With Further Ado #244: Five and a Half Questions with Mike Reiff (An ITHACON Prelude)

I can’t wait for ITHACON! It’s coming up soon – April 22nd and 23rd. And if you buy your tix before April 16th, you also get this amazing swag bag. Trust me – there’s so much cool merchandise in these that it totally offsets the (modest) ticket prices.

Educator and writer Mike Reiff will be presenting at ITHACON this year too, and I couldn’t be happier. I caught up with him just so I could keep track of everything he’s up to!

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Question #1

Ed Catto: You are doing so much work with Graphic Novels and kids now. Can you tell me about it all?

Mike Reiff: Well, I would first note that I’m working with an outstanding team at Ithaca High School (IHS) on this – from the support of the district leadership to building principal Jason Trumble to a great English department, when we think about our recent push to diversify our literacy offerings – with “diversify” a complex and expansive term – one person couldn’t do what’s being done, it takes a team. So I’m speaking as a reporter as much as an implementer of some of the shifts, and some of the graphic novel work pre-dates my active involvement in this, including texts taught in classrooms and a astonishing array of graphic texts offered and promoted by our High School librarian team.

As Department Leader of the English Department from August 2020 to August 2022, I worked with our school community, and community partners, to expand the physical texts we use, including an expanded set of Graphic Novels for classroom and individual use. Last Spring I worked with a team of classroom teachers, district officers and others to start a new Graphic Novel Literacy course which ran its first successful semester this Fall. And in general I’ve continued having discussions with a wide range of folks to encourage all forms of literacy to help keep students growing and engaged in their own learning. Graphic Novels are a part of that for sure.

Question #2:

EC: What has the reception been like – from students, parents and the community – so far?

MR: The reception has been great. When I first started teaching Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in AP Langauge a number of years ago, in collaboration with a teaching partner, caregivers loved the exposure of LGBTQ authors as much as the form. When we began the graphic novel course, students, counselors and teachers felt this was a great new way to hook kids, and having seen the course in action, the kids loved it too. I just stopped into a classroom the other day in my new role on the IHS Leadership team as an Educator for Inclusion, and saw a veteran teacher using Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (in connection with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics) and students leapt right into close reading and serious analysis.

Little moments abound – I’ve seen an uptick of kids walking around with manga under their arms, reading it in the quad; last year I was sorting books in the book room and a kid came in an asked about a stack of Penelope Bagieu’s Brazen, and I lent her a copy right there. I think there’s the “it” factor of comics in schools, that might be eternally fun and popular, but then when you focus your energies around authors and identities that have been long locked out of novels, films, comics, you see the power graphic novels have had for minoritized populations to gain new ground, new forms of expression, and then benefit students learning and growing.

Question #3

EC: And I know you will be speaking at ITHACON in April. What will you be speaking about?

MR: It’s a very generous opportunity, and as a kid growing up in Fredonia, NY in the late 90s, driving up to Buffalo on misty Saturday mornings with my best buddy to check out old comics in a hotel ballroom (this was before comic cons became mega events), the idea he (now one of the key librarians at Penn Yan Public Library) and I will be holding a panel at Ithacon is a dream come true. We’re going to be talking about developments in our respective public institutions, and thinking about the impact graphic novels have had in engaging readers in literacy and issues. I’m really looking forward to entering into conversation with folks in the audience though – this isn’t going to be just the two of us talking, as much as I love a straight forward lecture. As McCloud notes in Understanding Comics the reader makes meaning between panels as much as the team of artists who work on a comic, and we’ll make meaning together at the panel as well.

Question #4

EC: What are some of the things that personally excite you about comics and graphic novels right now?

MR: Right now I’m really into Manga. I haven’t been keeping up with the big industry players, haven’t bought a 32 page comic in a while, but right now I’m digging deep into some key Manga titles I never read as a kid, like Berserk and Hellsing, thanks to the Dark Horse Deluxe Edition series, and I’m also hunting down as much of Initial D as I can, that comic is amazing. At the same time I’m checking out a lot of work by Tatsuki Fujimoto, like Chainsaw Man and Fire Punch – he’s pretty controversial and I’m thinking about what he’s doing there, for good and bad. Also, who doesn’t love Naoya Matsumoto’s Kaiju No. 8? I love that Manga has kind of taken the place of old floppy comics – we used to see those spinner racks in drug stores and supermarkets (now long gone), and now we see Manga showing up in WalMart (where I do get a lot of books when I’m also getting socks for my kids.)

Beyond that, though, I think the truly exciting development, though it’s hard to keep up, is how the graphic novel space has been and continues to be a place of growing representation and innovation than in any other widely experienced media. Swing by your local library and just grab five books off the shelf that are bigger or smaller than the usual comic size. Open them up. You’ll probably see innovative story telling, cool layouts, stories that aren’t told in films and TV. The art form itself is just more flexible and open to innovation when you get outside the major publishing houses, in a way that film, TV, books in prose, just aren’t.

Questions #5

EC: And I know you also are an expert on Movie History. What’s that like and what’s next?

MR: Hah, I don’t know about “expert,” anybody with a Letterboxd account and a library card can dig deep on film history. I’ve taken a step back on writing about film after the pandemic to concentrate on some new work at IHS and time with my kids. I think the biggest thing I’ve been leaning into on this, if a bit tangential, is how to teach or help students experience film history in class (I teach Film Studies at IHS along with conducting teacher evaluations and other things I do for the IHS Leadership team). I’ve long thought, “OK, I know something about film history, some things I don’t often see in text books or college curriculums, I’ll talk about that,” but my own perspective and biases continue to limit me – I’m just one brain in a sea of brains that are all hungry.

I’ve been trying to open up the forms and structures in my classes to bring in more student agency and voices, turn over the microphone and curriculum planning, more and more. We are all curators of the larger cultural archive – all archives, really – as Carmen Machado points out in In The Dream House (not a graphic novel, had to get one non-graphic novel in there somewhere) and so leaning into “us” more than “me” has been an important continual step, and ongoing process.

Question #Five-and-a-half

EC: What’s your all-time favorite comic book movie and why?

MR: I don’t know if I can really pick this, but I think the first text that comes to mind is Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor. I think some of this is just nostalgia, I saw it at this beautiful opera house / cinema when I was in High School, a building my dad helped to restore (and that was slated for demolition), so the idea that I saw a movie in my small hometown that may not have been shown is special. The film is wonderfully meta, with Harvey Pekar and his wife featured in the film, and 2003 was the Paul Giamatti golden age. But the idea behind the film, that anyone can do comics, that comics is the ultimate free expression tool – Pekar scrawled little pictures on the back of envelopes, I think you could argue Jean-Michel Basquiat was scrawling comix on the side of buildings in NYC in the 1980s in his unique style – is just a key thing to think about and stay focused on. It’s for everybody.