Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.
In past columns we have spent a lot of time talking about how to use comics in the classroom. We’ve discussed everything from using wordless comics to teach elements of narrative, to using graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare, to experimenting with comics based on poetry. What we haven’t really talked about is how to use the medium of comics to help students tell their own stories, or demonstrate their own learning.
Using the comics format as a way to get kids writing couldn’t be more natural. Students love to tell stories, especially their own stories, and the comics media is a perfect vehicle for doing so. But kid-created comics can do so much more than just tell stories. In this month’s column, we are going to spend some time talking about all the ways you can use comics in your classroom to help students to share their voice and “show what they know” – in other words, as a vehicle for expression.
Perhaps the most natural way to have your students create their own comics is through the process of creative writing. Unfortunately, in our testing obsessed education culture, creative writing is often the first part of the English curriculum to go. Teachers are often compelled to have their students spend time writing essays, such as expository, response to literature, persuasive / opinion essays, etc. But did you ever think that perhaps combining these genres of writing with comics could be another tool in your motivation toolbox? Why not invite your students to create a Response to Literature as a conversation between the speaker and the reader – in comics form? Or, why not create a persuasive argument as a visual essay with two characters debating both sides of the issue? There are innumerable ways to have your students employ a visual component to their essay writing. Neither the teacher nor the students should be intimidated by the drawing component either. Students need not be able to draw; stick figures work well, as do shapes (think of Flatland).
Consider this example…
Using comics to help students learn about a topic, and then demonstrate that learning just makes sense. Some of you out there might be thinking that having students create “persuasion” comics (like the one above) is not the same or as rigorous as having them write conventional essays on the topic. But I would argue that’s simply not true. A student created comic can certainly be as rigorous and sophisticated as a prose essay – it’s all up to the teacher to set high expectations, and provide many models for students to review. And for most students, creating comics is a heck of a lot more fun and motivating than mere writing alone. If essay writing is the ultimate goal, then creating a comic as an interim step is a great way to get students involved in the writing, bringing out their voice and passion. It’s just a hop, skip, and jump away to turn that comic into a full-blown essay – should the need arise.
“How to” Comics
Much like the “essay” comics described above, “how to” comics can be used at any grade level to help students demonstrate what they have learned about a topic. There is the added advantage of authenticity to this project, since “how to” comics are a part of the world we live in. From the safety instruction pamphlet on an airplane, to the building instructions that come with Ikea furniture –“how to” comics are everywhere.
Writing “how to” books is a common part of many elementary school writing programs – and can even be found in many state standards. Instead of your standard “how to” text only writing assignment, why not have your students illustrate their text and turn it into a comic? Once again, adding in the visual/artistic component builds motivation and investment in the project, and creates a student work product that is both pleasing and instructional. With your older students, it can even be fun to have them create such “How to” comics to give to younger classmates at school (i.e. through a book buddies program). A fun adaptation of this project would be to model it on the popular TV show, “How its made” – inviting your students to explain how something is made…. Like a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. Yum!
Comics that Explain
The “How to” and “How its Made” comics mentioned above both explain how to do something, or how something is made. But there are other ways to explain things as well. I’ve known many math teachers over the years that invite their students to use the comics format to explain a math procedure, rule, or proof. I remember one year a student, after receiving such an assignment, used her comic to explain why a negative times a negative (or positive time a positive) is always positive; while a negative times a positive is a negative. She created an entire story about how when you put a negative person with a negative person, they are happy (i.e. positive) to be negative together, and when you put a negative with positive person, he just ended up bringing her down… (making her a negative in the end…). Ok, not perfect math, but it was creative, awesome and ultimately, the student came away with a better understanding of the rule – and never forgot it.
All in all, there isn’t really anything out there that couldn’t be explained in a comic if you just give your students a chance to do so. Plus, it gives your students an opportunity to use their artistic intelligence, not just mathematical or linguistic.
