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Graphic Novels: From Popular Culture to Pabulum?
Gretchen Schwarz, Oklahoma State University
Schwarz, Ph.D., is a Professor in Curriculum Studies at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa
Educators are increasingly interested in graphic novels; it is a popular culture medium with great potential. Excellent graphic novels can be found for all age groups in a variety of genres and topics. However, schools need to beware. Not every teacher or student will find this medium valuable, combining traditional curriculum and teaching with it is not a good use of the medium, and educators need to avoid graphic novels that are so “tamed” they are worthless. Educators need to do their homework.
I can remember a time when I was 12 or 13. I had been a comic books reader although I had not read many lately. Then in Sunday School we received a “religious” comic book. My anticipation turned from disappointment to sarcasm quickly as my friend and I began to make fun of this “comic book.” I was not being heretical; I took my faith seriously. Yet why would any kid want to read a “comic book” about other kids who were as boringly bland as the Bobbsey Twins, if not worse? The comic book “plot” made little impression. My friend and I were too disgusted with the “goody good” characters to do anything but smirk. Likewise, I see the dangers of schools adopting the medium of the graphic novel. While popular culture has a place in the classroom, it must be treated with care. Educators have a record of taking exciting new tools and topics for learning and turning them into dull, old rules and requirements, leaving students even more disconnected from their school experience. After briefly exploring the benefits of popular culture, and in particular, graphic novels in the curriculum, the dangers of adapting such popular culture in school will be examined. Finally, some suggestions will be given for what educators can do to avoid turning an exciting popular medium into pabulum.
Why Graphic Novels Belong in the Curriculum
Popular culture, in general, in the classroom has been embraced by a number of educators, particularly in literacy. Marsh (2008), for example, declares, “The research reviewed in this chapter indicates that popular culture can inform the language arts curriculum in a range of exciting and innovative ways…” (p. 534). Alvermann, Moon, and Hagood (1999) and Morrell (2004) also argue for the importance of popular culture in literacy practices. Advocates of media literacy education welcome popular culture into the curriculum. Considine (1992), for instance, maintains that media literacy education “links the classroom to the living room and school to society” (p. 10). Examples abound of teachers using popular culture, whether websites or TV shows, songs or blogs, in their teaching of social studies, science, or art. Popular culture is, in fact, inescapable. Vasudevan and Hill (2008) observe as follows:
For today’s youth, whose lives echo the growing centrality of popular music, film, and
digital technologies, media culture—including media technologies and media texts—
provides the landscape upon which they perform various forms of meaning making and
identity work. (p. 1)
Dewey captured the significance of popular culture decades ago. Dewey (1929/2004) declared in “My Pedagogic Creed” that, “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. The school must represent present life—life as real and vital to the child…” (p. 19). Real life today includes popular culture more than ever, the video games, cell phone messages, I-Pod music, and all the rest that take up a large part of young people’s lives. Surely popular culture offers both valuable texts of various kinds and subjects as well as opportunities to question and challenge the culture itself.
The graphic novel, in particular, has emerged from its roots as a cheap, usually predictable comic book aimed at children to a critically praised medium that appeals to adults as well as children and that expresses diverse topics in powerful ways. Versaci (2007), for example, argues that “comic books are a true ‘literature’,” and he examines numerous graphic novels including Spiegelman’s (1986, 1991) Maus I and II. Maus II won a Pulitzer Prize. A number of graphic novels express the perspectives of “others” such as Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006, from First Second Books), nominated for a National Book Award. Schwarz (2005, 2007) demonstrates the potential of the graphic novel in dealing with race, place, and social issues. Finally, the graphic novel has a role in school in an age of multiple literacies. Carter (2007) declares as follows:
The more graphic novels become integrated into the matrix of the English classroom, the
more transformed English will become, moving away from notions of literacy that are
only letter-based, from “one size fits all” literacy instruction, and from classroom
libraries and reading lists devoid of panels and borders. In short, the English classroom
that integrates graphic novels will be and is becoming a classroom with books that
suggest the class is a place of acceptance, diversity, deep and multifaceted reading,
and discussion that does not shy away from challenge. (p. 52)
Many educators embrace the graphic novel for engaging multiple literacies, including visual, information and media literacy. See, for example Thompson (2008) and Frey and Fisher (2008).
