Graphic-Novel Research Reveals Resistance, Lessons

By Amy Wickner — March 22, 2013 6 min read
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The presence and visibility of graphic novels in curriculum may be on the rise, but what of resistance to these materials? Several new and recent papers use a combination of surveys, literature review, and classroom evidence to examine obstacles to teaching comics in the classroom. Teaching graphic novels can be a heavy lift and a few of the reasons may be surprising.

J. Spencer Clark of Utah State University recently published the results of a teacher trainee survey examining “the value of using nonfiction graphic novels as historical narratives in the social studies curriculum” through the lens of preservice teacher attitudes. Twenty-four students in a social studies methods course were chosen to participate. Over the course of two weeks, the students read and discussed two nonfiction graphic novels—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2008) and a second title of their choosing from a list of 12 possibilities. Discussions took place in small groups, in online forums, and in class with all survey participants present. Six students were interviewed in greater detail.

The preservice teachers in Clark’s study valued the nonfiction graphic novels most for their multiple perspectives and their ability to introduce concepts like historical empathy, historical agency, and historical inquiry. Common reactions to the project also included initial skepticism and surprise at the level of engagement and absorption experienced through reading graphic novels. It seems there’s a reluctant reader in every group, even in a class of teachers-to-be.

The interviews and discussions revealed a shared fear of peer and community reactions to introducing graphic novels in the social studies classroom. More than one student was trepidatious about “graphic novels displaying an un-American connotation"—an alternative characterization of multiple perspectives in the depiction of history. Still others worried that the combination of novice teacher status and teaching with graphic novels could lead colleagues to see them as unprofessional.

Clark’s students automatically assumed a defensive stance, anticipating having “to justify their use of graphic novels in their social studies courses.” Similarly, Kathryn Strong Hansen’s “In Defense of Graphic Novels,” published in the November issue of English Journal, assumes widespread resistance to comics in education and sets out to analyze this attitude. She counters a number of related concerns about graphic novels’ place in the classroom with support from research literature and classroom experience.

Interestingly, Hansen challenges some of the more popular ways of advocating for graphic novels in the classroom, particularly the term “multiple literacies” and the oft-suggested use of graphic novels to engage “struggling” or “reluctant” readers. She suggests that resistance to graphic novels in the classroom may actually come from students who perceive a kind of stigma associated with comics, especially when reading comics is meant as a substitute for reading other texts. The practice of “adapting” or “modernizing” texts for classroom use is similarly a point of contention.

This raises the question of whether “multiple literacies” is perhaps persistently misunderstood as a term of condescension or a euphemism. Hansen cites a 2010 article by Sean P. Connors that raises this issue. Just as “special education” encompasses gifted students and learning-disabled students alike (many may also fit both descriptions), multiple literacies can literally be understood as a continuum of text- and non-text-based skills or ways of seeing, reading, and understanding. There is no hierarchy inherent in “multiple literacies"—this appears to be at root of the misconception that Connors and Hansen attempt to dispel.

The stigmatization and devaluation of comic books is not the only fallout from treating them as supplemental material. Hansen argues that “thinking of graphic novels as somehow outside the realm of literature denies students a chance to master standards in engaging ways.” She’s speaking from a teacher’s perspective here—let’s not assume that standards, common or otherwise, occupy as prominent a position in students’ minds. Still, treating graphic novels as non- or less-than-literature may also deny students the opportunity to encounter an important art and literary form on its own terms—to love or hate graphic novels regardless of what they mean in standards and assessment terms.

Last year, I wrote about one high school teacher using a multiple literacies project to great effect in her American history class. In order to avoid negative associations with graphic novels, teachers may find it helpful to contextualize them as one of many different kinds of communication.

Making and encouraging explicit connections between graphic novels and other media is one way to do this. In a November 2012 English Journal paper, titled, “Exploring the Connection between Graphic Novel and Film,” Ashley Dallacqua draws attention to links between movies and comics, from shared storylines—see especially cliffhangers of the 1930s and 40s, and contemporary blockbuster remakes of popular comics—to how students experience the reading of them. Hansen resists directly likening graphic novels to another literary form, apprehensive that such comparisons limit the popular understanding of graphic novels’ separateness as a medium. Dallacqua, by contrast, is encouraged by her students’ recognition of the link—perhaps this understanding opens their minds to new ways of reading and watching.

Graphic novels are often touted as a genre particularly accessible to young people, but they’re a literary genre as diverse as any other. While some teenagers may be obsessed with sweeping epics like Frank Miller’s 300 (Dark Horse Comics, 1998) or Alan Moore’s Watchmen (DC Comics, collected 1987), others may find golden-age DC and Marvel comics to be more to their taste. Still others will prefer Lilli Carré's Nine Ways to Disappear (Little Otsu, 2009) or Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011) and webcomic, or take their chances rifling through the comics at their local zine repository. There are cartoonist-journalists like Joe Sacco and Susie Cagle, who use drawing as an integral part of their reporting on current events like Middle East conflicts and the Occupy movement. And then there are comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes, The Boondocks, Doonesbury...

Many of us have read and hated certain books in school, only to rediscover and learn to appreciate them later in life. Likewise, not every student is bound to fall in love with comics in the classroom, or with the specific comics used in instruction. Teachers considering the integration of graphic novels into curriculum may find it helpful to present such titles on an equal footing with other books and textbooks and to be prepared for a wide range of student responses to the medium. Searching out a knowledgeable resource—like a librarian versant in comics or, as Hansen suggests, employees of local comics shops—can help teachers introduce students to the vast variety of comics in the world, even while selecting a primary text or two for in-depth study.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.