Recommended daily reading – 26 January (been longer than I thought edition)

Items that I have been compiling.

From the world of academia:

  • Last week, Michelle Obama gave a little noted talk encouraging study abroad for American college students. Her focus on China is predictable, but I do appreciate that she seems to have grounded that in a broader appeal. It isn’t easy getting Western students to leave the comforts of home, but maybe as the university attracts more international students itself, that will change.
  • On her Cocktail Party Physics blog, Jennifer Ouellette has a great post on Veronica Mars as a model for girls in science.
  • rabble.ca has an interesting post about the University of Toronto General Assembly, which is an attempt on the part of students, faculty, staff, and community to build an alternate governing model for the university.

Turning to comics:

  • Via Ragnell on Written World, is a link to this Metrokitty comic on the “paper mirror” which succinctly explains why diversity in comics matters.
  • On the other side of that debate, Gail Simone on her tumblr blog, tangles with an aspiring comics writer regarding his desire not to be compelled to write a comics with a gay hero.
  • Project:Rooftop recently featured this cool Victorian Batman by Matthew Humphreys.
  • Finally, it isn’t really news anymore, but I learned of the new Batman film casting via Comics Alliance. Right now, I am mostly interested to know what it means that Anne Hathaway has been cast as “Selina Kyle” rather than as Catwoman.

And in urban geography, via Inhabitat, Washington DC unveiled a bike station adjacent to Union Station. On the Spacing Magazine blog, Alex Bozikovic, looks at an interesting contest to design wildlife pathways for major roads and highways. Some very cool ideas. And in my feed at least, via ProgGrrl on Twitter, I found this interesting map showing where in the U.S. it make more sense to rent and where it makes more sense to buy. Culturally, of course, in the U.S. ownership is always assumed to be better.

New “Worlds in Panels”: continuing the best of 2010

On Friday at PopMatters, my January “Worlds in Panels” posted. I continue my look at the best comics of 2010 from the vantage point of the column, focusing on ongoing series and one-shots that exemplify transmedia storytelling and that highlight issues related to format and publishing.

More particularly, the series, and single issues, I point to here are those that I found to be the best for starting a conversation about these questions: What are comics for? What do readers want and expect from the comics they read? How do publishers and creators address those wants and expectations? How are those wants and expectations met in different ways by comics in relation to other media?

Read the full column

I have a more conventional look at what I think are the best comics from last year on this blog.

On managing my small classes

I have two very small, five to seven students each, upper division classes this term. By itself this is not that strange. As a department, geography contributes more in service to other programs than it does in majors. As a result, we usually have one or two sections of upper division courses that enroll slow or low, which administrators tend to measure as below ten or below twelve depending on context and what kinds of pressures are being applied from above. My areas, political and cultural geography, tend to be the least popular among our majors (and minors), meaning that it isn’t unusual for me to have smaller classes than my colleagues at the 300 and 400 level.

What is unusual is just how low my enrollments are this term (also that they have been allowed to run despite their sizes, but that is side topic which I will skip here). To be honest, in one case, a course on U.S. and Canadian geopolitics, I am not that surprised at the small number. I can track a clear downward trajectory from the first time I offered it to now. In the other case, a course on nature and the American West, I am surprised. That course is part of a “suite” of three that I offer on the West, and all have been generally popular, not for any mysterious reason, but because they fulfill requirements in a number of programs across campus and also address issues that are real to many of our students.

I will have to give some more thought to the “why” of my numbers this term for when I next offer these courses, or related ones, but in the meantime I needed to come up with a strategy for teaching them at their current sizes.

That small classes are “good” is taken as a given almost in higher education, but I don’t think I am alone in finding that there is such a thing as a class that is “too small”.

From my perspective, a class is too small when you need almost 100% attendance to have a chance at a viable session, or, put another way, a class is too small if its absolute size is effectively equal to its relative size. What I mean by that is in most classes you’ll end up with a critical mass of engaged students who make the course work. Ideally, in my experience, that should be at least a third of total enrollment, but you can get by with fewer. As you slide down that scale, though, the harder it is to have a good meeting if you have absences. If the critical mass of engaged students is too small, the wrong absences can kill a session. The smaller the class, the smaller your margin for having a good meeting. Essentially, if you need to count on everyone in attendance to be fully present and making contributions, productive class meetings are going to be nearly impossible to hold.

