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February 5, 2011

Behind the Scenes with Michael Gianfrancesco

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The New England Comic Arts in the Classroom conference is coming up on Saturday, March 26. This day of education for K-12 teachers and preservice teachers will feature keynote speakers, and several smaller workshops that will enable teachers to better incorporate comics, graphic novels, and manga into their educational programs. High-school teacher Michael Gianfrancesco, one of the codirectors of the conference, took some time to answer our questions.

Do you remember your first comic book or graphic novel?
It's kind of fuzzy, but I do recall getting into a stash of my father's old Mad magazines. After reading the first one, I was hooked. Even though I didn’t understand a lot of the references, I loved the artwork, especially Don Martin, Al Jaffee, and Sergio Aragones. As I got older, I continued to collect the books. My father would take me to old bookstores and comic shops and we would ferret out really old editions of Mad when it was presented in a full comic book form. That's a fond memory…
 
What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
I love how a good comic writer can create a strong balance of art and words. The best graphic novels and comics invite the reader to take cues from both in order to truly understand the story. I think one of my favorite examples of this is Maus. Spiegelman juxtaposes images and text so succinctly that, in order to really get the impact of what he is saying, you need to pay close attention to both.
 
Whose work do you admire?
Well, Spiegelman, of course. I also love Will Eisner for the same reasons. I can reread both over and over—and often do. Others on my short list include Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Peter Bagge, Jeff Smith, and Craig Thompson. There are also a lot of great up and coming independent artists that I love to read, like James Kochalka, Raina Telgemeier, Tracy White, Alex Robinson, and Jeffrey Brown—all of whom I have had the opportunity to either meet or correspond with over the years.
 
Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
Douglas Adams has to be my all-time favorite author. I've read The Hitchhiker's Guide series more times than I can count and am currently rereading his Dirk Gently books as well. I also love Sherman Alexie's work. As a high-school teacher, I am exposed to a lot of adolescent literature, so I tend to gravitate toward that, especially during the school year. Authors like Jodi Picoult, Walter Dean Myers, Gail Giles, and Mark Haddon often cross my desk. As for classics, I read Catcher in the Rye every year and often grab Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart when the mood strikes me.
 
How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
I probably read 6–8 graphic novels a month if I have the time. I haven't read much manga, but lately I have been getting more and more titles handed to me by my students. The last one I think I read was Death Note, which I found to be very original and creative. I still haven't gotten to the point where I pick it up on my own yet, but I think I am moving in that direction. Is Scott Pilgrim considered manga?
 
How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
The field of teaching or the field of teaching with comics? Well, I have been teaching for seven years. I worked in the private sector for a long time before that—one of those Office Space­-esque cubicle type deals. I was a corporate trainer for a technology support firm and it was good money with great travel opportunities but, as we all know, the dotcom bubble burst and I started to feel the shadow of future unemployment looming over me. Since I already held a BA in English, and I loved teaching, I decided to try my hand at secondary education. I enrolled in Rhode Island College's teacher prep program and started taking classes. A year later, I was laid off and was able to go to school full-time while living off my severance and any odd jobs I could lock down. Another year and a half after that, I was certified and received a teaching job offer from North Providence High School here in Rhode Island. I've been there ever since.

I first started exploring the use of comics in the classroom in my second year of teaching. I took part in a summer institute sponsored by the Rhode Island Writing Project (RIWP) and run by my department chair (and Milken Award winner) Janine Napolitano and RIC English and Education Professor Dr. Jennifer Cook (whom I knew from my student teaching seminar). It was a professional development program to help teachers improve their practice through different types of literacy-centered collaborative methods. We were all asked to report on something that we wanted to add to our practice. I presented comics. Dr. Cook took a special interest and we started talking more about comics and how they could work in education. With her and Janine's help, I was able to find the resources to obtain class sets of Maus and Pride of Baghdad for my classroom and things just springboarded from there. Dr. Cook and I have presented strategies at conferences held by ASTAL (Association of the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature), RIWP, and Fordham University. This month, I am presenting a strategy at a workshop at Harvard College, which is focused on cultural studies and comics. 

What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
When I tell people I am a teacher, I get one of two reactions. Either they say, "Wow! Good for you!" or they say, "How can you possibly deal with all those kids?" Neither is particularly flattering, but that doesn't bother me. I love teaching—it is my calling. My focus is the success of my students, so I don't worry so much about how others perceive me.

As far as the comics in the classroom work goes, reactions from my colleagues are also mixed. I find that the younger incoming teachers are quite interested in my work. The older and more traditional educators don't always get it, but I have to say most still respect what I am trying to do. I figure event the most seasoned teacher was young and idealistic once. It's hard to lose that, even if you have been in the classroom for 30 years. My administration all the way up to the superintendent have been extremely supportive and complementary as well.
 
Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I collected comics when I was a teenager. When I got a little older, I lost interest for a while and sadly, sold my collection when I wanted to move to the Midwest. If I could go back and un-sell them, I would in a heartbeat. I had some amazing stuff…early McFarlane work from The Hulk and Spider-Man, the entire first runs of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, and the Miller Daredevil run. These days, I am trying to get a lot of those books back through trades, but it's taking a lot of time.

My graphic novel collection is becoming quite impressive. My wife, Heather, and I are both fans. In fact, Heather is a self-published comic writer herself. She has a couple of series available through her website (heatherbryant.net) and we have traveled up and down the East Coast to exhibit at small press events. We've been to SPX a few times and will be at a conference in Maine in the spring. This has helped me a great deal in that I have been able to get some amazing books that I would have not been able to find otherwise. I've also managed to connect with some wonderful artists and writers as well as others in the industry. All those connections have gone a long way toward helping us pull together NECAC.
 
Is there something you covet adding to your collection?
I would just love to get back those books I sold 15 years ago. I am honestly still kicking myself. However, if I had to pick one book, it would have to be Mad Magazine #1—just for old time's sake.