Thanks, Unemployed Man! You’re saving the day!

Unemployed Man

Unemployed Man really understands the needs of teachers and students in these hard times!

Back in November, I enjoyed and discussed Origen & Golan’s The Adventures of Unemployed Man: a timely commentary on just about everything that is timely.  I knew the authors were real when they responded to e-mails discussing my take on their book.  Little did I realize that Unemployed Man is real, too!  You heard that right, folks!  Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman … all just figments of your imagination.  Clearly, Marvel, DC, Vertigo, and all the other publishers out there are just fooling us into believing in false prophets.  I know Unemployed Man is real, and he’s reaching out to my students!  How?  By providing the single best resource that you can give to an English teacher or a library … a donated copy of his own book!  He’s a true superhero for the year 2011 and beyond!

Unemployed Man got some immediate love from a few of my students late last Fall – even during finals time and the end of the semester, but again, never did I consider that a satirical superhero might really exist.  I mean, I’m creative and I daydream too much, but I’m realistic.   I didn’t think that a modern day hero would take into consideration school budgets, cash-strapped teachers, and the need to put timely books into the hands of excited students.  So, Unemployed Man, myself, our media specialist, and Anthony (below) all thank you!  Keep on fighting the good fight, and we’re hoping for a sequel!


Anthony enjoys this unique take on modern society in graphic novel format

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Who wouldn’t want to read this book, attend this school, and join this club?

Last Fall I reviewed Percy Carey’s Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm thinking that nobody would likely bother to read my thoughts.  A few days later, I drove to a close friend’s funeral after he killed himself.  I mention it only to point out the ups and downs that I can only refer to as reality, I suppose.  As I ate lunch and planned to catch up on some reading before the funeral, I checked my phone and noticed that someone had finally commented on my blog: the author himself, Percy Carey.  At roughly the same time, he visited North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago, IL to speak to a book club.  The visit was sponsored by HUB International.   Seeing that an actual author engaged with my writing was a small piece of satisfaction for an obviously dismal day that I will never forget.   I still can’t find the right words to sum up my thoughts and feelings on the matter, and I wonder if forming coherent sentences will ever occur.

Several weeks later, I found myself in an IEP (individualized education plan, for the non-educated in the world of education alphabet soup) meeting for a student who was likely to be placed in an alternative setting for the remainder of the semester.  Though he was making strides academically and socially, he still managed to gain enough negative attention to warrant a meeting with his lawyer present.  Even the lawyer admitted that this student was not succeeding in the current environment.  I advocated for the student, but I told the truth.  On most days, he showed the potential necessary to grow as a learner, reader, and writer during his high school career and beyond.  Every now and then, he arrived at my door carrying anger that prevented him from remembering the better parts of his personality.  He was no different than many of my students, but he thrived on negative attention too much and too fast.  As a result, he was forced into an alternative setting.  Several days later, he was arrested for criminal activity outside of school.  I should probably find out what his sentence was.

Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that I truly believe that students should hear a variety of messages from a variety of people.  One teacher’s lecture about behavior might not have an effect one one kid, but it probably resonates with at least a few.  But as I sat in this meeting and observed how the adults around me spoke of this student (rarely to him), I could not help but think that he must have incredibly low self-esteem and negative self-image.  Even his lawyer had to admit that he was performing poorly (both academically and socially).  One adult asked the student several questions concerning why he chooses to act the way he does.  The student just shrugged every time.  The only time I saw him engage with us was when his lawyer asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up.  “I still want to be a lawyer,” he said.  “I did mock trial in middle school.  I thought it was cool.”  I felt bad for never finding this out myself, and simultaneously, I felt even worse knowing that the outcome of the meeting was going to make that goal even harder to achieve.  Before the student left, I ran to my room and gave him my only remaining copy of Sentences because he was enjoying it during independent reading time.  I told him that if he ever returned to our school, I’d like to get the book back, but that if he wasn’t coming back again, well, at least he’d have a good book to read.  Honestly, he didn’t seem to care that much, but I tried.  His last sentence to me was “Thanks.”

