Over the past two years, I have taught both graduate and undergraduate courses on comics. Many of the comics read by my students were digital, available through Google Play, Amazon, Comixology, or digital comic archives. And while some comic authors such as Craig Thompson resist digitizing their work, I believe that the comics medium is uniquely suited for digital environments. In fact, my recent comics course syllabus has drawn heavily on digital comics, which in turn has shaped my teaching.

Getting Digital Comics: Apps, E-books, Archives, and DIY

comix_logoThe best way to read digital comics is through a media tablet with a high resolution screen such as the iPad Retina, loaded with apps from each book vendor. There are a number of comics apps that deliver a wide number of titles, but the most extensive is Comixology. Comixology offers thousands of titles from DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, and other mainstream publishers. Signing up for an account is free; the comics range in cost, depending on the issue or the collection. The latest issue of The Walking Dead, for example, runs $2.99. You can manage your purchases on the Comixology web site or through the Comixology app (IOS or Android) itself. One downfall of Comixology: all of the issues are stored in the cloud, so you never really own the files. On the plus side, you never have to worry about being unable to read the format.

viz_logoManga, the name of the immensely popular Japanese comic style, is widely available on the web, but most of the web sites and apps offer copyrighted material and are definitely illegal, as Chris Adamson notes in his critique of the Apple store’s ongoing support of pirated Manga. Sites/apps such as Manga Rock, Manga Stream, Manga Fox, and others rely on user scans to provide enormous archives of free Manga. But to stay legal, avoid these archives and download from legitimate Manga publishers such as Viz Manga and Yen Press, where most issues are relatively inexpensive. Viz Media offers multi-platform support, as do other mainstream Manga publisher. For a good list of these publishers, see this compilation by The Organization of Anti-Social Geniuses.

Most major book retailers have collections of comics and graphic novels available for purchase. Whether a distributor has a digital version of a given comic depends on the author, the publishing company, and the vendor, so it is hit and miss if you are looking for an individual title. The Google Play Book Store, for example, has Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, which was originally published by a small press, as well as a small collection of comics from DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Viz, and others. Amazon has a larger library of digitized comic books and graphic novels for its Kindle Reader, including titles such as Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner that Google does not carry. Barnes and Noble seems to have the largest digital comic library. All of these retailers offer apps for Android and IOS.

daredevil_logoIf you interested in older comics from the Golden Age, there are excellent archives on the web. Both the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus contain thousands of user-scanned comics from the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s. Both sites also claim their content is legal. In some cases, this seems true, as in the Daredevil #1 pictured here, whose original publisher (Lev Gleason) has been defunct since 1956. In other cases, though, the publishing company is still in operation, making the claim a little suspect. It’s probably safest to pay attention to the Fair Use exceptions outlined below.

A final way to get digital content is to create your own version to distribute to your students. Remember that distributing copies of a copyrighted work is illegal under U.S. copyright law. Under the auspices of Academic Fair Use, however, you can distribute digital copies of a work for one-time, educational use, provided you keep the copy within a course management system and limit the total amount of copied material to 10 percent. If no digital version of the comic is available, you can use a high resolution scanner to scan pages and a PDF creator to assemble them. This can take a long time. A better solution is to purchase a digital copy of the comic and take screen shots (with your tablet) of the pages you want to share. Upload your images to Dropbox or another share/sync service and put them together with your PDF creator.

Pedagogy: Comic Resources and Practices

mccloud_logoOver the past decade, graphic novels have become popular in many academic settings, leading to a spate of professional books on how to teach them. Of the many offerings, I recommend Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels by James Bucky Carter, one of the earliest and most compelling advocates for comics within the broader field of literacy education. Still, most of my teaching approaches comes from two key books: Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Eisner is the pioneer of the graphic novel genre, of course, and the first to articulate a formalist understanding of the medium in Comics and Sequential Arts. McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a more detailed and nuanced formal analysis of comics. Taken together, these two works equip a teacher (and students) to read comics more critically, providing a vocabulary for discourse of comics criticism.

critical_logoAnd speaking of comics criticism, the emerging field of comics studies is a good place to start for culturally relevant analysis of comics. I like the online journal ImageText for accessible articles, and I also draw on two outstanding collections of criticism: A Comics Studies Reader edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester and Critical Approaches to Comics: Theory and Methods edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. Both collections contain provocative and current articles from a wide range of sociocultural perspectives.

Central to teaching comics at any level is visual analysis, by which I mean careful examination of the structure and content of a given page or panel. Ideally, this analysis happens both individually and collectively. My students use a WordPress blog to post about meaningful or important images/pages/panels. To do so, they embed a screen capture of the page in their post, discussing it with the vocabulary provided by McCloud and Eisner (e.g. line, gutter, perspective).

In class, we view and discuss pages as a large group. With a digital copy of the comic on my iPad, I connect it directy to the projector and flip from page to page as students guide the discussion. An alternative is to upload screenshots from the iPad to Dropbox, which can then be accessed through the instructor station. Of course, schools with Apple TV can connect wirelessly to the screen. For a kind of poor man’s Apple TV, you can install Air Server on your laptop, hook up your laptop to the projector, and then stream images from your iPad, which already has Air Server, to the laptop and onto the projector. The key thing is getting the image on screen.

Composing Comics: Apps and Software

bitstrip_logoWhen I teach comics, I require that students compose their own short comic strips in response to course readings. I think this helps students 1) understand the process of translating ideas into verbal/visual representation; 2) apply the vocabulary and ideas they have learned about the comics medium through the comics medium 3) explore a creative realm that is typically off-limits and 4) learn more about composing software that they may use with their own students in the future.

There is no shortage of apps and software for creating comics. For a comprehensive review, check out this piece at Top Ten Reviews. For teaching purposes, I recommend free online services such as Bitstrips (app version available), Pixton (which offers a pricing plan for educators), and Toondoo. While all three of these services yield somewhat generic-looking end results, students can choose from a variety of characters, backgrounds, and more (see this excellent example by Amanda). The most important part, I think, is the ability to final embed the comic elsewhere–in a class blog, social network, or weebly, for instance. I have yet to find a really good comic creation app for the iPad, so my recommendation is to stick with web-based services for now.

This post was created for the 2014 GVSU Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium.