by Caroline Juterbock ’10 and Paul Kuhlman ’11
If you were to ask the typical college student what they thought a standard English class should consist of, chances are you would not hear the phrase “graphic narrative.” So perhaps it is fitting that Dickinson College, not one to promote typical college students, offered “Graphic Narratives 101” this past spring. Taught by Professor Ball, the class was meant to give a deeper understanding of the often misunderstood art of combining pictures and text. Perceived by many to be only for squeamish adolescents, the class learned of various authors’ struggles to break free of this stereotype and to show the unique expression of graphic narratives. From texts ranging from graphic memoirs to an illustrated adaptation of the 9/11 Report, students were able to analyze the basic elements of graphic narrative: interpreting everything from the author’s style of drawing to something as subtle as where text is placed or how the angle of a scene’s composition affects meaning. Of course as students, we were only observers and could not completely comprehend such details without asking the author ourselves. Luckily enough for the students, the Dean of the College, the English department, the American Studies department, and the Program in Women’s Studies all decided that they would assist us on this matter.
In early April, acclaimed graphic novelist, Alison Bechdel, stopped at Dickinson College to discuss her graphic novel Fun Home with Professor Ball’s “Graphic Narratives” class and Professor O’Brien’s “Memoir/Personal Essay” seminar. Bechdel’s visit was synchronized with each class’ reading of her much-admired graphic novel. Fun Home, a seven-year work of literary art, is an autographical "tragicomic" of Bechdel’s childhood, focusing on her complex relationship with her father and her struggle and eventual acceptance of her sexual orientation. Fun Home, which is often controversial and edgy, sparked questions in every reader’s mind. Similar to most graphic novels, there is plenty of room in Fun Home for different interpretations of the text and each panel on each page. During Bechdel’s two hour-long discussion sessions, she was bombarded with questions concerning everything from the significance of the literary allusions she used to describe the relationships within her family, to the organization and composition of panels on the page, to even the daring publication of her erotic autobiography. Bechdel’s visit gave each student the chance to have a personal conversation with the highly praised author, and to discover the sometimes darker and deeper side of graphic narratives.