I Read the Batman White Knight Academic Reading Guide So You Don’t Have To by Lan M.

In the Common Era year of 2021, it’s no secret that Batman: White Knight is not a good book.  Many have already talked about what’s wrong with it, including my good friend Will Nevin, a true academic.  But like many gaudy things in my life, Batman: White Knight ceases to exist in my mind until the next time I’m inevitably reminded of its existence.  This was the case when my other good friend Allison brought the book up in conversation, mentioning the Batman: White Knight Academic Reading Guide given to bookstore retailers to try and get them to carry the book.  Suddenly, my world was turned upside down.

A study guide?  For Batman: White Knight, of all things?  It seemed far too absurd to be true, and yet lo and behold, it existed; drifting in the endless sea of pablum on the internet, waiting for me.  I looked in, and an abyss stared back at me. So I jumped in and read the whole thing, so that you, the dear reader, could save yourself from having to do so yourself.

Peccatum Originale

Clearly, someone had to have written the guide in order for it to exist.  The question is, who?  Luckily the answer is right on the front page:

Pop Culture Classroom is a Colorado-based non-profit organization whose focus is on promoting literacy through comic book media.  The organization has been around for roughly 11 years now, with a few name changes and organizational changes during that time.

The pursuit of enriching literacy through the comics artform is noble, to say the very least.  While the (frankly, dumb) debate about whether or not comics are literature continues, the artform is a fantastic way to teach fledgling readers necessary skills, all through a medium that offers a much friendlier approach.  

All this to say, in picking apart this academic guide, I don’t want to devalue the work being done here; from a cursory glance at the website, there are a multitude of reading guides for much better teachable books.  I’m sure that those guides are valuable resources for teachers trying to promote literacy through comics too. It just boggles my mind to see Batman: White Knight be pushed alongside Raina Telgemeier’s Smile or Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese as a teachable book.  The only thing Batman: White Knight taught me was how not to write a Batman story.

— Enter the Gauntlet —

If there’s one way I could describe the feeling of approaching this guide, it’s that throughout my reading of it, I had Final Fantasy VII’s “One Winged Angel” playing in my head.  There is a dangerous aura to this guide.  My fight-or-flight response was immediately triggered when I read the first line of the guide’s overview:

The guide’s Logos for choosing B: WK is that it’s a story that can be used to talk about police corruption, mental health, and other topics, with the main focus being, “What makes someone a hero or villain, and why?”  Setting aside the fact that there are much better books that deal with those topics, such as Gotham Central, using B: WK, a book whose message becomes incredibly muddled early on in the story, is not a good idea! Batman: White Knight is, for all intents and purposes, a mess of a story.  Sure, the art and the designs are nice, but the plot? Lost, never to be found again.

We then get two pages giving brief summaries of some of the main players in the story, including Batman, the Joker (or, Jack Napier), Jim Gordon, and the two Harley Quinns. The only thing here that really stands out is the usage of the term “Graphic Novel”.  Yes, I know this may seem pedantic, and by all definitions, the Batman: White Knight TPB/HC is a graphic novel; but the connotation that these summary blurbs illicit is that B: WK is a prestige graphic novel reading experience, compounded by DC’s Black Label logo adorning the guide’s footer.

It’s followed by one page describing the story’s three big settings (Gotham, Arkham Asylum, and Backport), which again, doesn’t really have anything truly worthwhile to talk about.  By this point, we’re over halfway into the guide (not counting the cover), and that is where the fun begins. 

— Learning a Lesson —

It’s at this point where “One Winged Angel” has gotten to the part with the choir in my head. The first rung of this gauntlet is the “Themes” page, where B: WK’s purported “”themes”” are listed out. The attempt at creating an entire page’s worth of themes out of the puddle-deep source material is honourable, yet also somewhat cringe-inducing.

As much as I’d like to unpack all ten(!) themes on the page, doing so would require having to refresh my memory by rereading Batman: White Knight, something I couldn’t fathom thrusting upon my poor mind and body.  So for expediency’s sake, let’s just repack it and return it to the sender.  But, before we do, I should mention that quite a few of these themes are relatively generic, and could easily be asked of another book.  The note about Transformation & Identity isn’t exclusive to B: WK.

A large part of why this guide drew the ire of the internet is the marketing factor of it.  As mentioned above, this academic guide was sent to bookstores in an attempt to peddle B: WK as a deep, meditative work for them to sell alongside Watchmen and promote the Black Label brand.  It speaks to the muddled messaging and ethos of the Black Label imprint throughout its two-and-some years of existence.  To posit a prestige imprint, complete with Prestige Pricing, then to push titles like Batman: White Knight as the paragons of said imprint presents a dichotomy in the messaging.  

