Graphic Novels as a Model for Literary Interpretation

For me, reading Nat Turner was a bit like reading in Spanish: I know how to do it in the back of my mind, but it took me several pages to get used to the new language, and even after I did, I still struggled to understand some passages. Part of this is logistical: for the first few pages, actually, I tested the theory of reading all the way across the two pages, then down, unsure of which was the correct way to read the book. But the other part of the challenge to read this text is in the artful, nuanced illustrations Baker employs.

There were pages where I stared at the pictures for minutes, unsure of what was happening. The image on pg 198 is a good example. Are they dissecting him? Are they casting him in something? Are they sawing him in half (not sure why that would happen…easier disposal of the body?). Either way, as I looked at the image, I went through the same process I go through when reading a work of literature: asking myself why I see the image one way, and what evidence I have in front of me to suggest that the image is of a dissection rather than an embalming. There are other places where this happened for me, too: pg 175, for example, and I watched myself “reading” these images in much the same way I would read a work of classical literature: mining for the things I understand, being patient with the things I don’t, re reading in between, and waiting for things to come together in the end.

After reading this text, I think the graphic novel (especially an artful one like this) offers an opportunity to walk students through the process of interpretation without intimidating them with words. They can (hopefully) see when they look at the images, and can trust that what they see is real. By giving students a graphic novel to interpret I think we give them an opportunity to trust their instincts as a see-er, or as a consumer of visual information. In leveraging this confidence we just might be able to help kids move towards interpreting sentences rather than images—using the same processes and strategies they used in their own visual interpretations.  It’ll encourage them to practice writing in this context, meet that “burden of proof” when it comes to interpretation, too…#Excited!