Tag Archives: graphic novels

“Do we have to analyze this?”—Adding graphic novels to the mix

                My students often try to tell me that they hate analyzing. When we start reading a new work, they’ll ask, “Do we have to analyze this one?” I try to point out, as we have discussed in class, that they are constantly analyzing everything around them!  In everyday interactions, they analyze text messages, status updates, facial expressions, and tone of voice, just to name a few. They also analyze movies, music, and, yes, literature. And most of this analysis comes as second nature. (Of course, we work to get them to really tease out their thoughts and go even deeper with their analysis.) Why not add graphic novels to the mix? It’s the perfect combination of text and visuals for “literary analysis.”

                In the past, particularly when teaching plays, I have had students create comic strips depicting the most important scenes in the drama. Now by no means am I having them create graphic novels, but I am having them consider how they would depict the scenes. They make choices as to which scenes to show and which to leave out. They have to consider how the characters look and interact. All of these choices are worthy of discussion when considering a graphic novel.

                While I would really like to have a graphic novel on my reading list, I have been stumped as to how exactly I would go about “teaching” such a work. Then I had the thought that if we are arguing that graphic novels are literature, then we could really do many of the same activities we would do with “regular” literary texts. They would need to be modified a bit, but things such as creating a scene left out of the original text, or telling the story from another point of view could work nicely with a graphic novel. Not only do such activities require them students to analyze the existing text, but they require further analysis, creativity, and justification for the choices made.

                Like Susanna, I would like to use excerpts from McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud says a lot about analysis in general, not just about comics (or, comix). I think his explanations, along with the format, would be helpful for students. (And they would have to analyze as they read about analysis!) Also, I’d like to use excerpts from a graphic novel or two in an activity that I use in the beginning of the year. Many of my IB students struggle with the concept of really examining the choices made in a literary work and the effect of those choices. During the first week or two of school I do an activity in which they look at the choices/techniques and their effects in art work, music, and film before we move on to our focus on literature. The point is that literary analysis is not completely unique and on its own island of thought somewhere. I think I’ll add graphic novel excerpts to the mix.

Teaching a Graphic Novel

In thinking about how I could teach a graphic novel, the first thing I realized is that the content of the text is an important factor in how I would present it to my class. Not all lesson ideas or approaches would be appropriate for all comics. (For example, considering the controversial content of Nat Turner, I wouldn’t introduce it in a lighthearted lesson, nor would I choose it as the first graphic novel I show my students.)

As I said in my blog post last week, I noticed a big difference in my own thinking about the content of Nat Turner vs. the way in which it is presented. I don’t think high school students would naturally separate those two aspects of the text, so it’s important that the teacher does so for them (as necessary) or (preferably) develops lessons that encourage students to do so on their own. To do this, the teacher needs to know his purpose in presenting the text (that sacred concept of backward planning). He has to consider his ultimate goal: Am I teaching graphic novel X because I want to teach a/any graphic novel or because I want to discuss the issue of X? (My initial opinion of Nat Turner is that it would be better used as a starting point in discussing the actual issue of the slave rebellion. I don’t think it would be as productive, with a high school audience, to discuss the physical presentation of the story—at least until after the genre had been introduced and dealt with using less controversial examples. Then, yes, full steam ahead with NT.) So the only real conclusion I’ve reached so far is that you need to know WHY you’re teaching the text in the first place. (I know–good teaching 101, right?).

Maybe I’ve over-thought Prof. Sample’s question by hashing out all this goal stuff, but I couldn’t start brainstorming until I’d set some parameters for my hypothetical lessons. But now, finally some ideas . . . If I were to teach a graphic novel, I think I’d want to find one that it is middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty (i.e. not Nat Turner, but also not an Archie comic—no offense to Archie). I would want students to be able to differentiate between content and presentation, but also be able to examine both together (as in, why do you think the author chose to convey this message in this manner as opposed to in a more traditional form? It strikes me that Maus would be a great example to use when discussing both form and content together).

Bottom line, I think there’s a lot a teacher could do with any given graphic novel that would inspire students to think critically about certain aspects of the work (images, text, purpose, message, voice, plot, etc.). Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Remove all text from the images (thought bubbles, captions, onomatopoeia) and then ask students to fill in their own captions. Students would have to support/defend their captions with textual evidence (in this case, image-based evidence). I’ve done a similar activity as a review of Macbeth, but the version I’ve done doesn’t really require critical thinking, only summarizing skills. The activity could vary depending on whether you’ve shown the students the original text beforehand—I can see it being worthwhile both ways.
  • Cut up a shorter graphic novel (graphic short story?) into pieces and have students reassemble based on their knowledge of story conventions (exposition, climax, falling action, etc.). This lesson would work well with a traditional short story unit because it would show students that the mechanics of stories are similar even when the final products look different. (You could then discuss why authors choose particular methods of conveying a story. How a short story is better/worse/different from a graphic novel, movie, song, etc.)
  • Slow down the reading of a longer graphic novel by giving students only short sections at a time. Study the sections one at a time, asking students to write about what they see, how this excerpt connects to previous sections, and how the story might play out after this point. After seeing all the sections, students could review their notes and evaluate how their understanding of the story changed, improved, or declined as they read more passages. (Now I’m thinking of reading log audits. I’m sure there’s a lot you could do with something like this.)
  • Ask students to translate a graphic novel into a written short story (or vice versa). Discuss the pros and cons of each genre, difficulties the students encountered, possible combinations of the two presentation styles, and so on.
  • Visually experiment with multiples storylines or narrative perspectives. One novel I teach uses a fragmented narration style that really confuses my regular 10th graders. I could ask students to represent different story threads by cutting and pasting panes from a graphic novel in different patterns or combinations. This activity would help visual learners in particular.