Support for graphic novels in schools is growing as reflected in regular features on graphic novels in journals from the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, and others. The possibilities energize many educators. However, several dangers accompany this growing enthusiasm. First, graphic novels are not for everyone, students or teachers. Second, if graphic novels are simply adapted to the same old curriculum goals and teaching approaches, the medium could be wasted. Third, sanitizing graphic novels for classroom use undercuts unique aspects of the medium and can turn graphic novels into the kind of inauthentic texts already too common in schools.
Graphic novels are popular with students as can be seen in the special sections of book store chains and in publishing reports. However, not all young people or adults like the medium nor find it meaningful. One may encounter people who find the graphic novel “too busy” or just not interesting. School reformers have often repeated the mistake of taking a good idea for some and turning it into a miserable mandate for all. One can call to mind the “new math” or Outcomes Based Education. The graphic novel will quickly disappoint if all teachers or all students are expected to embrace it. Theories of multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles support this warning, to say nothing of constructivist understandings of learning.
Equally dangerous is the use of a new medium for the oldest of purposes—factual focus, mindless recitation, or superficial “coverage” of subject matter. Having social studies students read an historical graphical novel, for example, only to answer factual questions at the end and take a multiple choice test, or asking language arts students to read a graphic novel and then write a traditional “book report” (with the plot, characters, theme, etc.) accomplishes little. Educators need to understand what is special about the medium—its use of the visual to convey emotions and time, and its special conventions like the panel and speech balloons, as well as its willingness to take on unusual or unpopular subjects in new ways.
In addition, not all graphic novels are thoughtful or even necessary. The Hardy Boys novels for children were fine as they were; why turn them out in graphic novel form, except to make money? Businesses, of course, will publish graphic novels and lesson plans, too, because the medium is popular, but educators need to be aware of such materials as Phonics Comics. Phonics Comics is a graphic novels series that includes such titles as Cave Dave (Level I) and Duke and Fang (Level 3) from a publisher called Innovative Kids. The review from School Library Journal (Mattox, 2006) found online says the following of this series:
These slim easy readers claim to support the No Child Left Behind Act. How they do this
any differently from other beginning readers is unclear. A short list of story and sight
words is included . . . . Libraries looking to build a younger graphic novel collection
should stick with classics like Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy or . . .
In other words, genuine, imaginative graphic novels for young readers do exist, and educators may be uninspired by Comics Phonics, anyway. Forcing traditional notions of curriculum and teaching into a new medium accomplishes nothing. That boring Sunday School “comic book” from my youth was, after all, just a didactic sermon in another form.
Finally, schools have a habit of “cleaning up” materials for students, avoiding any controversy, and denying students the right to think for themselves. The United States has suffered Comstock (Traps for the Young, 1883) who considered just about everything the work of Satan, to Wertham (Seduction of the Innocent, 1954) who decried comic books as a cause of juvenile delinquency. In fact, not all graphic novels are appropriate for the classroom, and teachers must be sensitive to their contexts and use good judgment. However, choosing materials that have been “dumbed down” or created for schools in a factory manner may undercut one of the strengths of the medium, its ability to present an authentic and different point of view in an artistically engaging way. The graphic novel, after all, emerged from the “underground comix” of the 1960’s counterculture and from alternative and independent publishers. As Seyfried (2008) says, “The graphic novel . . . prides itself on its edginess” (p. 45). In what other medium than the graphic novel might one find the history of the Hiroshima bombing from the point of view of a Japanese boy as in Nakazawa’s 1972 Barefoot Gen (published by Last Gasp of San Francisco) or a multi-voiced account of 1960’s radicals as in Pekar’s (2008) Students for a Democratic Society? (from Hill and Wang, New York) or funny, moving real life sketches of older individuals in a nursing home as in Greenberger’s (2003) No More Shaves (from Fantagraphics in Seattle)? The graphic novel has gained credence as a medium precisely because it can challenge, inspire, disturb, and change the reader, something schools have been very squeamish about doing lately. It would be a loss to take such a potentially transforming popular medium and turn it into bland data or insipid, “safe” stories.
