A Case for Graphic Novels in the ELA Classroom

BudLouis (Bud) Kanyo, is a CRWP 2009 Summer Institute Teacher Consultant who is currently a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University. Bud is also an Assistant Professor of English & Humanities at Mid Michigan Community College.  His dissertation research interests focus on comic texts and the cultural/educational stigma often associated with them.

The following interview connects Bud’s research and interest in graphic novels to common misconceptions about the use of graphic novels in the classroom.

Debbi Meister:  What is your rationale for the use of graphic novels in the regular education English Language Arts classroom? 

Bud:  Artifacts like graphic novels allow students the opportunity to experience a new literacy. Any comic text (graphic novels, comic books, trade-books) offers something more than words on a page with pictures. They aren’t exactly the same as reading a novel and aren’t exactly the same as looking at a painting. They require their own style of literacy to navigate effectively. Douglas Wolk (2007) explained this concept of comics being different than word-based text or visual-based text:

Comics are not prose.  Comics are not movies.  They are not a text-driven medium with added pictures; they’re not the visual equivalent of prose narrative or a static version of a film.  They are their own thing:  a medium with its own devices, its own innovators, its own clichés, its own genres and traps and liberties.  The first step toward attentively reading and fully appreciate comics is acknowledging that. (p. 14)

DM:  With what age groups do you recommend use of graphic novels?

Bud:  Instead of approaching this on an age-to-age basis, I think we might do well to approach it on a student-by-student basis.  Some students may better engage with graphic novels at 14 then they would at 8.  For other students, engagement at 8 may happen more fully than when they are 14.   In short, there are graphic novels that could work for various students at various ages, but the interest and engagement of each student is important.  Also, the manner in which the educator presents the comic text plays a large role in the potential success of the text.   Too often, texts like this are viewed as an “easier” version of reading.  I find that point quite debatable.  If the piece is introduced as “something easier for struggling readers” it may likely impact students’ engagement with the piece.

DM:  What is your response to those academics who say that graphic novels are glorified comic books?

Bud:  I wonder what the implied problem with comic book genre is then.  They combine prose and visual in a complex, engaging manner wherein each element carries certain weight in the experience of reading and viewing.  Again, these artifacts are something different than stand-alone-prose or stand-alone-visuals. To say that a graphic novel is only a glorified comic book is to imply that comic books themselves are inappropriate without sharing an academic basis for that inappropriateness.  I worry that many academics impose a stigma onto the genre of comic books or graphic novels simply out of an illusion of simplicity. Are all traditional novels complex? Are all television shows complex?  Are all poems complex?  Assuming the answer to each of these questions is no, why do all comic books and graphic novels get so casually lumped into a singular, often castigated, category of lacking complexity?

DM:  What are your 5 favorite graphic novels and with what age groups might these novels be appropriate?

Bud:  Again, an age specific approach is tough for me as some students are able to wrestle with mature content earlier than other students.  Also, some families will accept mature content while others may feel it isn’t appropriate for their child regardless of age.  However, I’ll try to address the “my responses” with some “average” appropriateness in mind.

graphic novels
Graphic Novels (Image created using LoupeCollage)

In no specific order:

Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison (author) and Sean Murphy (illustrator) may likely be used with mature middle school classes or higher.

Watchmen by Alan Moore (author) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator).  I use this in one of my American Studies course with college students.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan (author) and Nico Henrichon (illustrator)  this is a tough one.  There are elements of violence, gender roles, misogyny, rape, and genocide.  It also questions the role/position of humans/animals on the planet.  Probably not suitable for young audiences.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (author) and David Lloyd (illustrator).  I’d like to think that due to the nature of this piece that it could be used quite well in high school classes.  However, I admit that there may be… complications.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire. I have texts from this series in graphic novel form as well as the traditional prose.  I think it could be used in High School.

DM: How would you sum up your feelings about the use of graphic novels in the classroom?

Bud: In the end, I find myself wondering if we don’t find ourselves, too often, wrestling with doubt regarding both what and how we should teach, instead of pausing and repositioning  our inquiry to ask both what and how will our students engage, grow, and learn.  If a student learns to challenge, create, imagine, question, analyze, debate, and reflect — if they learn to think more deeply about what is happening in their world — based on a profound engagement and interest with the things they are reading, does it really matter if the colors and pictures have joined forces with the words on the page to create something truly super?

Deborah MeisterDeborah Meister is a high school language arts teacher at Fellowship Baptist Academy in Carson City, MI, and a Teacher Consultant at the Chippewa River Writing Project.  She has co-directed the CRWP Middle School Writing and Technology Camp for the past three summers at Central Michigan University with author Jeremy Hyler.

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Deborah Meister
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Deborah Meister is a high school language arts teacher at Fellowship Baptist Academy in Carson City, MI, and a Teacher Consultant at the Chippewa River Writing Project. She co-directed the CRWP Middle School Writing and Technology Camp for three summers at Central Michigan University with author Jeremy Hyler. She has presented on various writing topics with Dr. Liz Brockman, Kathy Kurtze and Janet Neyer at the NWP Midwest Conference, and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. Her work has also been published in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan.