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United By Comics

    By Wessam Elmeligi

    The STEM and humanities divide? What is one thing others in academia might share with me, even if we have seemingly different disciplines? These are the questions I was thinking about when I learned about the Foundations program in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters at UM-Dearborn, and it dawned on me that this is one space where students and faculty can move out of the strict, and, in my opinion, in many cases rather artificial, constraints of discipline and specialization. How many engineers, chemists, physicians, CEOs, teachers, writers, plumbers, photographers, carpenters, and the list can go on, read comics? What is more, how many from all over the world have read comics, or versions of text and image stories in their cultures and languages? 

    That’s how the idea of a course on comics, and their regional differences, became a course discussing American comics, Japanese manga, and European bande dessinée. By tracing the roots of the art of text and image in the very origins of human civilizations, from cave and temple stories, to modern graphic novels, we argue that comics, as an umbrella term, have always been part of our collective creative cultures. In the modern age, the journey of comics moved from being called the “funnies,” dismissed as pastime, and even censored for young readers, to Pulitzer-worthy graphic novels studied in doctoral dissertations. FNDS 1308, offered three times already, has had students with academic pursuits in STEM, social sciences, and humanities. 

    Based on the premise that everyone can be creative in their own way, we read comics, draw comics, and write comics. For example, one class assignment is to adapt a short story to a comic book. The short story is by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. The comic book illustration is by the class instructor. The coloring and script writing is by everyone in class. Mahfouz would have been happy to see the results. We are all actively united in this class, by storytelling and creativity, not just by traditional class presentations and discussion. 

    Another example is a visit to the local comic book store, Green Brain Comics, where the wonderful owner Dan Merritt greets us, answers our questions, and where we buy some comics and take a group photo, learning more about other aspects of the world of comics, perhaps a more hands on perspective of book acquisition and distribution. The final project for the course asks students to make an entire comic book, in print or digitally, individually or in small groups, and share it with the class.  

    Comics bring us together. A special cohort, the first to take this class in 2021, are still taking classes together until this semester, in spite of their different disciplines. I am fortunate they were in many of my classes. Now, in 2023 another group is forming, sharing the love of stories, images, and ideas. Panels on a comic book page can be separated by lines, but they are still on the same page. So are we.