jumping ahead of the story, the class can test the premise of whether or not monthly serials can actually stand alone. I assure you these four certainly can. Though I’d like to suggest students could jump into the middle of a Dickens’ novel, and that each monthly number could stand alone, comics, more so than Dickens, really have to be able to function to an audience ignorant of any previous storyline. In other words, in order for Spider-Man to continue to gain readers from 1963 onward, readers have to be able to enjoy issue 500 without ever having read the first issue–let alone Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962). While the popular superhero comics survive in this manner, some of the more “literary” comic books are closer to Dickens in that they feature shorter runs and rely more on readers’ familiarity with previous issues. The Sandman walks a fine line between these two worlds. A number of its issues stand alone quite nicely. In fact, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the only comic book to win a World Fantasy Award, and is pretty universally accepted as the best book in The Sandman series. (13)
Comics, Sandman included, also offer two additional important similarities to Dickens’ monthlies—advertisements and correspondence with the author. To be precise, Dickens didn’t correspond directly with his readers in his monthly numbers, but he did respond to their letters in Household Words, All the Year Round, and there have been several collections of Dickens letters produced by scholars. Also, selections of these letters are frequently included in Norton Critical or Penguin editions of the texts. The “letters” page of comic books feature correspondence of all kinds: simply story inquiries, praise, complicated hypotheses, criticism, stories about personal relationships, call backs for artists that have come and gone, etc. These letters’ pages, just as with the letters from Dickens, offer a unique glimpse at how the fans are responding to the stories, and give a sense of how the authors reacted to the fans.
Similarly, advertisements offer another opportunity to glimpse who publishers believed the audience was for these texts. Dickens’ monthlies offered 16 pages of advertisements. (14) These ads promoted other books, newspapers, and magazines that were being published or coming soon, and products that the publishers believed the audience would use. (15) By examining the ads and letters, students can work backwards to construct a fuller picture of who Dickens’ audience was. For comics, they typically consist of 32 pages total, 8 of which are advertisements, and then 1-2 pages devoted to letters. The Sandman is more variable in this form, but most consist of 26 pages of story, 8 pages of ads, 1 “inside DC” page (promoting news about the publisher and its upcoming projects), and a 2-page letters’ page. The advertisements are, like the ads in Dickens, for other comic books, and comic-related products (collectors’ cards, subscriptions, etc). Unfortunately, in the digital formats of Dickens and Sandman, and in the print “collections” of these works, all the ads have been removed, and the letters’ pages as well. (16) While these are not essential to the “story” that Dickens or Gaiman are telling, they are an important part of recreating the experience that the original audience would have enjoyed. As mentioned earlier, it is possible to obtain relatively inexpensive original copies of Sandman, and, even if the whole class doesn’t do so, the instructor could purchase one issue and digitally reproduce the ads and letters’ page for the class. These could then be printed and collected in a course pack, or viewed through a Learning Management System (like Desire2Learn or Blackboard). As for the advertisements in the Dickens’ monthlies, these appear lost, but contemporary ads can be found online and the class could assemble likely candidates that might have been included. (17) Even if the advertisements and letters aren’t used in the class, it’s important to remind students that the “monthly” (whether a comic or part of a serial novel) was more than just text. Just as the experience of watching a television program is different with the commercials included, because it allows for a break from the story and challenges the writers to build in “mini-cliffhangers” to keep viewers hooked, so too did the ads complicate the reading of the original texts.
In addition to the benefits of reading “slow” addressed with Dickens, when reading comics students should be directed to carefully examine each panel of art. The first time reading, students will likely read for story. But each successive time through, students should examine a new aspect of the text: the art, the allusions, the backgrounds of the panels (which are frequently busy and intricate), and how the text and image work together to advance the story. Additionally, mini-research projects should be assigned to force students to engage the “co-texts” within the comic, and the historical context for each story. Just as with Dickens, these texts are rich and by re-examining them again, and again, students will begin to unfold new meanings and understandings of the work, in addition to gaining insight into the style and technique of the author. Once the first issue is read, regardless of which issue the class begins with, the class then should read the remainder of the story arc. (18) When reading the rest of the story arc, as with students reading the rest of the Dickens’ novel(s), the hope is that they will then apply these slow-reading techniques to these additional texts.
Though there is a push lately to include comic books in the curriculum, and in fact even whole departments devoted to “comics studies,” introducing comics as texts can be cumbersome due to their length, story deviations, and multiple incarnations. And, unfortunately, there is also a tendency towards not teaching “longer” classical texts–usually, simply as a result of the length of the text. Joe Bucolo, while teaching high school freshman English, found it difficult to teach Great Expectations; he found that his students struggled and resisted his attempts: “Many students found the language difficult; others found it impossible to keep up with the reading assignments; still others believed that spending an entire quarter on a single work was simply too long” (33). And, Great Expectations is a rather short Dickens novel when compared to the rest of his work, and certainly a “short” novel when compared to the likes of Clarissa, Don Quixote, Tom Jones, War and Peace, etc. Certainly we can expect college students to carry a heavier reading-load than we can high school students, but even at the graduate level I hear moans and groans about books that are 600+ pages in length. But, as Bucolo points out, students have no problem rattling “off the plots of several years’ worth of Melrose Place or 90210 episodes at the drop of a hat,” or, I would add, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Big Bang Theory, etc (35).
