Guest-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.
Wordless Comics: Stories for All Ages
By Anastasia Betts
I had the privilege this past San Diego Comic Con of visiting the Top Shelf table (as I seem to do every year). Top Shelf is a great producer of books that work well in classrooms, not the least of which is the Owly series by Andy Runton. I enjoyed a brief conversation with Andy himself, and told him how much I appreciate his work on the Owly series. I shared how important the genre of wordless comics is to developing the literacy skills of emergent readers – a fact I am quite sure he is already aware.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, using wordless comics in the classroom is a great way to boost the literacy skills of your students. The Owly series is a fantastic tool for working with younger students, and there are a variety of activities teachers (or parents) can engage youngsters in that will exercise their ‘reading muscle’. Just the simple act of retelling the story in their own words provides students with an opportunity to exercise and develop their oral language skills, descriptive language, as well as both concrete and inferential comprehension. You can download an entire activity guide for working with the Owly series at the Teaching with Owly website as well.
It makes sense that a great little series like Owly would be beneficial in early childhood and early elementary classrooms. However, using wordless comics and picture books can actually help develop literacy skills, no matter the age of the reader. The fact is, reading stories that are told entirely through visuals alone requires a much more critical eye, and a keen sense of interpretation. We must not only “read” the visual, but we must bring our own backgrounds, and personal histories to the experience.
Reading visuals differs from reading text in its infinite capacity for extension and discussion. Consider another great visual text, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. This visual text, complex and sophisticated, offers a classroom the meaty substance for rigorous discussions on what the author/artist intended with an image or a series of images. Like the consideration of fine art, interpretations may be focused or boundless, depending on the nature of the visuals. Such discussions are rich and inviting, and require the participant to think critically about their own interpretations. To comprehend such texts, the reader must not only analyze the artistic sequences, but must bring his or her own set of life experiences to bear to make sense of the story. In The Arrival, Tan tells the story of a traveler who arrives in a strange and far-off land, an immigrant to a new world. Through discussion, students are able to stretch beyond retelling the story contained in the images, while having an opportunity to experience and reflect on their own “journeys.” Whether we are immigrants or not, we are all on journeys, some planned, some unexpected – and it is our personal journeys that help us to each uniquely understand the journey of the main character of The Arrival.
Wordless (visual) storytelling is certainly not a new phenomenon. I’m sure many of us might consider cave paintings, ancient hieroglyphs, or even the Bayeux Tapestry precursors to the modern visual texts. Visual storytelling has been part of humanity it seems, since the very beginning. One visual storytelling genre that was lost and then rediscovered is that of the wood cut novels. This genre flourished at the start of the 20th century, but then disappeared for time. Gratefully, some of the best graphic wood cut novels of that era have been rediscovered and republished for contemporary readers.
Wood cut novels offer some sophisticated and complex visual reading that can spark rigorous discussion in your secondary or even adult classrooms. Take a moment to check out the recent release of, Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyd. The artwork is striking and stark, but even more engaging are the stories that focus in on the various trials of humanity. Written just after the first World War, these artists (as well as the rest of the world) used their art and storytelling to make sense of the horrors the world had so recently experienced.
There are so many great wordless texts for the interested reader. You can find lists on Amazon.com as well as from any Google search. Here is another quick list of wordless graphic novels with some of my favorites. For those of you that are thinking of using wordless comics or graphic novels in your classrooms, I’ve included some practical teaching ideas to make the most of this versatile genre:
Build Oral Language Skills:
Invite readers to tell/retell what is happening in the story, frame by frame. Encourage them to describe everything they notice using descriptive and sensory details. Use guiding questions to help them find more words to describe what they see. For example, what do you think the character is seeing, thinking, feeling, smelling, hearing, etc. in this frame?
Build literal and inferential comprehension skills:
In addition to retelling stories frame by frame, encourage readers to explain what they think is happening between frames (in the “gutter”). This not only builds their oral language skills, but it also provides them with an opportunity to practice making inferences. Most visual texts make frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. Invite students to discuss what such symbols and metaphors may mean, and why the artist/author may have chosen to include them.
Teach Narrative Elements:
For young or early readers, focus on sequence: beginning, middle, and end. Use oral retelling as an opportunity for the readers to practice incorporating sequencing vocabulary such as “first, next, last…”
For older readers, focus in on character development and motivation. Invite the readers to consider questions such as: How does the author communicate to the reader about this character? What is the connection between how the character is drawn, and what the author/artist wants you to infer about that character?