I don’t share this tale because I feel that I’m any better than my colleagues or that I think everyone deserves a trophy.  Again, every adult in the room cared for the student in different ways, and this student was not doing much to earn the respect of my colleagues.  I share this story because I really do believe that this text is powerful enough to engage adolescent readers of all varieties in deep thought about their own lives, mistakes and regrets, purpose, the consequences of their actions, and the sheer power of literacy itself.  For proof, watch the video featuring Carey’s visit to NLCPHS below …

The school’s president does not preach in this video.  He doesn’t say that the book changed lives, and he doesn’t say that everyone should read this book.  He says that the trajectory of some of the lives of some of the students who were making bad decisions changed.  I have no idea whether or not this is true.  I do know that reading can and will only promote more reading.  It might prevent people from making bad decisions, too.  It might help a friend communicate a few sentences of frustration to another friend before making a bad decision.  At the same time, it might help someone be smarter and wiser: wise enough to ask more questions and seek more information from a friend experiencing difficulties.  It might help a student communicate a few sentences of anger to an adult before seeking negative attention from peers.  It might help adults communicate a few more positive sentences about people who piss them off.  Or it might not do anything at all.  Still, I don’t think the time spent reading Sentences would be wasted.

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Student work and teaching critical reading explicitly via comics

Every holiday season, our local alt-news weekly publication The Flagpole publishes a reader-submitted section to account for a week off.  The submissions are predictably an eclectic mix of writing: some worth reading, and some worth tossing.  Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago as I returned from the holidays with the family to find that one of my students published her own comic in our local newspaper.  This incredibly talented thinker, writer, and artist did this all on her own.  This was not an assignment for class, so I’m even more impressed by her efforts to seek enrichment on her own terms.  Upon reading her piece, I jumped up and nearly logged into my school’s student information database to call home to offer congratulations and praise.  Then I calmed down and read A Nice Day several times over, searching for ways to interpret the piece and trying to decide if it’s a comic, a short children’s book, both, or something else.

More easily consumed that produced, a text like this one can both demonstrate a student's understanding and invite students to analyze text critically.

Upon a surface read, the writer tells a simple tale of an elementary school (or maybe home school) teacher who brings her class out to the country for play time.  The setting appears to be winter time, but in my recollection, searching for four-leaf clovers is more of a spring and summer activity.  The students discover a clover patch, and they insist on searching for four-leaf clovers.  Normally a painstaking task requiring focus and time, one kid returns from the stream with several four-leaf clovers and a five-leaf clover.  As the class searches further and examines the clovers, they find ten-leaved clovers and a 6-leafed one with strange patterns of splotches and what appear to be tiny holes.  The teacher then sits quietly with a female student as the breeze descends over their heads.  Next the teacher looks up with a curious look in her eyes.  She may be stunned, but she could also simply be looking at something specific.  It’s not clear if the student notices what the teacher’s gaze has affixed itself upon at this point, but the student appears disappointed in the next panel as the teacher lays out her palms and then allows the 6-leaf clover to blow into the wind.  The writer shows the clover blow away across four mini-panels, finally showing the clover blow over a curious barrel-looking structure.  The next panel concludes “It was a nice day …” with an ominous set of ellipses further supported by the teacher facing the barrel-structure (with her back turned to the reader) to reveal what appears to be toxic, hazardous waste bins possibly draining into the stream near the clover patch.  The students are no longer present in the panels.  The writer illustrates a valve on the barrel that lays on its side although it’s not clear if she wants the reader to conclude that the barrel is leaking into the stream.  The final panel reads “The End” with a five-leaved clover portraying a skull design and a seven-leaved clover portraying a Rorschach-like pattern that indicates two eyes and an agape mouth that – to me, at least – indicates the need for help due to some kind of torture or violence.  The plot is definitely simple, but the text is more complex.

