Comics and graphic novels have long had to battle for respect and legitimacy, at least in the U.S. Whenever the genre pops up in the news, reporters still register surprise in headlines that comics are "not just for kids anymore" and "not just about men in tights."

Yet it was almost twenty-five years ago, in 1992, that Art Spiegelman's Maus became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. While far from the first serious story to be told in this medium, it was the first time that the literary establishment in the U.S. acknowledged what the genre could really accomplish.

Maus is as important an American literary classic as the works of Faulkner and Toni Morrison. The main narrative follows Spiegelman's father Vladek through the Holocaust, but Spiegelman also delves into his fraught relationship with his immigrant father, a story familiar to Americans of many ethnicities and nationalities. Thanks to the unique capabilities of comics, in addition to telling a riveting story, Maus also conveys multilayered commentary about a number of complex themes, such as the specter of inherited trauma, the malleability of ethnic identity, and both the breakdown and persistence of human kindness in wartime and its aftermath.

Far from simplifying his story, Spiegelman uses comics' juxtaposition of words and images to pull readers in and make them think—hard—like no other genre can. Spiegelman draws Jews as mice and Germans as cats, for example, so when Vladek and his wife Anja try to escape wartime Poland, they don cat masks tied in string bows on the backs of their heads, emphasizing just how fragile their disguises are. Careful readers notice in a later frame that Anja has a harder time blending in because her mouse's tail sticks out of the bottom of her coat. Then, in the final frame of this scene, Spiegelman pans his camera back to show the fear written into the very landscape: Vladek and Anja might not be able to tell from their view on the ground, but the reader can see that the path they're walking is shaped like a swastika.

I've been teaching a course on comics and graphic novels at Goshen College since 2008, and I always assign Maus first, because it expertly and repeatedly conveys one of the most important tenets of the class: comics and graphic novels are more than simply illustrated stories. In a successful graphic narrative, the equation words + pictures adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Scott McCloud was one of the first cartoonists to not only pinpoint and analyze but actually show this equation in Understanding Comics (Tundra Publications, 1993).

In this treatise in comics form on the genre, McCloud also calls comics "sequential art." The term "graphic novel," while in and out of use since the 1950s, first became popular in the late 1970s, when Will Eisner used it to describe his book Contract with God. Particularly since Maus, "graphic novel" has been used to distinguish longer comics, with more ambitious, often literary goals. The term is controversial, however. For one thing, a work like Maus is more of a memoir than a novel. Terminological quibbles aside, however, many writers and artists find the term pretentious, especially those who have been working in comics for a while, have always taken their work seriously, and see the label as a marketing strategy more than a valid genre. I find "graphic narrative" most precise for the books on my class's reading list, but since it's a less recognizable term than "graphic novel," it can mistakenly highlight the "adult only" connotations of the word "graphic"—which a number of my students have had to clarify for concerned parents. In this essay, I usually use both terms in the phrase "comics and graphic novels," and occasionally write "graphic narrative" or "graphic memoir." For a more detailed history of the term, this excerpt from Paul Levitz's 2015 book Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel (Abrams ComicArt) is fairly comprehensive: http://www.vulture.com/2015/10/will-eisner-graphic-novels-paul-levitz.html.

But what do comics and graphic novels have to do with "Mennonite writing"? Many of the contributors to this issue are Goshen College students and alumni. Some of these writers and artists were students in my Graphic Novel class—see my co-editor Mary Roth's introduction to the work of Samantha Horsch, Sarah Rich, Amanda Vanderzee, and Grace Weaver.

Partly because of the genre's lack of institutional recognition, comics artists—especially cartoonists of single-frame gags or short comic strips—are frequently self-taught. Our issue's contributors in that subgenre are no exception. These short forms might seem simple, but they take practice and skill to pull off successfully. Both Jim Strouse and Phil Gerig-Scott penned comics as undergraduates for Goshen College's student newspaper The Record. Gerig-Scott's work has expanded into a full graphic memoir, an annotated excerpt of which is included here. Strouse has built a career as an award-winning screenwriter and director, but still draws comics in his spare time, a few of which are included here. Finally, we're also honored to include work by the late Joel Kauffmann, who made a career out of the form with Pontius' Puddle, a comic strip that puzzled through theological conundrums in five panels or fewer. Ann Hostetler presents a tribute.

Like Kauffmann's strips, the scholarly work of GC graduate Jeremy Garber mines the intersection of theology, philosophy, and comics.Garber's exploration of the anthropological connections between Milton's Paradise Lost and Neil Gaiman's beloved Sandman series represents the type of in-depth theoretical study that comics, especially graphic novels, have inspired in academia in recent years. Garber's former colleague Elizabeth Coody writes for a broader but no less astute audience with her cultural analysis of the bizarre phenomenon of Jesus clones in comics.