For more sophisticated readers, there are innumerable opportunities to focus in on more complex literary elements such as foreshadowing, symbolism, suspense, rising action, climax, falling action… and much much more. Wordless novels are perfect for teaching these elements, no matter the ability level of your students. All of these elements are included visually in the story, and are in many cases easier to identify than in text-only books.
Build writing skills:
After practicing oral retelling, describing, and summarizing, try having students write their versions of the story. Invite them to write captions for each frame, or imaginary dialogue between the characters. Or, provide students with several of the frames, leaving out the last frame, and invite them to create an “ending” frame with text.
No matter the age of the reader, wordless comics and graphic novels have something valuable to offer. So as my mother always used to say (and yours probably did too…) – “Try it! You might like it.”
For homework: Read Art Spiegelmans brief review of the wood cut work of Lynd Ward.
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.
New Comics! For You!
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff coming out today 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 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: Having not read these yet, I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, they just might appeal to you.
Part action-adventure, SciFi and Romance, Johnny Hiro tells the story of an everyman and the challenges he faces. Challenges like the revenge of a big lizard, the quest for a lobster, or what can happen when 47 ronin go to the opera. See why the comic was nominated for FOUR Eisner Awards and one Russ Manning Award.
Looks like it doesn’t ship to book stores or from Amazon until June, but comic specialty shops should have it this week! Now there’s an incentive!
This silly comic is tons of fun while still maintaining heart. This is a good’un.
Femme Noir: The Dark City Diaries – $19.95
By Christopher Mills and Joe Staton
148 pages; published by Ape Entertainment
On the mean streets of Port Nocturne, justice is blonde! This volume collects all 4 issues of the critically acclaimed crime fiction mini-series about a mysterious, gun-toting dame fighting for justice in a dark city drowning in violence and corruption. This volume also includes 2 complete bonus stories, conceptual artwork by Eisner Award-winning artist Joe Staton, and an introduction by the Shamus Award-winning author of Road To Perdition, Max Allan Collins.
Here’s a Femme Noir mini-site that has plenty of previews, web-comics and other bonus material. Joe Staton has been working in comics since the 1970s and he hasn’t lost any of his skills. Good buy for the Sin City and/or film noir fans in your life.
Kazuhiko is a young, but already deeply wounded black ops agent of a baroque, retro-tech future-pulled out of retirement to escort Sue, a mysterious waif, to a destination she alone knows. Sue and Kazuhiko have never met… yet she knows him, having grown up since the age of four with her only human contact two distant voices: that of her elderly “grandma,” General Ko, and of Kazuhiko’s dead girlfriend, Ora. And Sue has been kept in that cage all these years because of what she is, and what the Clover Leaf Project found her to be — a military top secret, and the most dangerous person in the world.
* Clover is a long-out-of-print classic from Japan’s shojo artist supergroup CLAMP!
* Never before available in its original Japanese right-to-left reading orientation, Dark Horse not only brings Clover into English for the first time, but also collects all four of the original volumes into one reasonably priced omnibus, with a brand-new cover design especially for this edition!
Look, I know next to nothing about manga, but this is supposed to be a good one. It was originally published in the late 1990s. It’s got a dystopian steam-punk vibe and stark visualization unique to other work put out by the quartet of artists that collectively use the name CLAMP.
You’ll Never Know is the first graphic novel from C. Tyler (Late Bloomer) and sure to be one of the most acclaimed books of the year. It tells the story of the 50-something author’s relationship with her World War II veteran father, and how his war experience shaped her childhood and affected her relationships in adulthood. “You’ll Never Know” refers not only to the title of her parents’ courtship song from that era, but also to the many challenges the author encountered in uncovering the difficult and painful truths about her Dad’s service — challenges exacerbated by her own tumultuous family life.
You’ll Never Know is Tyler’s first first full-fledged graphic novel (after two volumes of short stories). Unlike many other graphic memoirs which have opted for simple, stylized drawings and limited color or black and white, You’ll Never Know makes full use of Tyler’s virtuosity as a cartoonist: stunningly rendered in detailed inks and subtle watercolors, it plunges the reader headlong into the diverse locales: her father’s wartime experiences and courtship, her own childhood and adolescence, and contemporary life. The unique landscape format, and the lush variety of design choices and rendering techniques, make perusing You’ll Never Know like reading a family album — but one with a strong, compelling, sharply told story.
You’ll Never Know’s release schedule and format emulate those of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library: three beautifully designed, large-format hardcover volumes released annually to complete a trilogy of astonishing breadth, depth, and sensitivity.