To manage this problem with my classes this term I made the decision to run them as tutorials or readings courses. The syllabus is structured around a reading list, which I have broken into weekly assignments. Students stay in touch with me through writing on each and every reading each week, to which I provide follow-up questions that students have to answer and submit with the following week’s reading and writing. Unusually for me, I decided to have a traditional mid-term, final structure, too, as a way to prompt students to do some synthetic work with the material. Each class also has an additional small assignment that uses the class blog.

The blogs are one way I give students an opportunity to communicate with me about material. I am also available in my office, and on IM, during scheduled class hours. However, students need to make their own decisions about when to come talk to me and take advantage of my availability.

It’s early in the term, but I have some initial thoughts on how this arrangement is working.

To begin, I have been gratified at how many students have, in fact, consulted with me about the material. I have rarely, if ever, had students at this university contact me as individuals to talk about readings. I doubt very much that this would be happening if we were having regular meetings. In this context, students are forced to think about the material on their own, and that has, so far, prompted some interesting dialogue.

The way that reading assignments are working I am also giving more intensive individualized feedback and follow-through than I normally do when I am otherwise preparing for class meetings. In fact, it seems likely that the time I am devoting to dealing with students one-on-one this term will be equal to or in excess of the time I would normally devote to class prep, especially with established courses like these.

I am concerned about the students I have not, and probably will not, hear from during the term. Where I am getting good written work, I guess that is less of a concern, but students who are turning in work that I have doubts about are ones I worry about. The follow-up question assignment gives me one way to address this concern, but that only goes so far.

During the early add/drop period I picked up a few additional students in the American West class and was tempted to call everybody back to the ranch so I could start holding regular meetings. That course, and its companions, as well as similar offerings I have taught in the past, have to led to some really interesting classes and I do feel that I am missing something by having a structure built around individual study. The U.S. and Canada course I am more at ease with in terms of teaching it this way. Even though it is at the upper division, there is a lot of basic material I need to cover in order to make up for how little my students tend to know about Canada. If anything, teaching it the way I am is forcing students to address those deficits in an active way.

In a couple of weeks, I will be meeting with both groups to talk about the mid-term. It will be interesting for students to see each other, and for me to review with them to get another sense of how well they are learning.

Recommended daily reading – 18 January

An eclectic list of items from my feeds:

At OregonLive, Shawn Levy covers the Portland premiere of IFC’s Portlandia, which airs this Friday on the channel.

Meanwhile, via Publisher’s Weekly on Twitter, is news of India’s first comic convention.

From Spacing Magazine on Twitter is a pointer to a study that suggests that bicycling infrastructure contributes more to economic development than does similar building for cars.

Another Twitter link, this one to Foreign Policy from ed bice (via ProgGrrl), and to an article by Marc Lynch taking an early look at social media and the current political situation in Tunisia. As a high school student I worked on an Amnesty International campaign to free a political prisoner in Tunisia, an individual who was eventually released, which does not happen most of the time. So, I have a slight personal connection to issues of freedom and democracy in that country that has raised my interest in what’s happening now.

Finally, Torontoist has this neat work of graffiti.

December comics

From tfaw:

Single issues:

Angel #40 (IDW)

Elena Casagrande is replaced by Jason Armstrong, who, with Brian Miller on colors, gives the book a Saturday morning cartoon makeover, which I kind of like? A radical change like this, however admirable in the abstract, in practice, takes some time to get used. I found myself constantly pausing to remind myself who the characters are, none more than Kate, who looks nothing like her previous selves (brown hair and pearls?).

The storytelling is fine, but David Tischman and Mariah Huehner are forcing the dialogue, especially trying to make Angel quick-witted and Gunn sound “street”.

Atomic Robo #2 (Red 5)

More period fun as Robo tries to lead a double life, doing science and fighting crime. An exceptionally cool set of pin-ups is included in this issue, too.

