Comics and graphic novels rock and they are also excellent media for learning. But this has not always been recognized. One reason is that comic books and graphic novels are a relatively new media for classrooms, and until fairly recently, have been primarily associated with entertainment. Over the years journalists and teachers have had fairly negative opinions of the medium, especially as a form of literature, as well as for their use in education and learning. It was only after the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978) and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980) did critics and educators began to recognize the unique qualities of this media, especially in education. Since that time, new titles exploring critical historical events, cultures and communities as well as literature about the genre have appeared in bookstores and libraries.
Several things come to mind when comparing the experience of reading a graphic novel to watching any movie, whether actual or dramatized. Watching a dramatic recreation of a horrible event in a movie has the benefit of images and sound, and is effective in simulating an experience, but I think that the effect passes, unless the viewer has been subject to that kind of event. In this case, the images and sound can stimulate and awaken suppressed memories that can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even though we the viewers know that the people on the screen are only actors, and we all know that after the director says cut, these actors get up and walk away. But the triggers can cause intense reactions to actual survivors. The opening sequence of the movie Saving Private Ryan affected so many WWII veterans that many theaters provided therapists and counselors to help them cope after the movie. It was a powerful film, but very difficult to watch.
A graphic novel will tell the story differently, with text and images, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in sound and time. A book provides a visual context for the words so that readers can pace themselves in order to not get overwhelmed with the content. The illustrations provide enough information to make strong, emotional impact, without overwhelming the reader, while the text gives an accurate running commentary describing the horrible activities taking place. As a book, the reader can remain on a page, or move around in a non-linear manner. The impact of this is actually quite powerful and can remain with the reader far longer than a movie.
Along with the literary aspects of graphic novels and comics there are other practical (as well as theoretical) benefits of using graphic novels in learning environments. For example, the form of a comic book is nearly identical to the storyboards uses in movies, television, theater, websites, and even corporate presentations. In instructing students how to make comics, teachers also provide students with valuable skill sets that are becoming more in demand. Students learn how to create dynamic compositions, transitions from once scene to the next, lighting cues and more. These same kinds of skills are also applicable for creating training tutorials for teaching people practical procedures, such as installing software, replacing a part in a car or assembling furniture. Training videos are good for conceptual projects, but panel-by-panel illustrated tutorials (in the form of a comic) are an excellent media for mechanical training procedures that require the trainee about hard-to-find locations of parts or switches, installing software or changing a vacuum bag.
Along with the educational value of comics and graphic novels, there is also an economic value. According to Publishers Weekly of June 30, 2021, “Combined sales of comics periodicals and graphic novels in North America continued to climb in 2020, reaching approximately $1.28 billion, according to a joint estimate by pop culture trade news sites ICv2 and Comichron. The new estimate represents a 6% increase over 2019 combined sales.” (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/86791-2020-north-american-comics-sales-grow-to-1-28-billion.html). This represents an increase of 20-30 million dollars a year (Comic Book Sales by Year, n.d.). The manner in which the numbers are tracked make it very difficult to identify specific titles, publishers or genre, but the numbers are consistent across all of the tracking institutions. It is possible to extrapolate from this, that along with popular titles (such as the Marvel Universe) there has also been a yearly increase in graphic novels and comics that address issues about social justice and identity are used in educational environments. Along with the increase in graphic novels and comics, there has also been an increase in the number of books and scholarly articles about graphic novels and comics.
But these numbers do not account for the increase of Web comics or other online distribution methods. This increase has stimulated a growth in independent and alternative comics that skirt much of the cost, complexity and bureaucracy of the larger, established publishing companies. To counter this many writers are becoming self-publishers, such as Parker and Calderon’s (2015) book, Black Fist and Brown Hand: Ready to Offend. Others are turning to the web, and web comics, such as Deena Mohamed a young Egyptian writer who has been produced graphic novel, Qahera exclusively as a web comic, in English and Arabic for global audience. This is made possible by the ease and cost of technology to produce and distribute outside of the realm of traditional publishers and distributers. Independent distributors are beginning to capitalize on the growing interest in comics, developing online publishing and distribution sites. Also, publishers and distributers are developing mechanisms for independent artists to self-publish books and online comics; for example, Amazon and Kindle developed Amazon Direct Publishing to publish books and graphic novels for free. This gives authors more freedom for creating, as well as opens up new markets for distribution.
