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Pow! Juniata Professors Take On Comic Books and American Culture

(Posted March 5, 2007)

Jay Hosler, who is a nationally known comic book author and artist, has teamed up with historian Dave Hsiung to teach a course at Juniata called Comic Books and Culture.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- When little boys and girls were huddled beneath the covers reading the latest issues of Batman, Fantastic Four, Archie or Classics Illustrated, they weren\'t just looking at comic books, According to two professors at Juniata College, comic book readers were and are delving into intriguing keys to American history and culture. Exploring how comic books reflected American history, values and culture is the mission of the new Juniata course Comics and Culture, taught by David Hsiung, professor of history, and Jay Hosler, associate professor of biology. The course, which runs through this spring semester, traces the history of comic books from the 1930s, when such costume-clad heroes as Superman and Batman emerged, through to the present day. \"As a historian, I\'m using comic books as a primary source, the same way I would use a letter or a diary or a civic record,\" says Hsiung, who has had a lifelong interest in comics. Indeed, he asked his advisors if he could do his undergraduate senior thesis at Yale on the environmental history reflected in the 1960s and 1970s DC Comics publications Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Yale turned him down. Biologist Hosler is teaching the course through his perspective as a comic book author and artist. He has been a working cartoonist since his undergraduate days at DePauw University and has published two critically well-received comic book series, \"Clan Apis,\" a pictorial biography of the life cycle of a bee, and \"The Sandwalk Adventures,\" the story of a follicle mite who lives in the eyebrow of evolution pioneer Charles Darwin. \"I have made comics for 10 years and it largely has been on gut instinct, I haven\'t really looked at the formal structure of comic books,\" says Hosler, who is currently working on a sensory biology textbook written entirely in comic book form. \"After teaching this course and hearing reactions from students to historical comic books, I can look at my own work and be inspired to try new things.\" The dynamic teaching duo already is trying new teaching methods. Each student in the class, as well as Hsiung, will write and draw a two-page comic book. Near the end of the course, Hosler will publish the collection as a mini-comic at his publishing company, Active Synapse. The entire class will take the comic to the Pittsburgh Comic Convention on April 27 to gauge reaction to their work. The course starts by studying Superman, the most popular comic book of the 1930s, and tracing the historical development of the character. \"In the first editions Superman is more of a \'big brother\' figure than a crime fighter,\" Hosler says. \"In fact in some stories he was breaking laws such as tearing open a police paddy wagon to rescue a boy who had been harassed.\" The course will cover the rise of Batman in the \'40s and the emergence of \"super\" war heroes such as Captain America, who fought Nazis and even punched Adolf Hitler in one comic. Topics to be covered also include the horror and science fiction comics of the 1950s and the emergence of the Marvel superheroes such as Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, who had personal problems that made their stories more accessible to teen readers. The course also addresses some of the efforts by Marvel competitor DC Comics to make their superheroes, like the Green Lantern and Green Arrow, more socially relevant. The professors also invited an acclaimed comic book writer to speak on campus. Denny O\'Neil, who wrote many of the Green Lantern \"socially relevant\" stories as well as remaking the image of Batman and Superman in the 1960s and 1970s, will speak at a date to be announced later in the spring. Finally, the course will examine the independent comics movement that started in the 1960s and continues today. The class will read such seminal works as artist Robert Crumb\'s work in Zap! comics, the \"Watchmen\" comic series written by Alan Moore, and two relatively recent books, \"How to Be an Artist\" by Eddie Campbell, and a young-adult graphic novel called \"American Born Chinese,\" by Gene Yang. The course also will address how comic books affect popular culture and how popular culture has affected the subject matter of various comic books. \"One interesting trend is that readership of comic books has gotten older,\" Hosler explains. \"The average age of readers is about 30 and now you\'ll see ads for Honda Civics in comics.\" Hsiung hopes that the Juniata students taking the course might continue reading comic books beyond their time in class. He certainly hasn\'t quit reading comic books himself. \"It has allowed me to tap into something I have always been interested in,\" Hsiung says. \"It blends my vocation with an avocation. I hope that carries over to the students.\"

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.