The trick is to get them thinking about these bigger texts, whether Dickens or the English novel or comic books, as installments of their favorite shows. By breaking them down into pieces, and only engaging a small chunk at a time, students will form a relationship with the text that is otherwise lost in speed-reading. When students have completed the novel, they will feel as though they have, “achieved something ‘big’ by finally closing the book” (Bucolo 38). And, hopefully apply the lessons they’ve learned about slow-reading to their other studies. Bucolo found several other benefits to slowing down student reading that he hadn’t anticipated:
The depth of the students’ reading was incredible. In past years, I had to spend considerable time clarifying characters and plots. This time students had more time to read their assignments; as a result fewer plot questions arose, and we had time to actually discuss Dickens’s writing style, attention to sensory detail, and even his use of humor. (37)
When asked, “a whopping 92 percent of the students said, if Great Expectations stays in the curriculum, it should be studied in installments” (39). I would posit that by coupling Dickens with comic books, educators can show the continued relevance of the serial publication and how it has evolved over time. Though the trend in television appears to be to buck the traditional weekly episode and to novelize the series for binge consumption, classes need not follow that trajectory by hurrying through texts in an attempt to cover the most ground. Students will benefit from having the additional tool of “slow reading” in their critical reading toolbox, and with a little guidance, they will learn how and when to be implement it on their own.
(1) I acknowledge that putting Clarissa in the same boat as a Dickens’ novel isn’t really a fair comparison. Because, as Samuel Johnson and others have pointed out, people didn’t read Richardson “for the story,” but they most assuredly read Dickens for the story and for every twist and turn. In this instance, Dickens and Richardson only appear in the same mention due to the length of their novels and the difficulty of teaching one, let alone several, of them during the course of a semester.
(2) Admittedly, “close reading” was more about an extended extrapolation of the text, and just the text, than the kind of repeated re-reading that I will address within this essay.
(3) Dickens’ monthly serials were released in 32-page installments, additionally, comic books traditionally follow this format (usually 24 pages of text/image, and 8 pages of advertisements).
(4) See Janet McCabe and Kim Akass’s Quality TV (2007), Ava Collins’ “Intellectuals, power and quality television” (1993), and Mark Jancovich’s Quality Popular Television (2003).
(5) For a brief overview of Dickens (and other serial novelists) sales figures, see John Sutherland’s “The Fiction Earning Patterns of Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, and Trollope” (1979). For a much more exhaustive study of Dickens, see Robert Patten’s Charles Dickens and his Publishers (1978).
(6) The following were published as monthly serials: Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Edwin Drood. And, for the same of completeness, these were published as weekly serials: The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.
(7) For excellent information about Dickens and his serial publication, see John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson’s Dickens at Work (1968).
(8) At this point, only Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers have been released in Kindle Serials format.
(9) I have found no conclusive evidence to suggest that comic books borrowed from Dickens’ formula, but the coincidences seem to point in that direction.
(10) Other similar titles that would work well, include: Love and Rockets (1982-1996), The Invisibles (1994-2000), Y: The Last Man (2002-2008), Astro City (1995-2010), and The Walking Dead (2003-present).
(11) I recently purchased a copy of The Sandman #38 (cover price $1.50) for $2.99, #48 (cover price $1.75) for $2.99, and #74 (cover price $2.50) for $1.99.
(12) I performed a very unacademic search of the internet’s toplists, and these four were universally ranked among the top–in addition these are also the issues that stand out in my memory of the series.
(13) The World Fantasy Award has been awarded to authors who make an “outstanding achievement in the field of fantasy” since 1975. Gaiman won the award in 1991, and no other comic writer has won the award before or since. In brief, “Ramadan” is a story about storytelling (and functions very similarly to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells the story of how Dream (from The Sandman) commissions Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest; “Collectors” is about a convention for serial killers; and “The Sound of Her Wings” introduces the character Death to the series–its Dream’s younger happy-go-lucky sister.
(14) Just to be clear, they featured: 32 pages of text, 2 illustrations, and 16 pages of ads.
(15) I have yet to find a good scholarly text that collects the advertisements specifically found in Dickens, but there are several webpages that offer collections of “nineteenth-century serial novel advertisements.” These sites include images of ads for: cod liver oil, female wafers, children’s frocks, coats, and pelisses, copying machines, alpaca umbrellas, spine-straighteners, and female pills.
(16) This also seems to be the case with all other digital and collected comics that I’ve looked at. Perhaps as the comics’ scholarship field grows, there will be a move towards “complete” reproduction of these books. But, if the example of Dickens’ monthlies are any sign, the ads and letters’ pages might be lost.
(17) During Dickens’ time, it was popular for readers to take their monthlies to the printer who would then remove the ads and reassemble the monthly for them, or collect all the monthlies together as a bound edition of the novel. It’s possible that some libraries have originals with the ads included, but I reached out to several and struck out.
(18) “The sound of Her Wings” is part of the “Preludes and Nocturnes” story arc (issues 1-8); “Collectors” is part of the “The Doll’s House” story arc (issues 9-16); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is part of the “Dream Country” story arc (issues 17-20); and, “Ramadan” is its own story arc (issue 50).
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