Comics and graphic novels are not alone in benefiting from the upsurge in titles and interest. Comics and graphic novels have made great progress in being as serious literature, worthy of formal study, or to examine critical issues. Each year over the past 15 years has seen an increase in the number of articles in many different scholarly journals, reporting on research studies looking at graphic novels as serious literature, history, gender studies, and even education. Augmenting this is the increase in books about comic books- both scholarly and popular. Studies have been conducted on a wide range of important topics relevant to this dissertation. Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle by Frederick Luis Aldama (2010), Comics and Stuff by Henry Jenkins, Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir, and Nonfiction by Randy Duncan, Michael Ray Taylor and David Stoddard (2016), and Comics Confidential: Thirteen Graphic Novelists Talk About Story, Craft and Life Outside the Box edited by Marcus (2016) are just three of the books that were important and influential reads during the author’s research.
Along with the surge of distributors of comics and graphic novels in brick-and-mortar, and online bookstores, more and more libraries are not only growing the size of their collections, but they are also appointing (or hiring) specialty librarians for comics and graphic novels. For example, Marilyn Taniguchi, the Library Services Manager at Beverly Hills Public Library said that the library started to expand their collection from described the growth of their collection in the late 1990’s and now has over 2,458 books. She stated that, the adult collection of graphic novels was given its own location in the library in the early 2000s and now contains over 1,254 graphic novels, over 1,011 graphic novels in J-Graphic Novel collection, and over 1,203 graphic novels in J Teen Graphic Novels.
The increased interest in using comics and graphic novels for education is not limited to the United States. There are scholars and researchers around the world adding to the knowledge base about graphic novels in education. Scholars and graduate students, Spain, Krakow, Scotland, Sweden are using comic as a resource for educational interaction between students as well as students and teachers. Recent interest and development about graphic novels and education has been made possible by the Internet, which has stimulated global communication between writers, artists, distributors, publishers and fans. These connections have led to multiple fan organizations that meet online (and in real life) to discuss and argue about recent issues of their favorite comics. The Internet also fosters communication and collaboration between scholars, researchers and students as exemplified by the ComixScholars Discussion List, whose listserv that is hosted by the University of Florida English Department. The best, most accurate and informative description of ComixScholars is found on its website, stating that it is an academic forum that serves the interests of those involved in research, criticism and teaching related to comics art. All aspects of comics and cartooning from around the world are open for discussion. Likewise, we welcome theoretical and critical approaches from all disciplinary perspectives. Academic scholars, people working in other institutional frameworks, and independent scholars are all equally welcome to contribute.
The list's common ground is its foundation in scholarship and its willingness to examine all the givens of comics’ form, culture, and history. It is a place to debate theoretical and historical issues; to post course syllabi and assignments; to call attention to potentially useful scholarship and other resources; and to post calls for submissions for books, journals, and conferences. The list is also a forum for discussing job searches, pedagogy, library acquisitions, financial resources, and other institutional factors that affect comics’ scholarship. The list is intended to focus on the means and ends of scholarship, and our discussions will venture far afield from the immediate interests of most casual comics fans. This list is an excellent resource, daily publishing multiple discussions, questions, and announcements from members from all around the world (this is where the author found the research subjects for this work). This discussion list is also a Community of Practice, as described by Wenger’s (2008) web-based writing “people congregate in virtual spaces and develop shared ways of pursuing their common interests”, this Listserv is a place used by individuals (scholars), communities (individuals interested in comics), and organizations (the institutions that sponsor the individuals).
