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October 23, 2013

New York Comic Con: Bringing Comics to the Classroom


As the idea of what a graphic novel can be continues to expand, so does the belief that they are no longer simply means of entertainment. 

While at Comic-Con I attended two panels on the developing role of graphic novels in the public education system. “Bringing Digital Comics into Schools and Libraries” focused on the iVerse Media Comics Plus system, which allows libraries to rent digital comics on a per-patron checkout basis rather than having to buy them; “Using Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Whys and Hows” featured two educators who use graphic novels in very different ways to fulfill Common Core requirements.


At the first panel, Josh Elder and Steve May of iVerse Media, along with Harold Buchholz (executive director of publishing at Archie Comics) and Jesse Post (marketing director at Papercutz/NBM) discussed the innovative business plan iVerse is using to bring nontraditional print media into school libraries. Once graphic novels and comics make their way into libraries, they quickly become high-circulation items. This invariably leads to a faster rate of wear-and-tear, as well as a greater chance of an item “mysteriously” disappearing. Given that many full-length graphic novels cost as much, if not more, than a traditional novel, the price of keeping a well-stocked selection can be daunting. Investing in digital copies of a book is a less than ideal solution; digital editions are often comparative in price (between $1.99 and $3.99 for a single issue; $7.99 to $22.99 for a complete graphic novel) to their physical counterparts. Just as with a physical book, a digital copy usually can be checked out only by one person at any given time.


Changing this system, iVerse has started the Comics Plus Library Edition, a “pay-as-you-go” alternative to standard digital purchases. The library sets a quarterly or annual budget and is charged only when a book is checked out. Single issues cost either 10 or 25 cents per checkout, while graphic novels are 50 cents to a dollar.  Each checkout is good for one week and there is no limit to how many copies can be on loan at once. Content and spending limits can be adjusted to prevent one avid fan from draining the coffers too quickly. Rented material is connected directly to the patron’s library account, meaning it can be accessed anywhere the internet can be. The service has over 7,000 comics, graphic novels, and manga available, primarily young-adult and teen material. Content is rapidly expanding as many companies, including Papercutz and Archie Comics, begin to make large portions of their catalogs available. Along with the potential this resource brings to classrooms, it also supports “the democracy of a library card” by allowing young readers to select and share what they enjoy --- within reason, of course.


The Common Core is an educational-standard program currently implemented by public schools in 45 states. While encompassing all aspects of education, a key point of the Core is to promote the use of literature and nonfiction texts outside of their traditional borders. This involves bringing creative readings into math, science, and history, while bringing nonfiction and technical instructions into English classes and the performing arts.


High-school English teacher John Weaver and middle-school science teacher Nathan Tubbs have both successfully used graphic novels to meet the Core’s requirements. Weaver dedicates six weeks of his senior English course to Watchmen, Alan Moore’s classic deconstruction of the superhero genre. While the Common Core is largely built on the belief that student engagement is the key to successful education, Weaver goes further and says, “Engagement should be exciting.” While Watchmenis the main text in Weaver’s lesson, he incorporates supplementary material in the lesson to enhance students’ understanding of the historical events referenced in the graphic novel. This in turn allows him to assign his students projects where they must research cultural and philosophical views relevant to the eras in which these events took place. With this interdisciplinary approach, Weaver encourages his students to apply their critical thinking skills beyond static pages and into their everyday lives.


Tubbs’s experience with graphic novels in the classroom has been vastly different than Weaver’s, yet he has also used the medium as a means to fulfill Core requirements. The moral codes of popular superheroes serve as a point from which he may engage students in conversation about complex social issues that they may be unable or unwilling to engage in otherwise. Young-adult spin-offs of X-Menhave proven particularly useful, given that the series has long served as a parable for the necessity of human equality. This has allowed him to address serious problems that young people face, including racism, harassment due to sexual orientation, bullying, and suicide, without having to rely solely upon school-provided material, which can often be heavy-handed and intimidating. Outside of the Common Core he has used text-free graphic novels to help English as a Second Language and special-education students develop an understanding of context-based vocabulary and punctuation.


After too many years, graphic novels are finally being welcomed into the classroom. While this process is still ongoing, new developments in business and education planning are facilitating the process. However, at the end of both panels, the speakers emphasized that the only way for comics to succeed as educational material is for educators to experiment in using them. Student demand is high and publishers are finding new means by which to distribute material, but ultimately, teachers will be responsible for making comics in classrooms a success.