The writer engages several higher-level literary tools to convey meaning in this easily consumable text.  First, she (possibly unintentionally) uses irony when she portrays students searching for four-leaf clovers in cold weather.  Or is it cold weather?  One student dons a vest, scarf, and winter hat and the teacher wears a jacket, but several female students wear dresses.  These inconsistencies invite the reader to wonder why they’re apparent, or they’re just inconsistencies; these inconsistencies also invite the reader to consider the author’s intent.  Either way, they’ll manifest either consciously or unconsciously amongst a group of readers.  This irony also introduces subtle foreshadowing as the clovers contain unexpected extra leaves and strange patterns that lead up to the final imagery of death and pollution.  Moreover, the irony, foreshadowing, and imagery also inform the author’s use of symbolism.  Anyone can explain that a four-leaf clover represents good luck, but what does a mutated clover with extra leaves and strange patterns represent?  This conclusion is up to the reader, and ultimately this symbol informs the reader’s interpretation of theme in the text.

A fire at a local chemical plant last Summer led to serious pollution of a local stream. Seems like a great writing opportunity for both print-text and comics!

To me, this adolescent writer is pondering the loss of innocence – a common theme throughout adolescent literature as well as canonical texts presented in schools.  But how does the teacher in the comic respond to realizing that the clovers are likely mutations caused by toxic waste?  The writer intentionally omits this piece to the story, so it’s up to the reader to determine how the teacher should respond.  The panels that feature the teacher noticing the waste barrels are devoid of dialogue or speech, so it’s not clear how the teacher addresses the clovers and waste with the students – or if she addresses it at all.  This idea of the loss of innocence is twofold – the child growing older as well as the adults who care for the child figuring out how to address complex evils and dangers appropriately.  In this particular text, the loss of innocence is directly related to environmental issues and toxic waste destroying a symbol of luck and youthful innocence.  The beauty here is the simplicity through which this theme is communicated: ten simple panels that reveal much more depth upon closer reading.

I can’t take any responsibility for this student’s high quality work, and I’m sure I’m way overanalyzing her piece as I write this (sorry!).  My interpretation is also linked to my own biases: my knowledge of the writer and her own biases, of our local community, of the publication that houses the comic, and of literary analysis and comics in general.  Still, my response to this student’s comic is exactly the point of teaching literacy in the 21st century in a democratic society: examining a text critically through multiple lenses to reveal deeper meanings both written and implied, sharing these thoughts amongst a community of other readers and thinkers, discussing the nuances of these interpretations, and then using the text as a mirror to the self to examine one’s own baggage that they bring toward any and all texts.  These processes of critical reading are almost *never explicitly* taught in schools, and they’re certainly not always achieved with print-text, whether canonical, young-adult, high-or-low interest.  When students struggle simply to comprehend a text, it can be difficult to move from surface understanding toward deeper analysis.

This comic can be consumed in less than two minutes, but the discussion that could arise from it could last an entire class period or more, especially in the hands of an instructor who realizes that the same processes used to interpret comics or art can be directly applied to print-text.  I plan to rehearse critical reading skills by using this student-produced text in the future, and I urge anyone else who seeks to find ways to exercise critical reading with students to do the same.  A starting point might be to imitate my own interpretation here by mapping the basic plot and the events in the individual panels.  Given the ease of consumption, students could even cut out the panels to show how they apply to exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.  From there, the images and literary devices can be examined both individually and in layers to consider meaning; additionally, it would be easy to make students more aware of a writer’s strategic placement of a tool such as foreshadowing early in the text.  After that, the possibilities are up to the instructor’s own imagination and the interests of the class.  Fill in the gaps?  Add to the story?  Produce your own similar tale/comic?  Research environmental waste?  Something else perhaps?

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Literary mashup: killing Shakespeare, or another form of appreciation?

Good art should provoke strong reactions.  So let’s start here:

I am shaking my head. I want to cry. I want to bitch slap whoever was involved with creating it. However, this kind of crap is nothing new. There is nothing I can do about it except hope that somewhere, someday, it inspires ONE person to go and discover how awesome the work of William Shakespeare is and how even more awesome the history behind this iconic figure is. But the comic book is seriously so poorly done, so flawed on even the most elementary levels of story-telling, I cannot imagine it doing anything but alienating even more people.

