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What Making Comics Can Teach About Teaching Comics

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As we've seen in a few recent posts, the experiences and concerns of various stakeholders in teaching with graphic novels may inform how educators build these materials into curriculum. Learning about how comics are made could help students give some structure to this diversity. Part of the challenge for teachers is the range of opinions on what graphic novels are—it's as diverse as the medium itself.

The distinction between the terms "graphic novel" and "comic" or "comics" is one source of tension, as "comics" may hold negative connotations for some. Writing in The Social Studies in January, J. Spencer Clark observed that graphic novels have often been devalued for their persistent association with a "comics lineage."

To some, "comics" suggests work that is content-poor, unserious, and inferior to text-only books. A widely known body of research by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham vilified comics and their influence upon children and has only recently been debunked for flawed methodology. But the paper's persistent influence and the resulting inability to reconsider the literary, cultural, and educational value of comics may contribute to a limited understanding of what graphic novels are.

The term "graphic novel" is a way to distance comics from this fixed and limited classification and to realign them with literature. However, graphic novels cover the same fiction-nonfiction continuum as text-only books, a diversity that is frequently ignored. And many writers and artists creating graphic novels or "comic-book novels" embrace the term "comics."

Take, for example, Chris Ware, the author of Building Stories (Random House, 2012), Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon Books, 2000), and many more graphic novels. Ware reclaims the aforementioned "comics lineage" and includes medieval iconography and other pre-20th-century art in the line of descent. He is able to do so in part because he conceives of comics as narratives built through images first, words second.

An excerpt from his introduction to The Best American Comics 2007 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), a volume he edited, further details this philosophy of how comics are made:

The traditional, commercially established mode of "scripting" a story and then simply illustrating it does not admit to the endemic potential in comics to literally imagine and see on the page, to say nothing of plumbing areas of imagination and memory that, I think, would otherwise be left inaccessible to words or single pictures alone.

According to Ware, comics have a separate language unto themselves:

I think I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the human invention of language evolved as a means of speedily ordering experience, allowing us to collect and organize the wash of perceptual muck that enters our senses into categorizable and reasonably consistent generalities, all as a means for quick action... this distinction is more or less what comics are: a language of abbreviated "visual words" having its own grammar, syntax, and punctuation.

In other words, comics are more than the sum of writing and drawing, a true hybrid medium.

The comics-as-hybrid concept is directly related to Ware's working process. Understanding why someone might choose to work in this medium could be a key area of discussion when teaching with graphic novels. Comparing and contrasting the creative processes of two makers of comics could help students understand how different conceptions of the graphic novel are related to different visual and textual styles.

Learning to read graphic novels with a critical eye—reading closely, forming critical arguments based on evidence within the text and images—could help students work on new analytical abilities and suggests a strong case for using artist interviews, reviews, and comics scholarship in the classroom alongside graphic novels themselves.

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