Comics as Journalism
This is actually a genre that exists in the comics publishing world. Whether you are a fan of the works of Joe Sacco (Palestine), Guy Delisle (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea), or Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón (The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation) – there are plenty of great models for students to look at, and be inspired by. Encourage students to find an issue they are passionate about, and investigate it. Then, invite them to use the comic format to report out on that issue. Comics writers have been doing this for ages, and it’s a legitimate form of reporting. Again, such visual reporting can be extended in so many ways – use as a launching point for having students create their own film documentaries. Or, have them create a comics newspaper on the issues that matter most to them. This particular assignment also offers numerous opportunities to teach the writing conventions of the journalism genre (who, what, when, where, why… etc.). Again, if text only writing is the goal, well-written, high quality text can be lifted directly from the comics.
And last but not least, using comics as a form of activism, or for promoting social change is a great way to channel student writing. Combining elements of all the types of writing we’ve already discussed (persuasion, how –to, explanatory, journalism, etc.), Comics Activism takes it a step further, asking students to use their comics to compel the reader to act.
Again, there are real world examples of this. One of my favorite organizations to share with students is World Comics. World Comics specializes in teaching individuals (both kids and adults), how to use the comics format as a way to speak out on important issues. Basically, World Comics uses comics to give voice to those who would have been otherwise silenced. Students in their programs have created comics that “focus on different issues, such as racism, sexual harassment, girl child rights, school drop-outs, hiv/aids, sanitation, and right to education… Any issue, on which one can make a story, can be expressed through grassroots comics.” (World Comics website, “Comics in Action”)
World Comics has a great website with a myriad of tools for running comics workshops, and they have affiliates in numerous countries. Not only can you teach your students how to create comics for social change, but through World Comics (and other organizations like them) you can partner your class with other students around the world who are doing the same thing.
Comics have the power to change things. They have the power to change reluctant readers into avid readers. They have the power to motivate lackluster writing into writing filled with voice and passion. When created by empassioned students on topics that matter, comics have the power to change minds and motivate people to act. Much like those archetypal characters that transform from average, everyday regular “Joe’s” into crime fighting, butt kicking superheroes, comics—the literal underdog of the literary world—have the power to do a little butt kicking of their own.
So get busy and get your students to write comics. Like World Comics’ tagline says, “If you have something to say, say it with comics.”
Homework: Check out the myriad of tools at the World Comics website, and maybe even start a World Comics Club at your own school!
Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.
Like all other entertainment media, comics have released a number of conveniently timed stories in memory of the terrorist attacks that occurred in New York and Virginia on September 11, 2001.
Over 90 newspaper comic strips dedicated yesterday’s color Sunday comics to the attacks and those that sacrificed their lives. The strips are also being featured in special exhibits for one week only at the Cartoon Art Museum, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA), The ToonSeum, and The Newseum. The Society of Illustrators held a lecture about the event last Thursday with cartoonists Rick Detorie (One Big Happy), Tony Rubino (Daddy’s Home) and Brian Walker (Hi and Lois).
The entire event was conceived and coordinated by King Features, which syndicates comic strips and other content to nearly 5000 print newspapers worldwide. They were joined by Creators Syndicate (here in LA), Tribune Media Services, Universal Press Syndicate, and Washington Post Writers Group.
A slightly less reverential take on 9/11 is happening in the comic book The Big Lie by writer/artist Rick Veitch. The issue was released last Wednesday, and depicted a woman traveling back in time to 9/11 so save her husband from being trapped in the Twin Towers when the attack happens. During her efforts, questions are asked and information is revealed that looks beyond the official story of that fateful day. Veitch has said he doesn’t consider himself to be part of the Truther movement and simply feels that questions should be asked and alternate narratives should be considered. Joining Veitch is his frequent collaborator inker Gary Erskine and cover artist and editor Thomas Yeates.
The comic was conceived, financed and co-edited by Brian Romanoff of Nor Cal Truth. The Big Lie is being published by Image Comics. You can read a preview of the issue as well as an interview with Veitch at MTV Geek.
Slightly more morbid is this original graphic novel depicting the kill mission that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and founder of Al-Qaeda, the jihadist organization that pulled them off. While the actual details of the mission are classified, retired U.S. Marine Capt. Dale Dye and Dr. Julia Dye of Warriors, Inc. put together a reasonable best guess due to experience and sources. Capt. Dye has been a military advisor for Hollywood (Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers). The 88-page hardcover graphic novel strays away from politics and focuses on the mission itself. The artists Gerry Kissell and Amin Amat weren’t interested in a gory depiction of bin Laden’s death, instead striving for realism. However the Dyes have referred to the need to “celebrate” the event.
