Teaching Alias the Cat!

November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

I enjoyed writing my 10 point guide to teaching The Guild, and so I thought I’d do one for Kim Deitch’s Alias the Cat! as well, as my first quarter of teaching popular culture draws to a close. I should note that I used this graphic novel as one of two main textbooks for the course, along with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. That is, I tried to use it as a textbook, assigning readings from it gradually, and allowing plot developments and shifts in narration to determine our lines of inquiry in class discussion, rather than using an edited “reading popular culture” collection. I feared that a reader might instruct us to divide up our time by audiences — say, two weeks on gender, two on race; or by form — say, two weeks on reality television, two on soaps. And I wanted to talk extensively about audience and form, of course, but I thought it would be cool to ground our understanding of both in the narrative trajectory of a protagonist-fan, namely, “Kim Deitch” in Alias the Cat!. This would, I hoped, both prevent me from accidentally turning my survey popular culture course into a literature course, as well as from making any particular week seem like a “token” topic. I hoped that creating a symbiotic relationship between the course text and the various methods of reading it we acquired over the quarter would keep the course interesting, and ensure that I wasn’t asking students simply to clarify their opinions about popular culture, but rather creating an environment in which we would be reading it together. I think it’s been a worthwhile experiment, and so I’m happy to share my experience with anyone who’s interested.

1) Assign McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I read Understanding Comics in a visual culture class in college and absolutely loved it. It made me feel completely welcome in the world of comics, which had previously felt like the domain of the geeky boys who I was friends with, but kept me out of their circle. I rightly assumed that many of the students in my class would not already be comics fans or consider themselves insiders or knowing readers of the form, and so I figured McCloud would catch them up that first week. Little did I realize that the students in this particular class would make the most out of McCloud by using Deitch’s aesthetic to critique the social politics of McCloud’s expert rhetoric. In any case, I do think that it’s important to “catch people up” on forms that are still subcultural — otherwise you’re just arbitrarily privileging students who share your taste, which, while pleasant for those few, is not really the best pedagogy.

2) Show the first ten minutes of the Lost pilot. The main thing I love about Alias the Cat! is that it tells an incredibly engaging history of transmedia storytelling in the United States that traverses the whole 20th century. I wanted to pre-emptively debunk the myth that transmedia storytelling is “new,” but before I did that, I wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page about how awesome transmedia storytelling has been in the last ten years. And so, I decided to talk about Lost. For one thing, I assumed that more of them would be familiar with it than Deitch (which was true), and that tv would be a more comfortable medium for them to close-read than comics, at least at first (it kind of was). And so, we watched the first ten minutes of the Lost pilot, as well as engaging with the commentary, Lostpedia, and a Lost screencaps site. The screencap site proved especially instructive, because it gave me a space to talk about sequential reading practices across forms, as well as encourage students to include images in their essays. There are also a lot of weird parallels between the first ten minutes of Lost and the first section of Alias the Cat: in medias res intro, focalization around a white male protagonist, shocking violent imagery, and a “primitive” island setting, to name a few.

3) Assign Adorno’s “How to Look at Television” essay. I know, I know, adornofangirl strikes again. But it’s a good essay and offers a great model of close-reading the sit com for the 21st century knowing reader. Adorno provides a great argument for simultaneously discussing the readerly expectations that go into a genre television show or sit com, while also valuing moments of completely subjective interpretation of phenomena. In order to test his theory about “sensitive men” in television, I showed the Friends episode “The One With the Metaphorical Tunnel” and talked about my reading of Chandler and heterosexual melancholy. Because Deitch’s storyworld is so unapologetically queer, I thought I would show the Friends episode in order to demonstrate how a queer reading practice can be helpful in reading texts from dominant culture as well as particular artistic subcultures.

4) Assign sections from Georgina Kleege’s Sight Unseen. I knew that I wanted to talk about disability and representation, and I thought that it would be especially worth talking about visual culture and perspective in the context of Deitch, who came out of a particularly psychedelic moment in underground comix. Additionally, I thought that Kleege’s blind film criticism would provide a nice model with which to think through the particularities of the visual culture archive, which Deitch believes contain the key to understanding history. Because I knew that disability studies, too, would be new to many students, I showed Angel 1.21, “Blind Date,” because that episode systematically presents the litany of stereotypes that constitute blind characters in much of popular culture. I’m always convinced that popular culture is best apprehended from the outside, or at least with the help of an outside paradigm — and so, I think we need Kleege to watch the Angel episode, just as we need queer studies to understand Friends, and we need McCloud to understand Deitch.

5) Assign Henry Jenkins’s chapter on Spoiling Survivor, from Convergence Culture. I didn’t want to introduce Jenkins’s narrative of convergence culture too early on in the course, because I’m so struck by Deitch’s larger historical scale, and refusal to ally himself to digital culture, but I of course think that Jenkins is a necessary interlocutor in any course on reading popular culture. I particularly like this chapter, especially when paired with Part Two of Alias the Cat!, which is a fictionalized history of the thin line between fantasy and reality in an imaginary early film serial, which may tell us an alternate story about the role popular culture might play in world historical conflicts. The Survivor spoilers, like the characters who inhabit Part Two, are playing an elaborate game on a global scale, and I’d hoped that it would be one that was more accessible to students than early film serial culture on its own.

6) That said, dig up some early film serials, using Part Two of Alias the Cat! as a guide. On this day, I brought in simply a list of links I could find, of remnants on YouTube and other sites of The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine, and The Tiger’s Trail. We talked about what gets lost in popular culture and why, as well as talking about why Deitch chose fiction in which to document his encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture from early 20th Century America. On this day, I tried to convince students that one of the implicit arguments Deitch is making is one for us to become archivists of what we think is important in our moment, because much of it will otherwise be lost. It may be lost anyway, because of how quickly things change, but there’s no reason not to try to preserve it if we think it matters. This was really an attempt to convince them that their Archival Research Projects, which I instructed them to pursue at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library, were important. I’d never assigned such a project before, but I felt like Deitch forced me to in this context.

7) Show The Boondocks episode “The Real,” as well as assigning a selection of comics. One of Deitch’s obsessions is animation and its non-Disney historical possibilities, and so I wanted to explore the Adult Swim world of animation as a test case for an enactment of that. I also assumed that students might be more familiar with this series, because college students like cartoons. (At least the ones I hung out with in college did.) In any case, this episode is also particularly good in the context of Alias the Cat! because it is about how “major” figures in popular culture become major, as opposed to others. The episode gave us an opportunity also to talk about some things we hadn’t gotten around to yet, like voice acting, animation versus live action, and collaborative authorship. Looking at McGruder’s own place in the history of comics also helped us to flesh out the particularity of the medium, and the difference between writing graphic novels and syndicated newspaper strips.

8 ) Show BtVS 6.17 while introducing Alias the Cat! Part Three. I really can’t talk about why, because I want people to read this post, but really, just do it. It will blow everyone’s mind.

9) Talk about The Guild. We’ve been over this..

10) Imagine the world otherwise.

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