FESTIBA panels illustrate comics as literature

EDINBURG — When one thinks of resources to improve literacy, comics might not immediately come to mind. There is more to literacy, however, than classic novels. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is on to that.

On day two of the 12th annual FESTIBA celebration, six academic sessions discussing comics as literature and art were hosted inside the Shary Room in the University Library on the Edinburg campus.

Jean Braithwaite, an associate professor of creative writing, presented a Powerpoint presentation titled “Sneak Preview of Jean’s groundbreaking research,” during the fifth forum of the day on “Point of View in Comics.”

After relocating to Texas from Arizona in 2006, Braithwaite helped introduce a creative writing program at the university. She then pushed to have comics courses added to the curriculum and had her wish granted.

Her presentation was filled with “top secret insights” of the narratology and cognitive science of literary comics. It also featured a case study on Chris Ware’s comics, whom she proclaimed to be her hero.

A flat-screen monitor to Braithwaite’s left projected images of the comics discussed. She pointed out Freudian overtones, page structure and multiple dimensions the images reflected.

The border of different media ties into this year’s festival theme of “Transcending Borders.” Braithwaite brought up the previous session, “Words and Graphics Transcending Arts Borders,” which discussed typography, and described how the practice “straddles the verbal, visual border.”

As an additional project to her “groundbreaking research,” she is writing a book on Ware and has her students studying his works in her courses.

“Students are often surprised how difficult it is to read and understand a literary comic,” Braithwaite said.

The nonfiction and graphic memoir comics she uses in her classes, “require a lot more analytical thinking to puzzle out than the average superhero comic.”

It was in the 1980s that her passion for comics ignited, which according to Braithwaite, was when comics began taking on a serious literary art form in addition to their “zing.”

“The fact that comics have two tracks allows them to do a lot more than other medias can manage,” she said. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Braithwaite posed a challenge for UTRGV. If the university were to introduce a comic track into their MFA programs, it would move to the “cutting edge,” she said, as only a handful of universities are offering such. From her experience, students and human brains in general, love comics.

FESTIBA panels will continue through March 3. For information on the sessions and speakers, visit UTRGV.edu/FESTIBA.