A portion of proceeds from sales will be donated to the American Veterans Center. The graphic novel debuted last week both in print and digitally. It was included among the publisher’s first books launching on iBooks. The graphic novel was published by IDW Publishing in partnership with Charlie Foxtrot Entertainment.
Keeping with cathartic violence in entertainment, writer/artist Frank Miller will release his long-gestating graphic novel Holy Terror later this month. Taking wish-fulfilling superhero fiction to its real world conclusion, Miller tells the story of a costumed vigilante (that definitely isn’t Batman, nosiree) who decides that 9/11 is the final straw and takes the War on Terror to the terrorists’ doorsteps.
The project dates back to soon after September 11, 2001, when Miller announced he would create a story about Batman seeking revenge by dismantling the terrorist network Al-Qaeda. The project was eternally delayed (and derided as simplistic propoganda and potentially inflammatory) but will now finally see the light of day without the Caped Crusader. The role of Batman has been recast as a new superhero called The Fixer (he’s “fixing” the terrorist problem, see?).
The action thriller graphic novel is edited by Bob Schreck (former DC Comics editor) and will be the first release from the new comics and graphic novel division of Burbank-based Legendary Entertainment. You can watch a trailer at Entertainment Weekly.
This came out five years ago but it’s still worth mentioning. This is a graphic novel by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón that adapts The 9/11 Commission Report, the government’s findings from their investigations into what led to and occurred on 9/11/01. It includes a powerfully effective timeline that shows the simultaneous events surrounding all four planes.
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of October 28 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.
After seeing Geppetto die at the hands of vampires, Pinocchio swears revenge in this darkly funny graphic novel. As the vampires plot the enslavement of mankind, only a one-puppet army stands in their way. But will a wooden boy and his endless supply of stakes – courtesy of plenty of lies and his elongating nose – be enough to save the day?
Looks like a pretty funny execution of a funny concept. If you’re into humor/horror, this could be the comic you’ve been waiting to read for your whole entire life.
Casper and the Spectrals #1 – $2.99
By Todd DeZago & Pedro Delgado
published by Ardden Entertainment
Just in time for Casper’s 60th anniversary, Ardden Entertainment proudly debuts Casper And The Supernaturals, an all-new take on the world’s most famous ghost and his two friends, Wendy the Witch and Hot Stuff! There is a city within New York City known as Spooky Town, but most humans are unable to see it.
Within this city live the Supernaturals, the ghosts, goblins, demons and witches of the world. When an ancient entity known only as the Volbragg threatens both New York and Spooky Town, Casper and his friends are forced to band together and defeat an unimaginable evil!
THIS ISN’T YOUR FATHER’S CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST! He’s EXTREME! I kid. Seriously, this looks like a cute revitalization of this classic character. If you don’t know who Casper is, don’t worry about it. This is a totally fresh start. No prior knowledge needed.
Bart Simpson Comics #50 – $2.99
By Sergio Aragonés
Published by Bongo Comics
Bongo Comics welcomes Sergio Aragones as a new regular featured writer and artist in the pages of Bart Simpson Comics!
First, Sergio starts with a story that pits the Simpsons against our national security in ‘The Simpsons Project,’ and then he debuts his regular bi-monthly feature entitled, ‘Maggie’s Crib.’
Get ready when the world’s fastest cartoonist meets the world’s brashest boy! And as if that wasn’t enough, Sergio also provides the cover to Bart’s fabulous 50th issue!
Somebody tell Bongo Comics to get a website. Come on. It’s almost 2010.
That embarrassment aside, Sergio Aragonés is a fantastic cartoonist (and has a website). Every year at San Diego Comic-Con, he does this hilarious must-see panel called Quick Draw where he, super-cartoonist Scott Shaw! and a guest cartoonist try to out-draw each other. It’s tons of fun, very spontaneous and immensely creative. Sergio drew for MAD Magazine for years (heck, he probably still does) and also does his own comic Groo The Wanderer. Seeing him handle The Simpsons will be a big treat.
