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July 10, 2010

Op-Ed: Teaching Graphic Novels with Passion


Kent Allin is a 12th-grade literature teacher at Bayside Secondary School in Ontario, Canada. Below are his reflections on teaching a graphic-novel course in school this year, followed by the perspectives of two of his students.

Sorry about the weak Scott McCloud reference in the title of this piece. One of the earliest lessons I learned when starting out teaching graphic literature is to choose my words carefully. The words comic books are too specific, with too many difficult stereotypes to overcome, so avoid the term. You are better to make reference to graphic literature, or as this website promotes, graphic novels, because in comparison to comic books, graphic literature has the academic approach covered. This comes from the mentality that we read literature, not “books,” and by associating the visual with literacy, two very strong academic bases are covered. I have had a great deal of success with most of the methods I am going to describe, but like McCloud’s definition of comics, it is not an exact science. There needs to be flexibility not only to allow for your own individual approach, but also because the medium of graphic literature is constantly changing and, from my perspective, getting better. 

I have been teaching a literature studies course for the past two years that has run basically at capacity (32 grade-12 students) and focuses heavily on graphic literature. I have been incredibly lucky to have had an administration that is really supportive and has allowed me the freedom to take this course, make mistakes, and come up with some really cool teaching material, or as cool as teaching material can be. I was able to take a field trip to Wizard World Comic Con in Toronto, and I have just recently organized a Graphic Literature Writer’s Symposium where the creators of Kill Shakespeare, Anthony Del Col and Connor McCreery, as well the artist Andy Bellanger came down and provided workshops to my class on writing, going from script to art, and the business behind the industry. (By the way, if you teach or love graphic literature, you need to check out Kill Shakespeare!) The graphic literature course has attached a passion to my job that I didn’t have before and has made working/teaching an experience that has a lot of personal attachment. I hope that I can push anyone who reads this to try to incorporate graphic literature in their classrooms and to help push graphic literature into the forefront of education.
If you are trying to incorporate graphic literature into your classroom, whether it be in the English stream or not, or you are trying to create a course much like mine, there are a couple suggestions I would make. Get Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is fantastic, but I don’t think that students make as strong of a connection to Eisner’s textbook as they do McCloud’s. The next step is to go back to my previous comment on graphic literature and try to bring graphic literature into the classroom under the label of the “academic standard.” For example, Maus, which is probably recognized in the graphic literature canon as the standard graphic novel. Maus I and II are fantastic on their own, and with a Pulitzer in the back pocket, few would argue against them, but the interesting aspect I find with how I use Maus is in its ability to compare to a traditional novel. I have had success in the past comparing Maus with Animal Farm, but the best novel I find to compare with Maus is Night by Elie Wiesel. There is so much room for comparison between the two texts with consistent themes like family, tragedy, war, and survival. Or you could focus on the effects of war and the cultural impact in the aftermath of war through generations of people. I have also studied the literary techniques of both authors—for example, symbolism and imagery, as well as paying particular attention to the memoir style of writing. 
Need to cover the media component of curriculum expectations? Use the chapter from Understanding Comics that focuses on McCloud’s theory on the “Icon.” Have students read the section from Understanding Comics on the icon and identify several key icons both historical and recent, cover anything from celebrities to brand names/logos, sports mascots, etc. After students have identified several key “icons” from the media, they need to describe what it is that makes those symbols/figures iconic. This unit can be culminated by having each student create their own iconic symbol—have them describe what their icon will represent and what will make the icon iconic.
What about a play? Have your students read one, Shakespeare if you want to hit the canon, and ask students to pay specific attention to the transitions within the scenes. Notice the change in scenes, or the transition within scenes, and how it is controlled in essentially the same fashion as McCloud outlines in Understanding Comics:
1. Moment to moment, where relatively little change takes place between the two panels.
2. Action to action, where the actions of a single subject are shown.
3. Subject to subject, which transitions between different subjects in the same scene.
4. Scene to scene, which "transports us across significant distances of time and space."
5. Aspect to aspect, which "bypasses time for the most part and sets a wandering eye on different aspects of a place, idea, or mood."
6. Nonsequitur, which “offers no logical relationship between panels whatsoever.”
Have the students then read through several scenes within the play identifying each/some of the transitions outlined above. Try getting the students to re-create these scenes using panels in the fashion of graphic literature. Remind them that you are not necessarily marking their ability to be artistic; you will be marking their ability to understand transitions within the play.
Notice one aspect of my use of graphic literature in teaching is really focusing not solely on how to improve students’ ability to read graphic literature, but using their ability to read graphic literature to improve overall literacy. At no point do I want to use graphic literature to replace any other form of literacy. I wish to promote the use of graphic literature as an aid, as another resource to improve overall literacy, and if along the way I can share my passion about graphic literature and teach what I love to read, what more could I ask for?


