Anyone who has published a scholarly book will recognize the frustration of the arrival of a perfect data point too late. If only we had known to look here or there our arguments could have been just that little bit better. Well, that's why we have this blog.
Today's lovely data point comes to us via an article on FiveThirtyEight that, in honour of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, charts his most frequently taught plays. Drawing on the data-set compiled by the Open Syllabus Project, FiveThirtyEight looks at how much Shakespeare is taught, in which disciplines, and which plays. It's a brief, and interesting piece. You should take a look.
We talk about Shakespeare in Greatest Comic Book a few times - in reference to Maus, to Archie Comics, and to Hicksville, for example, but the beauty of the Open Syllabus Project (despite a few caveats, some of which are noted by FiveThirtyEight) is its incredible depth. Few, I think, would be surprised to learn that Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and Homer can be found among the top most assigned college and university texts. Nor, of course, Shakespeare (Hamlet) and Marx. And, as the former Chair of an English department charged with approving syllabi, the presence of Strunk and White's Elements of Style at the very top of the list made me grin (about three quarters of the members of my department had it on their recommended reading lists!). The canon is such a well-defined concept that few things on the list will come as a surprise - at least near the top.
How far, I wondered, do you need to go before you run into comics that have been assigned to college students? The answer: not very far, actually. Here are the top five comics and their overall rankings:
- 119 Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
- 132 Maus by Art Spiegelman
- 537 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- 650 Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
- 773 Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
(one caveat: McCloud's book is also listed as #1237 under its full title, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, so it should rank even more highly when the two scores are combined. Unfortunately, the list has many such errors - Milton's Paradise Lost is listed in multiple versions, I noticed. Combining the two scores would place it at 71, right behind Pride & Prejudice)
Surprising? Not to us. Specifically, we named three of those books as contenders for the title Greatest Comic Book of All Time! The only one that we don't treat in any significant way is the one at the top: we spend more time on McCloud's The Sculptor than on Understanding Comics, which is a reflection of our focus on comics research rather on comics pedagogy.
The Open Syllabus Project is vast (more than 900,000 entries) and it is worth trawling through. It is striking to me, for example, that Maus is almost as frequently taught as Elie Wiesel's Night (which is five slots ahead of it), and is more frequently assigned than two of Shakespeare's best-loved plays (A MIdsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, both of which narrowly trail it). I think that the biggest surprise for me was the low score for Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (#5,039), which, given how many people I know who teach it (including me!) seemed remarkably low. The project, however, remains in beta - so there may be reasons for some of these potential oddities.
In the interests of completeness, here are the scores for some of the most discussed books and authors in Greatest Comic Book:
- Maus #132
- Robert Crumb does not appear at all
- Jack Kirby #512,226 (for Silver Star - presumably many Kirby works are categorized by the script writer as the project does not seem to recognize artists)
- Watchmen #773
- Martin Vaughn-James does not appear
- Rob Liefeld does not appear
- The Archie artists do not appear
- American Born Chinese #4,075
- Persepolis #537
- Cerebus #15,845 (taught 39 times - a surprising number)
- Hicksville #336,380 (my own classes could be responsible for its entire score!)
The absences are confirmation of a good part of our argument: the field of comics studies has a wide range of blind spots in the way that it is currently practiced.
As a final note: Distinction, the most assigned work by Pierre Bourdieu, and the basis for a great deal of our argument, is assigned less frequently in universities than is Persepolis! Maybe comics studies has come a long way...