Come on, the villain tells the hero his task is to steal Shakespeare’s Quill?

I just threw up in my mouth.

I’m not going to bother with explaining the basic flaws. You can find out for yourself and then throw-up in your own mouth.

Um, okay … It gets more fun and simply gross …

Oh, they think they are so clever. They must, because otherwise, this comic book would not exist. IDW would never have even considered the proposal. But no one at IDW knew a thing about Shakespeare, that much is clear, because I doubt that they want to publish a giant stinking turd of a comic book on purpose.

Thanks, Kimberly Cox, for giving us a great example of how NOT to write a review (which should be critical, not emotional) and for such a wonderful example of hyperbole!  While she is entitled to her own opinion, Cox is a scholar who would likely scoff at any attempt to teach curriculum standards via Shakespearean texts in the year 2010 and beyond.  She claims that you can’t teach Shakespeare or write about him unless you REALLY, TRULY understand him and the texts.  She’s right, but only to a certain degree. Her goal would be to teach Shakespeare to a group of students.  My goal is to engage students in constructing their own understanding of centuries-old Shakespearean texts and to build on comprehension and analytical habits over time. She seems to view Shakespeare as an end; to me, he’s only one piece of the means.  To be fair to Cox, Comic Book Resources also gives the volume an unfavorable review, sans bowel or vomit-laden imagery.

I don’t believe in labels such as traditionalist or maverick or however else we seek to pigeonhole teaching styles (they’re probably ALL good and useful), but I’m sure I’d be greatly entertained to watch someone like her attempt to teach Shakespeare (or rather, drama standards via Shakespeare) to any of my classes.  Would she bore students with a whole-group read and toss out a few toy swords, crowns, and capes and expect the students to magically care?  Or would she try something like this:

The above example was my first attempt to make Othello a bit more engaging – in addition to a variety of reading strategies and traditional assignments (even a long essay!).  It’s still rudimentary … Here is English teacher Charles Young’s much more sophisticated Facebook-engaged reenactment of Macbeth.  Both of these activities and assessments can be used as strategies to engage students in closer-reading of Shakespearean — or any — text, but neither will make Shakespearean text more accessible in and of themselves.  This is where a graphic text could be layered for a quick, easy hook.

Now – on to why Kill Shakespeare isn’t really all that great, but your students will still love it and you might even find it useful …

I tend to think that it’s tough to be completely original these days, and it’s okay to be derivative as long as you’re conscious of it and unpretentious.  Media can be produced, distributed, and consumed more easily and rapidly than ever before (Jenkins, 2006), and any and every subculture can find or establish an entertainment niche on the internet.  Some of the best music production in 2010 came from mashup DJ Girl Talk whose latest release All Day can still be downloaded for free as promotion for sold-out live concert dates that won’t earn him lawsuits from any of the 373 artists sampled on the 70-plus minute dance marathon album.  You may be asking “Why haven’t I heard of this guy?”  I counter “Why haven’t you heard of him?”  All Day’s popularity earned Girl Talk (Greg Gillis) his own official day in Pittsburgh, and he has been featured several times in the New York Times.

Gillis’ productions can be easily dismissed as recycled amalgamations that disrespect the rightful owners of the original music, and this viewpoint is certainly valid.  Who would want their own work to be “abused, stol’n from from [them], and corrupted” like Brabantio assumes Othello did to his fair daughter Desdemona via the power of witchcraft in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy?  Therein lies the issue.  Brabantio is a misguided, elitist patriarch who preserves his comfortable status in aristocratic Venetian society by employing Othello as a warrior and only regretfully as a son-in-law.  While Othello’s jealousy, Iago’s deceit, and Desdemona’s innocence are all equally important, Brabantio’s disapproval of his daughter’s interracial marriage helps lend Iago’s lies weight as well as representing how traditional beliefs wear thin with cultural change.  Just like Gillis takes classic rock, 80’s hits and 90’s alternative and makes it fun and relevant again by re-casting it through assertive, confident, party-themed hip-hop tracks that exercise the listener’s mind by forcing them to re-imagine the newly minted songs as both separate, original and combined, contemporary texts, McCreery and Del Col throw Shakespeare’s works into a blender, hit the pulse button a few times, and push out a new product that stands (more or less) on its own while simultaneously providing points of access to the multiple former texts.  As advertised, it’s like Bill Willingham’s Fables, but it’s solely focused on Shakespeare.

The plot, like my memory of Shakespearean plays, is not very complex: “In this dark tale, the Bard’s most famous heroes embark upon a journey to discover a long-lost soul.  Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, Romeo and Puck search for a reclusive wizard who may have the ability to assist them in their battle against the evil forces led by the villains Richard III, Lady Macbeth and Iago.  That reclusive wizard?  William Shakespeare.”  Referred to playfully as Will throughout, Shakespeare is the creator of the vast kingdom that houses each of these memorable characters who strive and war to find Will’s quill – an archetypal symbol of “all power and life” (Cooke, 2010).

Cooke’s introduction in the first trade volume (found here by scrolling through MTV’s free book preview) could itself be used to open up a candid discussion of why Shakespearean texts are frustrating to adolescent readers:


Othello and Iago as portrayed in Kill Shakespeare

Presenting an image such as this one portraying Othello's rage toward Iago could serve as a more relevant hook than classical art to open up a discussion of stereotypes and Shakespeare's treatment of them - a topic which Kill Shakespeare neither preaches nor strays from entirely.

… There is no love lost between myself and the Bard in question.  As a matter of fact, in high school if someone had yelled “Kill Shakespeare” I’d have zealously seconded.  My memories of high school Shakespeare are not unlike my memories of French language class: vague and irritating, like there was  a different word for everything.  Three pages into that muckety-muck and I’d gloss over and reach for a Ross MacDonald novel or a Detective Comic.  Class discussion often amounted to the teacher reading the play a line at a time with a crushingly thorough translation of each word and phrase and cunning inference.  For my story-starved teenage brain it was like being beaten to death with a dictionary in slow motion.  My inability to fall into the old man’s pentameters and rhythms kept me from enjoying his work on any level other than plot construction and basic character interplay (2010).

Peppered with literary allusions (both textual, direct, and indirect) and playful with Shakespeare’s works, any page or panel of this graphic text could be used for any variety of classroom activities and goals including activation and summarizing strategies (present the students with an image to relate to prior knowledge or to tie into the day’s lesson through a short written assignment followed by discussion), characterization (distinguishing between direct and indirect characterization in a graphic text and then transferring to Shakespearean text), understanding dramatic dialogue and speech (examining the importance of soliloquies), or even for creative writing.  The key is not to dismiss Kill Shakespeare as a weak, inaccurate, or impractical text, but rather to imagine how it could be used or presented to students to benefit even one reader’s appreciation of the Bard.


I often present a similar image to assist the students in constructing a preview of Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello and Desdemona, but images from Kill Shakespeare are certainly much more attention-getting.

Sure, there is no iambic pentameter, and although the artwork is highly engaging and the concept is imaginative, the plot can wear thin at times.  Readers may also benefit from prior knowledge concerning the featured characters, but then again, the text invites readers to learn MORE about these important literary figures whether via Wikipedia or even Shakespearean texts themselves.  A 2011 ALA Great Graphic Novel for Teens, Kill Shakespeare is easily found at local bookstores as well as throughout the internet links I’ve provided or simple searches.  Originally a video game idea, Kill Shakespeare could morph into a feature film in the future, at which point another layer of relevance and curiosity could be added to the Bard’s already rather thick inter-textual folio.  At that point, the authors may achieve their main goal.  “We want people debating about whether a project like this would have Shakespeare rolling around in his grave,” said Del Col in Wired Magazine.  Perhaps more English teachers should begin asking their students questions like this one.