Student Perspectives

Graphic Literature with Mr. Allin
by Will Wismer
Graphic literature. Hop in a time machine and go back a few years to a warm spring day in 2006 and say those words to me, and you will get a radically different answer out of me than you would now. Back then, I quite readily bought into the opinion that comics were worthless pulp
fiction, ranking somewhere below soap operas in terms of literary merit. When my high school library actually bought several graphic novels (although I would never have called them that then), I was quite honestly shocked beyond words. The library was (and still is) my favorite place in the entire school; it had a little bit of everything. It had epic fantasy and science fiction, which I just loved to sink my teeth into. It had gushy romance and dramatic stories, which I sunk my teeth into with less like (at all due only to a tenth-grade English teacher). And most important to me at that time, it had practical knowledge in all subjects, namely, biology, physics, and chemistry. This was the time when I was fast tracking my way in the footsteps of Einstein, and knowing scientific greatness was exactly where I was headed (yeah, I was an arrogant kid; some may say I’m still one). I could delve into any text that I wanted, on any subject I wanted, and did so with wild abandon. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I actually picked a comic book off the shelf and did the further treason of actually checking the thing out.

My first ever graphic novel was Chester Brown’s semiautobiographical work I Never Liked You (which is a smashing good read by the way). Now, to me, this was an act of profound oddity, as previously my only exposure to comics had been Archie, the Toronto Star funnies, and the occasional political cartoon in history class. And in the spirit of full disclosure, the first time I read it wasn’t for its literary merits. It was for the naked females and vulgar language (for which I still can’t figure out why this was allowed in a high school library at the time) that I had expected of comics back then. Still I read the thing cover to cover. Now, romantics among you may say that this was my “love-at-first sight” moment, when in fact this particular moment had very little effect on me. I read it, mentally shrugged and tossed it aside to begin work on a pre-lab due the following period.

Over the next year and half, my love, and certainly opinion, of comics grew considerably (thanks in no small part to the manga series Naruto and Bleach). I can remember no specific incidents from this period concerning comics (other than rereading I Never Liked You), but I can say I came out of it the owner of yet another manga series called Psychic Academy by Katsu Aki and the feeling that I was missing something about comics. I had tried a few Marvel and DC comics, but when compared to the manga I was reading, the characters and plots seemed two-dimensional and uninteresting somehow (which I’m happy to report is no longer the case, in my opinion). The, potential answer to this question came one day in the form of my English teacher, Mr. Kent Allin, who saw me reading Bryan Lee O’Mally’s Lost at Sea and mentioned that he was thinking of starting up a course focused around comics. I knew in that moment that the devil himself could try, but even he couldn’t keep me out of that class (fortunately, all I had to
fight were the people ahead of me on the waiting list).

Once I was in the class, I knew—not consciously, but I knew—that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Mr. Allin bombarded me with everything. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller. I read Road to Perdition, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Death Note, 300, Sin City, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger Born, and countless other comics from multiple time periods, from the Golden Age to modern times. I was exposed to a treasure trove of graphic literary works and found myself more and more wanting to do what these (in my head almost
godlike) people were doing, and once again ETS4U (the course code) provided the help I needed in the form of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. This book, and later its sequel, Making Comics, provided me with a desperately needed path upon which others had already walked. This gave me perspective on the medium and a base, a blank map of the medium if you will, upon which to begin mapping my own creativity (the latter of which I was later given a further chance to do in the course script writing unit). And if nothing else (although it is plenty else), it’s extremely fun.

The underlying thing that Studies in Graphic Literature, and by extension Kent Allin (who is the only person I know that has the passion and energy needed to make a course like this work), has done for me is shown me the life, meaning, worlds, emotion, and stories that lie within, and behind, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (thank you, Scott McCloud, for this awesome term). It is solely thanks to both the man and the course that I have found that tiny speck, known publicly as inspiration or the muse if you prefer, hidden in my mind and been able to drag it up to the surface and put it to work. Work that I hope one day to be able to share with others.