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History of Comic-Book Art

Written by Andrei Molotiu

NOTEThis page contains only the introduction to this class; the syllabus itself, as well as related materials can be downloaded as a PDF document at the bottom of the page

Course Level: College

Course Objective: Appreciation of the artistic and formal dimensions of comics in their historical context.

Andrei Molotiu has been one of the earliest professors of art history to teach a course on the history of American comics. In the materials he kindly shares with NACAE readers, you will find a syllabus with a schedule, assignment set and a reading list. In addition, he includes essay topics and topics for papers and homework. He teaches at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.



I offered this course–Art History H 150–at Indiana University, Bloomington, five times between 2002 and 2004. When I was first put in charge of it, I was given nothing but its title and the complete freedom to shape it as I wished. As it was an introductory-level course, I decided not to be too literal about the title’s exact wording (“Comic-Book Art”), but to make it into a general introduction to comics, with of course higher attention paid to the medium’s visual elements as befits a course taught within an art history program. The stronger emphasis on the visual was also meant to compensate for the more text-oriented tendencies of such courses when offered in English, Comp Lit, or Cultural Studies programs.

I chose not to make the course a straight historical survey. However, as I wanted the students to be able to locate all comics under discussion in their proper place within the medium’s development, I decided to open with a brief, week-long survey covering the medium’s rise from the time of Töpffer to the present. During the first couple of weeks I also introduced such basic concepts as “penciller,” “inker,” “letterer;” thumbnails, breakdown, layout; and the three systems (Marvel, DC, and EC) of getting from a bare plotline to a finished comic-book. I presented these last not only for their historical value, but to indicate the various ways that even a single cartoonist (putting on, at times, the mantle of writer, penciller, etc.) can conceptualize and organize the creation of a comic.

After this introduction, the first half of the class was largely organized around readings from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Over the five semesters of teaching this course, my lectures grew from simple expositions of McCloud’s text to expansions and, occasionally, corrections of his theories.  However, I never gave up Understanding Comics as a textbook, as I find it provides an excellent introduction to analyzing how comics function formally.

At the end of the first half of the course, we studied all the concepts introduced during the previous weeks as applied to one text that we read in depth. On the occasion of the course (Spring 2004) whose syllabus I offer here, the object of analysis was a set of Spirit short stories by Will Eisner. At other times I used Koike and Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, vol. 1, and Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald.

To supplement the various notions introduced by McCloud, I tried to develop the existing vocabulary for the formal analysis of comics by adapting and systematizing concepts from film and literary theory. Most of these appear in the “List of Terms” reproduced here (and which originally was a list of the terms students were expected to know for the midterm exam). I suspect that this list, which could of course be expanded further, may be this course’s most important contribution to the study of comics.

The second half of the course shifted, so to speak, from form to content. I decided to cover two important aspects of the history of American comics: the development of the notion of the superhero, and alternative comics. Again, I varied my texts from semester to semester, alternating, for example, Watchmen with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns–and at other times using as texts Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets X or a number of short stories by Jaime.

My presentation of the rise of the superhero began even before the Golden Age, with the early reception of Nietzsche in America, with the Leopold and Loeb case (as also discussed in Dan Clowes’ Eightball 22, a.k.a. Ice Haven) as an episode in the history of that reception, and with Siegel and Shuster’s early (1933) fanzine story “The Reign of the Superman” as itself a response to the Nietzschean discourse. Further analysis of canonical texts, from Action Comics no. 1 to the Ditko Amazing Spider-Man to Watchmen, read them as additional entries in the same continuing philosophical debate, and also traced their increasing complexity through a Bakhtinian prism, as an evolution from the epic to the novel. I should add that my reading of popular-culture texts as philosophically potent was largely inspired by the work of Stanley Cavell, and especially his analyses of Hollywood comedies and melodramas.

During the semester presented here, I decided to limit my discussion of alternative comics to the autobiographical variety. This allowed for a more focused discussion, providing the opportunity for the investigation of all texts from the same philosophical perspective, in this case an inquiry into the relationship between narrative and truth, and the possibility of “authenticity.” Many of the texts I chose problematize this very notion, especially Seth’s It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weakenwhich, as most readers of this note will know, is a fictional tale disguised as autobiography. As such, the genre can be seen to develop its own self-reflective critique.

Given the practical and temporal limitations of a one-semester course, I believe that such a distribution of topics best functions to introduce the students to the widest range of issues, both formal and thematic, in the study of comics. I hope you will agree. I should add that an invaluable teaching tool is a (password-restricted) electronic reserve containing scans of as wide a variety as possible of comics. This allows for, say, a single short story to be taught, and limits the number of textbooks the students are asked to buy, which can quickly become prohibitively expensive.

(Contributed by Andrei Molotiu, University of Louisville, Kentucky)

Download attachment: History of Comic Book Art