Tag Archives: education

Educator’s Perspective: “Sh*t My President Says”

It’s said that no work of literature is written in a vacuum.

One of the first things you learn to do as an undergrad in any course in literature is to unpack the political, cultural, and societal implication of whatever it is you’re reading, because whether the author intended it or not, he or she was assuredly influenced by the circumstances in which it was written.  Even as a high school student I learned that Shakespeare’s fascination with witchcraft in Macbeth is likely an influence of the King under which he was writing, who had an interest in the occult himself; The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm both have their roots in a kind of British political anxiety, and the only way that On the Road can be more of a manifesto of the early counterculture movement is if copies of it are beaten by riot officers.

Yet I’ve always been more interested in the political, cultural, and social capital hidden away in the more obscure media, the stuff that, for whatever reason, has for so long escaped the notice of conventional scholarship. Though teachers have long adored the political cartoon there remains a strange, standoffish attitude toward the comic book, as though we’re all still in the 1950s and Dr. Wertham is sitting across from us making all sorts of uncomfortable eye contact over a stack of World’s Finest. Thankfully that attitude has receded significantly in recent years and I’m happy to see more and more that teachers like myself are having success in using the rife political and cultural content of comics as a springboard to discuss ideas as diverse and grandiose as race relations, diplomacy, and the importance of de-mystifying the “other”ness of foreign cultures, peoples, and ideologies.

The conversation about the political and sociocultural implications of comics – really, of all media – is always hobbled somewhat when it hits a K-12 classroom environment.  There begin conversations about correctness and age-appropriateness, and whether a book can or should be introduced to the student population for fear of indoctrination. Year after year mainstays like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are called into question by school boards and parent groups across the country, and while their reasons are varied they general boil down to what we want our children to discover about who and what we are.  Works that are censored for classroom use have a common thread: they oftentimes highlight the worst of us, in an attempt to ensure that we avoid making the mistakes of our ancestry.

That being said, it seems highly unlike that Shannon Wheeler’s “Sh*t My President Says” will ever see regular use as a implement of classroom instruction, given that it is both a comic book, and therefore still a subject of academic uncertainty by some of my colleagues, and demonstrative of one of the most deranged, startling, and ultimately embarrassing garbage fires of the 21st century.  It is eye-opening in its candor, tragically funny, vitally informative, and ought to be required reading for anyone hoping to study the political machine of the early 21st century. It may very well be one of the most important historical artifacts of this decade.

All because of Twitter.

“Sh*t My President Says” is a perfect example of the historically-embedded nature of media. Even without Wheeler’s accompanying caricatures of Trump as a riotous toddler with a phone fetish, the collection of our mentally-errant President’s 140-character temper tantrums provides a sobering look at just how we got to where we are. Taken with Shannon Wheeler’s supplemental artwork, the Tweets take on a second life: their childishness is thrown into a stark relief with the inclusion of the author’s idealized boy king Trump, and indeed the whole work might read as a fiction were we not living it as we are now.

From a teachable standpoint, nothing beats a work that provides the subject’s words as they were uttered while simultaneously offering a responding critique of them. In this way Shannon Wheeler has submitted to his audience a kind of living primary source, an artifact that both serves to document history as well as record our collective reaction to the oftentimes unbelievable events of our current political climate – which, of course, is a form of history in and of itself.

Is it teachable? Absolutely, and pertinently so: in much the same way that we recognize the crassness of the language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the sexuality of “The Awakening” as indicative of the societies and cultures of the time in which they were written, Wheeler’s compilation of the fractured thoughts of our enfeebled Commander-in-Chief are likewise a reflection of the state of our society. Wheeler provides a means to process an pivotal event in American political history in a way that is accessible for its simplicity, honest for its presentation, and as painless  an experience as it could be possibly be for the author’s satirical approach to her bumbling, foolhardy subject matter.

Nevertheless, I give Mr. Wheeler a great deal of credit for his work in compiling this trainwreck of a timeline in recording the Trump tweets he has.  For the levity with which it is presented, there is something truly sinister about seeing these words become actions, and those actions engender other, more awful actions. Longtime exposure to those levels of ego-maniacal word vomit cannot be healthy for an individual, and I hope sincerely that Mr. Wheeler recovers quickly for his exposure.