Avengers Academy #7 (Marvel)

Christos Gage turns his attention to the teachers, especially Hank Pym. Continues to be a strong book.

Batwoman #0 (DC)

Bruce Wayne stops by to surveil Kate Kane and Batwoman. I agree with the discussion on 3 Chicks Review Comics that it might have been better to include this as part of the “Road Home” comics rather than billing it as a Batwoman prelude. For readers who did not read the Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III Detective Comics run, this issue is probably useful as an orientation to Kate and Batwoman, but for anyone who had been looking forward to the start of the new ongoing series, it is probably a letdown, at least narratively, artistically, the back-and-forth between Williams and Amy Reeder works well.

Birds of Prey #7 (DC)

A new story arc begins with Oracle deciding she needs to fake her death because too many people know that she is Barbara Gordon (or vice versa, I guess). There’s one artistic team on this issue, Ardian Syaf (pencils), Vincente Cifuentes (inks), and Nei Ruffino (colors), which is good, and I am optimistic about what Gail Simone has started in this issue.

Black Widow #8 (Marvel)

Duane Swierczynski’s storytelling gains depth in this issue, mining the Cold War in more personal ways for Natasha/Natalia, and reintroducing Fatale as an ally. However, even if I were so inclined to go out buy Widowmaker, I’m not sure that this storyline is one I would choose to follow, or would feel that I could not afford to categorize as trade/wait. The art, from Manuel Garcia (pencils), Lorenzo Ruggiero (inks), and Jim Charlampidis (colors), is still pushing the soft core too much, but they avoid the worst excesses of the preceding issues.

B.P.R.D. – Hell on Earth: New World #5 (Dark Horse)

The first arc of the new series comes to a close and it comes around to Abe and Ben, and some further clues about what’s to come. A lot to look forward to from B.P.R.D. and Hellboy in 2011.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight #40 (Dark Horse)

The penultimate issue, and Angel kills Giles (also the Master), Buffy destroys the Seed of the World and seems to go catatonic. A lot to address in the next chapter.

Fringe: Tales from the Fringe #6 (Wildstorm)

A second mini-series comes to an end with a story about alternate Olivia, which is a nice touch. I assume that DC will continue to put these books out post-Wildstorm. No, they aren’t the best that comics has to offer, but for fans of the show, they are effective uses of the medium as an adjunct to TV, and the artistic standards are pretty high, higher than some ongoing series I read.

Generation Hope #2 (Marvel)

Kieron Gillen keeps the action in Tokyo, and Rogue takes center stage. I like Salvador Espin’s style, and Jim Charlampidis brings the same earth-y tones he does to Black Widow, but why does Rogue have to be drawn so that she is practically falling out of her top?

Hellboy: Double Feature of Evil (Dark Horse)

Richard Corben and Mike Mignola collaborate on a couple of classic horror stories. Not the strongest of their work together on this title, but I’m not sure that there is an ongoing series that does one-shots like this better than Mignola and his partners. I think any fan of horror and gothic literature could read this issue and enjoy it, not just Hellboy regulars.

I, Zombie #8 (DC/Vertigo)

Chris Roberson and Michael Allred continue to broaden this title into an ensemble piece, but without losing Gwen as its core. Fun sequence with the revived vampire in a UO hoodie. Nice to see when Eugene emerges in the story, rather than just being in the background.

Lady Mechanika #1 (Aspen)

So Joe Benitez’s series gets underway proper, and the writing is not as strong here as in the #0 preview. The Victoriana is more forced, but Mechanika herself remains well drawn and conceived, with a clear voice of her own. As well as she is handled, I wish that Benitez could have resisted introducing the female Commander now chasing Mechanika with such an overtly sexualized pose.

Murderland #3 (Image)

David Hahn draws a bunch of cool looking people doing … I’m not really sure, but they are really intent on it. I cannot follow the story here, and am even more confused by looking at the inside cover and seeing that somehow there are two stories going in this issue. Not sure what Stephen Scott has in mind here except riffing on cultural references to Baltimore.

