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Comics in Education: Environmentally Themed Comics

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.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

I realize its only January, and many of our readers, trapped inside by snow storms or other inclement weather, are enjoying hot chocolate and the warmth of their snuggies… But Earth Day is coming, and it’s never too early to think about good literature that can help you teach the importance of earth stewardship.

Earth Day isn’t until April, but most teachers will soon be thinking of the books and activities they want to utilize. Instead of the same old same old, why not shake it up a bit and introduce a graphic novel or comic on the topic? There are plenty out there and today’s column is devoted to introducing you to some of my favorites.


A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

There are many different ways to talk about and teach environmental issues in the classroom. If you are interested in getting away from the usual reduce, reuse, and recycle mantras that usually surround the celebration of Earth Day, then you might take a look at Josh Neufeld’s beautiful book A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. This book about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, focuses on the stories of several real life characters who lived through the storm and worked to rebuild their lives afterwards. Though After the Deluge falls in the comics journalism genre, and the author works to report the events as well as the consequences for the people who faced the storm, there are many teaching extensions connected to the impact climate change is having on our weather, opportunities to connect to more recent super storms (such as Sandy), as well as other extreme weather events like the mid-western drought of last summer. If you are looking for additional teaching ideas, there is an awesome teaching guide here.

Also, if you can’t afford class copies of After the Deluge (which is hard bound, beautiful, and can be pricey), you can have your students view most of the original comic online, since it was first published as a webcomic.


I’m Not a Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison

In Rachel Hope Allison‘s new graphic novel I’m Not a Plastic Bag, she envisions the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a sad and lonely monster, looking for its place in a world that has abandoned it. Whimsical and imaginative, Allison’s narrative makes the reader aware that the everyday items that are part of our lives, however briefly, have a life of their own beyond our immediate consumption. The idea that there is a garbage patch the size of Texas just 1000 miles north of Hawaii may come as a surprise to your students. But it opens up a number of fantastic learning opportunities to explore and extend student learning beyond the reading of the graphic novel itself. Additionally, this particular graphic novel also includes several pages of educational material on related environmental topics that can help guide your lesson planning.


H2O by Grant Calof and Jeevan J. Kang

Another newer graphic novel that is getting some attention is H2O by writer Grant Calof and artist Jeevan J. Kang. The story is set a couple hundred years in the future in a world that has lost all of its water. That’s right, even the oceans have burned off. Billions of people have died and the rest have moved further and further away from the equator forming entirely new composite nations from the remnants of humanity. The conflict emerges when a previously unknown glacier is found buried just under the surface in the mountains of Patagonia in South America. All of the nations rush to be the first to claim this badly needed water source.

The novel presents an interesting take on our near future if humankind does not manage to turn climate change around. After reading the comic, I did some further digging on some of the ideas put forth and it turns out that Calof did a lot of research to ensure that the book would be scientifically accurate. There are a lot of teaching opportunities here, not the least of which is to ask students to give some actual thought to what would happen if the water of the earth actually did begin to disappear. The novel itself alludes to the “water wars” that are sure to have taken place, but that is all. It would be a great idea to talk about the water wars that are already taking place around the world, and even have your students look more deeply at some specific case studies pulled from places like Kenya. You can read up on the water wars in Africa from this article on the BBC.


As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan

Another great book is the comic satire As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan. One of the things I really like about this book (and also really hate) is the point that it makes about how little what we do individually really matters. The book’s main premise is that changing all of your light bulbs, or recycling, or reducing – none of that is going to amount to enough change to reverse the climate change trajectory that we are on. Even if everyone in the country did all of these things, it’s still not enough. OK, that can make a reader really sad – and the book even makes fun of this despair with their very own optimistic do-gooder who thinks she is “doing her part” by buying less stuff, using her own grocery bags, and changing her lightbulbs. But as the other, more savvy, characters in the novel point out, if things are really going to change it has to happen at the corporate and state/government level. This is why I also like this book. It doesn’t pull any punches and it lets the students know that hey, if you really want to make a different CALL UP YOUR SENATOR, VOTE, get involved in making change happen at the state, national, and international level…. In addition to changing your lightbulbs. Just using portions of this book can help you launch a campaign in your classroom, and encourage your students to become more civically minded.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Volume 1 by Hayao Miyazaki

And who can talk about environmentally themed books without talking about Hayao Miyazaki’s serialized novel Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Set in a post-apocalyptic world, a princess sets out to save her people by trying to promote peace in a time of war – peace between people but also between people and nature. The environmental themes here largely focus on the harmful effects of pollution, and the challenges of trying to “purify” a world that is already contaminated. This a beautiful and deep story, and offers a wealth of discussion topics for your students around the idea of responding to a world that is already polluted. There are many literature and historical tie-ins as well, including the idea of post-apocalyptic literature as a genre in Japan.