While its unflinching revelation of the worst of our potential all but guarantees it never sees widespread classroom use, I fully expect that passages from “Sh*t My President Says” will find their way into political science and literature classrooms across the globe. This cutting work of comics journalism is a vibrant reminder of how we ended up in this mess, and I wager that there’s more than a few daring educators willing to make the case that, like Mockingbird and Rye, just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to its implications.

Literature isn’t written in a vacuum – but sometimes the stuff that inspires it sucks nonetheless.  It’s our job to learn from it, and works like Wheeler’s make that possible.

An Educator’s Take on The Not-So Secret Society

Matthew and Arlene Daley’s The Not-So Secret Society is the next in a long line of comics made for and by educators with the explicit purpose of classroom use – a line that often varies in its quality and content, but generally has its heart in the right place.

As both an educator and an advocate for the intellectual and academic merit of the Comics medium, I’m firmly in the middleground of excited and tentative when a new educator-based comic is announced. Where content is concerned, I’ve seen more than a few well-intentioned educators more or less butcher the medium through fundamental misunderstandings of how comic books function, resulting in little more than an illustrated textbook; where tone is concerned, I’ve been disappointed more than once with a sanctimonious, pedantic tone struck toward a reading audience that we teachers know – we know – responds best to guidance when it comes from a place of mutual respect and openness.

Thankfully, The Not-So Secret Society appears to avoid both of these issues.  Billed as “an all-ages adventure that celebrates the value of teamwork and lifelong friendships”, the Not-So Secret Society follows the misadventures of a group of friends whose science fair project, a candy-making machine, inadvertently unleashes more than they bargained for on their city. The preview copy I had the chance to read promises a straightforward and accessible all-ages romp without a trace of condescension. Characterization of each of the main characters is clearly defined, if a little cut and dry, and follows the “stock school clique” format you’ve seen before – which, given the target audience, isn’t surprising nor a negative. The art is easy for young eyes to follow without being so simple as to lose the interest of older readers; there’s plenty of detail in the backgrounds and enough of a Saturday cartoon vibe to evoke memories of Recess, The Weekenders, and other dearly departed early morning classics.

I am curious to see where the co-creators’ education experience will come to pass, as the bit of the issue I was given to sample played very little to overt pedagogy or any kind of explicit subject area content (or, really, anything apart from setting up the story itself), but as far as I am concerned that is a good sign. If the Daleys can take a story about a candy-machine-gone-bad and somehow spin it into a lesson worthy of classroom inclusion, then more power to them.  There’s also the equally-valid notion that the endgame is the focus on “teamwork and lifelong friendships” that the overview promises, which has its place in the classroom but is less in demand as an explicit lesson, especially in the era of truncated instructional minutes and concerns about time, time, time.

Perhaps not surprising is the boost of confidence I feel for this title knowing that it is being published by an imprint of BOOM! Studios. BOOM! has become an easy favorite of mine over the past year for its fearless embracing of that which falls just shy of the traditional comic book reader’s tastes while still maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere. Titles like Adventure Time and Steven Universe come to mind, but also Lumberjanes, The Backstagers, and the masterful Power Rangers reboot all speak highly of a publisher that, while not as flashy as the big guys, certainly knows how to choose its horses in each race.  I may still be on the fence when it comes to the direction that The Not-So Secret Society will lead, but its inclusion alongside such noteworthy titles is worth consideration.

Don’t misunderstand: The Not-So Secret Society is still a young reader’s book. I can see its simplified structure and easygoing narrative style as an excellent fit for a late elementary school classroom, and clever development of the story might even suggest it as a contender for middle school libraries – but beyond that, I think it’s easy to pass on this one unless you’re an educator, mentor, librarian, or otherwise have a vested interest in this work’s intended audience.

The Not-So Secret Society makes for an easy read for the young comic book reader in your life, with its easy visuals, straightforward storytelling, and the publishing power of BOOM! behind it. I’m excited – and hesitant – to see where the Daleys take their candy-coated adventure, and whether it lives up to all that it could be.