Proceed with Caution and Effort
Educators who decide that the graphic novel is worth using need then to be careful, not expecting a single new medium to be the panacea for public education. In addition, teachers must themselves do their homework, exploring both graphic novels and new literacies and engaging in teacher research to better understand the graphic novel and youth.
Teachers must first explore graphic novels beyond the readily available titles in chain bookstores or titles marketed to schools. In addition to searching the professional literature (journals such as English Journal or Reading Teacher), teachers can easily use three other sources for ideas about titles. These include regular professional reviews (in Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, etc.), online reviews including those by students (such as at sites like No flying,No tights and Grovel), and the numerous publishers/distributors themselves (besides DC and Marvel)—Fantagraphics, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly (in Canada), Image, and Oni Press, and many more. Teachers need then to read the books for themselves. A great review does not assure classroom suitability across the curriculum, and each teacher will have his or her own particular curriculum goals for particular groups of students.
Knowing graphic novels as a teacher also requires understanding something of their history and their methods and conventions. Teachers need to be able to “explain” graphic novels and their value to others, as well as to lead students in comprehending them. In addition to various journal, magazine, and newspaper articles, the following books are just a few of those that may prove helpful:
o The 101 Best Graphic Novels by Stephen Weiner (NBM, 2001). Weiner introduces a great variety of titles and indicates reading level, from “C” for all ages to “A” for adults.
o Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel by Stephen Weiner (NBM, 2003). This short book covers the history and offers some good title suggestions, too.
o Making Comics by Scott McCloud (Harper, 2006). McCloud, in graphic novel form, explicates how graphic novels make meaning. His earlier books, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics are also excellent, showing as well as explaining the basic terms and concepts of the graphic novel as a medium.
Moreover, educators need to do some homework on “new literacies.” What is meant by new literacies? What are the arguments for classroom applications? How can assessment be done? How does the graphic novel fit in to new literacies? How can one teach visual or media literacy? Such questions as these demand some study and thought.
Second, teacher classroom research is vital especially in the age of NCLB and its deskilling of teachers. Flanagan (2008) captures the view of Jeffrey Wilhelm, for instance, noting “To reclaim their professionalism, teachers must create their own knowledge, and the applications of that knowledge, through classroom-based research” (p. 7). Carter (2008) adds, “Of course, more research and teacher testimonials are needed to help teachers feel comfortable using graphic novels” (p. 51).To avoid the “one size fits all” thinking of NCLB; a mismatch between medium, student, and teacher; and the transformation of popular culture into pabulum, teachers need to experiment in their own contexts and report back. Much has been asserted about the value of the graphic novel in the classroom, but even more remains to be shown with real live students. Teachers can, in fact, partner with their students to explore significant questions such as the following:
o Why do some students find graphic novels engaging while others do not?
o How do expert readers read graphic novels? What literacy skills are required? What do novice readers need to learn?
o Are the literacy skills used in graphic novel reading also useful for other kinds of visual texts? Do skills transfer?
o What qualities characterize outstanding graphic novels? How can one judge?
o What do students gain from expressing themselves, their own ideas, through this medium? How can we go about the creation of the medium?
o Does reading graphic novels lead to reading other kinds of texts?
o Can graphic novels help English language learners? How and why?
Much must be done to establish a solid research base for using graphic novels and to give teachers worthwhile classroom aid while honoring the medium.
Weiner (2003) declares hopefully that “graphic novels have found their way into classrooms, as teachers are realizing their usefulness as literacy tools…. [and] the comics format is a good way to impart information” (p. 61). Interest in graphic novels among educators is growing, and for good reason. The graphic novel can be a powerful form of human expression, meditating on the human condition, conveying information and ideas, and challenging thinking. The graphic novel can engage students, and it can serve as a vehicle for teaching multiple new literacies. However, the graphic novel can also be abused, and in particular, the medium could be so changed and tamed by the education establishment that it loses its power as a popular medium. To avoid the “pabulum effect,” teachers will need to read, talk to others, and reflect on this medium and do teacher research on the graphic novel in their own classrooms. The positive potential of the medium is great. But beware! The graphic novel needs to be treated with care.
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