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February 17, 2010

Op-Ed: The Art of Teaching an Essential List


Teacher, Watchung Hills Regional High School, Warren, New Jersey

Oftentimes, when I tell people that one of my classes is a graphic novel elective, once they recover from their amazement, they ask me three questions. The first is always, “What books do you teach?” and the others are either, “How are you allowed to teach that?” or “Can I take your class?” While most people I encounter cannot take my class in graphic novels, I can tell them what I teach and how I am able to teach the texts that are considered foundational pieces in the graphic novel format.
When putting my course together, I really wanted to focus on texts that would not only excite my students, but also show them that the graphic novel is a complex and sophisticated medium. Too often, people assume that what I teach is just a class about Superman and Batman, and that is not the case. I also structure my course with the understanding that students in my class will be coming from different academic backgrounds and from different levels of knowledge about the format. This year, I had a student who, at the beginning of the year, did not know many of the big-name characters that are familiar to comic readers. Now as the semester is ending, she has been transformed into a total comic fan.
When the semester begins, my starting point is always with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. This seminal work is a way to teach my students a common vocabulary that we can use to discuss the texts. Having a solid foundation is important, and McCloud’s terms and examples are ones that students can easily understand and utilize during class discussions. From our foundation, we then move into thematic units, the first being the idea of the hero, more specifically Superman, and take a look at how this embodiment of the idea of the “American Hero” has changed since he debuted in 1938. Using a variety of comics and cartoons from different time periods in Superman’s time line allows students to continue to utilize terms from their graphic novel introduction and analyze how comics have changed throughout the decades.
Once students have a firm grasp on the hero, we move into more complex territory with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, our first official graphic novel. Not only was this text one of the first in the modern graphic novel genre, but also students really love the character of Batman. Originally, the Batman comics combined the popular superhero motif with detective stories that were popular in the late 1930s. As the character grew in popularity, Batman became more of a vigilante figure who ultimately portrays the qualities of an antihero. Batman turned into a character that is constantly fighting Gotham City’s criminals as a way to avenge the murder of his parents, who were gunned down in an act of senseless violence. Frank Miller’s gritty images not only add realism to the story, but they also contrast well with the primary, heroic colors of the Superman comics that the students previously studied. We also get to see the interaction between these two titans of comic mythology adding a clear thematic bridge from heroic Superman to antiheroic Batman. I also like to pair Batman with excerpts from the original antihero tale of Frankenstein to connect the themes seen in Dark Knight to the literary cannon. By showing students that the characters they love and get excited about are rooted in the same themes they see in classical literature, the texts that we examine begin to carry more weight, and even conversations where students question if Batman really is a superhero even though he does not have superpowers, have a bit more meaning to them.
Having dealt with publishing house DC’s finest, we then move into a world that I am much more comfortable with, being a “Marvel Girl” myself. Also, in keeping with the focus of literary themes from heroes and antiheroes, we then discuss allegories while looking at the X-Men. Since we have already covered archetypal ideas with the other units, in this section we focus on how the X-Men work as an allegory. The parallels between the creation of the X-Men and the Civil Rights movement are studied, along with how the ideas that the X-Men are founded on can translate to social issues we see today. This is another unit that the students get really involved in because of the familiarity of the characters and the positive hero image that is seen in the X-Men works as a nice bridge to the negative hero image that we see in Watchmen.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a great piece for students to read, but I do warn my students that the book does contain extreme violence and the thematic content is intense. Moore set Watchmen in an alternative 1980s where the United States won the Vietnam War and uses costumed crime fighters to violently ask the question “Who watches the watchmen?” The thesis of the text directly questions the heroic ideas that the students have studied thus far in the semester. After analyzing so many characters that send moral messages to their readers, my students immediately find Watchmen to be a strange counter from all that we have studied. The themes and the messages of Alan Moore’s work are ones that connect with a dystopian view of the world and show students that graphic novels are a complex genre that can convey several different media within the pages of a text. Moore layers the images of the basic story with pure textual excerpts in the form of news articles and memoirs that further character background as well as a separate comic story to act as a parallel. The different levels of text make Watchmen a challenge and forces students to read beyond the basic plot to really understand all of the ideas that Moore is conveying. This is also where V for Vendetta enters the curriculum, since both books are considered part of the graphic novel cannon and both deal with characters that act in amoral ways.  
V for Vendetta is another vigilante-based graphic novel by Alan Moore. The character of V takes on a Guy Fawkes mask as his main persona and kidnaps a girl named Evey in order to protect her, while also enlisting her to aid in his personal revenge. Ultimately, V’s plan moves beyond revenge and he uses violence to bring down England’s 1984-esque government. Both V and Watchmen were written during the 1980s, while Moore was frustrated with England’s government. He uses these texts as vehicles to question the world around him. Both of these books take positions that allow students to really examine ideas of right and wrong in a different way. Is V right to cause violence and death in order to protect the greater good? Is Ozamandius correct to intervene on the large scale in order to stop war at the end of Watchmen? These are the questions we discuss, and my students are able to see that graphic novels are able to test these moral questions in several different ways. Overall, on the students’ end, the level of discussion and analysis gets brought up as these themes and questions are raised that are comparable to that of a traditional English literature course. At this point in the semester, we are no longer looking at graphic novels as longer comic books, but as serious pieces of literature.
As the semester draws to a close, my students begin to prepare their final project. In pairs they create and present a sales pitch for their own graphic novel, based on the concepts we have studied throughout the semester. As they focus on this assignment, there is one more text to share with them. While the focus of my course is to introduce students to the graphic novel cannon, I also want to expose my students to more current styles and texts. The last text we look at is Fables: Vol. I. This is a series that focuses on taking traditional fairy tale characters and placing them in our modern day New York as refugees from their foreign magical land. Fables raises some of the same issues that we discussed in Watchmen and V, with regards to morals as well as the role of women in graphic novels, but the familiarity of the characters seems to offset those issues and really grabs the students.
As evidence of this, several of my students stop by after the course to update me on what they are reading and what I should check out for next year. Ultimately, this tells me that I have done my job well—when my students are excited about the texts that they read and ready to discuss them not in a structured student to teacher model, but seeing themselves as a reader talking to another reader. From this point on, most of my students are hooked on this complex and diverse literary genre.

Leigh Brodsky’s Literature and the Graphic Novel Curriculum List

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Superman comics by various
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
X-Men comics by various
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Fables, Vol. 1 by Bill Willingham, et al.