Friends, the final version of this article was published at: http://www.learnnc.org/Index.nsf/doc/comics0703?OpenDocument. This version is still missing a wee bit of content.
>>Another draft of this article. Some images missing. Again, if you have meaningful comments, do it up.
Comics in the Classroom
Comic books. You’re probably thinking about Superman or Spider-Man. Batman
or Wonder Woman. Maybe cheap, cheesy horror stories, pirate adventures, or some
other muscle-bound, spandex-clad crusader whose first response is a strong punch.
You’re probably not thinking about your classroom right now.
You should be.
Comics in Culture
A recent explosion in academic interest in comic books and graphic novels has
stirred the creation of comics curricula nationwide. Several colleges and universities
are now offering courses in comics literature, and high school teachers are
exploring graphic novels as a new way to stimulate young readers’ interest in
literature. The National Association
of Comics Art Educators is producing exercises,
study guides, and handouts on comics in the classroom, and several comic
book companies, notably CrossGen, are
including resources for educators in each issue they produce. Comics have been
the subject of a national best-seller, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures
of Kavalier and Clay, and novelists and screenwriters like Brad Meltzer and
Kevin Smith have lined up to write the adventures of the heroes they grew up
with. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of his father’s internment in Nazi Germany,
was the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and comics have nabbed prestigious
awards in other fields.
Considering the success of comics-inspired film and television shows like Smallville,
X-Men, and Hulk, and their popularity with children, there is a tremendous interest
in comics-related material that educators could easily turn into an enthusiasm
for reading. However, it’s difficult to know which comics are appropriate for
children, and many educators place a stigma on comic books– a stigma that dates
back to the 1950’s, when at the height of McCarthyism, comics were the targets
of congressional scrutiny. (For an abbreviated history of comics, check A
Brief History of the Comics Universe.) In fact, it’s tough to know what
a comic is, when the most respected example of the form, Maus, received this
“praise” in the New York Times: “Maus is not a comic book.”
What Are Comics?
Comic books, the pulpy-papered, saddle-stapled mixture of art and story, have
gained a new respect from the literary community in the past fifteen years.
The alter ego of the comic book is the graphic novel, which is also a medium
in which stories are told through both text and pictures, but replaces the flimsy
saddle-stapling with solid binding. Increasingly, comics publishers are collecting
multiple issues into single volumes, and comics writers are responding with
more ambitious and artistic story arcs that spread across many issues. Graphic
novels are increasingly appearing in local libraries, are reviewed alongside
traditional novels in publications like the New York Times and Entertainment
Weekly, and have sections devoted to them in bookstores and on Amazon.com.
With a renewed emphasis on independent reading in schools, comics appeal to
students and teachers with a variety of interests and are increasingly being
seen during D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read) time. Comics have a wide range
of subjects, well beyond the super-hero or funny animal. Because they are cheaper
to produce now than ever before, the comics industry is now able to take gambles
on more artistic fare that’s been less traditionally marketable than super-hero
comics. Until the 1980’s, comics appeared on newsstands, and up to 50% of comics
might be returned to the publisher if they didn’t sell, which meant tremendous
pressure to create the “next big hit.” Most comics are now distributed through
speciality retailers and mass merchants, which means unsold issues won’t be
returned, and small companies have more freedom to explore offbeat writers and
As a medium, comics and graphic novels (which are lumped together in a term–
“sequential art”– coined by one of the field’s pioneers, Spirit author Will
Eisner), now have a definitive textbook, as well. Scott
McCloud penned Understanding Comics, which explored the medium and its history
in comic form. His sequel, Reinventing Comics, is also penned as a comic book,
and explores the effects of new technologies and cultural changes on an existing
McCloud defines comics as "juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate
sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response
in the viewer." According to his definition, the following set of images
would be a comic:
However, as teachers, we know that this image more than likely belongs to an
instruction manual. We expect comics to look something like this:
Each of the images serves the same purpose, in the end. The reader is expected
to see a progression of time through images displayed in a certain order. Looking
at the two examples, we can deduce that comics may be strong teaching tools
for visual literacy, and McCloud supports this by analyzing the six types of
transitions in comics, and how their use is fairly consistent among artists
who seek to convey meaning with images.
But Are Comics Appropriate For the Classroom?
The short answer: some are, some aren’t.
StoryArk provides a list
of how comics can fit Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and James Sturm,
author of the acclaimed The Golem’s Mighty Swing, makes The
Case for Comics. Read-Write-Think provides a lesson plan for using comics
as an introduction to narrative structure.
Comic books and graphic novels have a wide range of styles and subject matter.
They range from social commentary to fantasy to autobiography to mystery to
didactic. But, as with any reading in the classroom, teachers should consider
their classroom objectives, the age-appropriateness of the materials, and MELISSA,
If you’re a teacher or media specialist, and you’d like to try using comics
in your curriculum, here are some suggestions. You can find more at No
Flying, No Tights, a website devoted to reviewing graphic novels for teens
by Art Spiegelman
Relevant subjects: Art, Language Arts, Social Studies
Perhaps the best-known comic in the world, Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s
father, a concentration camp survivor. The depiction of Jews as mice and
Nazis as cats is shocking, and the juxtaposition of cartoonish imagery
with the horror of genocide only reinforces the tragedy of the Holocaust.
There are a number of education sites devoted to Maus, including Gordon
Maus in a Composition Class.
Kurt Busiek’s Astro City: Life in Cig City
by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross
Relevant subjects: Art, Language Arts, Psychology, Social Studies
What do super-heroes dream about at night? How do they go out on a date?
What’s life like for an average citizen when super-heroes won’t come to
your neighborhood? Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is a series that looks at
life in a city full of superheroes, alternating between the perspectives
of the super heroes and the people they come in contact with. Busiek and
his co-creators have imagined a world where alien invasions and supernatural
mysteries are part of daily life; though the series was conceived in the
1990’s, it has practical application when teaching in a post-9/11 America.
by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran
Relevant subjects: Art, Language Arts, Psychology, Science, Social Studies
Life is different for Americans since the space shuttle Orbiter disappeared
ten years ago. But now, the shuttle has mysteriously returned, and the
pilot, who hasn’t aged a day, is speaking in a tongue no one understands.
Exploring the scientific and cultural merit of manned spaceflight and
exploration, Orbiter is a breathtaking look at the possibilities of the
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi
Relevant subjects: Art, Language Arts, Social Studies
Best used with high school students, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
is the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during
the Islamic Revolution. Tracing the dethroning of the Shah, the rise of
fundmentalism, and the war with Iraq through a child’s eyes, Persepolis
gives the reader a strong view of Iran’s history and culture, and serves
a nice point of comparison and contrast for American teens.