Teaching Graphic Novels

I previewed “Maus” today for my ESL level five reading comprehension class as part of an exercise on figurative speech and inference. I hadn’t intended to, but one of those teachable moments presented itself, so I took 10 minutes or so out of class time to discuss weather or not they considered the book to be a form of literature. I parroted a few of the rhetorical questions Prof. Sample had asked us to get the discussion started.

The only student who knew anything about “Maus” was a young woman from Germany who said it was used in her public school system to teach the Holocaust. She had an interesting perspective: she found the depictions in the book to be much milder than looking at the photos found in many of the usual texts used in German schools. Maybe her reaction would have been different if Kyle Baker had done the illustrations.

The other students, mainly Asian, African and Middle Eastern, knew little about the subject, but they immediately identified the mice and cat analogy and discussed how, without using a single word, the author had set up a paradigm that everybody could understand. We didn’t have time to go over the text, but a number of students said that because of the amount of text in the book, “Maus” was literature. According to their way of thinking, text is a defining characteristic of literature. I wish I had had the time to give them a preview of “Nat Turner”; it would have been interesting to see if their ideas would change.

If I were to teach graphic novels as part of a literature survey course I would begin with a similar discussion of literature and have them compile a list of defining characteristics before introducing whatever text I was going to teach. The fact that they realized that text can stand in place of text would be key to a teaching strategy.

The minimal amount of text in a graphic novel makes them much harder to “read” than what many of us have come to know as literature. We grow up with words and use them to determine meaning. We are comfortable with words and have become lazy and dependent on our literal interpretations. At the same time, we have also become dismissive of illustrations/graphics/photographs; we don’t give them a lot of thought because we are constantly bombarded by them. I think one of the greatest pitfalls a new student to graphic novels could make would be to dismiss what they see without really trying to understand what is being represented.

With a novel like “Nat Turner”, the next step would be to have them create their own text by writing a narrative to accompany the illustrations. I would ask them to explain what they think is transpiring on certain pages. Another approach would be to have them create their own text, either through captions or dialog. Having them put what they see into words would be a valuable experience; students would need to really study the illustrations and not give just a first impression. This could be done orally was well; a version of “popcorn” reading, where each student selects a sequence of illustrations and explains what they think is being represented.