Interview: Bill Ayers Pt. 3 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews


In part three of our interview with Bill Ayers, the To Teach author explains how the adaptation of his seminal education text helped the writer go from a lifelong comics fan to someone who truly understands the form.

[Part One][Part Two]

Was Scott McCloud’s work an influence on the book? There seem to be some similarities.

Well, for me Scott McCloud was huge, in terms of teaching about comic book art. He was kind of my first assignment. But then there were a lot of other assignments, and there were a lot of books that moved me a lot and I learned a lot from. I’m a huge fan of Alison Bechdel—I had read Dykes to Watch out For before I had gotten into this, and I liked it a lot, partly because I thought it was so improbable, this group of Maoist, lesbian crazies who kind of reminded me of myself—a group of marginal lunatics out there kind of living this life that had an internal coherence. It was, to me, marvelous. So I learned a lot from reading Alison Bechdel. I like Joe Sacco a lot. I kind of admired his ethnographic work. And there were other. But surely as an instructional book, Scott McCloud is huge.

The other thing I guess I should say is, the way Ryan [Alexander-Tanner] and I hooked up is, he was living in Portland. He had been a student of my younger brother in high school. My younger brother was a huge fan of his. And then he lived with my niece in Portland. They were roommates for one year in college.

But I didn’t know anything about comics, so when we first began chatting online, I sent my three sons his stuff. I have enormous confidence in all of them, but my oldest son is a writer and a playwright—and, parenthetically, a brand new assistant professor in theater. He, without hesitation, wrote me back the first night and said, ‘this guy has really got talent. He’s working stuff out, but he’s definitely going to be a good artist.’ He had no hesitation. And all three of my guys are bright and literary and all of them are comic book guys—they grew up on comic books. And they all three unanimously said I ought to work with this guy and see how it goes.

You said earlier that you’ve been reading comics your whole life, and then said that you didn’t really “know” comics. What do you mean when you say you “don’t know comics?”

Well, what I mean is that I knew them in the sense that a consumer would know them. But then, suddenly, Ryan got me reading them like a peer would. I teach a kind of ethnographic writing, and I have to persuade my students that you have to stop reading like the consumer, stop telling me who you “liked.” It doesn’t make any difference who you liked. Start telling me how this person solved the writerly problem. That’s how I started to read comics. I started to see, “oh shit, I don’t need all of that didactic crap.” Because that’s not how Bechdel did it. She did it with a gesture. That’s what I mean.

I began looking at little things that you know perfectly well, but I didn’t know. I didn’t really understand how you can make a facial expression—the simplest things. When I write ethnographically, I do big description. You don’t have to describe that the guy had a big belly and beard [in comics]. That’s stupid. Why would go through all of that? That’s the kind of thing I hd to wean myself off of.

I find the end point of writing very satisfying. But the process is painful. But once I get finished writing, I guess very precious about what I’ve written. And I’ve had some great editors in my 20 years of writing who have helped me pull teeth and get out the scissors and say, “dude, I know you love it. Here, I’ll cut it out for you. Keep it in a scrapbook.” Because you love every word. Working with Ryan, I had to cut a lot of words.

Once you approach a work from an academic standpoint, do you find that it lessens your enjoyment of the text?

I wouldn’t call it “academic.” And I would say that actually I enjoy comics more now than I ever did. What I would say is that I have a kind of knowledge of how the craft is done and how the structure works. I have a few more hints into what game they’re playing.

I would equate it maybe to if you write poetry in high school and write a lot of doggerel. And then you begin to study and read poetry and shift over to reading it as a peer and not a consumer, actually your love of poetry can get deeper. That’s what happened to me. I now read comics with a lot more relish. I pick them up and take them apart. I don’t think I read them as a technician would. I think I read them in a much more artful way. My appreciation for what they’re doing is heightened. It would be like being a musician. You hear a lot when you’re a musician that you and I don’t hear. Does that heighten the enjoyment? I think it could. So I think my enjoyment of comics is way up. I go to the comics store with way more relish that I had.

Do you have a firmer grasp on how they can function as an educational tool?

You know, I always taught comics, in a funny way. I taught Palestine, Joe Sacco’s book, in my ethnography class. And I always brought comics into my education classes, because I wanted students to see that if you’re creating a rich classroom for the wide variety of kids that are going to come in, you’ve got to have comics in your classroom. You ought to have it as part of the environment.

I taught a whole series of comics when I would teach about adolescence. To me, Spider-Man and Edward Scissorhands are classic adolescents. Or I Was a Teenage Werewolf or a lot of other things. These are classic teenage tropes, because they’re all about changes happening to your body that you can’t control. They’re all about being a good person in your heart, but being misunderstood in your world. Spider-Man is always doing good, and everyone always thinks he’s up to no good. That couldn’t be more of a teenage theme. I use comics in that way.

But what I think is interesting about what Ryan and I created here is, we’re talking about a way of teaching that’s different. And we’re using a different mode to get at it. My original thought was that, maybe a whole community of people who never considered teaching would become inspired and thing that there was something for them in teaching. But I now think—I don’t know who the audience is going to be, but is the audience is teachers or whatever, I think that it will show them new ways of teaching.

There’s one drawing that Ryan did that absolutely captivates me. It’s a classroom from above, and you see this very complicated, interesting environment. I sent that one page to several teacher friends of mine, and one woman wrote back and said, “I’m going to get that framed, because it says so much about what classrooms could and should look like.” I was absolutely thrilled that she said that. Absolutely thrilled.

Do you feel that books offer the same sense of discovery that we were discussing earlier? It seems that books are more of a monolog than a conversation.

Yeah, the thing I urge myself and all readers to do is to talk back to the book. When you go to a museum and look at art on the wall, if you go with your friend, you’re not actually seeing the same art. You’re having a dialog. You’re bringing your experiences. I almost never go to a movie with my wife where I don’t cry and she doesn’t come out saying, “that was a romantic piece of shit.” She’s real hard about movies.

I went to Avatar and I ended up crying three times. I know what the political content was, I know about the manipulation, I get it. But god damn it, I wanted to live on the blue planet! I loved it! Didn’t we see the same movie and haven’t we been together for 40 years? Yes and yes, but then again, no. We didn’t see the same movie. I saw something else. That’s true in poetry, that’s true in novels. You bring your experience to it, you bring your life to it.

I hope this book is a provocation to get an experience. And I hope at the same time, it is and experience. Reading the comic book version of To Teach is quite a different experience than reading the textbook version of it. You’ll bring something different to it. And that doesn’t mean that I think that everybody will love it. I can picture education professors across the land saying, “ban this book.” And I kind of get tickled by that.

[Concluded in Part Four.]

–Brian Heater