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Discovery Channel sees the potential too!

Top 10 Deadliest Sharks

Come December, The Discovery Channel will publish a new volume boasting “10 stories based on real events” surrounding everyone’s simultaneously favorite and most feared sea creature: sharks!

Published by Silver Dragon Books, this new product aims to capitalize on the popularity of Discovery Network’s cult favorite Shark Week, a common staple of many childhood shark fascinations as well as college students aiming to find an excuse to drink.

USAToday notes that “In addition to Sharks, upcoming titles in 2011 will include a dinosaurs-themed story, an Animal Planet-branded book and a few other topics based on Discovery shows that are still in development.” Additional preview pictures are also found at USAToday.

This is yet another indication that comics and popular culture are unmistakably linked and that your classroom – no matter what subject area or age group – will benefit from using graphic texts in any capacity.

It also means that JAWS may be on the loose again …

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Another graphic organizer …

These are just easy response guides for memoir excerpts. I figured this would be preferable, easier to grade, and more fun than a set of 5-10 questions. These were made using Plasq’s Comic Life.

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A graphic graphic organizer

I’m sure I can do better, but feel free to steal/adapt … Additionally, what do people think?

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Coupling graphic memoir with the original text (and audio) using Geoffrey Canada’s Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, illusrated by Jamar Nicholas

Fist Stick Knife Gun: a Personal History of Violence

I just spent $200 out of my own pocket to order 20 copies of this text to use in the final few weeks of the semester. Why? Because Geoffrey Canada is purely awesome, and I think his memoir can serve a practical purpose in the classroom as well as a broader one, especially for adolescent males.

An experience teaching an all-boys class proved both enlightening and challenging. It’s not something I looked forward to and it’s not something I honestly would look forward to doing again, but it gave me an educational experience that I’ll be unraveling for years to come. Every teacher wrestles with their own individual perceptions of self, their experiences as students, and how to relate these memories and perceptions to their current students. Ultimately, I’ve realized that my own memories are just that: my OWN memories that were created through only MY lens. Attempting to understand any group of students through my prior experiences – regardless of race, class, and gender – is a generally futile effort that leads to excuses and stereotyping. Who cares what my idyllic memories are? There are 30 kids in the room with individual stories to consider. So when every single day presents adolescent fascination with violence, how am I supposed to react?

This is where Canada’s story will – I hope – provide an opportunity to have an honest dialogue about something that has been keeping me awake at night since August: the role that violence, learning to fight, self-defense, and self-image play in in constructing our individual perceptions of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and the world around us. After reading the graphic version, I immediately sent one student who had already finished current assignments on Neal Shusterman’s The Shadow Club to the library to read the book. Upon his return, another student claimed the book for the day while three others asked “Why can’t we read this?”

The text earns attention quickly. The table of contents portrays a jacket, a can of beans, a low-income apartment building, a broken pencil, a basketball, a heart, a rifle, a knife, a pistol, and a book, and these individual images and symbols begin each chapter before Canada and illustrator Jamar Nicholas investigate the full meaning behind these symbols in Canada’s life. As seen in the free preview, Geoffrey first becomes aware of violence after his brother intimidates a thief to retrieve a stolen jacket. From there, life in the Bronx provides a maturing Geoffrey a number of experiences with increasingly relevant and significant acts of violence. Each incident is examined without the didactic tone that often leads to a sleepy group of teenagers, which is precisely why I can’t wait to use this text to investigate an important adolescent theme as well as to hook student interest toward writing their own memoirs to conclude the semester.

Canada's original memoir

Click above for a 10-minute audio excerpt from Fist Stick Knife Gun recorded for NPR's This American Life

As the graphic novel will be read rather quickly, I plan to couple it with excerpts from the original memoir, which are generally short and high-interest.  This particular link narrates the conclusion of the graphic text – a great way to couple narrative voice with reading the graphic memoir and then comparing its presentation to the original text.  Students might also read Nicholas’ comments on working toward illustrating Canada’s writing to think about the author’s purpose.  Certainly, this nonfiction text could be coupled with Yummy or Sentences as well. Moreover, Canada’s own poems might provide more choice in writing opportunities that are created by reading a text like Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun.

Canada’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone is inspiring other efforts all over the country to stimulate the 8-hour school day by guaranteeing more educational opportunities for all students outside of the building’s walls and traditional operating hours. Maybe if more classrooms examined more realistic writing to foster honest conversation, more genuine interest in education would be naturally stimulated.

Again … I’ll post *everything* we use in the next few weeks for people to steal and adapt!

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Illuminating America’s economic woes through parody and comics: The Adventures of Unemployed Man by Erich Origen and Gan Golan

The Adventures of Unemployed man

In all honesty, Adam Smith isn’t particularly interesting to me. My high school economics textbook was Frank Herbert’s Dune (seriously – in addition to other student-centered projects), so it’s probably no wonder that I made a ‘C’ in ECON 2105 in college when I was bombarded with charts, graphs, numbers, and 90-minute lectures. I attended a weekend-long music festival in the days prior to the final exam, and I remember nothing from the course. It was Boring (note the capital ‘B’).

But what if the concept of the Invisible Hand had been introduced as a sinister force wreaking havoc upon the working class under the control of the Just Us League, an exclusive group of CEOs including The Man, The Thumb, The Golden Sack, and even the Laissez Fairey?

The Thumb and his attempt to extinguish Everyman from the economy

'Unemployed Man' offers an allegory/parody for the current economic crisis that could provide some scaffolding for beginning to comprehend the complexities of how capitalism and democracy struggle for balance.

While Origen and Golan’s new comic book is heavily biased and not meant to be taken entirely seriously, bits and pieces could be used to hook student interest to begin to learn about complex, rather abstract ideas that are usually presented in, well, boring ways when preparing for standardized tests rather than adult citizenship.  For example, if excerpted, any of the fantastic facts presented throughout the text could serve as lesson hooks for various purposes in both language arts and social studies classrooms.  Furthermore, characters like Wonder Mother (complete with her own Facebook profile, along with the rest of the major characters) illuminate concepts like the glass ceiling without having to navigate complex sets of data. Rather, as an introduction to an idea like the glass ceiling, Wonder Mother might just offer the intrigue necessary to invite students to begin to explore and understand something that would normally just be words on paper … lulling even the teacher to sleep.

Recently featured on CNN as well as earning praise throughout the press, various excerpts are easily found all over the internet to be proudly displayed on your Smartboards or linked in the computer lab. Texts like Unemployed Man are relatively cheap, but for the quick and easy ways that they can be introduced in the classroom, simple awareness of pop culture or one copy that a trusting teacher allows students to borrow one-by-one will expose the larger group to more than just textbooks.

Living in a college town, I know this character all too well … How could you use this one simple page to illuminate a new understanding of what a college diploma will mean for upcoming graduates?

This single page can be processed in less than a minute by most students, but the possibilities for discussion or connections thereafter are endless.

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Fit for independent reading? @ Large, a Hip-Hop Manga by Ahmed Hoke

@ Large by Ahmed Hoke

What happens when satire and social commentary fail to internalize in the audience the way the author likely hoped for? For example, what happened when less critical viewers misinterpreted skits on Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central? What about MTV’s Beavis and Butthead in the nineties? Did more analytical viewers cast these television comedies aside as trash, or were opinions about them more nuanced and accepting of the need for humor as a mirror for all human behavior – no matter how offensive or distasteful?

It depends on the viewer, right? We’re also told that it depends on parenting. My parents forbade me from watching Beavis and Butthead, but this didn’t stop me from locking my bedroom door to watch every episode. They even laughed when I insisted that they watch ‘The Great Cornholio’. Furthermore, while I disobeyed them, my parents knew that one television show wouldn’t turn me into an apathetic dumbass obsessed with fire, loud music, and petty acts of vandalism. Suburban adolescence and the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations all contributed more to that problem than any MTV broadcast, and besides, later on they were far more worried about the copy of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle they found on a dubbed cassette in the garage. It’s a good thing they never found the actual copy of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic that I mail-ordered through BMG’s record club.

