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March 3, 2010

Op-Ed: Teaching Graphic Novel Reflections


Lisa Coxson is a ninth-grade English teacher at Bronx School of Law and Finance in Bronx, New York. Her favorite members of the Justice League were the Wonder Twins. Her favorite cartoon is a tie between Pinky and the Brain and the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Her favorite graphic novel is currently American Born Chinese.

Nearly four years ago, my nephew called me with an urgent request. He asked me to search my area stores for a very important book: Marvel Comics: Civil War.
I agreed to search for the book. I’m glad I did. My search for his copy of Marvel Comics: Civil War reconnected me to my own childhood love of heroes, comics, and cartoons. It also resulted in Through the Looking Glass: Making Connections Across Media and Genres, my curriculum unit in which the primary texts are the Marvel Comics: Civil War text and the movie Dark Knight.
Through the Looking Glass is an ambitious unit that forces many of my students to broaden their understanding of what they perceive as literary studies. I begin by introducing the unit’s guiding essential questions: 1) What are our options when individual rights come into conflict with society’s democratic values? and 2) What are the many forms of literacy available to us on a daily basis? Typically, these questions either don’t make sense to my students, or they have a quick and pat answer for them. This is fine in the beginning, as we primarily use a series of other questions as we work with the texts. With regards to literary studies, I ask them to define and use the following literary terms and concepts: characterization, symbolism, irony, imagery, plot, metaphor, and more. This is my second year teaching this unit, and typically it spans six weeks (my students meet every other day).
The unit begins with clips from the Sony Pictures 2008 film Hancock, directed by Peter Berg and starring Will Smith. I show the students Hancock’s transformation from a drunken, antisocial, destructive hero to a sober, responsible, respectful hero. We discuss these changes, including his costume. The next lesson asks them to create their own superhero, with an accompanying bio explaining their character’s costume, the symbolic importance of the costume’s colors, and their character’s motivation for doing heroic deeds. This assignment was supplemented by Bob Kane’s New York Times obituary, a text that is part of a New York Times Learning Network lesson on Superheroes. I use the lesson’s article and discussion questions to prepare the students for Marvel Comics: Civil War.
Next the students read Marvel Comics: Civil War, which is a compilation of seven original comic books. First, we read the New Warriors/Stamford, Connecticut tragedy as a prologue to the story and characters. At this point, my comic book fans emerge and happily assist fellow classmates in the art of reading a comic—e.g., how to read character dialogue and how to use color to understand tone and theme. To summarize and analyze characters and plot we ask, Do the ends justify the means? (Civil War focused on issues of privacy and freedom, as all Marvel superpowered humans were required by law to register with the government.) Their final Civil War assignment is a persuasive pro/con Registration Act essay. The supplementary texts we use are a PATRIOT ACT Issue Brief (Registration Act/PATRIOT ACT), and NPR’s 2006 podcast interview with Marvel Comics: Civil War writers.
The final text of the unit is Warner Bros.’ 2008 film Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. The guiding quote for this text is “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…” (President Obama’s inaugural speech, 1/20/2009). Their viewing assignments ask them to consider Batman’s use of technology, Alfred’s Burma bandit experience, Mr. Fox’s resistance to the sonar technology, the Joker’s chaotic anarchy, Harvey Dent’s transformation, and the final ferry boat choices to make text-to-text/self/world connections. Their final assignment asks them to argue for or against President Obama’s position, as outlined in the quote. I ask them to use evidence from Marvel Comics: Civil War and Dark Knight to support their position.
In the end, my students and I enjoyed our explorations of color, images, action, fantasy, and reality. I must admit that many of my girls were initially resistant to reading the Civil War text, primarily because they consider comic literature silly stories for young boys. To counter this, we identified similarities between traditional lit and comic lit (e.g., plot, characterization, and foreshadowing). We also read Catherine A Bryan’s article “Cartoons Still Stereotype Gender Roles” as a touchstone for discussing super bodies, stereotypes, and the stigma that comic lit is a male genre. These discussions gave the girls room to share their frustration over skimpy costumes and weird female names. Many of the boys conceded that they found the male bodies unrealistic. Both male and female students found Marvel Comics’ visual presentation of female busts and She Hulk’s derriere over the top. Presently, my immediate goal is to incorporate assignments that give my students the chance to produce texts and projects that illustrate the multiple literacies they learned—e.g., comic books and illustration. Nonetheless, most of the students were able to successfully articulate and argue thematic connections across genres and media, which means this unit will be around for a while.