I think I’ll end with my new environmental favorite: Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore. Known for his biting socio-political writing, one would expect no less from Alan Moore in his take over of the Swamp Thing franchise. I started reading this on the recommendation of a friend and couldn’t be more pleased with the story of course, but also the clear environmental and political overtones. It’s sophisticated and entertaining, and multilayered enough to keep your high school AP lit classes discussing for hours on end.

Homework: Check out these recommendations for the best environmentally themed graphic novels of 2012, including those for young readers.

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.

3 New Comics for New Readers – April 4, 2012

Kitty stories for kiddies (of all ages), a fantastic journey to a dark and weird world, and a creature of the earth haunting the swamps – Wednesday is New Comics Day! Each week, The Comics Observer picks three brand new releases worth checking out that should be suitable for someone who has never read comics before.

If you like what you see here, click the links to see previews and learn more about them. Then head to your local comic book store, or check out online retailers like Things From Another World and Amazon. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook.

Miss Annie: Freedom! by La Galle & Balthazar

Miss Annie Book 1: Freedom!
Written by Frank Le Gall
Illustrated by Flore Balthazar
Published by Graphic Universe / Lerner Publishing Group
Ages 7 and up / Grade 3 and up
Genre: Humor
48 pages

Miss Annie is a kitten with ambitions and a large dose of curiosity! The big, wide world beyond the window calls! Outdoors there are trees to climb, birds to chase, and other cats. Even though she’s only a few months old, Miss Annie thinks she’s big enough for adventure right now. If only she can convince her human family that she can take care of herself — or can she?

Born in Rouen in France, award-winning writer Frank Le Gall published his first works at the age of sixteen. Since then Le Gall has continued writing graphic novel adventures, occasionally taking a break for animation and short stories.

Born in 1981 in La Louvière, Belgium, Flore Balthazar decided at the age of nine that she would become a cartoonist, after reading Hergé’s Tintin and other comics at the local library across the street from her house. She soon realized that her art would not look exactly like Tintin, and developed her own self-taught style. She eventually went on to study at the Binche and the Etterbeek Academies of Fine Arts (both in Belgium), also studying Slavic languages and literature at the university in Brussels. She quickly realized that the best way to become a cartoonist is simply to keep drawing. She now lives in Orléans, France. Miss Annie is her first graphic novel series.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft & Jason Thompson

The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories
Written by H.P. Lovecraft
Adapted and illustrated by Jason Bradley Thompson
Published by Mock Man Press
Funded by Kickstarter
Genre: Fantasy/Horror
184 pages

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city…and three times he was snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it.

In search of a lost city and a forgotten memory, Randolph Carter enters the dreamlands, the vast world of wonder and horror where one night can span a million years. From the jungles of Kled to the surface of the moon, through perilous encounters with bat-winged nightgaunts and man-eating ghouls, Carter’s quest takes him ever closer to the secret of the marvelous sunset city… and the terror of Nyarlathotep and Azathoth, the monstrous Other Gods who stand in his way.

This limited edition oversize 184-page hardcover includes a full comic adaptation of the novel by H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the related stories “The White Ship,” “Celephais” and “The Strange High House in the Mist.” It also features a map of the dream world, as well as an art gallery section with concept sketches and additional drawings.

Saga of the Swamp Thing Book One by Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette

Saga of the Swamp Thing Book One
Written by Alan Moore
Illustrated by Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben
Published by Vertigo / DC Comics
Genre: Horror
208 pages

Before Watchmen, Alan Moore made his debut in the U.S. comic book industry with the revitalization of the horror comic book The Swamp Thing. His deconstruction of the classic monster stretched the creative boundaries of the medium and became one of the most spectacular series in comic book history.

With modern-day issues explored against a backdrop of horror, Swamp Thing‘s stories became commentaries on environmental, political and social issues, unflinching in their relevance. Saga of the Swamp Thing Book One collects issues #20-27 of this seminal series including the never-before-reprinted Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, where Moore takes over as writer and concludes the previous storyline.

Book One begins with the story “The Anatomy Lesson,” a haunting origin story that reshapes Swamp Thing mythology with terrifying revelations that begin a journey of discovery and adventure that will take him across the stars and beyond.


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