Comic Books in the Classroom

Historically, texts comprised of only words have been the predominant form of literature taught in English Literature classrooms. However, since the 1970s, the comic book industry has expanded tremendously, giving educators more options for their classrooms.

According to the Curriculum Review, many university researchers in more recent years consider some comic books, also known as graphic novels, a highly sophisticated form of reading material that should be implemented in the classroom to improve student literacy. While my personal experience with reading graphic novels has only extended to that of leisurely pursuit, I agree with this evaluation of the graphic novel for a couple of reasons.

First, I have found that much like the literature incorporated into our English curricula at school, graphic novels contain universal messages and themes – the kind that scholars analyze in typical forms of literature. Second, graphic novels also convey a story in a unique way through the use of visual graphics and other comic techniques such as color, text size and shape, framing and balloons, “which comprise a key part of their layered meanings,” according to Professor Linda Shires, head of the English Department at Stern College. For these two reasons, graphic novels represent a valuable educational tool in the classroom.

One such graphic novel that, I believe, highlights universal themes is “The Walking Dead.” The story focuses on a group of people, led by former police officer Rick Grimes, who fight to survive a zombie apocalypse of which there is no known cause. Constantly on the run from zombie herds, the group cannot even find solace in the discovery of other survivors who are usually more dangerous than helpful in their personal endeavors to steal precious resources.

The world has been thrown into utter chaos. Each man is for himself. It’s survival of the fittest.

While the zombie story is central to the comic, it also serves to make readers think about themselves and the society in which they live. The apocalyptic world provides the context of chaos and lawlessness that compels us to think about our own humanity and morals, and the inclinations of humankind when society is on the brink of extinction.

As the comic explores themes of human nature and morality, “The Walking Dead” could be of great educational value in ethics, philosophy, or sociology courses.

When I shared these ideas with a fellow comic book reader, I was immediately told to read “Civil War,” a graphic novel that deserves academic attention in, at least, high-school-level sociology, political science, and U.S. history courses. “Civil War” is about superheroes in the Marvel Universe battling one another after the government passes the Superhuman Registration Act, a law that requires all super-powered vigilantes to register as employees of the government. To the great displeasure of many within the superhero community, the law enables close supervision and regulation of all individuals with mutant powers. The superhero community is sharply divided as some superheroes register while those who refuse registration become hunted fugitives from the law.

The story is essentially a microcosm of America today, where intense debate and enactment of law take place over issues of liberty and personal freedom versus heightened security and government control. An example that most readily comes to mind is the gun control debate, which has recently been resurrected in light of the tragic Newtown Massacre. The larger theme of the gun control debate is not unique to our time, but one that was of passionate concern to the Founding Fathers who painstakingly drafted a Constitution intended to balance the dichotomy of personal freedom and government regulation. “Civil War” simply and aesthetically discusses these complex ideas behind the famous characters and costumes of pop culture that fans love.

While conveying important themes and messages is common to both classic literature and graphic novels, the graphic novel serves to convey these messages in a particularly unique way. The integration of images and text in a sequential narrative has the potent ability to deliver a story that cannot be communicated through a strictly textual medium.

In fact, I have been so moved by some graphic novel scenes, I am unsure that even a skilled and accomplished writer could have used just words to elicit the same emotional response even in the most imaginative of readers.

Sharing insight into the unique quality of graphic novels, Hannah Dreyfus, Journalism major at Stern College and Managing Editor of the YU Observer, commented that “The combination of visual graphics and words has an exceptionally potent ability to deliver social commentary.” When asked to comment on the use of graphic novels in the classroom, Hannah replied that while she personally has no experience studying graphic novels in her classes, she believes that the technique is “an innovative way to engage students.” She also believes that studying graphic novels in the classroom will enable students to develop the important skill of analyzing different types of visual media.

The English Department at Stern College has already been implementing the study of visual media in the classroom for years. Intro to Film is among the most popular literature courses offered by the English Department. Other forms of visual media have been explored in English courses such as Children’s Literature, Interdisciplinary Literature and Art in the 19th Century, and Modernism.

Fortunately, the graphic novel has more recently been included within the repertoire of visual media studied at Stern College. Since 2009, graphic novels have sometimes been taught in English 1100, Composition and Rhetoric. Students may find it interesting to learn that Professor Linda Shires, head of the English Department, has also implemented this postmodern genre in her own classroom by teaching the graphic novel “Maus,” the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, in her Representations of the Holocaust course. Professor Shires recently explained to me that for her classroom “the writing and illustration of a graphic novel both have to be of superior quality.”

Perhaps the most striking comic technique used in “Maus” is the depiction of different human races as different kinds of animals, with Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and non-Jewish Poles as pigs. According to a published journal article, “History and Graphic Representation in ‘Maus,’” some readers have reported that the caricatured quality of “Maus” made this graphic novel the most compelling depiction of the Holocaust they encountered.

It is pleasing to know that there are professors and students at Stern College who appreciate the academic value of the graphic novel. While graphic novels are generally recognized as a legitimate literary form, they still struggle for attention in the classroom – not because of any organized resistance to it, but because it is still relatively new in the academic sphere. However, as long as there are those academics who approach the graphic novel with seriousness and open-mindedness, this highly interesting genre can continue rising in the educational ranks and gaining more entry into the classroom.