As anyone who teaches funny books or films knows, the task of convincing students that the scene before them is anything other than incidental would try Job’s patience. You show them a panel from the surprisingly awful Superman and Batman vs. Aliens and Predator like, say, this
and ask them to talk about the image as a crafted artifact and they will sit there, stone-silent, for fifty minutes while you prattle on about how (1) the writer wanted Batman represented by a powerful gloved hand and (2) the original alien was a giant penis preying on (a) the crew of the Nostromo and (b) our inborn fear of alien interspecies rape. You show them the H.R. Giger painting that inspired Ridley Scott:
and tell them that there’s phallic imagery, phallic imagery, and then there’s the work of H.R. Giger—and still they sit there staring at your Freudian hammer in a World of Nails. You inform them that the lips of the alien were constructed from six stretched and shredded condoms smeared with KY jelly while they quietly compose comments for Rate My Professor about how everything in your course is about sex.
“Not everything,” you insist. “But I mean, come on now, clearly this alien is. It is a giant penis, and within it is another penis, a penis within a penis, and in this panel Batman is firmly gripping that inner penis—”
And you stop because no matter what you say, professors who open semesters with images of Batman giving an alien a hand job get comments on Rate My Professor about how everything in their course is about sex.*
But it doesn’t have to end like this—there is a better way. With the help of erstwhile commenter Luther Blissett, I’ve designed an introduction to visual rhetoric assignment that forces students to understand that all comic and film images are obscenely overdetermined. On the first day of class, I’ll present them with Alan Moore’s script for the eighth panel on the first page of The Killing Joke:
NOW WE ARE LOOKING AT THE POLICE CAR SIDE-ON SO THAT WE SEE THE UNIFORMED OFFICER STANDING FACE-ON TO US OVER ON THE LEFT AS HE STANDS WITH HIS BACK TO THE CAR AND COMMISSIONER GORDON FACE-ON OVER TO THE RIGHT, LEANING AGAINST THE CAR AND DRNKING HIS STEAMING COFFEE, MAYBE LOOKING UP WITH A QUIZZICAL AND CONCERNED LOOK OVER THE RIM OF HIS CUP TOWARDS THE EXTREME LEFT OF THE FOREGROUND, WHERE WE CAN SEE THE BATMAN ENTERING THE PICTURE FROM THE LEFT, IN PROFILE. SINCE BATMAN IS (a) CLOSER TO US AND (b) TALLER THAN EITHER THE COMMISSIONER OR THE PATROLMAN IN THE BACKGROUND WE CANNOT SEE THE TOP OF HIS HEAD HERE ABOVE THE BOTTOM OF THE NOSE AS THE FRONT OF HIM ENTERS THE PANEL ON THE LEFT. HIS EYES AND UPPER HEAD ARE INVISIBLE BEYOND THE TOP PANEL BORDER AND ALL WE CAN REALLY SEE IS HIS MOUTH, WITH THE BIG AND DETERMINED SQUARE JAW AND THE GRIM AND DISAPPROVING SCOWL OF THE LIPS. THE BATMAN DOES NOT APPEAR FROM HIS POSTURE TO SO MUCH AS GLANCE AT EITHER GORDON OR THE PATROLMAN AS HE WALKS PAST THEM EVEN THOUGH BOTH OF THEM STEAL GLANCES AT HIM WITH DIFFERING LOOKS OF UNEASE. THE PATROLMAN LOOKS UNEASY JUST TO BE IN THE BATMAN’S PRESENCE, WHILE GORDON LOOKS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THE BATMAN’S POSSIBLE STATE OF MIND. RAIN DRIPS FROM EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE BATMAN’S JUTTING AND GRIZZLED CHIN. GORDON GIVES THE LARGELY-OFF-PANEL VIGILANTE A PENETRATING LOOK OVER HIS COFFEE CUP, AND THE BLUE LIGHT ATOP THE CAR WASHES OVER ALL OF THEM AS IT CIRCLES.
Then I’ll ask them to draw it. After assuring them that I did indeed say draw it, I’ll let them have about ten minutes to transform Moore’s prose into stick-figure theater before showing them how Brian Bolland interpreted it:
Discussion will ensue. I’ll show them the scripts to other panels—ask them why, for example, Moore insisted the receptionist at Arkham Asylum be reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians—and if all goes well, I won’t spend the next few months reading essays about how in this panel Alan Moore wanted Batman to punch someone in the face so he told Brian Bolland to draw a picture of Batman punching someone in the face.
*Or not. A proper interpretation of that image—one that factors in feminist interpretations of the alien as a species which rapes its prey to death—leads down paths too disturbing to tackle the first day of class.