Mystery Society #5 (IDW)

So the first (only?) story comes to a close. This title settled down into a genial mode, fun, but not over the top. The cast is a little large to be contained by a short run like this. I would like to see more for Fiona Staples’s art if nothing else.

Spike: What happens in Vegas, Slays in Vegas #3 (IDW)

Brian Lynch brings Drusilla into the story, and we get some confirmation that Beck has romantic feelings for Spike. The use and introduction of Dru shows how well Lynch gets these characters. More ambivalent about the way that Nicola Zanni draws the characters. Dru is too voluptuous, head to toe, than she should be. Looking at Franco Urru’s cover makes me wish he was drawing the inside, too.

Uncanny X-Force #2 & #3 (Marvel)

I am liking this title very much. Rick Remender is writing a story that taps into X-Men history, but not one that requires a PhD in the subject to grasp. The cast of characters is suitably dark and damaged, and Jerome Opena draws everyone as long, lean, and athletic looking, a nice change from the usual steroidal and pneumatic art you find in so many Marvel books (the one exception is Wolverine, who is short and stocky as he should be). Dean White’s colors tend to the gray, which fits the cast and the story. Now, if they could only get permission to get Betsy out of that bathing suit.

Uncanny X-Men #530 (Marvel)

Greg Land is back on pencils and so everyone looks like a model or porn star. Emma may wear this well, but for others, it is ridiculous (does anyone really imagine Scott Summers as looking like he just walked off of a photo shoot for men’s cologne?) Mostly, I find the uniformity of the characters to be boring, or even depressing in the case of the X-Men. These are supposed to be outcasts. If every mutant looked as plastic-y beautiful as they do here, wouldn’t more people want to be mutants, instead of rejecting them? On the other hand, Matt Fraction has a tight story this month.

TPBs:

Orc Stain Volume 1 (Image)

I enjoyed James Stokoe’s Wonton Soup books, and considered pulling this series monthly, but decided to wait for the trade instead. I’m not sure how this would read issue-to-issue, the pace is kind of laconic, even as the book does not lack for action, but Stokoe likes slacker dood characters, and his stories tend to move like they do.

The attraction here, as with the earlier series, is the world building, and Stokoe’s imagination seems to run riot with wild ideas for universes made almost entirely from organic material, making everything seem like it could either be food or something that eats. The color work here makes already jam-packed panels seem busy, but I suspect I just need to take a second look without having to follow the narrative as closely.

Despite the self-conscious masculinity of the story and the characters, the one notable woman in the book, Bowie Enocraz Yaramund, the “Poison Thrower”, is self-possessed and powerful in her own right (she even offers direct and indirect comment on the “love nymphs” who make up the remaining women you see). This is perhaps just a good illustration of what happens when an author sets out to write about men being men in a conscious and critical way, instead of presumptively.

Two Step (Wildstorm)

Forthcoming.

TPBs from Powell’s (Burnside store):

Black Orchid (DC/Vertigo).

Glad I got this. Another good example of what Neil Gaiman does well: asking questions about what characters like this and the stories we tell with them mean. I like how Lex Luthor is used as an organized crime figure more than as a super genius here. Dave McKean’s use of color and collage-like art helps to create different tones for different parts of the narrative. That being said, I’m not entirely sure what the thing means on the whole. Will reward on subsequent readings I suspect.

Global Frequency: Detonation Radio Volume 2 (Wildstorm)

Fast moving action and violence. Warren Ellis uses this volume to show more of Miranda Zero, who I remember as more of a shadowy figure from the first volume. Might work better as a movie franchise or TV series than as a comics series, more time on process, and less on the bloody finishes. Cool covers by Brian Wood.

The New X-Men: New Worlds Volume 3 (Marvel).

I am glad that I started picking these up. Having Emma and Jean together is interesting. Grant Morrison also does good work with the political and cultural themes of difference and acceptance, focusing both on non-mutants on how mutants perceive themselves and their place in the world.

The Perhapanauts Volume 1 (Image)

Not as much pure fun as Volume 0, but still an enjoyable team of misfits book. Todd Dezago and Craig Rosseau work their genres with skill, but there is a predictability to how characters develop and how stories unfold, albeit in a comfortable way.

