Canonical Comics

Schools find success using comics as learning tools


Comic books came into their own as a medium during the 1980s, spurred on in popularity through the releases of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman films. Kids who read them have since grown up and become professionals, and they haven’t forgotten how comics ignited their love of reading. I am one of these comics kids, who grew up to be a teacher and, from my first moments in the classroom, have implemented and championed the use of comics as educational tools.

There are a number of elements that contribute to the appeal of these books amongst modern students. First and foremost is the fact that we live in a multimedia  world that is primarily visual – look to the wildly popular platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – but that doesn’t just apply to digital tools. Students respond to each page of a graphic novel and appreciate the juxtaposition of image and text. Lessons are borne of understanding the same literary elements that other texts would illustrate.

For my part, I started this grand experiment with Maus by Art Spiegelman, the true story of the author’s parents’ survival of the concentration camps at Auschwitz. The story uses the allegory of cats vs mice to bring the heart-wrenching story to life so effectively that it remains the only graphic novel to ever be awarded a Pulitzer. I brought it to my very first class, during my student teaching placement, and was amazed at how engaged my seniors were with the text.

While Maus has solidified itself as the first and most well-known “canonical graphic novel,” there are many other amazing books that have found their way into classroom libraries and onto summer reading lists. I’ve managed to secure class sets of Smile by Raina Telgemeier, which discusses identity and isolation against a middle school backdrop; Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan, which exposes the horrors of war through the eyes of four lions who escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the American bombing in 2003; and Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, which tackles racism and culture through three different but interwoven stories. I have taught with and lent these texts to teachers and, regardless of the grade level, they have made kids excited about reading.

The educational impact of these types of texts cannot be understated. In fact, colleges and universities have begun including classes using or even focused on the comic medium as part of their course offerings. Educational organizations like The American Library Association and The National Council of Teachers of English have, for years, championed their use as a meaningful and effective tool to help young people get excited about reading.

As we begin the second semester at my high school, I am lucky enough to be teaching, for the very first time, a course called The Modern Graphic Novel. My students are being treated to books which range from memoir to historic fiction to superhero adventures, and I get to teach them all. It’s uncharted territory in a lot of ways, but when a student smiles at me as I hand him or her a book, I know I am on the right path.