BOOM! Announces The Not-So Secret Society Events & Educational Guides

Discover science, candy, and awesome adventure in The Not-So Secret Society, an all-new all-ages graphic novel from BOOM! Studios, available now in comic shops and bookstores everywhere!

The writing team of Matthew Daley and Arlene Daley call on 25 years of combined education experience to create this thrilling coming-of-age adventure featuring five young friends inventing a candy-making machine for their school’s annual science fair…and unintentionally unleashing a colossal candy creation that could destroy the city!

Co-created by Macrocosm’s Trevor Crafts and Ellen Crafts, and illustrated by Wook Jin ClarkThe Not-So Secret Society is an all-ages adventure that celebrates the value of teamwork and lifelong friendships. This original graphic novel is supplemented by parent guides and educator guides (newly expanded to celebrate the release) included in the book and more to be found online.

To support the launch of this original graphic novel, the creators at Macrocosm will appear at a variety of upcoming Not-So Secret Society interactive events including signings, meet and greets, presentations on creating comics, and special gummy bear raffles!

  • Children’s Book World in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 19th from 2:30-3:30pm
  • Barnes & Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles on Saturday, September 9th at 1:00-2:00pm

For more on The Not-So Secret Society check out their website where you can get FREE downloadable activities for kids, parent and educator guides, information on upcoming live events from the creator team, and even listen to the official theme song!

Comics in the Classroom Revisited: Looking on the Sunnier Side of Teaching Graphic Novels

*Note–Last semester, I wrote a piece reflecting on my experience teaching a graphic novel class, which you can read here.  This piece returns to that topic but updates it with the experiences of a new semester and group of students.  Further note: all of the artwork shown in this post is from my students this semester.*

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This semester, like last semester–when my students have been working on creating their own comics or in groups analyzing the comics we read in class–anytime I asked if students needed any help, I’ve been met with a wall of silence.  Unlike last semester, though, this wall of silence was built for a different reason: whereas last semester my students were being stubbornly silent because they didn’t want to engage in any of the work, this semester my students are so into their work that they don’t respond.  But make no mistake–my students this semester will ask questions and engage in deep discussion, just on their own terms and pace.  And for this reason, this semester of teaching comics has been a night and day difference from my experience last semester.

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Last semester, I had only about five students who were passionate about comics and were often restrained in those passions by the rest of the class, students who didn’t care about effort, let alone comics.  This semester, most of my students are passionate about comics in some way (even if they don’t like Persepolis or Kuper’s adaptation of Metamorphosis), and maybe more importantly, have an intellectual curiosity that sparks genuine discussion.

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Questions that would meet with a half-hearted sentence last semester, give birth to an authentic discussion that often pushed other questions from the agenda, simply because we wouldn’t have enough time to get to all of them.  When I brought in a student teacher who was born and grew up in Iran to speak to the class about her experience and add insight to our reading of Satrapi’s memoir, my class’s eyes and ears were all glued to her.  They didn’t ask many questions, but the ones they did ask were thoughtful and genuine.

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This semester, my students have jumped into not just one choice book (like my students last semester did) but two.  And not only that, but their discussions and presentations for this choice book have been more detailed and clearly passionate.  I even had one student who checked out all Nausicaa graphic novels within one week (even though only the first was required for a choice book).  To a lesser degree, this happened with my other copies of Wandering Son and Bone.  And showing that this passion doesn’t restrict itself to my graphic novel class, I have a student who is reading Nimona for a book talk in my AP Language and Composition class, plus Dan Slott’s She Hulk for the second choice book in my graphic novel class.

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But what has impressed me the most has been the effort my students have put into making their own comics.  They each have different levels of quality on the product, some drawing in more detail than others and creating work that “looks” better,  but every student has bought into the process and created some great storytelling, despite differences in their ability to “draw well”.  And they’ve created work of such variety: ranging from a heartbreaking look at bullying to a light-hearted story of a crab stowing away on a  plane and getting lost as a result–I haven’t read the next part of his adventure, finding home, but I’m sure it’s just as engaging as the first one was and just as engaging as the student creating a dystopian society where everyone is literally connected to an online network.  