Nyx: Wannabe (Marvel)

I read the Marjorie Liu written mini before coming to the original and I have mixed feelings about this collection.

I like the art, especially Nelson and Chris Sotomayor’s colors; light pastels are an interesting and unexpected choice for a book working so hard to be gritty and urban. I also like seeing a sustained story about mutants outside the scope of the X-Men (something I liked about the follow-up, too). It makes sense that not all young mutants coming into their powers would have the necessary adult support to keep them safe or to find their way to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

On the other hand, Joe Quesada’s writing verges on exploitation fiction, especially in the Zebra Daddy character with his “street” slang, coke sniffing, sharp dressing, misogyny, and pimping. I think that Liu does a better job of getting into the lives of these young, virtually homeless mutants.

Wasteland Book 2: Shades of God & Wasteland Book 3: Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (Oni Press)

It took me a few pages to get back into this series, to reorient myself to the characters and situations, but once I did, I had no doubts about immediately moving from Book 2 to Book 3. I like Christopher Mitten’s grey scale art, the sketchiness seems perfect for a story about a rebuilding world, and the flashback effect is subtle. Sometimes I find it difficult to distinguish between figures and faces, but by the end of both books, I could readily make out the principal characters. I think that Anthony Johnston does an excellent job of writing the narrative and dialogue that makes the world of Wasteland familiar and yet not at the same time.

Recommended daily reading – 13 January

A few items of note from the past few days:

On Comics Alliance, David Brothers analyzes data on digital comics sales. He finds that, in contrast to the direct market, digital comics sales are dominated by independent and smaller publishers and creator-owned works. What this means for comics, or what this tells us about who is buying what, are still open questions, but these results are interesting for how dramatic the contrast is between the two sides of the market.

In matters related to environment, creativity, and urban spaces, Juxtapoz explains how to make graffiti from moss, and Inhabitat points to a New York restaurant that is using the rooftop of its building to grow fruits and vegetables.

Two short, funny, though still dismaying, takes on Sarah Palin and the state of political discourse in the U.S.: one from cartoonist Matt Bors and the other via Crooked Timber.

Finally, ComicCritics has a perceptive strip on a particular expression of comics fandom.

Recommended daily reading – 10 January (first of the new year late edition)

With the start of the term, I have not had much time to make new posts. Here are some items I have cataloged:

From the world of comics:

  • On Okazu, Erica Friedman has the results of an informal poll concerning “what women want” from the comics they read. The short version: it isn’t that complicated, not matter how mysterious and alien many of the folks at DC and Marvel like to imagine women and girl readers to be.
  • On Techland, Douglas Wolk does some quick analysis of Diamond’s numbers related to the bestselling comics of 2010. It’s interesting to note the extent to which the trade paperback and long form book sales were dominated by independently published titles.
  • On Comics Alliance today, Laura Hudson looks at comments made by the owner of the Heavy Ink comics store regarding last Saturday’s shootings in Arizona and the response by creators such as Gail Simone and Nick Spencer. Anyone who takes this moment to advocate more shooting of public officials clearly has both political and personal problems beyond the scope of comics, but I also think that this episode is an illustration why it is never possible to compartmentalize these kinds of questions as if “comics” and “politics” are separate matters.
  • Via girlsreadcomics on Twitter, is some really cool Amanda Connor art.

In academia:

  • Via Dean Blumberg on Twitter, is a link to this article on the growth in certificate programs at institutions of higher education in the U.S. The article notes that much of this growth is at for-profit schools, but that public institutions are also offering more of these credentials. As someone in the liberal arts, I have my doubts about the value of these programs in the long run, and am concerned that they represent a further degrading of higher education to a kind of narrow vocational training. My institution confirms the trend identified in the piece. Thankfully, the article leads with questions about the value of these certificates to students.
  • At ProHacker, Amy Cavender relates some of her experience trying to teaching an intro level class without resort to a traditional textbook. Her efforts, and conclusions, mirror some of my own.

Finally, Dwell has started a project to map “The World’s Best Public Spaces”. Check it out and contribute if you have a favorite.