CSUN professor brings love of comics, literature to classroom

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Charles Hatfield was only 10 years old when he and his brother first became fascinated with comic books, but it wasn’t until he was doing his doctoral thesis at the University of Connecticut that he decided to take comic books to the next level.

More than 10 years ago, Hatfield, a professor in the English Department at CSUN, was at the beginning stages of working on his doctorate as an 18th-century literature specialist. During this period, he was spending more time thinking and writing about comics than on 18th-century literature.

“I decided about 10 years ago to walk out on a plank and make (comics) my interest,” Hatfield said. “I had seen enough examples. I thought I could do it.”

Although it took Hatfield another five years to finish up his thesis, he took all the things he had learned since childhood from studying comics and began writing his thesis on comics as literature.

Since he started teaching at CSUN in Fall 2001, Hatfield, 40, has created a new class every year.

Two years ago, Hatfield developed and proposed a comics course at CSUN.

He said he was well prepared when the college asked him to provide a syllabus and bibliography because he worked on it for so long.

Comic Book as Literature, ENGL 396CO, a course designed by Hatfield, was introduced Spring 2005 as an experimental course in the English Department. Until the department decides whether it should remain permanent, the course will be offered every spring.

“I think the students are very enthusiastic,” said George Uba, English Department chair. “He teaches in a subject that resonates with a lot of students’ experiences growing up.”

Hatfield said students enjoyed taking the course, and he received a great response from them.

“I got to see what kinds of comics students are drawn to,” Hatfield said.

“The students’ work last spring was really exceptional,” he said. “People enjoyed (the course) and they seemed to get a lot out of it and walked away with a better understanding of comics.”

During the semester, Hatfield taught the class using six comic books. The course explores content genres such as mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, history, autobiography, superhero, humorous and political satire.

The class is structured to allow a variety of activities and assignments.

“We do the traditional things people do in a literature class,” Hatfield said. “There is always some sort of writing going on in class.”

As an adolescent, Hatfield took some time off from reading and buying comic books.

“I never stepped foot in a store that existed just to sell comics until I was 20,” Hatfield said.

By the age of 20, he rediscovered comic books, and since then, he has never strayed.

His recently published book, “Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature,” is an examination of self-expression created in comics and graphic novels. The book was published in August.

Hatfield said many comic books deal with things that are difficult to solve.

“(Issues in which) people want to know what’s going on,” Hatfield said of relevant issues. “Some have what I call a vision of life.”

Comics also qualify as literature because they are picture-illustrated, and picture books are considered literature, he said.

Uba said comics are a very interesting area of investigation.

“Historically, people have not taken comic art seriously,” Uba said. “(This) is making us engage with comic art in very innovative ways.”

Literature has always had a relationship with pictures, Hatfield said.

Hatfield developed a passion for literature at a young age.

“I was one of those people that would look for something to read,” Hatfield said. “I value reading and writing a lot. I always have.”

“Having strong skills in those areas sort of frees your mind,” Hatfield said. “When you have a mind of your own, it makes you pay attention to the world and the things that people say, and those are good skills. I want people to really get involved with what they’re seeing and hearing rather than being passive and absorbing it like sponges.”

In Spring 2006, Hatfield will be teaching his Comic Book as Literature course for the second time.

Hatfield she he plans to offer a thorough introduction to what is going on in comic books today. He wants to demonstrate to students the many different ways people can read and look at comics.

“I want to give students – an entire introduction to the field of comics, and to keep on using outside resources, guest speakers and other things to keep (the class) lively and real,” Hatfield said. “I want to learn more about comics myself as I prepare with students.”

Next semester, Hatfield said his class will be going on several field trips. They will be visiting two different museums and two major exhibits on comics.

At CSUN, Hatfield also teaches Children’s Literature and Literature for Adolescence. He is also a specialist in children’s literature, word/image studies, film, animation and media.

On Nov. 17, Hatfield received an award and was named the Jerome Richfield Memorial Scholar for 2005-06.

The Jerome Richfield Memorial Scholar is an honor presented each academic year to a faculty member conducting research in the arts, sciences or humanities.

As a Richfield scholar, Hatfield presented a university lecture titled “Thirteen Ways of Reading Comics,” as part of the annual Provost’s Colloquium.

Harry Hellenbrand, CSUN provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, has read some of Hatfield’s work and said Hatfield is a smart man.

“He’s right there in a segment of artists using a combination of narrative and graphic design,” Hellenbrand said. “I think (artists) are doing so to launch a critique of American values. They think more deeply about stories in general.”

Hatfield said the hardest thing about teaching is the lack of time a teacher has to cover all the important and interesting topics that should be covered.

“Any subject that is interesting enough to want as a course is so big and complex that you can’t quite cover it in one course, so you have to make decisions about what to cover and for how long,” he said.

Hatfield currently resides in Santa Clarita with his wife and two sons, ages 16 and 13.

Hatfield said he is honored to have received the award.

“It was very surprising – it made my jaw drop,” Hatfield said. “People took a careful and long look at my research. The award shows me that the study of comics can be a part of what is going on in the university, and it is in the mainstream of people’s interest.”

Valencia Bankston can be reached at city@csun.edu.