Even if he’d landed in another college town, Michael Chaney figures he eventually would have written some version of Reading Lessons in Seeing, his freshly-minted, 200-page exploration of autobiographical graphic novels.
Dartmouth College’s chairman of African and African-American studies just can’t imagine enjoying the journey as much if he hadn’t arrived in the Upper Valley in 2005 as an assistant professor of English, with the freedom to teach, research and write about subjects ranging from slave narratives to the evolution and impact of media as old as graphic novels and as new as Instagram.
“It was a series of happy accidents,” Chaney, who lives in White River Junction, said on Wednesday, during an interview in his English-Department office in Sanborn Hall. “There’s the proximity of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River. It was just budding as a resource.
“And I came here thinking that Dr. Seuss was here as an undergraduate.”
Throw in a faculty full of colleagues with what he calls “a creative spirit tinged with critical eyes” to read and analyze the early drafts of his essays, plus allies such as Spanish professor and poet Ana Merino, and the Ohio-born Chaney was feeling right at home.
“Ana was a big advocate for comics, and their importance culturally and as an educational tool,” Chaney recalled of Merino, who now runs the master’s degree program in Spanish creative writing at the University of Iowa. “We were academic soldiers for comics at Dartmouth.”
Growing up near Cleveland, Chaney said, he discovered the X-Men series of comic books about a team of mutants with superpowers, around the age of 8.
“My literacy is due in large part to my interest in comics,” Chaney said. “When other kids did sports, I was reading comics and coming across these words I’d never heard, like ‘sibilant,’ in the context of a sentence like ‘The alien tentacle emitted a sibilant hiss as the laser struck it.’ And you wonder, What the heck does ‘sibilant’ mean? Those kinds of passages sent me to the dictionary again and again.”
The fascination with graphic novels followed Chaney through his high school years, his undergraduate education at Miami University in Ohio in the mid-1990s, and a hiatus between Miami and graduate school that he spent painting murals for pay. Yet he didn’t picture the use of comics as an educational tool until he arrived at Indiana University in the early 2000s to pursue his doctorate in English.
“I was teaching first-year composition, and I encouraged them to look at film and advertising, not just literature, as a focus for their critical reading,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow: how about comics?’ I would ask them to analyze the nature of sequences in the graphic novel: What is it about something that comes to us in a series, and how does it make us think and process information and our own experience?”
That notion kept percolating through Chaney’s teaching and scholarly research and writing, in concert with the rise of social media, after he landed at Dartmouth.
“The coincidence of that shift in culture from analog-based to screens was just starting when I was in graduate school,” Chaney said. “The culture was becoming image-saturated, and for a while we had no idea how widespread the small screen would become, and how impactful it would be on our sense of identity. … We weren’t noticing, as a culture, how screens were defining what we see.
“With comics, I could talk about these issues with tactile, tangible examples.”
In addition to the works of such contemporary cartoonists as Art Spiegelman (the Maus series), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Vermont-resident Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Chaney has most recently found examples in the emergence of the series March, on which U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) has been collaborating with graphic artist Nate Powell and writer Andrew Aydin. March follows Lewis through his experiences in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, including the skull fracture and other life-threatening injuries he suffered in a beating at the hands and batons of police during the first effort to march from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965.
“This kind of participatory reading asks us to not only vicariously witness an event, but to vicariously perceive it.”
Chaney said he started thinking about his own book pulling together the strands of scholarship on graphic novels after delivering a TED talk at Dartmouth in March 2011, titled Learning to See: How to Read a Graphic Novel.
“At first I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Chaney recalled. “I was prepared to talk off the cuff for maybe 20 minutes, to maybe the first two rows of seats with students and stragglers.”
The ensuing video of the lecture led, Chaney recalls, to “a wide variety of people coming to me saying, ‘Your talk really helped me see these comics in a new way.’ ”
With that lecture as a foundation, Chaney started writing Reading Lessons in Seeing “in a frenzy of epiphanic activity.”
And somehow, among his teaching schedule, his administrative duties, his writings for scholarly publications, his life with his wife and young daughter and his painting of portraits and landscapes — “I do most of it at night, while my wife is watching TV” — he pushed the book through to publication, by the University Press of Mississippi, this month.
“It’s hard for me as a scholar to imagine people liking it as a piece of popular literature,” Chaney said. “But if it were to become a textbook at places like the Center for Cartoon Studies, that would be nice.”
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 603-727-3304.