I bring up these ridiculous pop culture icons of my adolescence as evidence that books like Ahmed Hoke’s @ Large will not magically turn your students into porn-obsessed, cursing, thuggish imbeciles who obsess over violence, sex, and video games. While I’m not necessarily convinced that the author’s sense of humor and subtle satire will rub off on most readers either, these texts are no more offensive than prime-time television in the year 2010.

Being a manga trilogy, @ Large is ideal for that special bookshelf behind your desk reserved for books that you keep around only for specifically interested parties. Thus far, I’m three-for-three with suggesting @ Large to apparent “non-readers”, but I still wonder why the text appeals to them beyond the obvious rap music cliches, large-breasted female characters, cursing, and occasionally well-penned verses. I guess it’s just familiar to teenage minds; I’ve given up trying to gauge the appeal. Another blogger notes the overall authenticity, claiming “Even though I don’t think @Large works as a comic, it gets the hip-hop vibe right. It’s not as… manufactured?… as other hip-hop elements in comics–it’s got more authenticity than the surface presentation of hip-hop slang that gets tossed into other comics.” In my mind, it’s no Sentences or Blockhedz.

Click here to view TokyoPop’s online preview of all three volumes. I simply gave up on trying to embed it here.

The trilogy tells interweaving stories involving: Rust, a graffiti artist with a chip on his shoulder; True Epic, a somewhat skilled MC whose ego generally outweighs his lyrical prowess; and Broke Rogers, the stereotype gangsta rapper. The plot thickens as Jungle Records signs True Epic, the mysterious and beautiful Skye captivates every male character in the story, Yuri (or Comrade) and Red Coast Records (some kind of Soviet attempt to capitalize on rap’s commercial appeal) attempt to take over the local rap industry working out of the same building as the @ Large internet/gaming cafe where Rust and the DNA crew hang out. Yes – you read that correctly. This is the plot here. Hoke signs off the series with “@ Large is dedicated to all the fallen soldiers in hip hop . . . stop the violence” (2005).

An even halfway conscious adult can read these volumes and see the author’s intended satire. Each rapper is a caricature of hip-hop stereotypes, and the supporting cast in the trilogy pokes fun at other common sights in the 21st century. An interview with the author shows that Hoke aims to critique a beloved and evolving art and culture when he says “I think that people are just starving for a new style. Hip-Hoppers have always been about flossing and showing off, that’s a big part of the culture. It’s possible to keep it real while still being flashy if that’s what you are about. The problem comes in when everybody is just biting, that shit is horrible. It’s nothing new, though. There will be a new style once people get sick of costume jewelry and huge rims eventually. Just like when dookey gold ropes and chains went the way of the dinosaur, it’s bound to happen, ha ha.” But still, the question remains: will adolescent readers pick up on the subtlety of the author’s intentions with this text? A Vibe Magazine review posed the same question: “Whether intentionally or not, Hoke expresses some serious commentary and observations on hip hop culture and life in general. There’s a small focus on the type of senseless violence that occurs when there’s beef. And also, though not specifically outlined, readers get the impression that Broke Rogers isn’t so caught up with the fun and fast aspects of being signed to a top record label. But in the end, as Hoke says, ‘I think (people) will basically get enjoyment from it in terms of entertainment. You know, (there’s) a good story line, good characters, lots of humor and just good artwork,’ if he does say so himself.”

The only reason that I will keep this text around the classroom is to provide downright stubbornly striving readers a last-ditch opportunity to engage with a somewhat meaningful text. I’m also sometimes stubborn and foolish, but I’ll admit that I found the books to be enjoyable enough to take the 25 minutes needed to reach each volume. If these texts can serve as a step toward something more challenging, I’m thinking they’re worth the $0.01 plus shipping.

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