A symbol of counterculture worldwide, Ernesto “Che” Guevara is one of the most, if not the most, recognizable and influential revolutionary figures of the twentieth century. From the pages of history textbooks to silk-screened T-shirts at Urban Outfitters, his mythologized face is positively unavoidable. But what, exactly, does this glorified image stand for?
During his life, and perhaps even more since his death, Che has elicited controversy and wildly divergent opinions as to who he was and what he represented. In Che: A Graphic Biography, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón—the graphic duo who made the 9/11 Commission Report understandable in their bestselling The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation and who most recently explained the ongoing war on terror in After 9/11—have come together again to give a real portrait of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. Following Che from his fabled motorcycle journeys with Alberto Granado as a young medical student to his eventual execution at the hands of Bolivian soldiers and CIA operatives, Che: A Graphic Biography not only provides a concrete time line of his life but also gives a broader understanding of his beliefs, his legacy, and Latin American politics during the mid-twentieth century.
I will forever love these two creators for doing The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. I think it was a huge step in comics expanding on their potential. It gives an amazing timeline of events so you can see how things were happening simultaneously, in a way that straight prose never could. It was clear, concise, intelligent. Definitely one of the best comic releases of that year, possibly the decade. I don’t know if this is as significant, but again I applaud what their doing and the skill in which they do it.
From the bestselling author/illustrator team of The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation comes the truly gory tale of the historical Dracula.
The Dracula myth has sparked a legacy of endlessly entertaining creepy tales. The fictional character, originally penned by Bram Stoker, was inspired by and named after a real-life fiend—Prince Vlad Dracula, the fifteenth-century ruler of Wallachia—a man infamous for massacring and impaling his enemies. In brilliant four-color illustrations, Vlad the Impaler tells the ghastly prince’s life story from his seizure as a boy by the Turkish Sultan, to his love life, to his maniacal attempts to retain power regardless of whose throat he must slit.
From the bestselling writer and illustrator team who brought us The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation—hailed by Stan Lee as “beautifully and compellingly written and illustrated. . . . It will surely set the standard for all future works of contemporary history, graphic or otherwise”—this graphic novel, based on a true story, is replete with gory details of torture tactics. Ideal for readers who made 30 Days of Night and World War Z bestsellers, the combination of riveting legend and blood-and-guts drawings will be an anticipated addition to the graphic novel fan’s library.
Hey, it’s those guys again! Some nicely coordinated release schedules from two separate publishers. Smartly done. This seems a bit darker and more for fun, but should also be an interesting read.
Bob Dylan Revisited – $24.95
By Bob Dylan, et al.
104 pages; published by W.W. Norton & Company; available at Amazon.com
Rendered in striking, explosive graphic form, many of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs—illustrated as they’ve never been before.
Mesmerized by the power of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and intrigued by the possibilities of translating his powerful, enigmatic personality into art, thirteen leading graphic artists banded together to create this unusual testament to the universality and transcendent vision of an American musical genius. With their vibrant, unexpected colors and dynamic, cinematic imagery, this group has assembled in Bob Dylan Revisited one of the most provocative interpretations of Dylan’s music in decades. Whether illustrating “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Hurricane,” or “Lay, Lady, Lay,” these artists capture the tender emotions, the ineffable sadness, and the romantic overtones of Dylan’s classic songs, at the same time reflecting the moral and political urgency of his music. Each artist’s style surprisingly complements Dylan’s lyrics and offers an irresistible window through which to reconsider one of America’s most enigmatic artists. A deeply respectful and brilliant homage to the extraordinary influence of Bob Dylan.
Love the cover. Here’s the list of songs and the artists interpreting them, according to the publisher’s site:
“Blowin in the Wind” interpreted by Thierry Muraty
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” interpreted by Lorenzo Mattotti
“I Want You” interpreted by Nicolas Nemiri
“Girl of the North Country” interpreted by François Avril
“Lay, Lady, Lay” interpreted by Jean-Claude Götting
“Positively 4th Street” interpreted by Christopher
“Tombstone Blues” interpreted by Bézian
“Desolation Row” interpreted by Dave McKean
“Like a Rolling Stone” interpreted by Alfred (drawings), Raphaëlle Le Rio, Maël Le Maé (scenario) and Henri Meunier (color)
“Hurricane” interpreted by Gradimir Smudja
“Blind Willie McTell” interpreted by Benjamin Flao
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” interpreted by Jean-Philippe Bramanti
“Not Dark Yet” interpreted by Zep
This looks really cool, very imaginative. Here’s a 12-page preview. Perfect Christmas (or other holiday) gift for that Dylan fan in your life, since they probably will have already either bought or sworn off the confounding Christmas in the Heart.