These are only “rough draft ideas,” so I’m really more interested to see what everyone else comes up with. I love hearing different perspectives and ideas because I always find something useful to bring back to my students. I hope we can compile a more comprehensive list of ideas and flesh them out as a class.

Literature vs. Text

I have read in many of the blog posts for this week that several of my classmates have trouble identifying graphic novels, or comic books for that matter with “literature.”  Most of the time, this seems to be an exclusionary distinction, graphic novels cannot count because it is primarily a visual medium, and “literature” is the written word.  One potential flaw I see with this distinction is drama.  Plays are primarily a visual medium, they were meant to be seen on the stage, performed by actors, not read.  However, I do not see  a rush to exclude Shakespeare from the category of “literature.”

Is my example a bit extreme? Probably, but i wanted to hit home a point.  I think instead of focusing on “literature” we should instead focus on the idea of “texts.”  Though hardly a technical definition, I think that a text is anything that can be interpreted, anything that can be considered more than the sum of its parts.  I also think that there is great value in studying various texts in the English classroom beyond just the written word.  Our students are barraged with hundreds of “texts” on a daily basis, a majority of which do not fall under the classical definition of literature as the written word.  I want my students to be able to read and interpret these texts as well as the more traditional written texts we look at in class.

For example, to study John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” in my class, I used a variety of texts to look at the theme of the interconnectedness of mankind across different mediums.  We used songs like “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle, which takes one of Donne’s metaphors and explores the disadvantages of human connection.  Then we compared Three Dog Night’s “One” with Aimee Mann’s cover of the same song to discuss how Mann attempted to convey the mood of the lyrics with her more somber rendering of the song.  We looked at movie clips from “I Heart Huckabees” and “Magnolia.”  I showed them the art project Garfield Minus Garfield to show the isolation we feel when we lose that human connectedness.  We also looked at the website We Feel Fine to show how the internet has fostered a change in human connectedness on a global scale by its ability to place us in touch with large numbers of strangers with relative ease.  Their final assessment is to write a “Pop Culture Meditation” where they find a text in their own lives that explores the theme.  My students are into it, they are engaged in a way that they have not been when we have just looked at the written word.

As far as Nat Turner goes, I think that there is something of real value to be studied.  To me, it mirrors a lot of the same themes as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a text that I think everyone can agree is a piece of great literature.  The horrors of slavery dehumanize the characters in both of those texts to the point where they commit brutal acts that it is hard for modern day readers to fully comprehend.  I think both texts also serve to show that the scars of slavery have yet to be fully healed in American society.

Yes, the written word has been the traditional mode of study for these types of things in the past. However, for hundreds of years, the written word was all we really had to study.  I was reading an article the other day about colleges across the country who are now offering courses in HBO’s The Wire, a show of which the most common adjective seems to be Dickensian.  As these other types of media and texts mature and show more depth, I think it will become common to study them alongside of traditional written texts, and I am all for it.

My First Graphic Novel

Instead of focusing on how disturbed I am by the content of Nat Turner, I’m instead going to reflect on the experience of reading my first graphic novel. To begin, I have to admit how skeptical I was about reading a graphic novel for a graduate English course. Call me traditional, but I didn’t think it was accurate to say I was going to “read” a graphic novel. Now I see that I passed judgment too early, as my reading skills were certainly exercised throughout this book. (Interestingly, I’ve never had a problem saying I’m “reading” a book on CD, which I do all the time, so obviously I was prejudiced against the genre, incorrectly assuming it had no intellectual merit.)

When I first opened the book, I was struck immediately by the amazing illustrations. I was entranced by the detail of facial expressions and body language, as well as the variety of and intricate details within the images. I hadn’t intended to read the book straight through, but I was in such awe that I couldn’t put it down. Granted, that awe was often replaced by revulsion, but any book that has the power to evoke such strong emotional responses obviously merits examination. I exclaimed out loud on a few occasions, and I studied several of the more grisly images longer than I was comfortable with because I just couldn’t look away. I was amazed by Baker’s ability to disgust me with what are essentially cartoon images. I had previously thought that the subject matter would have to be affected by the method of presentation (after all, how seriously can you take a comic?), but I quickly learned that I was looking beyond the method of illustrating and studying the content itself.

