“Teaching” Graphic Novels

Last year, I was invited to attend a one-day workshop in Vancouver on the subject of graphic novels. The workshop was sponsored by the Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium (ERAC), an organization which, up until recently, was fully funded by the provincial government. ERAC serves as a one-stop shop where teachers from across British Columbia can search for educational software, video and print resources that have been vetted for classroom use, and which may be purchased by teachers at a discount through the organization.

I was fortunate enough to have been referred by my supervisor to attend this session. She knew that I am passionate about comics, since I had been granted permission by Chris Olivieros (the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly) to include excerpts from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel) in a BC First Nations Studies 12 course being developed in both print and online formats for high school distance education students.

The reason that the ERAC executive had chosen to invite me and two other participants to their offices concerned a general lack of familiarity with graphic novels amongst the staff. This was a chance for us to educate them about the range of forms that graphic novels can assume, toward the end of the group’s establishing criteria that could apply towards determining which graphic novels might be suitable for classroom use.

On the one hand, the day served as a great excuse to share knowledge and bring samples of a variety of works to show to a genuinely attentive audience. But what does it mean to “teach” a graphic novel? Obviously some teachers are doing it. And in spite of the constraints of the classroom, I am certain that some teachers are doing it well. I have also seen how a teacher can bastardize even Catcher in the Rye–I’ve done it myself, not knowing how else to go about the task of “teaching” the novel. And the last thing that I would wish on any student is for a teacher to suck the life out of everything good and true about graphic novels, through treating the subject poorly in the classroom.

Even if a mastery learning approach to instruction is not being used, if students have the choice of what graphic novel they would like to read, so long as there are constraints being placed on what graphic novels are permissible in the classroom, we are not doing justice to the medium.

Let us travel back in time to 1954, when Dr. Frederick Wertham stood before the U.S. Senate hearings and explained to an attentive audience why comic books lay at the heart of juvenile delinquency. With the McCarthy witch hunts in full swing, the conservative agenda did not spare comic book publishers from undergoing close scrutiny in the interests of protecting the staid values of the moral majority. Largely as a result of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, EC horror comics were essentially blacklisted and the Comics Code Authority was established. The Comics Code was designed as the stamp of approval identifying socially acceptable comics, so that parents could rest assured that their children would not end up on the streets from reading them.

Fast forward to the 21st century. With the advent of the graphic novel, the public has largely forgotten Wertham’s misguided attack on comics—misguided on two accounts. It has been suggested that Wertham did not realize that the very comics that he wished to ban were never intended to be read by juveniles to begin with; the greatest audience for horror comics was GIs in combat during the Korean War. And many of the youth who were juvenile delinquents at the time would not have had the literacy skills required to read the very comics Wertham was arguing were the cause of their delinquency!

In this day and age, educators will use whatever means are available to engage and excite their audiences—some have coined the term “edutainment” to describe this phenomenon. Among the most powerful vehicles for promoting literacy for many students is the graphic novel. But teachers remain, as they always have been, social engineers, and as such their jobs require of them that only politically correct reading materials are promoted in their classrooms.

I was recently discussing my frustrations with the promotion of graphic novels in the classroom with a friend and colleague of mine, who, incidentally, failed English 12 three times. In response to my diatribe about fearing that educators will make a mockery of their subject matter, approaching it as one more item on the curriculum to which they are expected to teach, my friend gently retorted that if he had been allowed to read graphic novels when he was in high school, it probably would have made things a whole lot easier. Was I really suggesting that we should discourage students from appreciating the beauty inherent in the combination of words and pictures?

Of course he’s right. And yet what I decry about the introduction of graphic novels into the classroom is that students will only learn half the story. Certainly, those students who are driven to learn more will do so on their own time, and they will find out what they need to know. But comics—and in particular comix—originated in part as a means to circumvent, or at least challenge the status quo. Journalists, K-12 educators and academics are colonizing comics towards their own ends, in the interests of the establishment reproducing itself ad nauseam. The are doing so through writing critiques and reviews of graphic novels for newspapers and literary magazines, and “teaching” comics in high school or as part of a post-secondary English and Communications classrooms, or in comics studies program.

On the other hand, to suggest that comics and graphic novels remain strictly “alternative” and subversive is to live in the dark ages. Now graphic novels and their manga cousins are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and many are being created precisely to fill the niche education market, and to appeal to young adults. To speak of graphic novels in purely sentimental terms, in terms of their countercultural roots, is to ghettoize them as much as is being done by any other group.

Now that graphic novels have been formally introduced as part of the grades eight to twelve English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum in the province, what choice do teachers have? Although graphic novels are only one among many different media through which teachers are expected to address the subject of “graphic text,” graphic novels are certain to be one of the most accessible vehicles to meet this outcome.

The ELA 8-12 Integrated Resource Package introduced by the BC Ministry of Education includes a subtle nod to Bakhtin’s intertextuality in an expanded definition of the term “text”:

For purposes of English Language Arts, the term “text” denotes any piece of spoken, written, or visual communication (e.g., a particular speech, essay, poem, story, poster, play, film). A text may combine oral, written, and/or visual components.

Graphic novels, then, may be understood as one genre of text. The Ministry has been careful to include graphic novels as a genre of text in its definition:


Genre refers to types or categories of text recognized by form and/or style. Genres have particular recognizable characteristics and features which distinguish them from other genres. Examples of genres include essay, article, documentary, web page, short story, graphic novel, and poem. Within each of these broad categories are contained more specific categories (e.g., haiku as a subcategory of poetry). Many works cross into multiple genres by borrowing or recombining these characteristics (page 256).


And what is the definition of the graphic novel provided by the Ministry?

graphic novel

A narrative medium characterized by sequential art with or without text (page 256).

Okay, not bad. They’ve done their homework

In the exhibit Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art, the comics and graphic novel curators Art Spiegelman and Seth used quotation marks when applying the term. I can appreciate this, since it is a simultaneous adoption of what has become common usage, and a questioning of its status. I haven’t bothered in this post, namely because I think it looks clunky.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel, (Alpha Books, 2004), Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber suggest,

A graphic novel is a comics project of substantial length that is designed to be understood as a single work. Fiction, nonfiction—even a comics format cookbook—would count as a graphic novel (4).

This definition is broad enough to include both fiction and nonfiction, to account for disparities first identified with Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The work is simultaneously biographical and autobiographical, and yet its characters are little more than funny animals—albeit funny animals in very serious circumstances!

In my computer’s dictionary, a graphic novel is defined as “a novel in comic strip format.” So take your pick. There are plenty of definitions out there, and we can leave it to comics philosophers to determine which are the most worthy of our attention. What is most important is to acknowledge that there is a rich tradition that informs the graphic novel’s current forms, and those forms extend far beyond the limits of the classroom.

All of this having been said, I have been invited by a teacher friend to visit her grade 12 class to discuss graphic novels with them. How can I refuse?


National Association of Comics Arts Educators



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