EAS3248 - Against the Mainstream: Alternative Comics, Politics, and US Society

2021/2 Module description

StaffDr Paul Williams - Convenor
Credit Value30
ECTS Value15
NQF Level6
Duration of Module

Module description

Against the Mainstream explores the rich history of US alternative comics and you will see how texts and creators were part of social transformations and political movements taking place in the United States between the 1960s and 1990s. The module includes underground comix, independent comics, minicomics, and graphic novels and you will make connections between American history and the politics of representation.

Against the Mainstream emphasizes close reading framed by critical theory and in relation to historical contexts, so it would be advantageous for you to have already studied theory (e.g. on Approaches to Criticism or Humanities After the Human). There are no prerequisites.

Module aims

Each week you will read primary texts and academic scholarship, developing (a) your understanding of relevant historical contexts, (b) your skills of close reading sequential art, and (c) your knowledge of theory (both theory specific to reading comics and critical theory more generally).

Broadly speaking, the module follows a chronological narrative that moves through the Comics Magazine Association of America’s creation in 1954, the underground comix boom of 1968-72, the emergence of the direct market in 1973 and its dominance in the 1980s, and the cultural exchanges between alternative comics and fanzines which fully flowered in the 1990s.

At the same time, you will track the radical movements that also set themselves ‘against the mainstream’ – in this case, a mainstream defined as racist, patriarchal, capitalist, and heteronormative. As you will see, the activism of the 1960s New Left endured for several decades, and the mid-1960s battles for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War were followed by second-wave feminism, the gay rights movement, protests against nuclear technology and US intervention in Central America, third-wave feminism, and anti-capitalism of various stripes.

By the end of the module you will have a stronger grasp of the critical concepts used to study sequential art and the historical contexts out of which non-mainstream US comics emerged. You will also have considered how critical theory can help us understand where comics sit in relation to history and politics. 

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Demonstrate an advanced ability to analyse sequential art texts
  • 2. Locate sequential art texts critically in their historical and institutional contexts
  • 3. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of the place of theory within Comics Studies

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Demonstrate an advanced ability to analyse contemporary literature, and, where appropriate, film, and to relate their concerns and modes of expression to historical context
  • 5. Demonstrate an advanced ability to interrelate texts and discourses specific to their own discipline with issues in the wider context of cultural and intellectual history
  • 6. Demonstrate an advanced ability to understand and analyse relevant theoretical ideas, and to apply these ideas to literature

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 7. Through seminar work and presentations, demonstrate advanced communication skills, and an ability to work both individually and in groups
  • 8. Through essay-writing, demonstrate appropriate research and bibliographic skills, an advanced capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument, and a capacity to write clear and correct prose
  • 9. Through research for seminars, essays, and presentations demonstrate advanced proficiency in information retrieval and analysis

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

After introducing key concepts and establishing how the mainstream comics industry was shaped by the creation of the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954, the course moves broadly chronologically from the late 1960s to the 1990s, tracking the institutional development of non-mainstream comics and their relation to US politics and society. 

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching22Seminars
Scheduled Learning and Teaching11The weekly one-hour teaching session is primarily lectures with occasional workshops / student presentations
Guided Independent Study33Group preparation and meetings
Guided Independent Study70Individual seminar preparation
Guided Independent Study164Reading, research, and essay preparation

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
First Essay352000 words1-6,8-9Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Diorama Task15Exhibition of comics art (group exercise)1-7,9Oral feedback from tutor in seminar, supplemented by feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up.
Second Essay503000 words1-6,8-9Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
First EssayEssay (2000 words)1-6,8-9Referral/deferral period
Diorama TaskEssay (1000 words)1-6,8-9Referral/deferral period
Second EssayEssay (3000 words)1-6,8-9Referral/deferral period

Re-assessment notes

If students are referred/deferred for the 2000- or 3000-word essay, they will be required to write an essay that meets the length of the original assessment. They should choose a question from the respective assessment rubric. If the essay is a referral, students cannot choose the same question they attempted the first time.

If students are referred/deferred for the diorama task, they will be expected to write a 1000-word essay answering a question of their own devising. The tutor will be available to help devise said question.

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • You will be expected to acquire around three graphic novels for this module.

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

Secondary sources available in the library include:

  • Baetens and Frey, The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015)
  • Gabilliet, Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2010)
  • Groensteen, Comics and Narration (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2013)
  • Hatfield, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2005)
  • Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1998)
  • Sabin, Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993; London: Routledge, 2010)
  • Williams and Lyons, eds, The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2010)

Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date


Key words search

Alternative comics, graphic novels, underground comix, independent comics, US history, politics, radicalism, activism

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