On pages 88-90, for example, I am amazed at how clearly Baker conveys young Nat Turner’s dilemma: he has to feign ignorance when the overseer finds him with the Bible—in fact, he looks downright comical in his pretended stupidity—yet immediately afterward, in the bottom panes of page 90, Turner’s hatred for the white man (as well as his own circumstances) is clear. I’m not sure it would be as effective to try to convey these feelings in words (no matter how powerful and compelling the diction), so in this way the image is superior. (Even as I write this, I’m amazed that I’ve been so quickly convinced. I’m a fierce proponent of the power of words, so I feel disloyal in acknowledging the validity of what feels like the antithesis of all I stand for as a reader and writer. That said, I’m already looking for other examples of graphic novels to read, though preferably less disturbing ones.)

As I start to wrestle through the idea of possibly teaching a graphic novel (issues of school and parent approval aside), I can see several pros and cons. The pros are obviously that kids would enjoy the experience (in fact, many of them read graphic novels already), and that the story is immediately clear to anyone who is capable of reading facial expressions and body language (almost everyone). I also think a graphic novel would be a great way to talk about basic plot structure in a text (e.g. locate the exposition of the story, identify the climax, is there resolution?, etc.). The biggest drawback is that of course the students wouldn’t be learning traditional reading skills (taking meaning from words and paragraphs), but there’s plenty of traditional reading built into the curriculum already. I’ll hold the rest of my thoughts about how to teach it until next week.

The last comment I want to make has to do with how disturbed I was by the subject matter, so I’ll try to make it brief because I know I could go on at length about that. As entranced as I was by the book, I was equally concerned by the fact that Baker presents Turner as a hero. I agree with what Jennifer said in her post—I readily admit the inhumanity of slavery, but I don’t see Nat Turner’s actions as a justifiable retaliation, and I also suspect his understanding and application of Biblical teachings. It seems to me that the Nat Turner portrayed in this book would be dismissed as a religious fanatic today. I know this is a simplistic stating of the case, but I couldn’t comment on the book without remarking on the one glaring drawback I perceived. The questionable nature of Baker’s portrayal doesn’t in any way hurt my appreciation of the genre, and that’s why I’ve tried to address the two issues separately. I hope we can do the same in class next week.

Nat Turner—disturbing, but in a good way

When Professor Sample asked those of us who had already read Nat Turner to describe it, I said I thought it was disturbing. I say this not because of the format or genre of the narrative, but because of the story itself. I became absorbed in the book right away and read it in one sitting. However, I was shocked and appalled when reading (and seeing) how Nat Turner carried out his rebellion and justified his actions. Yes, I have learned of slave rebellions, but I honestly had never heard of Nat Turner until picking up this graphic novel. Sad, I guess, but true. Unlike Kyle Baker, I don’t recall seeing even a one paragraph blurb about him in any history textbook. I doubt that I am alone, though, as Baker points out that someone would be lucky to find one book on Nat Turner.

                After reading Baker’s Preface, I guess I was expecting the story of a great, heroic man. After all, Baker says “Many of history’s greatest people, including Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X all cite Nat Turner as an inspiration” (6). Baker praises Turner’s will power and the fact that he overcame the system, found access to books, taught himself to read, and educated himself. Yes, for these reasons he is admirable. But, despite the fact that Kyle Baker references killing, I guess I was expecting more from this man who overcame the odds. I guess I expecting to hear of more of an intellectual revolution as opposed to a bloodbath. Yes, slavery is indeed awful, horrific, extreme, and disturbing. But I was shocked by Turner’s extreme measures. While I can praise the idea and act of rebelling against slavery and creating a revolution, I am not comfortable saying that what Turner did was right. And I seriously question his grasping of the Scriptures and what he believed he was being called to do.

                Okay—whew—I got it out there. I’m sure that, in light of the fact that Nat Turner is hailed as a hero, some people are probably thinking that I’m horrible.

                I realize I’ve been expressing my views on the subject of Baker’s graphic novel and haven’t really analyzed the novel. Graphic novels of this nature open up this sort of discourse, though. It allows the discussion of, even debate over, the events of history. In his Preface, Baker says that “comic books/graphic novels are a visual medium, so it’s most important for an artist to choose a subject with opportunities for compelling graphics” (6). Nat Turner’s story definitely provides opportunity for compelling graphics! Graphic novels offer an effective way to present history. (I sure won’t forget Nat Turner now!) Similar to films about historical events, since the graphic novel is a “visual medium,” readers are note solely reading a story, a history, but they see it play out beyond the images in their minds. This medium is by far more effective than text alone, particularly when it comes to historical narratives! It’s too easy to skim over text or maintain a safe distance from the events. It’s far harder to ignore the visuals.

                I feel that graphic novels have much to offer and, to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed by experiences with the genre thus far. I was first exposed to graphic novels in American Postmodernism last spring and was intrigued by Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Lappe and Goldman’s Shooting War. I worked with graphic novels again this past fall semester in 701 as we studied Satrapi’s Persepolis and McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Much like a film, graphic novels have layers of analysis—not only can you explore the text, but there are also the visuals and the relationship between the graphics and the text, I love the complexity of what appears to be a “simple” form! I would love to teach a graphic novel (Persepolis, in particular), and I look forward to our class discussions on the form and how to teach it.