By Michael Gianfrancesco
Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve watched as a renaissance has taken place in the graphic novel medium. Educators and institutions have realized that these books can be a valuable resource for inroads to skills based lesson planning, and as a result graphic novels have found their way into the hands of more teachers and students today than ever before.
But what’s most amazing to me is the fact that there seems to be canonical texts that have broken through to the modern pedagogical zeitgeist. In other words, there are graphic novels with which nearly all teachers are familiar—books like Maus, Persepolis, Smile, American Born Chinese, Watchmen, Fun Home, and The Sandman, to name a few.
However, while this is a great thing for the comics in the classroom movement, I feel like a lot of amazing titles have gone unnoticed because most mainstream teachers gravitate to the list above. Don’t get me wrong: These books are all marvelous titles well worth addition to any classroom library… but there are so many other books that don’t end up on the “Best Comics to Teach” lists out there on the interwebs.
Below I’ve put together a list of my top 12 favorites teachable graphic novels that you may have never heard of or considered for classroom use. Each of the titles also includes a short overview and descriptions of how it might be best utilized in your classroom.
If you like this list, let us know and we can offer up more in a future blog post!
LIST OF 12 TEACHABLE GRAPHIC NOVELS
#1 – Superman: Red Son by writer Mark Millar and artists Dave Johnson & Kilian Plunkett
What if Superman landed in the Soviet Union in the early 1950’s instead of the USA? How would the DC Universe be different? This compelling tale focuses on a revisionist history of a fictional world and opens up a number of opportunities for teachers to explore Cold War culture, how the Soviet regime operated (and ultimately fell), as well as the nature of the man versus the superman (literally, philosophically, and socio-politically).
Read more at http://www.dccomics.com/graphic-novels/superman-red-son.
#2 – Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner
My personal favorite Eisner graphic novel, this book explores the origin of the street on which many of his other stories are set. The story starts in the 1870s in the spot where the fictional Bronx street will eventually be built. The farmland, settled by the Dutch Van Dropsie family, is where it all begins. Each new immigrant family that takes up residence scares off the previous. The Dutch are run off by the English, who leave when the Irish begin to move in around them. From there, Italian, Jewish, Latino, and African American communities rise and fall in sync with the buildings around them. The book is a harsh yet ironic look at the nature of class and cultural conflict and how superficial differences continue to divide the residents. The portrayal of an almost stacked oppression carried on from generation to generation will create many opportunities for classroom discussion.
#3 – Civil War by writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven
After an irresponsible group of young superheroes accidentally causes an explosion which obliterates Stamford Connecticut live on a reality show, the government introduces the controversial Superhero Registration Act which requires all costumed heroes to reveal their presence and powers to the government. Iron Man and Captain America disagree fundamentally about this, Iron Man supporting it as a way to safeguard the country and Cap feels that it violates the basic human rights. The two leaders and their teams square off in an internal conflict that claims the lives of more than one of their friends. In a time of division in our country where passions ignite over political differences, what better way to start the conversation over whether fighting for our cause is worth the fallout of real conflict.
Read more at http://marvel.com/comics/issue/4216/civil_war_2006_1
#4 – Green Lantern/Green Arrow by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams
Inspired by the “find yourself” films of the 1960’s and 1970’s (Easy Rider in particular), Dennis O’Neil decided to write what would become one of the most iconic DC teamups in comic book history. The story arc, unofficially dubbed “The Hard Drivin Heroes” sees the two emerald clad heroes take to the road and meet real people with real problems. They confront racism, drug use, the displacement of Native Americans, and the political strife of the time in a story which forces the normally space-bound Green Lantern to realize that he didn’t understand the problems in the world because he wasn’t really part of it. This book is a great look at the post-Vietnam War era in this country and offers an opportunity to open discussion on civil rights and what people knew and thought they new about the struggles of the oppressed in this country.
#5 – Saga of the Swamp Thing by writer Alan Moore and artist Stephen Bissette
When Alan Moore puts his name on a book, you can count on it being something special. When he decided to reinvent the failing Swamp Thing book for Vertigo, he started almost from scratch and turned a fifth string plant man into one of the most powerful and relevant superhumans of all. The book takes the origin of the character, originally believed to be a man who had been turned into a plant, and flips it around (he’s a plant who is pretending to be a man) and in doing so, explores the relationship between mankind and the environment by creating a spiritual and ecological connection between these two entities. This would be a fantastic supplement to any climate change or other environmental lesson.
#6 – Far Arden by Kevin Cannon
The search for paradise, Utopia, Shangri-La, or whatever other name it may go by is a fairly common motif in literature. In the case of this book, Kevin Canon dubs his promised land Far Arden and his hero, Army Shanks, is gruff, resourceful, and, at times, even emotionally fractured. During the course of his adventure, he meets strange and wonderful characters, most notable is his companion, the orphaned Alistair Cavendish. Shanks is forced to start relying on others in order to be successful (and stay alive) and this is a hard lesson learned by a hard man. The book explores the nature of the father/son relationship, the desire of excitement and adventure, vulnerability, and the hero’s journey. You could pair this with Beowulf, The Odyssey or any other classic or modern adventure story.
Read more at http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/far-arden/636
#7 – Top 10 by Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and Zander Cannon
This is far and away one of the most unique explorations of a world with superhumans that has ever been published, and it’s one of my all-time favorite series. Imagine, if you will, the Earth being overrun with magical, scientific, and genetic superheroes to the degree that normal humans are tired of their nonsense and create a city where all of them can live together. That’s Neopolis and Top 10 follows the exploits of the cops of Precinct 10 who have to deal with the day to day minutia of robot gangsters, Norse Gods acting out their classic brother versus brother combat, otherworldly threats who accidentally teleport into a busy intersection, and the like. You know, normal, everyday stuff. The book takes the mythos of the modern superhero genre and turns it on its head with silliness and a dose of intrigue and mystery. Great text to illustrate the nature of satire as your students will no doubt recognize some of the tropes being roasted in this book.
#8 – Taxes, the Tea Party and those Revolting Rebels – A History in Comics of the American Revolution by Stan Mack
There are a lot of amazing historical-based comics out there. In fact, I could dedicate a single list to just those titles (and maybe I will at some point) but in the meantime, I wanted to share this little gem. Spanning the history of our country’s origin from 1761 to 1789, this book tells a ground level tale of the rebels and scoundrels that were instrumental in helping found our nation. The artwork is fun but serious when it needs to be, and Mack pulls no punches when it comes to historical accuracy. He uses historical imagery, allegory, and geographic maps and locales to make these crucial decades accessible and powerfully rendered. This would work really well as a supplement to any American history or civics lesson and the concept of resistance and revolution is always poignant in the tumultuous and connected world of the 21st Century.
Read more at http://stanmack.com/
#9 – Clan Apis by Jay Hosler
If you are teaching biology and have a unit on entomology, this book needs to be part of your instruction. Dr. Jay Hosler is a professor of biology at Juniata College and one amazing artist/author. His book tracks the life cycle of a honeybee from birth to death using a narrative structure and amazing characters. Readers follow Nyuki from her larval stage all the way to the end of her adventures which allows her to cross paths with all sorts of other flora and fauna as she learns what the circle of nature really means and how all creatures feed each other and that keeps the world turning. Hosler doesn’t use cutesy art with his characters, choosing instead to make them look anatomically correct but using subtle artistic choices to convey emotions. It’s a book to read for pleasure that secretly teaches you when you aren’t looking. Great addition to any biology or life science classroom.
Read more at http://www.jayhosler.com/
#10 – Slovakia – Fall in the Heart of Europe by Marek Bennett
I first met Marek Bennett at the Maine Comics Art Festival many years ago. I was just starting my work with teachers and comics in the classroom and he came highly recommended as an educator and an artist. Turns out, that recommendation was pretty well deserved as Marek and I have worked together many times over the years. This book, one of many that he has produced in his career, focuses on a visit to the land of his familial origins, Slovakia where he reconnects with his heritage and his family, and does some educational outreach work too. This graphic memoir has simple art where the characters are represented as different animals. Marek’s experiences are recounted in brutal honesty and we learn about the cultural and social world of this seldom talked about Central European country. This is a great book to illustrate biographical storytelling, travel writing, and European culture.
Read more at https://marekbennett.com/
#11 – Tangles by Sarah Leavitt
This autobiographical account of Sarah Leavitt’s struggle with helping her mother as she slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease is a tour of emotional explosions. Her portrayal of her vibrant and witty mother who has to cope with the knowledge that her mind is slowly fading is heartbreaking but also strikingly inspirational. You will learn a real lesson about courage and fortitude as Sarah and her mother face the darkness together, until Sarah is forced to face it alone. It’s every bit as amazing as it sounds and my simple words here cannot possibly do justice to what lies within these pages. The art, though minimal is complex in its portrayal of themes. You can almost feel the pain and power with each stroke of the pen. Bring this to a psychology class or even a college level course on neurological diseases as it tells a very real tale of Alzheimer’s which transcends the medical reality and brings us face to face with what it can do to a person and a family.
Read more at http://sarahleavitt.com/
#12 – Tomboy by Liz Prince
Liz Prince’s graphic memoir about her own understanding of her personal identity as a woman who wasn’t, as she puts it, “a girly girl” nor was she “one of the guys.” Instead she places herself squarely in “the middle,” which is not an advantageous place to be in a world of absolutes. She worlds through her childhood and adolescence in the book, exploring her identity in all ways, from clothing and hairstyle, to choice of companionship, hobbies and passions, and all the choices, desires, and impulses that make her who she is. It’s a frank and amazing story that I read at least every six months. This would work well in just about any memoir unit or a psychology class.
Read more at http://lizprincepower.com/
So there you have it. Check out these titles, tell us what you think, and feel free to post your own choices for this list in the comments below.
If you like this post, let us know and we can do it again in the future! And be sure to follow me on Twitter @tryingteacher and you will see weekly recommendations for texts you can use in your classroom! Happy reading!
Michael Gianfrancesco is a high school English teacher and adjunct professor of English who has been advocating for the use of comics in the classroom since he was a pre-service educator. Over the years he has done workshops and panels at Harvard, Brown, Fordham, New York Comic Con, C2E2, Denver Comic Con, and NCTE.