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Just as impressive, the variety my students have brought to their stories has also transferred to a variety of storytelling devices not seen from my first semester students.  Instead of coloring a whole piece, I have some students selectively coloring parts of their page to emphasize certain details or moods, almost like Spielberg did in Schindler’s List.  Without showing Fables to any of my students, I have had a student create Buckingham-like borders on each side of the page, a move that might not show more of the story but definitely creates a stronger tone and aesthetic experience.  And examples like this are just the tip of the creative iceberg floating in my class this semester.

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This creative experimentation is something that has also freed me up to experiment with my own comic, Rebirth of the Gangster.  Although I was always pushing myself creatively, as you can see in my first piece about creating the comic, I’ve recently started experimenting with less linear layouts, making my comic feel less like storyboards and more like a, well, like a comic.  While I’m sure some of this evolution in my own process is something that happens naturally, I’m also sure that a big part of it has been watching the many different processes and products my students have shown me this semester.  Just like the ideal classroom, I’m learning as much from my students as they are from me.  And even though I’ve been pretty pessimistic about my class last semester, one of my strong students from last semester (who I also learned a lot from)  is returning next year for an independent study with me.  I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from working with a student one-on-one, especially since I have some new approaches revealed by my students this semester.

In short, my gloomy summary and prediction of teaching graphic novels last semester has faded to a bright and sunny outlook this semester.  Some of this might be attributed to better teaching on my part (I did cut out some parts of the class that didn’t work last semester and streamline others that did but went on for too long) but to be honest, most of this change is a result of the change in students and better mix of individuals to create a strong classroom community.  But that’s teaching in a nutshell for you.  Even though classes always have their ups and downs across semesters and different groupings of students, I hope to keep this high point (and maybe even scale to new heights) next year.  What can I say?  I love the view–I just hope it stays this way for a long time.  

Comics Creator Eleanor Davis Arrested at Georgia Regents Protest

Eleanor Davis, the creator behind You & a Bike & a Road, Libby’s Dad, How To Be Happy, and more was arrested at a protest at Tuesday’s Georgia Board of Regents meeting. They were charged with obstruction and trespassing charges.

Davis, along with others, were protesting “the system’s policies that restrict those without legal immigration status.” The policy bars attendance from five of the state’s top universities and paying in-state tuition at others.

The Board members chickened walked out of the meeting when the protest began but later returned.

The protest was a mix of “faith leaders and current and former University System of Georgia students.” Similar protests have been held at previous meetings and organized by the Atlanta-based Freedom University. That organization provides tuition-free college preparation for students impacted by this policy.

Davis has been released after the Georgia Civil Disobedience Fund paid her bail.

Creators Corner: Opening the Doors to Comics in the Classroom

As a life-long comics fan, I’ve always tried to remove the blinders from people’s eyes and make them see the value of comics, to open the doors that prevented them from entering into this new and wonderful world. In grade school, I strong-armed my friends into taking trips to the comics store with me. In middle school, I took a brief detour and closed the doors on comics–finding yourself and accepting yourself in middle school is hard enough without having to embrace the label of “Comic Geek,” especially since most people’s frame of reference for comic fans at the time was The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy.

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Eventually, in high school, I grew tired of having this secret identity and would proudly proclaim my love of comics, shoving comics into the hands of friends based on interest. A friend liked the action, intrigue and conspiracies of the Bourne books–check out 100 Bullets. A friend already liked Neil Gaiman’s prose work–check out Sandman. A friend and I connected over our shared love of the 90s X-Men cartoon series–check out this other cool X-Men thing from the 90s called Age of Apocalypse. The doors were starting to open again, but I had more than a few friends who slammed it shut in my face.

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Now that I’m a high school English teacher, I still want to open the doors so more people can enjoy the great world of comics, but I have some different methods. At first, it started off as offering Maus as an alternative to another concentration camp book, Night. Then, it branched into having students use online comic creator programs like Pixton to showcase knowledge of theme in a text we read. But these only opened a few doors for the few students in my class who wanted to explore new rooms. It was time to try something else.

