ENGL 386: The Graphic Novel

Where: Combs 112

Section 1: 
1:00-1:50, MWF

Section 2:
2:00 – 2:50, MWF

Who: Dr. Zach Whalen
Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday afternoons by appointment.
Our Discord server

In this class, we’re going to study “graphic narrative,” which is here defined as the combination of images and text in order to convey a story. While we’ll mainly focus on graphic novels, some other forms and genres such as comics, comic strips, and webcomics will provide relevant primary material. Of particular interest in this version of class will be the influence of digital technology on the design, distribution, and consumption of comic texts, but thematic links among the primary texts will speak to issues of cultural memory, nostalgia, and identity. Primary readings will include the works listed below, and these will be supplemented by relevant literary theory and comics-specific criticism and theory.


This class serves as an introduction to the academic study of graphic narrative within a literary framework. Students will

  • learn about the unique expressive affordances and formal qualities of the comics medium
  • study the history and cultures of the comics medium and graphic novel genre
  • explore the theoretical and critical discourse around Comics Studies
  • develop skill in the critical analysis of visual texts and
  • practice creating graphic narratives in a digital context


Required Texts

The following books are required reading for this class. All should be available at the bookstore. You are welcome to share or purchase these in whatever edition is available. I strongly recommend paper versions if at all possible, but electronic editions are acceptable — just make sure that you have access to the book on the day we’ll be discussing it. 

  • Ferris, Emil. My Favorite Thing is Monsters, 2017.
  • McGuire, Richard. Here, 2014.
  • Moore, Alan. Watchmen, 1988.
  • Spiegelman, Art. Maus I and II, 1991.
  • Tamaki, Jillian. Boundless, 2017.
  • Vaughan, Brian K. Paper Girls, vol 1.
  • Yang, Gene Luen. Superman Smashes the Klan, 2020.

Technology Requirements

In this class, we’ll be making use of technology in some specific ways. You’ll be blogging at, we’ll also be using Instagram in an organized way, and you will be working in a team to produce your own web-based graphic narrative. These are all tied in to the content and outcomes of the class.

In addition, you may also need the ability to scan comic images and manipulate them in software. The Library and Convergence Center both have scanners you can use, but sometimes just taking a picture with your phone will suffice. Scanned images can be manipulated in GIMP, which is a free program that can be a bit of a challenge for first-time users. I will instruct you in its use, but I recommend downloading and trying it out sooner rather than later.

We will also be using Zotero. Like GIMP, it takes some practice or training to get used to, so I recommend using it early and often.

Assignments and Grading

The various items for this course will be graded such that everything adds up to about 1000 points. In other words, an assignment listed here as 10% will involve 100 points.

Participation [20%]

A participation grade is a determination of how much and how well you’ve contributed to the success of this class. This means being present every day we meet, and adding substantively to our online community.

Blogging [15%]

At the class blog, you’ll create at least one blog entry for grades, either an “article” or “review” post. Ideally, one of each.

Daily Panel [15%]

Contribute to a collaborative analysis of comic imagery disseminated in social media.

Disassembly [10%]

Your first analysis essay will involve deconstructing a comic panel and writing a short essay in the “close reading” modality.

Annotated Bibliography [10%]

Working collaboratively, we’ll develop an annotated bibliography of comics scholarship. You will be responsible for contributing and annotating 5 items for our database.

Webcomic [20%]

Working in a team (assigned in the first or second week of the semester) develop and publish online a graphic, serial narrative that runs for at least three weeks. Deliver a presentation to the class about your project.

Research Project [10%]

In your final assignment, expand one of your blog entries and, using sources collected in our bibliography, develop a sustained critical engagement with a comic text.


Unless otherwise noted, each assignment can earn one of four possible grades: No Credit (0%), Partial Credit (✓- or 75%), Full Credit (✓ or 87%), or extra credit (✓+ or 93 – 100%) and each assignment’s description will include the list of assignment criteria necessary for partial and full credit, respectively. Any assignment that is submitted after it is due (after a 12 hour grace period) is only eligible for a partial credit grade. Otherwise, work that receives partial credit because it is missing elements or lacking in some way may be re-submitted for re-evaluation any time before the last day of class.

Specific feedback on assignments will be conveyed via direct message in Discord or, preferably, in person.


We will be using four web-based platforms for this class:

  • – Here you’ll post blog entries, host your webcomics, and find information about the class. This is our primary public-facing website.
  • Canvas – We won’t do as much with Canvas. It will basically be the gradebook and the means by which I send announcements to the whole class.
  • Instagram – We’ll use this in an organized way. Details forthcoming.
  • Discord – This is a private server. I will email you an invitation code.

Classroom Policies and Expectations

Technology in the Classroom

You are welcome to use computers during class, including tablets, smartphones, whatever — so long as what you’re doing isn’t distracting to someone else. I simply ask you to be responsible. Proper uses may include taking notes, reviewing the reading material, looking up something related, working on a project for class, or participating in a constructive backchannel conversation on Discord. Improper uses may include watching movies, and working on homework assignments for other classes. If what you’re doing is a distraction to me or others, I will ask you to stop.


Students are expected to treat the instructor and fellow students with the appropriate degree of respect, both in class and in online discussions. Communication, either in person or through electronic media, that is deemed abusive, threatening, or harassing in nature will not be tolerated.


Through the course of this semester, we may look at a wide array of content including literature, film, comics, television, memes, and any manner of things that people post on the Internet. Mostly comics. It is possible that some of this material may be disturbing, offensive, or upsetting, possibly including subject matter or themes related to sexuality or violence. For certain conversations to take place, it is sometimes important that we grapple with these things, and I will always treat all such material with appropriate maturity and as much clarity as possible. I expect you to do the same. However, if you find for some reason that discussing a particular text is too upsetting or traumatic, it is reasonable to excuse yourself from that discussion.

Academic Dishonesty

The UMW Honor System is a value system fundamental to all aspects of this class. I may authorize specific assignments as collaborative work, but all other work must be your own, as per Article 1, Sections 1 and 2 of the University of Mary Washington Student Honor Code. Academic dishonesty typically boils down to taking credit for someone else’s work. Whether you’ve done so accidentally or maliciously, it’s still an honor violation. Some examples include:

  • Including a quote in a blog post without identifying the source of that quote
  • Using an image in a blog post without permission from its copyright holder
  • Asking another student to “edit” your paper for you
  • Creating a blog entry or essay that is mostly quotes, even properly attributed quotes

Using code and snippets from others is acceptable when those snippets are shared with amenable licenses (such as MIT) or in a platform where copying is expected, like Stackoverflow. You should still acknowledge those sources in your source code or in discussions of your work.

Disability Resources

The Office of Disability Resources has been designated by the college as the primary office to guide, counsel, and assist students with disabilities. If you receive services through the Office of Disability Resources and require accommodations for this class, make an appointment with me as soon as possible to discuss your approved accommodation needs. Bring your accommodation letter, along with a copy of our class syllabus with you to the appointment. I will hold any information you share with me in strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise.

If you have not made contact with the Office of Disability Resources and have reasonable accommodation needs, (note taking assistance, extended time for tests, etc.), I will be happy to refer you. The office will require appropriate documentation of disability.

Recording Policy

Classroom activities in this course may be recorded by students enrolled in the course for the personal, educational use of that student or for all students presently enrolled in the class only, and may not be further copied, distributed, published or otherwise used for any other purpose without the express written consent of the course instructor. All students are advised that classroom activities may be taped by students for this purpose. Distribution or sale of class recordings is prohibited without the written permission of the instructor and other students who are recorded. Distribution without permission is a violation of copyright law. This policy is consistent with UMW’s Policy on Recording Class and Distribution of Course Materials.

Title IX

University of Mary Washington faculty are committed to supporting students and upholding the University’s Policy on Sexual and Gender Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence. Under Title IX and this Policy, discrimination based upon sex or gender is prohibited. If you experience an incident of sex or gender-based discrimination, we encourage you to report it. While you may talk to me, understand that as a “Responsible Employee” of the University, I MUST report to UMW’s Title IX Coordinator what you share. If you wish to speak to someone confidentially, please contact the below confidential resources. They can connect you with support services and help you explore your options. You may also seek assistance from UMW’s Title IX Coordinator. Please view UMW’s Policy on Sexual and Gender Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence and to find further information on support and resources.


Ruth Davison, Ph.D.
Title IX Coordinator
Lee Hall, Room 401
1301 College Avenue Fredericksburg, VA 22401 Phone: 540-654-5656

Confidential Resources

Talley Center for Counseling Services
Lee Hall 106, 540-654-1053

Student Health Center
Lee Hall 112, 540-654-1040

24-hr hotline: 540-373-9373

Rappahannock Council Against Sexual
Assault (RCASA)
24-hr hotline: 540-371-1666

Basic Needs

Learning effectively and engaging wholly in class is dependent upon our basic security and having our fundamental needs met: having a safe place to sleep at night, regular access to nutritious food, and some assurance of safety. If you have difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or if you lack a safe and stable place to live, please contact Chris Porter, Assistant Dean of Students, at  Additionally, the Gwen Hale Resource Center is a free resource on campus, providing food, toiletries and clothing to any member of our community. It is open Monday, Tuesday and Friday from 1pm-6pm, on the 5th floor (floor A for Attic) of Lee Hall, or . Finally, you are always welcome to talk with me about needs, if you are comfortable doing so. This will enable me to provide any resources I may possess.


Unfortunately, we are still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, but we have moved into a phase where institutional mandates have given way to individual responsibility. To that end, I encourage you — if you’re feeling sick — to get tested, and if you test positive, please do not come to class. You may feel more comfortable wearing a mask in class, and you are certainly welcome to. Personally, I check the CDC’s information about local levels of community transmission, and if Fredericksburg is recording a “high” level of local transmission, I plan to wear a mask indoors and will strongly recommend everyone do so.

If you miss class because of a positive test, I understand, and I thank you for taking action to reduce the spread. However, missing class for this reason will still be recorded as an absence, and you will still be responsible for making up any missed work. If this happens, I encourage you to schedule an appointment with me as soon as possible to discuss what you miss.