“If you want to find out what happened to Willie and Joe after they got home from World War II, You’ll Never Know is the perfect place to start. C. Tyler’s graphic novel, passionately conceived and brilliantly drawn, extends the range of Bill Mauldin to cover the aftershock of the Last Good War on the warriors who fought it and the collateral damage to their families. Not since Catch-22 has anyone probed the secret heart of the Greatest Generation with this kind of raw, icon busting courage.” – Tom Mathews (Our Fathers’ War: Growing Up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation)
“Her work has the extremely rare quality of genuine, authentic heart.” – R. Crumb
“She understands people with an acuity that is tender, wise and devastating.” – Jim Woodring
I’m really looking forward to this: a graphic memoir and family drama exploring the person we try to present to the world, and reality.
In 1986, Afghanistan was torn apart by a war with the Soviet Union. This graphic novel/photo-journal is a record of one reporter’s arduous and dangerous journey through Afghanistan, accompanying the Doctors Without Borders. Didier Lefevre’s photography, paired with the art of Emmanuel Guibert, tells the powerful story of a mission undertaken by men and women dedicated to mending the wounds of war.
I really love the idea of this. Using Didier Lefevre’s actual photographs from the time, Emmanuel Guibert weaves in his own artwork to tell the story of the photographer’s journey through Afghanistan. As that country steps into the headlines again, it’s good to look at such an intimate and personal level of its history. Great for fans of history and photography. If you find yourself watching shows on The History Channel or Discovery Channel, you should love this.
Flinch is a collection of engaging stories by established and emerging creators, all playing on their interpretation of ‘flinch’. From facing the ‘other’ within ourselves, to the tale of a prison inmate discovering what keeps him going, to a handful of stories exploring traditional (and non-traditional) hauntings alike.
With cover art by World Fantasy Award winning Shaun Tan, Flinch features stories from creative collaborations including: UK fantasy author James Barclay & Chris Bolton, Ray Fawkes & Anton McKay, Justin Randall & Chris Bones, International Horror Guild Award winner Terry Dowling & Skye Ogden and many more!
This looks fantastic, and thanks to the contracting comic shop market, this almost didn’t get distributed. Lucky for us, the oversight was corrected. Here’s a trailer with tons of peaks at what’s inside (and cool music).
By Victoria Frances
80 pages; published by NBM Publishing
The fantasy artist famous for the FAVOLE series of books is back with a metaphor for hope in the shape of a fable where child-like fantasy contrasts with the feeling of isolation and alienation which invades our every day life. Lyrically and suggestively painted, a visual poem of fascinating sensuous gothic beauty. For mature readers.
This eerie fantasy might be a bit abstract and/or racy for some, but others should really dig it.
Meet Barry Ween, the smartest living human. What does a ten-year-old boy do with a 350 I.Q.? Anything he wants. Cranky, egotistical, arrogant and foul-mouthed, Barry in general wants to conduct his experiments and be left alone, but it never seems to work out. Hurdles that Barry must outmaneuver range from time warps, to art thieves, to accidentally turning his best friend into a dinosaur.
This massive volume collects all 12 issues of hit series, The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius.
This looks like a kid-friendly comic similar in concept to Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory” or Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and I suppose it is except for the fact that there’s a whole heck of a lot of profanity and more adult humor. Not for kids, but a kick nevertheless.
Special All-Ages Attic! - There are a couple of releases suitable for all-ages this week, which is tragically so rare in modern comics that I thought they deserved their own section. These are great for kids, but all-ages really does mean ALL ages. You’re an age, aren’t you?
(I was going to call this Kids Korner, but I don’t want anyone to think they can’t read either of these because they are legally considered an adult.)
Thirteen-year-old Judy is so sick of boys and their immature ways. One night… Judy meets a boy unlike any she’s ever seen. A real live pirate! But Gary isn’t after girls… he’s after treasure. Judy offers to help this hapless pirate and they embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
Scott Christian Sava has a series of graphic novels targeted for younger readers. This one is specifically meant for younger girls (age 8-12) but this looks to be a cute story for anyone. Here’s a mini-site from Sava’s Blue Dream Studios, which includes a look at some of the pages.
From the creator of the sold-out MINI-MARVELS digests comes the first G-MAN digest! Writer/artist CHRIS GIARRUSSO continues his signature Mini Marvels brand of comics with G-Man and his pals, the next wave of all-new kid super-heroes!
Collects the sold-out G-Man one-shot, the G-Man Christmas story, an extensive collection of COMIC BITS comic strips and more!
I have the G-Man one-shot and it’s a lot of fun. Really funny and clever cartooning. Don’t worry about the Mini-Marvels and all other references in the blurb, all you need to know is in the book – a kid becomes a super-hero in a world full of kid super-heroes, and hijinks ensue.