Simply put, comics in the classroom are cool! Everybody knows that they are fun and engaging, But they are so much more, and provide a plethora of benefits for students, especially in high schools and colleges. For starters, it is easy to see graphic novels promote visual literacy- after all, they are called graphic novels. But there is evidence that shows that many weak readers get turned on to traditional literature through exposure and assignments with graphic novels.
The content is rich and varied. There are examples of:
- Classic literature and stories such as Beowulf, Shakespeare stories like Hamlet, and multiple versions of Sherlock Holmes, such as The Valley of Fear, an African-American take on it called Watson and Holmes
- Science is a great topic about a whole variety of topics and ideas, such as graphic medicine, evolution, magnetism, and even the root of many a nightmare, Statistics done as a Manga!
- Philosophy and philosophers have titles that serves as introductions, like Nietzsche: a graphic guide, as well as the comparative philosophies in Action Philosophers!
- Religion, is also popular topic, from R. Crumb’s brilliant Book of Genesis, to a cornucopia of titles about books about Judaism (more about this below), Christianity and Islam.
There are two sub-genres of graphic novels that that really interest me. The first are personal memoirs by immigrants and war refugees, social commentary, and recent historical events. Graphic novels are extremely powerful and effective ways to tell the human side of history. In general, history is taught as big waves, events and movements, but pass over the most basic elements- the effects of these grand narratives on individual humans and communities. Movies are also powerful media for big events, and bring to mind Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, 12 years a slave, The Loving Story, Argo, Stand and deliver, and more. All extremely powerful films, especially when seen in a theater with an audience. Books are another leg of learning, but as the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and graphic novels are the perfect example when combined with words. They provide an intimate observation into the lives and experiences of those who are living in history, struggling to survive, to find safe havens in order to live, work, raise a family and to live without fear. Along with basic literature, many of these titles can be integrated into the curriculum in many class subjects, such as journalism, sociology, community and ethnic studies, and history. But, it is also possible to design complete classes around graphic novels, especially about the American experience of refugees and immigrants.
Some of my favorites include:
Books about the global migrant and refugee experience:
- American born Chinese by Gene Yang
- Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi
- The best we could do by Thi Bui
- Escape to Gold Mountain by David H.T. Wong
Memoirs about living in war zones and resolutions:
- A game for swallows: to die, to leave, to return by Zeina Apirached (her memoir about being a child during the civil war in Beirut)
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
- Palestine by Joe Sacco
- Arab of the future by Riad Sattouf
- War Brothers: the graphic novel by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance (about Joseph Kony and the child soldiers Uganda)
- Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco
The American experience
- March by Congressman John Lewis, Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell
- Mohammed Ali by Sybille Titeux
- Love and Rockets written by the amazing Hernandez brothers
- Days of destruction, days of revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
- The Golem’s mighty swing by James Sturm
My other favorite sub-genre are Jewish graphic novels. The narratives in these books represent the complexity and richness of the Jewish people, and tell stories about history, personal events, spirituality and religion. The great Will Eisner is probably the first author who tackled the Jewish experience straight on, beginning with his book Contract with God (considered by some to be the first modern graphic novel), and The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was followed by Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Maus. It is interesting to note that for many years, Eli Weisel’s classic memoir Night was the primary source in HS classes about the holocaust, until the publication of Maus, which became the prime resource. But there are other titles about topics other then the Holocaust, such as:
- The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar. This story is about an Algerian rabbi, his beautiful daughter, and their talking cat, who engages in religious debates with the rabbi, especially his desire for a bar mitzvah.
- Tales of the wild east, also by Joan Sfar, about the adventures of an itinerant group of Klezmer and Gypsy musicians in eastern Europe.
- How to understand Israel in 60 day or less by Sarah Glidden
- Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan (one of my favorite authors)
- The Property by Rutu Modan
- Jerusalem: a family portrait by Boaz Yakin (an engaging story about a family’s experience in Jerusalem during the 1940s that tells more about the the tensions between different Jewish communities than about the Jewish-Palestinian issues.
- Greenberg the vampire by J.M. DeMatteis (the title alone makes it worth reading!).
There are also the meta-books about graphic novels told in graphic novel form, such as:
- Unflattening, Nick Sousais’ brilliant, and esoteric reflection about the relationship between text and images.
- Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, a deeply engaging and informative book about the history and formal elements of graphic story-telling, a must for any student learning about comics.
- Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, by Sarah Lightman
There is a plethora of other titles that are graphic memoirs, reflections and journalism about critical issues that are engaging and informative and affect global societies. These books are appropriate for a range of classrooms from middle and high schools, and up to colleges. Data shows that graphic novels promote visual literacy, text-based literacy, and critical thinking skills. One interesting example gleaned from my dissertation came from a HS teacher in South-Central Los Angeles. The teacher assigned daily assignments of 20 minutes of free reading in his class. The students could read anything that they wanted, including comics and graphic novels. Most of the students chose to read comics, and would breeze through series that the teacher had placed in his classroom. But, then things got interesting. After getting hooked on a series, they discovered that the classroom collection was incomplete, and that they needed to go to the library to continue. High school students began to flock to the library, a room that they had never set foot in, to find the continuation of the series. And then, they discovered the world books and literature. who had never set foot in a library began to floc that Data also shows that there are many practical skills that can be lesarned, such as storyboarding (there applications for this skill in multiple fields), professional presentations, and other positions in media and communications.