What I’ve Learned from Comics: The College Years

The undergrads are back on campus, classes are happening, and I’m thinking about comics. Specifically, how comics influenced my own education. A lot of weeks I try to use this column to teach the reader some aspect of science. It’s fun for me, hones my explanatory skills, and is (usually) a nice source of positive feedback during my Wednesday. But what about the things I’ve learned FROM comics? Well that is a horse of a different color.

I honestly wasn’t an avid comic reader until college, perhaps a little late to the game but my college town was the first place I’d lived that had a dedicated comic book shop where I could go and socially interact with fellow fans. So while I read some comics as a kid and probably learned a thing or two then, my thoughts here will focus on the collegiate.

As I was catching up on a lot of the new superheroic offerings and starting to dip my toe into Vertigo I was also taking classes. My schedule was invariably two hardcore science classes and one “fun” class, usually taken to fulfill some esoteric liberal arts requirement (which I am eternally grateful for). If it seems like a small course load blame the quarter system.

Everyone knows about Kakalios and his Physics of Superheroes class and book but I took all my physics courses my freshman year, I started out school as an Astrophysics major, and there were no superheroes to be found. I love the idea of using superheroes, or comics more generally, to teach science, but physics, and maybe psychology, might be the only disciplines capable of using our favorite four-color characters for purposes of pedagogy. So any comic related learning for me would be from outside the realm of science.

One quarter I had a composition requirement to fulfill. I’d passed some long-forgotten entrance exam so I had the opportunity to take a class above the level of remedial and there were a lot of different choices, but for me it was a no brainer. The course was called “Not just funny animals or superheroes.” A course where we read comics, discussed them, and then wrote about them! It was like an analog iFanboy.

The class was full of a broader spectrum than I’d expected. There were a few guys there for the superheroes (even though we’d been told there wouldn’t be any), but there were also the goth-esque Johnny the Homicidal Maniac / Invader Zim archetype, the manga people, and of course a few people for whom this was the only available course.

Our professor was one Farnaz Fatemi, easily one of the most influential teachers I had during undergrad. I could probably write an entire column singing her praises, but I’ll hold back that flood for now. Suffice it to say she forever changed the way I read comics and the way I write about everything.

But I’m sure you’re wondering, if we weren’t reading superheroes or funny animals, just what were we reading?! I can’t remember the exact order of the books, but here’s the list if you’re feeling like keeping up at home: Understanding Comics, Persepolis, Blankets, Same Difference and Other Stories, and In the Shadow of No Towers. I hope I’m not forgetting anything, but that’s a pretty intense list regardless.

Understanding Comics was eye-opening, as anyone who’s ever read it can attest. Persepolis ignited a love for autobiographical comics that I hold to this day. Blankets felt like reading my own life in an all-to-emo way, whereas Same Difference and Other Stories felt much more like reading the life of a Californian, a culture I was still just learning to understand. And In the Shadow of No Towers felt uncomfortably voyeuristic for more reasons than I’d like to go into, but the backmatter with the old reprinted newspaper strips was glorious and showed that even from their humble beginnings those old strip artists could bring some serious heat.

But it wasn’t just how I felt, it was about craft and story-telling and discussing that with others, which was the bulk of the course. And the discussions weren’t too bad. Mostly intellectual, well-moderated, and generally helpful while thinking about the material. Although I’ll never forget the day where instead of discussing the book we’d been reading we were instead given several 4-panel Calvin and Hobbes strips and asked to put the panels back in the correct order. Even for a masterful story-teller like Waterson, this was a surprising yet engaging challenge. Try it yourself sometime with your friends!

The latter part of the class focused on a writing a research paper. Any guesses what I wrote about? Did anyone guess “how the space race and the comics code drove comics towards sci-fi?” If so, then you’re right! That’s exactly what I wrote about. It was almost like I was training to write all these columns. I’ve often thought about finding that paper to post here, but I’m far too scared or how much editing it might need before I’d consider it worth showing to the public. Perhaps with enough public outcry I’d feel more motivated *wink wink*.

I think some version of the class is still being taught. After Farnaz learned I was writing for iFanboy she actually asked me to come back and talk to the class about writing about comics, which I was of course thrilled to do. The class may have even let a few superheroes slip into the curriculum, mainly because my best bud Jesse, whom I met in that very class, wrote his paper explaining why Watchmen deserved the academic treatment as much as anything else we’d read that quarter. Seeing as he’s a better writer than I, he actually convinced Farnaz to reconsider her ban on capes and cowls.

So that’s what I learned from comics while in college, nothing scientific, just how to read, how to talk, and how to write about comics; perfect training for a site like this. So next time you’re thinking of telling me how much you enjoyed one of my columns (a rarity to be sure) perhaps you should thank Farnaz instead, I know I do.


Ryan Haupt kind of hopes Farnaz doesn’t read this, if only because it took him so many columns to get around to publicly thanking her, not to mention what  she might think of the quality of the writing. Hear him wax equally poetic about science each week on the podcast Science… sort of.


  1. Thank you Farnaz.

  2. I was able to take a sequential communications class back in Art School that was similar to what you describe and It was required for almost all majors. It was taught by an art historian and we looked at a lot of film, but mostly used comics for about half the class. We studied things like The Spirit comic strips, moebius and so on. We focused on learning visual ques and techniques for sequence. How to move through a story without relying on language or sound. For my midterm i had to write a 15 page paper describing in depth how Frank Miller moved us through 4 pages of The Dark Knight Returns (i picked the part where he’s in the tank) using different sequential techniques and devices. It forced me to sit back and analyze the very things that my brain recognized as comic vernacular and break those pages down to a level i had never considered before. It was kind of weird and refreshing at the same time.

    That one class started me on the road back into comics.

    • That’s awesome! And reminds me that I forgot to ask folks for their own experiences with comics as education. Let’s hear ’em folks!

    • yeah i’ve found that comics are being taught at a lot more universities nowadays as well as in art schools. kinda interesting and you’re seeing more graphic novels and trades as class reading.

  3. I would love to read that paper Ryan. It would be really cool to study something like this at uni; it would be such a nice change from my usual genetics-based coursework.

  4. Great article, Ryan. It’s nice to see comics getting respect at that level. Man, I took a science fiction literature course and thought I was lucky. We didn’t have any comics courses back in the stone age!

  5. Great to hear that someone else got into reading comics due to a college course, because that’s exactly how I started reading as well. Understanding Comics was a required book for a design class I took at Carnegie Mellon (as part of the drama school, need to give them their shoutout as well), and from that I decided to try out a graphic novel and it’s been all downhill from there.

  6. As a college instructor and comic book reader from way back, I really appreciate and can relate to that one teacher who made a difference. I’ve taught a survey course on rhetorical criticism and I’ve always included a section on comic books. I use Understanding Comics and we study the DC Batman comic they did with the UN to help make people aware of the problems created by land mines. When it works it’s great to see the students realize there’s more than just capes and cowls. Thanks again for yet another smart article, Ryan.

  7. Great article, Ryan. I’ve been trying to get my partner, who is a HS English teacher at an all-boys school to use some sequential storytelling in his class but the problem is that many of the books are either too expensive (Asterios Polyp), have too mature themes (Fun Home, Pride of Baghdad) or off-color language (I Kill Giants, Ex Machina). He would also prefer books that haven’t been adapted to other media like Watchmen.

    I had been reading comics for decades before I read Understanding Comics and it really opened my eyes – especially about the things we take for granted in how the stories are told.

  8. honestly, probably the only ifanboy writer whose articles i always read, and probably the only that i actually leave comments on. great stuff as always

    • You’re missing out, there is an embarrassment of riches with how good the rest of the staff is every single week. Click around, you might find something new and fun!

  9. Ryan, though I’ve already been gratified by watching where you’ve taken yourself since your undergrad years, it was great to hear the way the class has stayed with you. I am humbled by your gratitude for it. As a teacher, your column couldn’t come at a better time: the quarter starts in two weeks and all the familiar monsters and choruses of questions and second-guesses are going through my head; a reminder about the pleasure that comes from sustained focus, enthusiastic reading, and the pursuit of ever-better writing is a shot in my arm. There is so much rich, provocative, unique, and visually and verbally stunning work being made in the comics world all the time — it continues to be a source of pleasure to understand how those things got so good. Keep up your great work. And here’s to more conversations about it all.

  10. Heart warmed. I also think it’s high time “how the space race and the comics code drove comics towards sci-fi?” saw the light of day again.

  11. nice

  12. I would love to take a class like this. If they had it at my college I would have signed up for it in a heartbeat. The local junior college has an English class on comics but it is only offered during the day when I work so it is off in the distant someday taunting me semester after semsester. I envy you the great experience you had with a subject we all love.