Despite their rising influence across movies, TV, film, and literature, comics are still considered by many to be simple, low-brow superhero tales that lack any real-world impact. Even teachers using comics in their classrooms can fall into a familiar trap: thinking comics are only useful for encouraging struggling readers, and not much else.
But comics offer so much more than the spandex-clad heroes in bright yellow uniforms! In fact, research shows that comics offer innovative ways to teach literacy to students from all backgrounds, helping to shape the way they approach literature and reading for the rest of their lives.
COMICS AS A PATHWAY TO LITERATURE
Whether it’s elementary, middle or high school, English classes at all levels focus on developing critical thinking and analysis skills in students. But, as English professor Rocco Versaci explains, “students first need exposure to literature before they can be in a position to argue literary merit.” How, you ask? After all, it is hard to ask a student to make literary judgments if they don’t engage with what they are reading or don’t enjoy it in some way. Comic books and graphic novels are the perfect solution!
As an added bonus, the reading of comics and graphic novels doesn’t in any way detract from the ability or desire to read higher level texts. Studies show that “…those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked to read more, and tended to read more books.” Comic books don’t inhibit other kinds of reading, but rather encourage more reading of all kinds!
For example, the graphic novel adaption of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by Peter Kuper can be the perfect way to introduce students to the classical literary canon while still being engaging.
In addition, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is an essential feminist reading, and the adapted graphic novel by Damian Duffy allows students to easily enter the foray that is Butler’s feminist sci-fi.
By reading the adapted versions students get to experience the literary cannon in an approachable way, encouraging familiarity without being intimidating. And if students can start making literary judgements from adapted versions, they can translate that someday to the traditional texts as well.
ANALYZING COMICS FOR LITERARY ELEMENTS
A multimodal union of text and imagery, comic books are incredibly engaging for any level of reader. As Versaci also says, “comic books are able to quite literally put a human face on a given subject.” Instead of just reading text, students get an image to connect with as well. However, the typical elements used for analysis in a classroom don’t just disappear when images are added. According to AP teacher Lisa Cohen, the reciprocity between text and pictures “necessitates inference skills” and “allows for a new approach to diction, imagery, syntax, structure, and language.”
For any curriculum centered on literature, literary devices are essential, and by using comics and graphic novels teachers might help students better grasp these concepts. Cohen gives the example of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and discusses how looking at the anthropomorphism and animal symbolism of the graphic novel allows for high levels of critical thinking and literary analysis. The symbolism in the novel largely lies in the illustrations, and as such is a unique way to demonstrate the particular device to students.
Alternatively, books like Persepolis can show the way that artistic style connects to character development. Marjane Satrapi’s illustrations accompany her view of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and are the perfect site for analysis on how images accompany language and how this creates meaning. English is all about how language and style can shape meaning; graphic novels just offer a new spin by introducing pictures as a site for further analysis on how structure can shape a work.
Overall, the experiences students have reading comics and graphic novels help refine their understanding of literature as well as reinforce literary analysis skills that can inspire a lifelong love of reading. Rather than being low-brow or simplistic, comics offer teachers a new and often unexplored way to approach everything from Shakespeare to symbolism to story arc – and everything in between. Every student can benefit from analyzing something that they actually enjoy, and comic books are the perfect way to introduce young readers to the incredible world of reading!
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