Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Teaching Comics

Welcome to comics and graphic novel month here at Book Bloggers International! To start us off, Jenn from The Picky Girl has written the perfect post: about her experiences teaching comics in an English Lit course. Read on!

One semester, in addition to the textbook for my Intro to Literature class, I also requested the campus bookstore stock copies of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. The first class day came around, and one particularly attentive student raised her hand and asked tentatively, "Uh, Ms. Ravey, did you know that this is a comic book?"

She looked a bit horrified, so I chuckled inside, asked if I could borrow the book for a second, and proceeded to show the rest of the class. Some of them looked at me like I was nuts, but that's one thing I love about teaching college freshman and sophomores: keeping them on their toes.

However, as it was apparent that most of my students had never read a comic or - almost worse - thought of them disdainfully, I decided a more expansive intro was in order.

scott mccloud understanding comics

I had already read and marveled over the genius that is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which, if you haven’t ventured far into comics/graphic novels and want a primer, you could do much worse. McCloud uses the medium itself to define and explore the complex world of images and comics.

So we used a chapter of McCloud's text as a brief intro to the world of comics, to help students understand how to read them and why. Words like "gutter," "frame," and "closure" all gave them a bit more vocabulary to back up whatever observations they might make. Of course, much more goes into introducing a text (we also read about the Islamic Revolution and watched an interview with Satrapi), but it was a constructive way of talking about the medium and, I think, made them more confident that I wasn't a lunatic and that this was a legit English course.

Teaching annotation is also key in helping students deconstruct a text, so students also had to use some means of marking the text (I did and usually do recommend post-it notes). It helps to give students actual tasks for annotating (for those who aren't practiced in reading critically): 1/mark a wordless image that you felt conveyed a lot of meaning and explain why; 2/mark a page where the panel choices increased tension; 3/mark a section that you felt was confusing and why. I don't tend to be so specific or attempt to direct student reading, but I felt it would be good to at least get them thinking while they read.

What I loved, though, was how enthusiastic even the non-readers were. In fact, this assignment provoked comments from the most reserved in the class, and their observations went a long way in furthering our analysis.

For example, students pointed out how well the image of Marji's duality was represented in the image below and seemed more able to understand her divided nature. One student pointed out how the veil seemed to take away any and all outside interests in favor of only abstraction.

persepolis comic

Then another student pointed out the horrible symmetry in the second image - bodies thrown about violently, brutally in one and joyfully in the one beneath it. The juxtaposition was disturbing to them, and we had an energetic talk about how different the culture was from what they might have anticipated beforehand; many thought this region didn't have that kind of fun or that people there were incapable of it, which made the horrifying conclusion an even stronger image.

persepolis book

Though I put a lot of thought and effort into my syllabus and the various texts we will cover, I never quite know how students will react. Persepolis is an excellent choice, I believe, but it's certainly not the only appropriate comic to bring into the classroom.

The challenge is the layers you must unpack to successfully approach teaching a comic. Just as prose is a medium, comics is a medium. Within that medium, you have various genres. It can be overwhelming. Recently, I asked my friend Ryan, aka my comics guru, where to begin with comics. His response is so comprehensive, and so smart, I had to share it with you because you may feel ill equipped to teach comics or even read them.

My advice is similar to Ryan's:

1. pick up a comic
2. pick up another comic
3. read about comics (Understanding Comics by McCloud gets high ratings from me, and Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art is the standard. I'm currently reading Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean by Douglas Wolk. It's interesting but a bit rambling.)
4. think about why you want to teach comics
5. incorporate comics into your curriculum
6. troubleshoot

First, you can't teach comics without reading them. You certainly can't teach comics without having the framework with which to discuss them. Often, though, I hear other teachers talk about using technology or a text because it's cool or the students will like it. Students and teachers rarely agree on what's cool, and teachers are pretty horrible at determining what students will actually like - me included. If you don't know why you're using [insert random teaching idea here], your students will know that, and ultimately your lesson will not be as successful as possible.

The purpose in my class was to present students with a variety of forms - poetry, short stories, a play, a novel, a comic - that emphasized setting, theme, tone, character, etc. but which also delved into different aspects of the human experience. Critical thinking and critical reading skills are not bastions of an old guard, and in an era when media frequently bemoans the lack of reading (the studies and articles are too numerous to link), it's important to note that comics reading, at least, seems to have increased.

The more comics I read, the more convinced I am that we should be introducing them to students and educating them about the influences behind and theories of comics. So many of them are, if not all good, heavily informed by the creators and thinkers before them that there is value in using them in the classroom. As lecturer Arnold Blumberg points out, there is also value in "train[ing] the next generation to have a cultural memory that lasts more than five years." But before I start designing a syllabus for a full-on comics course, I have lots and lots of reading to do. I encourage you to read the posts this month and do the same. I know I will be taking notes.


  1. This is such an amazing post. I hadn't taken comics/graphic novels seriously until I started book blogging and realized they can be so.much.more than I ever thought. Persepolis was definitely a game changer for me in that regard. :) Thanks for sharing all of these insights!

  2. Ha. Yes, I run into this a lot. Great post.

  3. Go Jen, fighting the good fight! I've recently read Guy Deslile's Jerusalem Chronicles and have great discussions with family and friends. What other books are you considering reading in class?

  4. Alex - it really depends on the type of class. I like to have a course question to frame any readings around, but I've really been thinking lately of a comics-only course, and of course, that would look very different. To be honest, I've been reading so many lately, that I'm not quite sure which I'd include, though I will say that Super Spy has made quite an impression on me. Read it if you haven't. You could take a look at the art of the memoir because there are some crazy good ones out there - Fun Home and Stitches both come to mind (and they'd pair well with Persepolis).

    But if/when I develop the class, I will definitely post about it.

  5. Such a great post. I wish one of my lit classes had included a comic in the syllabus. I read Understanding Comics last year and it really gave me a new perspective on reading comics. Even the spaces between panels can signify so much! It's an amazing medium and I'm glad there are teachers out there who are able to talk about comics.

  6. My instructor in college happened to include a graphic novel in my Intro to Lit class. It was almost 20 years ago and I didn't even think or appreciate how innovative she was at the time. But, I did find that I loved it so much. I wish I remembered who she was so I could thank her all these years later! By the way, the book was Maus!


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