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March 19, 2012

Op-Ed: “For School! I Swear!”

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Elizabeth Heyman is a senior at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey.

“It’s for school! I swear!” I admit to using the excuse more than necessary in order to justify my occasional $50 hauls from the comic book store to my mother. However, it’s not as irrelevant as she may think it to be. During my time in high school I’ve used my background as an amateur comic geek as a platform for my development into an esteemed fan of all literature.

Since first taking graphic novels as a serious course my sophomore year, it has proven to be possibly the most exhausting yet rewarding academic endeavor I’ve taken. My evolution as an avid reader has tested my abilities to understand stated and unstated meanings of texts to my highest limits and pushed those skills even further. Being able to grasp what’s implied in the gutters between Alan Moore’s panels can be as daunting a task as reading works by T.S. Eliot without footnotes. The graphic medium has its own challenges that come through the enormous variety of options an author has when telling a story and the work's message is portrayed through the composition of all the different stylistic choices.

The unique aspect of graphic literature, the characteristic that makes the form so different and so vital to have in high school English courses, is the large collection of components arranged to express a message. The details, styles, and composition of text and imagery create dozens of chances to state something that hasn’t already been said. Every choice an artist makes, from the width of the lines used to the method of coloring, has a specific purpose that relates to better portraying the major theme.
 
As a graphic literature student, it was my task to first identify all of the presented elements and then to identify the author’s intent. It wasn’t until our class was reading Understanding Comics that I realized exactly how much of an amateur I was at that point. It was a shock at first, almost a sensory overload. Whoever said that a comic book is a quick read has never actually read a comic before, not properly at least. I was able to spend days looking over Alex Maleev’s Civil War: The Confession before I had truly grasped the meaning of the work. The way the detail in Tony Stark’s face contrasted with the solid, simplistic Iron Man suit; the dramatic shadowing over characters during dramatic monologues; his minimalist yet large paneling; his sequence of events and dialogue; where he placed Stark in the room; even the suspense that came midway through flipping the last two pages, all of it I’ve had to spend painstaking hours finding, hours spent just staring at two pages.
 
Having realized the potential held in just a few pictures and word boxes, I starting being able to see graphic literature as more than just capes and tights. There’s a certain aspect about the combination of text and imagery that gives a better opportunity for modern story-telling. Literally putting images into the reader’s mind gives better direction for thoughts and makes an experience more relatable, especially when a purely verbal description might breeze over the audience’s heads. As many times as I’ve been taught about the Holocaust, it has always been a challenge to read first-hand accounts from the Nazis’ death camps without becoming focused on the gruesome details. Art Spiegelman’s cartoonish style played with the idea of cats and mice as a way to explain the actual feelings of fear and his Holocaust survivor father experienced. One could say that only after reading his novel Maus did I gain a true understanding of life during that time, rather than seeing it just as history.
 
What was it about Persepolis’s black-and-white sketching-like artwork that allowed me to discover the Iranian revolution for the first time? Why was this method of storytelling so much more effective than what I had always been given in school? The question continued to fascinate me. The truth was that not every theme can be stated in just words; some sentiments need to be seen to be understood, and although it could take countless hours just to grab the scent of a hidden message, one was always present.

Not for nothing, but I did gain a huge advantage in my other classes after performing all this. As it turns out, if you can analyze a good comic, you can analyze anything; novels, poems, political speeches. In each case, the important ability to have is to be able to identify the details while still looking at the whole. Once I achieved that skill and had grown as a student, I only became more enthralled by the medium and its meanings. Working with my teacher, I developed a curriculum for my senior year centered around classic American comic books as a narrative for national identity throughout the 20th century. Just by drafting the idea, I was able to apply my analytical skills and form my own new, unique theories. In my Independent Study, I spent my time annotating historical texts and comparing them to fictional events from the comic universe.
 
Because these writers are given the ability and the task to define a hero, they're asked to personify morality. In some cases they may create characters who are the opposite of that, implying that a perfectly moral person doesn’t exist, as Alan Moore would put it, “Who watches the Watchmen?” Both situations reflect society's standards and beliefs. If a character is asked to defend justice, doesn't that mean that the author has to first define injustice in the modern world? Every graphic hero is a product and indicator of the social environment they were born to. While studying the appeal of heroes in American culture, I gained a tremendously larger understanding of sociology, psychology, and politics.
 
Comics are this century's modern epic and certainly say enough to deserve to stand alongside other current texts. Only after familiarizing myself with this modern mythology was I able to gain a true understanding of the way the world views itself, and then to decide where I placed myself within the moral landscape. Perhaps the next generation of mothers will understand this and be less critical of their child bringing home that new issue of X-Men.