It seems every comics-related site or blog is checking in with their “Best of 2006″ lists. Not to be left out of the fun, here is mine, slipping in right under the buzzer (depending on your location on the planet).
My list takes a bit of a different angle, though. While the quality of the story and art, as well as entertainment value, are certainly taken into consideration, I’m approaching this with an eye toward historic significance. The list includes entries that made a significant impact on the industry or the art form for the past year. I’m sure there’s something really obvious that I missed. And I’ll be kicking myself for it. But here it is…my Top 5 list of 2006. Let me know what you think.
1. 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (Hill & Wang) – Over-looked by a surprising number of industry observers, this publication significantly moved comics back into the realm of serious potential. A graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Report was an inspired idea, and the execution proved how effective the sequential medium can be at communicating a lot of information without losing the data.
2. Lost Girls by Allan Moore and Melinda Gebbie (Top Shelf) – One of the industry’s best writers and a highly underrated illustrator finally released their adult look at fantasy literature and sexual discovery. This trilogy works on several levels. It’s a fascinating exploration of moving out of childhood. But the book will probably be most remembered for the controversy it generated… and didn’t generate. A debate over how the rights of Peter Pan, owned by a children’s hospital, put publisher Top Shelf in an awkward position. But fears of nation-wide bannings never manifested. Perhaps freedom of speech still exists…
3. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin) – And yet, sometimes it doesn’t. This graphic memoir by cartoonist Bechdel, previously best known for the long-running comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For,” was barely noticed at the time of its release until a local library in Marshall, Missouri, received demands from a resident to ban the book along with the celebrated graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson, originally released in 2003. The library’s board elected to form a board to review material, and removing the books from the library until the process is complete. Fun House then finished the year winning a nearly unprecedented number of accolades from Time (best book of the year), Entertainment Weekly (best non-fiction book of the year), Publisher’s Weekly (best comic of the year), New York Times, Salon, and others. It’s just too bad residents of Marshall aren’t able to check the book out through their local library.
4. Mouse Guard by David Petersen (Archaia) – The surprise small press hit of the year was easily this lushly illustrated and charming narrative. The quality of the book has been trumpeted elsewhere, and that is without question. But there’s an aspect of the single issues that makes it stand out further. The dimensions of the book break the traditional 6 1/2″ x 10″ that the vast majority of comic books have been printed at for decades. Printed as an 8″ x 8″ square, it alters the reader’s experience of the story and Peterson’s paneling choices. Like 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, the book attempts to expand what can be expected from comics, and at the same time expanding what they can accomplish.
5. Fell by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith (Image) – The comic industry was expanded in yet another way in 2006. British writer Warren Ellis directed his resources from the success of past comics to create an affordable and entertaining comic book series. The majority of modern comic book issues consist of about 22 pages of story and art for $2.99 with about 10 pages of ads, letter pages, and editorial content. Each page of story typically has anywhere from one to six panels of art. Typically each issue is one part of a four- to six-part story. Fell breaks that model by creating a comic book with 16 pages of story and art for $1.99 with six pages of “back matter” by Ellis and no ads. The story pages use a seldom used 9-panel grid layout to make up for the lesser page count. Each story is self-contained. The “back matter” consists of Ellis’ notes, commentary, and other content reminiscent of DVD extra content. The moody story, expertly illustrated by Ben Templesmith, has an episodic feel that seems to make it a natural for a television adaptation. And yet, it is uniquely a story most effective in the comic book form. And best of all, it’s attempting to make comics affordable again. It’s proven to be a success, with another Image Comics series, Casanova by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba, in the same format.
Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)
Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly)
Abadazad: The Road to Inconceivable by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog (Hyperion)
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (Vertigo/DC)
The Other Side by Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart (Vertigo/DC)