So, while I am taking the wind out of my own sails in doing so, I think there isn’t much use in waxing poetic about the subsequent three pages (Pre-reading questions/Teaching Ideas, Discussion Questions, Project Ideas), because at the very base level, they’re all great pedagogical tools, just being wasted on the wrong book.  Cute and fun ideas like the Mock Trial project idea would work great if the source material was, say, Daredevil, instead of what we ended up getting.  But there’s good news: there’s one last big kicker before the guide reaches its end.

— Say, Have You Heard of a Little Unknown Comic Called Watchmen? —

For a bit, the guide was slowly garnering my goodwill with its cute classroom lessons, but then I hit the last page, the Further Pairing Suggestions section.  No introductions, no graphics, and no Black Label footer.  Just a list:

  • Batman: The Telltale Series and Telltale’s Batman: The Enemy Within (Video Games)
  • Batman: The Killing Joke (Graphic Novel)
  • The Dark Knight (Movie)
  • Heathers (Movie)
  • Mean Girls (Movie)
  • Watchmen (Graphic Novel)
  • The Walking Dead (Comics Series)
  • V for Vendetta (Graphic Novel)
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Novella)
  • Nothing but the Truth (Novel)
  • Wicked (Musical) 

Where- where do I begin with this list?  Do I start with the three “graphic novels” on this list all being the three big Alan Moore books that you’ll find in the “Most Popular”-filtered Graphic Novel section of a bookstore’s website?  Or do I talk about how the movie recommendations go from The Dark Knight to Heathers to Mean Girls? Or relating Batman: White Knight to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  If it wasn’t apparent that the previous sections were trying to spin gold from straw, this list is proof that the straw ran out.

It’s not that there aren’t many pieces of media that one could perceivably engage with going from B: WK, but the propagation and conflation of Moore’s three big DC works as the gold standard for literary comics (which aren’t even his top three books, might I digress).  While yes, one could argue that this guide was made in part to help market DC’s brand, The Killing Joke, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen have already been ingrained in the public consciousness as separate from “regular” comics.  This is further evidenced by many going as far as to appropriate the term “Graphic Novel” to describe them, when in reality, they’re Just Comics.  Truth is, they’re far from the best candidates for teachable books, especially for the high school curriculum that this guide seems to be trying to build itself around.  If there’s one takeaway that I got from reading through this guide, it’s that there should be more conversation about the state of comics pedagogy, and how it should progress.

— Curriculum?  In My Comix? —

It’s easy to poke fun at the Batman: White Knight Academic Reading Guide; incredibly easy, actually.  But what’s tougher is addressing the pedagogical reasons behind what doesn’t make it work, and addressing the current state of comics pedagogy in doing so.  Comics are art (lest it not been made apparent by now).  With art comes literacy, the ability to look, read, and engage with said art, and communicate about it.  

In recent weeks, I’ve heard concerns from aspiring comics critics regarding what it takes to nurture the necessary skills to become a tried-and-true comics critic.  Now, I don’t consider myself a comics critic by any means, but I know that oftentimes, this kind of concern is responded to by being handed a copy of Understanding Comics (a great resource, don’t get me wrong), followed by a shrug, and a pat on the back for good luck.  Understanding Comics will help develop technical skills to better engage with the mechanics of the artform, but it’s not going to teach rhetoric.

So how does one learn rhetoric and evolve past being a Twitter reply guy?  That’s what comics pedagogy is for.  Not just to teach people how to approach the technical element of comics, but to teach them how to talk about comics, and engage in constructive, healthy conversations about them.  

I don’t want to write off the Batman: White Knight Academic Reading Guide; there are several elements of it that could make for great teaching moments.  But the problem lies in  the promotion of bad candidates like Batman: White Knight, especially as it pertains to the role of market capitalism in comics pedagogy.  Remember, I was only made privy of the existence of this guide thanks to it being used to market the book to bookstores as “essential” reading.  

Where does the conversation go on from here?  What can be done to break down the barriers to entry for those who want to engage with comics critically, but don’t know how?  The Batman: White Knight Academic Reading Guide isn’t the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning.  Comics criticism as a community is small, and in some regards, insular.  However, that doesn’t mean that the community can’t come together to build the path towards a better future for its successors.

So there’s your proof that I’m not a comics critic: What started as a (frankly, mean-spirited) takedown of someone else’s work turned into a plea for better comics education.  A real critic would’ve stuck to one or the other.  But what do I know, it’s not like there’s a textbook on how to be a comics critic (wink wink).  Whether you were here for the former or the latter, conversations should be had and barriers should be broken down, so that we can all move towards a better, healthier industry and community.

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