ENGL 386: The Graphic Novel

Where: HCC 327
When: Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Who: Dr. Zach Whalen
Office: Combs 308

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 electronically, just make sure that you have access to the book on the day we’ll be discussing it. These are listed roughly in the order we’ll read them.

  • Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner.
  • Lewis, John. March Book 2.
  • Wilson, G. Willow. Ms. Marvel: No Normal.
  • Cruse, Howard. Stuck Rubber Baby.
  • Moore, Alan. Watchmen. DC Comics, 1988.
  • Hopkinson, Nalo. House of Whispers, Vol 1.
  • Ferris, Emil. My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

Technology Requirements

In this class, we’ll be making use of technology in some specific ways. You’ll be blogging at, you may want to use Twitter or Instagram (hashtag #engl386), and we’ll be using Instagram in an organized way. Also, you’ll 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, using the hashtag #engl386 where appropriate.

Blogging Community [15%]

At the class blog, you’ll create at least one blog entry for grades, including “article” posts and “review” posts — two of each.

Social Media Dissemination [15%]

Create a group Instagram account and use it to share thoughts about our class, your projects, or anything else relevant. Use the hashtag #engl386 for posts related to class.

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 Slack or, preferably, in person.


We will be using three 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 (possibly) the means by which I send announcements to the whole class.
  • Instagram – We’ll use this in an organized way. Details forthcoming.

Classroom Policies and Expectations

Technology in the Classroom

When and if we return to a 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 such as Slack or Twitter. 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 may 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 in effect for our course. 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.


Stefanie Lucas-Waverly, M.S.
Title IX Coordinator
Office of Title IX
Fairfax House

Crystal Rawls
Title IX Deputy for Students
Assistant Director of Student Activities

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

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, and you believe this may affect your performance in this course, please contact Cedric Rucker, Dean of Student Life, for support. Additionally, please talk to me if you are comfortable doing so. This will enable me to provide any resources I may possess.


All students are expected to adhere to the following policies and expectations to mitigate risk and support the health and safety of the UMW community: MMDC–Monitoring, Masking, Distancing, Cleaning.

Self- Monitoring: all UMW students, faculty, and staff must self-monitor their health status and attest daily in Eagle Health Survey. Students should refrain from attending class and other on-campus events if they feel ill and are encouraged to seek appropriate medical attention for treatment of illness. Should you need to be absent from class due to illness, please inform the instructor so that a plan for making up missed work can be developed.

Face Coverings: face coverings which cover both the nose and mouth must be worn by all students, faculty, and staff, and are required in all classrooms/lab/studios at all times, as well as inside buildings when in the company of others. If a student does not have a mask or appropriate face covering, that student will not be permitted in class. Masks are available at the University Center Information Desk and the Parking Desk in Lee Hall. See UMW’s Face Covering Policy for face covering guidelines. Students unable to wear a face covering for medical reasons should contact the Office of Disability Resources.

Physical distancing: all classrooms, labs, studios and any other instructional areas are configured to provide appropriate physical distancing and have established occupancy limits; students MUST adhere to the physical distancing configuration of the classroom/lab/studio and not exceed the occupancy limits of the space at any time.

Self-Cleaning: students and faculty are expected to wipe down their work/seating areas when entering the instructional space and upon leaving; cleaning and disinfecting products such as sanitizing wipes are present in all classroom and meeting spaces, and throughout UMW buildings to support self-cleaning. The time between classes has been increased to 20 minutes to permit self-cleaning of learning spaces.

No food is permitted in classrooms and other instructional areas; drinks permitted in closed containers only and not in areas where expressly prohibited. 

Failure to comply with UMW policies and expectations for face coverings, physical distancing, self-cleaning, and monitoring requirements will result in disciplinary action consistent with the Student Code of Conduct.