Sabrina Jones also explores the sometimes fraught relationship between religion and comics, especially as a cartoonist interested in exploring religious themes through her work. Jones and Gary Dumm each contributed a section to the Herald Press book Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith (2013), edited by Paul Buhle, who has compiled graphic histories of countercultural figures from the Beats to Rosa Luxemburg. In Buhle's short piece on Nick Thorkelson's contribution to Radical Jesus, he discusses how comics are uniquely suited to represent and memorialize oral histories. Scott MacGregor, in introducing this issue's exclusive excerpt from A Simple, Ordinary Man, illustrated by Dumm, discusses both sides of comics' unique potential: while comics can prove an excellent vehicle for extending social justice, they also hold unique dangers if not used wisely.

One of the earliest publications to merge comics and social justice was the 1957 comic book MLK and the Montgomery Story, written byAlfred Hassler and Benton Resnick. Published by Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which sponsored the first Freedom Ride in the 1940s, this comic was distributed to civil rights groups, churches, and schools, mostly in the U.S., but also around the world. You can now read the whole comic online at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans site, but copies used to be hard to come by, partly because readers—especially in the South—were told to memorize then destroy theirs for fear of repercussions. The comic has experienced a resurgence of interest thanks to the graphic memoir series March (Top Shelf 2013, 2015), written by Georgia Congressman John Lewis with his staffer Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell. Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, has told interviewers that although the comic was instrumental to his own activism, he didn't have his own copy because he didn't have 10 cents to spare at that time.

GC's Mennonite Historical Library holds some original copies of the comic, however, which provided an excellent touchstone for the Journal's first-ever podcast discussion. Professors Anne Berry and Regina Shands Stoltzfus joined me to discuss the unique power of comics as an educational tool, as well as the complicated intersecting relationships among the city of Goshen, Goshen College, Mennonites, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Comics and graphic novels tend to be a uniquely collaborative endeavor, much like the process of compiling this issue. In addition to my co-editor and all of the issue's contributors—particularly my students, who teach me more and more about the genre every time I teach my graphic novel class—I'd like to thank Ervin Beck and Ann Hostetler for inviting me to compile this issue. Sophomore Computer Science major Christian Stoltzfus deserves special recognition not only as our tech guru, but also because the issue benefited from his many other talents, including transcription and expert copyediting. Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library, first alerted me to the library's holdings of MLK and the Montgomery Story, and helped arrange the podcast, in addition to providing historical context about the comic's presence at Goshen College. Randy Horst, my colleague in the art department, provided special assistance with the unique graphic demands of this issue. Heartfelt special thanks to Nancy and Justin Kauffmann for providing permission to reprint some Pontius' Puddle strips. Paul Buhle also deserves special recognition for helping us get in touch with his fellow Radical Jesus collaborators. I'd also like to thank my husband Kyle Schlabach for helping me keep up to date on the comics blogs, especially the superhero storylines, which proliferate faster than Jesus clones.

I'm sure that many of you reading this issue are well-versed in comics and graphic novels, and I hope you enjoy this small slice of what the genre can accomplish and inspire. If the genre is new to you and you'd like to read more, I've appended my most recent class reading list—I recommend starting with Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis—and would also like to suggest, as the best recent intersections of comics, religion, and social justice, any of Paul Buhle's many edited volumes, Gene Luen Yang's Boxers and Saints (First Second, 2013), and the new Ms. Marvel series (Marvel, 2014-2015), which features Kamala Kahn, a Muslim-American teenager from Jersey City. That's just a start—I'm missing a lot, as is this issue, so I encourage you to keep the conversation going in the comments section.

English 235, The Graphic Novel, Spring 2016 Reading List

Lynda Barry, What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008)

Alison Bedchel, Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Dan Clowes, Ghost World (Fantagraphics Books, 1997)

Victor Garcia, Sara Klassen, Mandy Schlabach, Kate Yoder, eds. Goshen Graphix II (Pinchpenny Press, 2014)

Gilbert Hernandez, Marble Season (Drawn and Quarterly, 2013)

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March, Book 1 (Top Shelf, 2013)

Gene Luen Yang, American-Born Chinese (First Second, 2006)

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (Tundra Publications, 1993)

Rutu Modan, The Property (Drawn and Quarterly, 2013)

Liz Prince, Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir (Zest Books, 2014)

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Pantheon, 2004)

Art Spiegelman, Maus and Maus II (Pantheon, 1993)

About the Author

Jessica Baldanzi

Jessica Baldanziis an Associate Professor of English at Goshen College, where she teaches comics and graphic novels, as well as twentieth and twenty-first century American Literature, media and popular culture, creative writing, and composition. She has presented papers on Ms. Marvel, as well as works by Chris Ware and Marguerite Abouet, and helps promote comics for a general readership with a comics review blog, Commons Comics, for the Elkhart Truth. She is also a creative writer specializing in flash memoir and fiction. Her most recent piece, "Instructions for the Bereft," appeared in Booth.