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Dartmouth Prof Teaches Storytelling, From Comics to Clay

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Michael Chaney - JIM SCHLEY
  • Jim Schley
  • Michael Chaney

Michael A. Chaney is a writer, painter and associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, where he chairs the African and African American Studies program. The multitasker also teaches courses on such topics as 19th-century American literature, the contemporary graphic novel, and the life and work of David Drake. Known as "Dave the Potter," Drake was a slave in antebellum South Carolina whose handcrafted stoneware vessels inscribed with poetry have been acclaimed by art historians in recent years.

In his courses, Chaney engages students in storytelling methods that include more than just text: He asks his graphic novel students to create comics, and his Drake students to learn how to adorn a clay jug with poetic couplets.

An unusual literary scholar, Chaney is the author of a recently published book about graphic storytelling, Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel. It explores the theory and practice of books such as Art Spiegelman's Maus, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and Joe Sacco's Palestine.

Chaney lives in White River Junction, where Seven Days talked with him about his artistic ventures, his work with students and his new book.

SEVEN DAYS: How were you introduced to art and literature as a child and youth?

MICHAEL CHANEY: I started off in the world of familial tumult. I came into consciousness in the household of my German grandmother. The people around me were speaking lots of forms of broken English, because we lived on a street in Akron [Ohio] where it wasn't unusual for kids to have very differently accented voices calling them home to lunch. My mother lived separately, but during my first five years she would visit and bring us art supplies. She'd been trained as a textile artist in Germany — she's mixed race, an "occupation baby"; her father was a black American GI. She was a very formative influence.

In the beginning, comics were important to me because they were tapping into another language that wasn't just linguistic and was intentionally "broken." And the brokenness of comics is their artistic prowess, not an absence or a limitation. I loved the X-Men: They were this multicultural family, like my own.

SD: Academia has often been accused of being rigidly categorical and convention-bound. How have you managed to be so wide-ranging in your scholarly interests and also so active creatively?

MC: I think there's an ontological and racial quality to this. I'm mixed race ... my family is very mixed race. What I would experience from other people is their imperturbable, monolithic way of seeing the world, in sharp contrast with my beginning way of seeing, which assumes plurality and makes room for otherness and doesn't want to make a Procrustes bed of everything, where what doesn't fit gets lopped off.

So "interdisciplinarity" is the language I was born with and am fluent in. I tried to be an English scholar, in the traditional sense, and here's what you get. This is my version!

SD: In your teaching, you ask college students to write papers but also create comics and, in the "Dave the Potter" course, to work with letter-set type, clay and poetry. How do you help students cross the boundary between scholastic criticism and these hands-on opportunities?

MC: In my graphic novel course, I try to make the folks at the Center for Cartoon Studies a crucial part of the experience. Early on, when I had Dartmouth students who'd say they wanted to create a comic, I'd tell them, "In order to do that, you have to consult with a student at the cartoon school."

To formalize this, I decided we should have an event that brings both parties together. What started as a book sale, where cartoon students would sell their work to Dartmouth students, became like a mini Dartmouth Comic-Con.

In the other course, since the illiterate slave David Drake is said to have learned the alphabet by working in a print shop, I have the students set type for a letterpress, then learn how to work with clay and a kiln to create their own inscribed jugs.

SD: Part of the tradition of comics is a kind of renegade defiance of high-art stature, a fascination with the fantastical and juvenile and silly. What is the role of academia, now that comics are being studied in college courses?

MC: Academia is important in inchoate, incipient ways in the development of art forms, in lending them prestige and popular legibility. But, luckily, the academy can't control the destiny or telos, the trajectory of art, and that's good. We all, regular folks, have a say in what comics are and can do...

But leave it to academics to insert all sorts of exclusivity: "We'll look at these but not those comics. These are teachable, but those are not."

In facilitating the growth of a new medium — that's when the academy can be helpful, involved in a cultivation process. The husbandry of art, not the pruning of art.

SD: In your new book, you analyze how the images and sequences of graphic narratives teach us new ways of reading, resulting in new kinds of learning. You place these stories in the literary tradition of the bildungsroman, emphasizing that comics often focus on children as characters, with evolving perceptions of the world.

MC: Yes, in my work I've invoked the ethos of the child that I think surrounds comics. Now, a lot of us have said, "Hey, comics are all grown up, they're not for kids anymore."

We need to stop saying that. What are we running from? If there's this inherent or formally intrinsic "childishness" about comics ... shouldn't we embrace that, and in the embracing crack open the mystery of their potential for us even more? This was a shift in my thinking, and I wanted to cut across the trendiness of saying that comics have "graduated."

SD: What do you think readers find most engaging in contemporary graphic novels and memoirs?

MC: These graphic novels and comic books become the means by which they understand their lives to be this huge, unfolding autobiographical project. The people we call artists are folks who are trying to get complete control of the ongoing process we call our lives — trying to stop time a little bit and record the story and take the picture and be in the frame.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Dartmouth Prof Michael Chaney Embraces 'Interdisciplinary' Storytelling"

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