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Comics Interview

Christina Blanch (Gender Through Comic Books) on teaching with comics

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Christina Blanch is a lecturer at Ball State University and a pioneer in teaching with comics. She is helming Instructure's Canvas Network forthcoming super massive open online course (MOOC) 'Gender Through Comic Books', which has attracted top comics creators including Mark Waid, Scott Snyder, Terry Moore and Stan Lee.

We spoke to Blanch about her experience of using comics in the classroom and the challenges that still face women in comics.

Gender Through Comic Books - Christina Blanch
Gender Through Comic Books - Christina Blanch


Tell us about your background and interest in comics.
"I started reading comics when I was little. I was always into a lot of geeky things. As soon as I saw Star Wars it changed my entire life. My goal was to be Han Solo. As happens to a lot of people, my interest waned in high school - at that time, other things take preference, like boys. It was not nearly as cool to be a geek back then.

"Then I got back into comics when I had my son and we started reading comics together. Now the entire family reads comics, goes to the comic store on Wednesdays, talks about comics over dinner and goes to conventions together. It's just something that's part of our lifestyle."

How did comics become a part of your academic career?
"I've always used popular culture in my classroom. A lot of people thought that I was crazy anyway before I started using comics. I use one of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation called 'Darmok' when I'm teaching language. The students love it - even the ones that don't like Star Trek. Sometimes I use Invader Zim and The Big Bang Theory - a lot of things to get the students engaged.

"I was teaching a section in anthropology about culture change, and as usual I had the students write a paper developing their own culture that is then struck by a major event. At the time I was reading Y: The Last Man. In it, all the males on the planet die in a moment except for one man and his monkey. It's like a gender textbook, because all of the different topics that we were talking about changing are represented there.

"I had noticed my students not reading their textbooks because most of them are very dry and boring. So I thought that this would be a good way to get them engaging with and reading about culture change.

"The next semester I decided to try it. It was amazing. The students were all engaged, they all read the material, they even read the textbook to make sure that they were getting things right. It started so much more conversation in the class. I did a study on it and one of the things that came out was that it was very social, and they talked about this outside of class and in other classes.

"So, from there I went on and used The Walking Dead, Doctor Strange and recently, when I did my Gender Through Comics class, all of our textbooks were comic books."

What is the unique value of using comics as teaching tools?
"I think one is that when people see a comic, it relaxes them - it's not a textbook. It's something different. If everybody used comics, it wouldn't be that way. It takes the students a little off guard, and I think that makes them curious.

"Two, in a lot of learning theories you can only process so many things to one time - anywhere from four to seven - but when you have something with a word and picture combined, that one counts as one schema, so you're only processing that one thing and you get so much more information out of it.

"It also uses both sides of your brain, which helps with recall, memorising and retention, so you're engaging the whole brain, not just one side of it, as you would when reading or listening. It's something that really engages the students in all sorts of ways. And they're fun."

Gender Through Comic Books - Christina Blanch


What has the response from educators been?
"It's mixed. One person who gave me a really hard time for using comics, after the first semester and seeing the results, decided to use comics. Some people still look at me like I'm crazy. There are other instructors who have wanted me to start teaching how to use comics in their classes. They're really interested and have started looking at comics in a new way.

How do you feel about the state of gender representation in comics?
"I think there are still some issues about gender in comics. The recent 'fake geek girl' argument is an insult. If we're going to say there are 'fake geek girls' then there must be 'fake geek boys' too. If I am going to wear an X-Men t-shirt, do I have to know everything about them? Because I can guarantee you most people don't. I think it's silly and I think it's bad for the industry.

"As one of their activities my students have to read a comic book in a very public place and pay attention to what people are saying and doing around them. With only one exception, no gentleman in my class was spoken to, but most of the females had stories. A college professor said to one of my students after a conversation, 'I'm glad you girls are able to read that kind of stuff now'. There are still the stereotypes out there. My friend who runs a comics store says that his customers will say to women, 'Wow, you read comics?' It's very frustrating.

"But, I think that we're making progress - that's thanks to creators like Colleen Doran, Gail Simone and Louise Simonson. I think it's mostly the big companies that don't have a lot of female creators, because if you go to artist alley at any comic-con I would say it's 50/50 men and women making comics. There is still room for improvement, but we're getting there."

Do you think there are any changes that need to come from inside the industry?
"There needs to be more women creators. Maybe there aren't enough women applying, but I would like to see that. A lot of this is happening already, like in Captain Marvel, they have given Ms Marvel a complete makeover so that her costume is practical and she doesn't look like a prostitute. It's wonderful, and it's written by a woman.

"I don't think you have to be a woman to write a woman, just like a think you don't have to be a man to write a man, but I do think you need to represent men and women equally. I think if Superman's going to be completely covered, why can't Supergirl be completely covered?

"It's a touchy subject and I don't agree with the excuse that these are fantasy books. They also are real to a lot of people, so I think that representations need to be equal."

Instructure's Canvas Network Super MOOC course 'Gender Through Comic Books' will launch on April 2.

Watch the Stan Lee-narrated 'Gender Through Comic Books' teaser video below:

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