Research data shows that apart from visual literacy, there was little explicit common ground for the teachers’ reasons to use comics in the classroom (specially to teach social justice). Other benefits, such as teaching a love of reading, critical thinking, ESL and language development are a given. But recent literature suggests that graphic novels can be used to teach a wide range of subjects such as history, literature, social studies, current events, introductory statistics, basic medical procedures and care, and more. In the past, much of the research into comics in education was topic-centric, and with the exception of Lars Wallner’s research on about using comics as resources for educational interactions, there were few) books that specifically relate to formal educational studies, such as educational theory, curriculum development, learning outcomes, comics’ impact on the cognitive development of students, assessment, standards, and other associated topics. But recent scholarship by scholars such as Henry Jenkins (trans-media), Nick Sousanis (the relationship between image and text as well as making online comics that are accessible to the visually impaired, and Luis Frederick Aldama (LatinX comics) have all written extensively about formal aspects of the integration of comics and graphic novels in education.
The literature shows that graphic novels and comics are also different from traditional books. Books rely solely on the imagination and mind’s eye to describe the visuals and actions of any narrative. Each reader creates their own unique experience or movie in their minds. Although there are books that have very visually descriptive, visuals become very nuanced, based on the experience, knowledge and imagination of the viewer. On the other hand, graphic novels are just that – graphics. The illustrations provide markers for the reader to contextualize the characters, local, and action according the to the vision of the author and artist.
The readers continue to actively use their imagination when considering sounds, physical sensations (heat, cold, wind, etc.), and pacing, but only after seeing the visual hints and clues of the author. There are two very different experiences, two ways of looking at the story, and two ways of interpreting the narrative. Transmedia (Henry Jenkins) states that together, they create a more complete experience for the user. Academia is already deep into research about the benefits of using different types of games in different learning environments for different kind of learners, looking at cognitive development, social and emotional impact, and other critical factors. One of the important benefits of using comics is that they are cheaper to produce, and distribute, which means that they are more available to more students than computer games. Data shows a clear trend of continued growth of comics and graphic novels in the marketplace, which means that comics are not going away and that we can expect to see more comics in more classes in different kinds learning environments. It would be very beneficial to adapt the research objectives and projects that used in game-based learning research and adapt it for comics and graphic novels.
In his movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the prehistoric drawings found in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France, Herzog shows that pictorial narrative has been on this planet for at least 32,000 years. Cave and rock paintings, bas-relief sculpture, hieroglyphics and even early alphabets were all based on image-based narrative and are found in every corner of the world where there are or have been human beings. In many ways, image-based stories are part of a global language. If we take this into consideration, it is not difficult to understand the reasoning behind the decision to place a plaque with images of two humans on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. Images are used to tell stories, teach practical actions, and communicate with others when common language does not exist.
Understanding the history of image-based narrative helps explain why students, why people are drawn to comics. These stories can be used to engage learners of all ages and of all languages, to educate individuals, and communities about the evil as well as the good that humans are capable.
It seems that in the current state of this country, and the rest of world, there is push to build walls to separate people from each other, to divide and separate communities, and promote a general fear of the other. Although there are those who may support these actions, I do not and believes that the physical and metaphorical walls are artificial barriers to understanding and accepting of different cultures. Comics and graphic novels can help people share stories in non-threatening ways, so that we can all better understand each other, In Muulticultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle, Leonard Rifas, a teacher at Seattle Central Community College writes, “the idea that comics could influence readers, cause damage, or have importance follows from the principal that media both reflect and affect the wider society. They do, but not in a simple, mechanical way. Comics supply evidence of widely shared assumptions and also teach particular ways of looking at things. (Aldama, 2010, p. 27)
Comics and graphic novels are not the ultimate solution to the world's critical problems, but they are an excellent tool that can help. And we have to admit that they are also fun!
Parts of this blog were taken from my dissertation, Beyond Super Heroes and Talking Animals: Social Justice in Graphic Novels in Education (2017).