Three years ago, I decided that it was time to propose a graphic novel class. I’d had a taste of the engagement that comics can build in students, and I wanted more, but I wanted to see this happen every day for every student in a class. I spent a frenetic weekend poring over my district’s new course proposal requirements, filling out the documents, asking for feedback from other teachers who had proposed a class before, and then revising those documents based on their feedback. I might have been dead to the outside world, but I was creating a new world for a new classroom. Unfortunately, for various reasons having to do with district politics, all of our English department proposals were rejected, graphic novel included. I’d glimpsed some light through a crack in the door, but just when I was about to cross the threshold, the door was slammed in my face. Again.

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Two years ago, I made slight changes and then sent it to be approved. But our district had changed the course proposal requirements, allowing only one department to add new classes per year, and it was again rejected, because it wasn’t our department’s turn. The door remained closed.

Finally, a year ago, they opened the door (not just to my class, but to our department’s eight other new classes). I spent that year ironing out any kinks any the course, and so that I could speak more to the creative process of making a comic, I started self-publishing my thriller comic Rebirth of the Gangster (shameless plug–it’s on sale on Amazon, and it’s like Breaking Bad meets The Wire with a shot of Shakespearean drama and debt to Othello). The year passed, I’d adjusted some of the choice texts for the class, and I’d released the first three issues of my series, and I entered my classroom doors at the beginning of September, ready to unlock student’s passion for comics.

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But that didn’t pan out quite like I hoped.

Sure, there were students who had read plenty of comics (especially manga, often from students who were in the anime club I advise). And those students entered my class with the same curiosity and commitment I would’ve entered a similar class if it had existed when I went to high school. They saw something worthwhile in every comic we read, even the more abstract Understanding Comics that tripped up many other students. They poured sweat into every Behind the Scenes activity we did, even if they only cared about the writing part of the comic creating process or if they only cared about the penciling, inking, coloring, or lettering we focused on in other BTS lessons. They would often offer insights in class discussion that I hadn’t thought of, prompting other students to become more engaged in the stories we read. And when the end of the semester came, and they had to create some aspect of a 6-page comic, they worked for their own growth, not for a grade. They created something that not only earned an A; it earned my gratitude and pride. These students saw an open door and jumped through it, never looking back.

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But these students only counted for about ¼ of my class. The rest of my class didn’t care about comics, and even more worrisome, didn’t care to put in work when asked. They took my class because they thought it would be an easy A. “It’d be less work, and even if I have to read, reading comics is easier” is what they all told me. Comics might have become legitimate enough to have a class all their own, but people’s perceptions weren’t changed that quickly, and comics still weren’t seen as legitimate or as deep as other media. At least they were honest.

Sometimes this didn’t matter. My students who had opened the door and started exploring every nook and cranny of these new rooms would often carry discussion, pulling some of these students in. And even when they didn’t pull other students in, talking with those students about comics–learning from them as they were learning from me–often made my day. But on those days when they didn’t carry conversations, class would drag, and it would weigh on me more than any of my other classes. I began to dread this class.

And I think my students could tell, but they didn’t change. In fact, many students got even lazier. It got to the point that one of my students lost their job, because his parents wouldn’t let him work when he was failing my class. I’ve taught for seven years, and that was a first for me. This student even admitted he only failed because he didn’t care enough about the class to try, but his behavior didn’t change. He closed the door, and even when he was standing in a hallway on fire, he refused to open it.

I got so sick of this that I had an extensive heart-to-heart with my class. I talked about how I had more Fs in that class than the rest of my classes combined. I talked about how comics were my greatest passion, but that this class’s attitude was making me dislike my greatest passion. I talked about how something similar had happened when I taught a hip hop class, and that I needed to take a break from teaching that class because of the lack of passion from my students, not because I didn’t love hip hop. And I told them that unless things changed, the same thing was going to happen here: I’d teach this course for a year and then abandon it in the same way I felt that most of my students had abandoned my jewel, the class I had worked harder on than the AP classes I teach.

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I don’t know if it was this talk, or if it was just that many of my students put in a last-ditch effort to avoid an F for the semester in this class. Whatever it was, over the last two months of this class, I began to see more effort and curiosity from my students. Part of this could have to do with reading a choice graphic novel in the last part of the semester: as much as I love Kuper’s Metamorphosis, Spiegelman’s Maus, and Satrapi’s Persepolis, I definitely know that other comics would draw them into this world of panels and gutters more effectively (choice texts like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Wandering Son, Nausicaa, March, and more). Once they got their hands on a graphic novel they chose, they creaked open the door and took a few steps into this new room: not everybody, but more than I had seen up to that point.

Ultimately, by the end of the semester, I no longer dreaded teaching this class. But I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would when I’d spent the previous years and summer hammering away at a keyboard, chiseling out curriculum. It had become like any other class I taught: full of some fun heights and some frustrating lows and a whole lot of boring middle ground.

Yes, I found a way to open the door to a new generation of comics readers, but I didn’t figure out a way to have them walk through that door. But then again, isn’t that the case with any subject in school? And if many of my graphic novel students are treating my class like they do other classes, that surely should be a sign that comics are gaining that legitimacy I always wanted. As it is with any other subject, the doors are open, and it’s all on the individual if they decide to explore that room or not, if they decide to make this pit stop or continue on their path. Finally, no one will slam these doors in their face like I had them slammed in mine. And that’s a step in the right direction even if the finish line still isn’t in sight.

Gen Con Partners with Temple University’s Digital Scholarship Center

Gen Con has announced a new and very interesting partnership with Temple University’s Digital Scholarship Center which will work on the creation of an online database of events for all 50 years of the Gen Con gaming convention.

The database will be available for public use with an accompanying exhibit site for articles. With this event information, researchers can apply digital scholarship techniques, including textual and network analysis, to learn how gaming has changed as reflected through Gen Con.

The project is expected to “go live” July 2017.

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Cartoon Network, The Powerpuff Girls and Scratch Give Plurals The Tools To Become The Next Generation of Creators

As part of their ongoing commitment to inspire the next generation of young creators, Cartoon Network is deepening its collaboration with Scratch and debuting the first of two coding-themed episodes from the global hit series, The Powerpuff Girls, along with the introduction of “Make It Fly,” a tutorial that shows young people how to create interactive animations and games using the Scratch global coding platform. The series, premiering Thursday, June 9, at 6:30 p.m. (ET/PT), joins We Bare Bears as the second Cartoon Network intellectual property uploaded to the Scratch website to encourage children to create and share.

In “Viral Spiral,” the first of two computer science-themed episodes of The Powerpuff Girls, Bubbles uses her coding skills to help save the internet. Kids can develop their problem solving and creative skills by visiting the free Scratch coding platform and using the new tutorial to make animations, stories and games starring Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup.

Earlier this year, Cartoon Network announced its collaboration with the White House on the Computer Science for All initiative, a movement focused on making coding and other hands-on science, technology, engineering and math learning an integral part of every student’s education.

Scratch, a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, is a free, easy-to-use programming language and online community that encourages kids to create and share their own interactive stories, games and animation projects. The MIT Scratch Team designed the website as a space where kids can express themselves creatively through technology and collaborate with one another. Through the Scratch online community, kids can try out each other’s projects, give feedback and suggestions, and even remix and build on one another’s projects.The Powerpuff Girls free coding tutorial is available online.

Around the Tubes

superman aliIt’s a new week! Some of us were at Awesome Con this past weekend, so expect coverage of that show over the next few days.

While you await that, here’s some comic news and reviews from around the web in our morning roundup.

Around the Tubes

iO9 – The Story Behind That Superman and Muhammad Ali Team Up – Some fantastic comic history.

CNBC – Comic books buck trend as print and digital sales flourish – Great to see this mainstream coverage.

iO9 – Marvel’s Civil War Comics Live Up to Their Name in the Worst Way – There were some definite issues. What did you all think?

LA Review of Books – The Dawn of “Just Me”: Zack Snyder’s Neoliberal Superheroes – An interesting read.

Uproxx – Meet Mr. Xtreme — One Of America’s ‘Real Life Superheroes’  – Fascinated by all of this.

PC Mag – Tackling Slavery in the Classroom With a Graphic Novel and an App – Great to see this in schools.

The Beat – Gruesome Hollywood murder was foreshadowed in a graphic novel – Utterly disgusted by this.

The Beat – Fans v Pros: You’re Doing it Wrong – Well worth a read.

 

Around the Tubes Reviews

Talking Comics – Green Arrow: Rebirth #1

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