CU's William Kuskin takes comics seriously

CU's William Kuskin takes comics seriously
Leila Del Duca

"This is a bold stroke, an anti-authoritarian project on many levels." William Kuskin, eyes flashing, stands at the very edge of the stage in the University of Colorado at Boulder's iconic Old Main building, leaning his five-foot-three-inch frame toward his audience and clenching his fist in excitement. He calls this stance, which he often uses in his lectures, his "Captain Kirk routine," and he's speaking as though he's not simply participating in a panel discussion on education technology, but instead embarking on an intergalactic do-or-die mission. He tells the parents gathered for Family Weekend of "a gutsy project," "a process of transformation," as if they were all on the verge of some fantastical world-changing cataclysm, where the stakes have never been higher and everything hangs in the balance.

Maybe he's right.

Public universities like CU are under siege, buffeted left and right by increased public scrutiny and dwindling funding. And no departments are more beleaguered than those in the humanities, including CU's English department, which Kuskin chairs. As reports mount of plunging enrollment numbers, academics mutter about the "crisis in the humanities." Can anything be done to stop the slide?

Professor William Kuskin says the study of comics is a serious business.
Esther Rubyan
Professor William Kuskin says the study of comics is a serious business.
John Stevenson, dean of the CU grad school, says the country’s higher-education experiment could be coming to an end.
Esther Rubyan
John Stevenson, dean of the CU grad school, says the country’s higher-education experiment could be coming to an end.

Enter the "gutsy project" Kuskin is describing, the "bold stroke" undertaken by the university: This fall, CU launched its first-ever massive open online courses (MOOCs) — Internet-based, jumbo-sized college classes open to anyone around the world. Among the four free, not-for-credit CU-Boulder courses being offered through Coursera, a major MOOC provider, is Kuskin's Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Of the hundreds of MOOCs currently offered by Coursera on topics ranging from video-game programming to behavioral economics, this is one of only eight English courses — but it's also the most popular of CU's MOOCs. Comic Books and Graphic Novels, now in week five of seven, has drawn 35,492 students, logging in from Japan and Argentina and Sweden and every point in between.

The 48-year-old Kuskin has worked hard to ensure that the class is worth everyone's time, infusing his MOOC with the sort of boundary-pushing, edge-of-your-seat instruction that has made him a rising star at CU — kind of like Professor X of the X-Men, teaching his young mutants how to wield their superpowers. In detailed slide shows, he deconstructs comics, page by page, with the same depth and detail he uses to analyze medieval manuscripts. In online videos, he reads superhero clashes aloud with the drama of a stage-play performance. Working with an artist, he's crafted an online comic that tracks his progression through the course as if he were the hero of his own adventure. There's even a course play set, with a cut-out Kuskin action figure and easy-to-assemble Coursera spaceship, complete with an ejection seat.

For Kuskin, this isn't just fun and games. It's about metamorphosis. "My goal for all of my courses is a sense of human transformation," he declares from the stage of Old Main. "My sense is that comics and MOOCs are a way of going about it. They have the power of educational transformation."

Kuskin knows what he's talking about: Like the best superheroes, he's well acquainted with transformation.

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William Kuskin has developed four rules that inform the way he analyzes literature, hard-and-fast tenets he uses to parse everything from medieval poems to superhero stories. But these are also "life rules," tools that give structure and meaning to his daily existence.

The first Kuskin Rule is Circle the Details: Break down a problem — a page, a book, a topic — into its component parts. So let's circle the details of Kuskin's life. In the east Boulder ranch home he shares with his wife, Richelle Munkhoff, also a CU-Boulder English professor, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, circle the beautiful glass-fronted dark-wood bookcases, the sort usually used in law libraries, that are filled with graphic novels. Down the hall, circle the self-portrait of Kuskin's mother, May Asher, a New York artist looking out from the painting with a haunting stare that captures what Kuskin describes as "a determined depression."

On Kuskin himself, circle the windburn that curves up his cheeks, the remnants of his recent decision during a trip to Minneapolis to ride all 916 miles back to Boulder without stopping for a break on his Harley-Davidson Softail, a chopper he also uses for his daily commute. "One of the things I like about motorcycling," says Kuskin, "is that it makes going to work a life-and-death event." On his left biceps, circle the large tattoo of the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the image taken from a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript. And on his right biceps, circle the equally imposing tattoo of an early-era Batman, one of the many comic-book figures he grew up idolizing and identifying with.

"Batman is the story for all those kids who have some trauma," he says. "I don't think that pain ever goes away."

Growing up in New York City as a short and hefty kid, Kuskin often felt like an outsider. It didn't help that his parents, though brilliant, were at times emotionally or physically absent, or that their marriage imploded in a brutal divorce when he was barely a teenager. When he was young, Kuskin sought escape in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four and other staples of the late silver age of comics. By high school, he was ready to move on, however, selling his entire collection for a measly $50 and focusing on what seemed like a more mature pastime: acting. He was good at it, too, landing roles in television commercials and on a Saturday Night Live skit. He didn't like the slick, self-serving vibe of the business, though, or his tendency to get pigeonholed as the geeky outsider. In the 1983 slasher film Sleepaway Camp, he was cast as "Mozart," the nerdy camper. "The combination of reliving my childhood endlessly for comic relief, and the schmoozing — no way," Kuskin says now of his acting career.

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