The Case for Graphic Novels in an AP Classroom

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Authored by

  • Lisa S. Cohen
    Spanish River Community High School
    Boca Raton, Florida

Making Complex Concepts Approachable

Integrating graphic novels into my curriculum has been one of the best choices I have made as a teacher of both high- and lower-level students. I have seen many students with no previously expressed interest in language and literature excel in the analysis of a graphic novel. The graphic novel can make a difficult subject interesting and relatable, and is also an excellent way to teach complex concepts to higher-level students and to introduce them to an important postmodern genre. The visual world has had increasing impact on our students’ lives, and this is a way to connect to untapped portions of their minds.

I have taught the graphic novel primarily using Art Spiegelman’s MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale (volumes 1 and 2) through a Holocaust research unit for advanced 10th-grade students. The unit incorporates the study of the graphic novel and research on the historical events surrounding the Holocaust, including an emphasis on documentation and source investigation skills. I also use the (now out-of-print) companion CD that Art Spiegelman helped to author, called The Complete MAUS. This contains many of Spiegelman’s primary sources for his nonfiction, historical graphic “novel,” including narrative by both Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, who is at the core of the story. It additionally offers many other valuable teaching resources, such as Spiegelman’s original drafts and articles about MAUS and graphic novels.

While MAUS is appropriate for high school students, teachers of middle school students may consider teaching Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which relates the events of the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the eyes of the author as a young girl. In its sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, the author returns to Iran as a young adult. Additionally, American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, integrates Chinese folk legend and the story of the life of a young Chinese boy growing up in America. Like MAUS, these graphic novels have the added advantage of exposure to new historical and cultural ideas valuable to a well-rounded education.

There are many ways to use graphic novels in your classroom. Here are some that I’ve found most useful.

Teaching Visual Rhetoric

Any graphic novel unit might begin with an introduction of visual rhetoric terms and the vocabulary that has developed for graphic novels specifically. From the MAUS CD, I use Spiegelman’s succinct definitions for key comics terms: panel, balloon, border, gutter, bleed, and chapter opener. For example, the term bleed, which refers to text and illustrations that run to the edge of a page, prompts an excellent discussion on the pun in Spiegelman’s subtitle for the first volume of MAUS: My Father Bleeds History. With the added visual vocabulary, students combine looking for the bleed in the book, which happens at a crucial moment at the end of MAUS I, with the more common usages of bleed. Because the graphic novel also challenges traditional ideas of narrative, we can also examine history through the multiple meanings of this critical term.

The most effective way of guiding students toward insights on the visuals in graphic novels is to allow them to brainstorm out loud about the details on one page. Students who have difficulty transitioning to visual rhetoric frequently have trouble finding all the details necessary for understanding a visual text. They begin to find “hidden” connections between the text and visuals and discover the ways in which the visuals interact with each other. I often present this in a more general discussion of visual terms such as spatial order, color or shading, typography and text design, perspective, contrast, and style. Often, merely cataloging details encourages students to analyze more deeply.

Students also benefit from more general vocabulary for visual analysis. Graphic novels allow for the continuation of investigating imagery in text, but with the graphic form, I also press students to examine the way the author conveys a sense of time and motion. For example, Joe Sacco, who depicts journalistic stories using graphics, often uses the direction of his characters’ movement to convey more abstract ideas of progress or rebellion.

Teaching ideas of sequence also allows students to examine time and motion; additionally, it is a way to introduce aspects of the rhetorical triangle as it encourages analysis of how the author manipulates the reader’s experience. Will Eisner, a graphic novelist and author of several texts on the language of graphic storytelling, points out that the author utilizes the audience’s “reading rhythm” in the way he or she connects panels together and creates illusions of fast or slow movement. A way to get students to study this technique is to give them two excerpts from a graphic piece, one with the words removed (so that students look only at the visuals) and the other containing only the text (students can then compare differences in the way they read it). Alan Moore, the author of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, writes the text of his novels and works with an illustrator. In his writing, however, he doesn’t use only dialogue and narration, he also gives explicit instructions to the illustrator regarding the size, spacing, and perspective of each panel. Having students write using such instructions in a process essay can draw their focus to the many elements involved in a visual work. To test the quality of the descriptions, students can trade and try to create the visual described in the directions and see if they can match the author’s original conception.

Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics, offers further discussion of these techniques, and using the first two chapters of McCloud’s book at the start of any visual unit helps students develop a language for visual analysis. This is also an excellent guide for planning lessons that focus on visual rhetoric. McCloud introduces the essential terms for exploring novels, but as the book itself is graphic, it literally shows how these terms function.

Incorporating visual rhetoric into your curriculum will also require students to practice the critical thinking and analytical skills emphasized in an AP curriculum. The reading of both visuals and text together usually necessitates inference skills and a synthesis of a number of clues presented both on the page and as a pattern throughout the book. For instance, Spiegelman incorporates the image of a swastika in many of the images in MAUS for various thematic reasons. Students who start tracing the appearance of the swastika often can develop ideas on the abstract motif present behind it.

Literary Analysis through Graphic Novels

While graphic novels are excellent resources for teaching visual rhetoric, they remain, at heart, stories with the characteristics of other literature. I emphasize several core literary elements when working on the MAUS unit. We discuss development of theme through motifs and symbols, anthropomorphism and other figurative representation, juxtaposition (and the results of juxtaposition: paradox and irony), methods of characterization, impact of syntax, and tone.

Here are some focal points for literary analysis through graphic novels:

  1. Development of theme through motifs and symbols. Graphic novels are excellent vehicles for introducing students to the function of concrete symbols. Giving students a symbol to trace through reading, culminating with a project on the symbol’s link to an abstract idea (motif) and the author’s argument in portraying this idea (theme) provides students with a way to approach literature cohesively. Some symbols I have given students to focus on through the reading of MAUS are: prisons/imprisonment, eyes, cats and mice, masks, smoke streams (mostly from Art’s cigarette), numbers and dates, trains, circles/moons/cycles, and the grid. The last symbol, the grid, refers to Spiegelman’s use of the design grid and variations from it to create meaning by putting elements on angles, creating asymmetry or symmetry, paralleling structure in a series of panels, and so forth.

  2. The graphic use of anthropomorphism. Many graphic novels use anthropomorphized animals, inanimate objects, or concepts. In Spiegelman’s novel, he draws all of his Jewish characters as mice, all of the German characters as cats, the Americans as dogs, and the British as fish. A good way to introduce a graphic novel is to examine both the historical influences behind graphic symbolism and the way unrealistic depictions can convey an author’s ideas.

When introducing MAUS, I show students a series of original German, Polish, and Austrian propaganda that depicts Jews as rats, mice, or other vermin (many examples of this are on the MAUS CD). I sometimes include a discussion analyzing American visual propaganda during World War II that portrays Japanese as apes and vermin. (An excellent source for both American and Japanese propaganda is John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.) The discussion of animal symbolism also links to a common pattern in literature of authors using animal imagery for humans, such as in The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lord of the Flies, and The Metamorphosis.

  1. Aspects of style. Graphic novels allow for a new approach to diction, imagery, syntax, structure, and language. For example, many graphic novelists frequently emphasize words by making them boldface, italic, or underlined, practices applied sparingly in traditional texts. Graphic novels also substitute figurative imagery with the images themselves, but the interplay of what is written and what is drawn makes for an important point of analysis. Often graphic novelists exploit the dual expressions of text and visuals to create puns, irony, and paradox. Syntax also becomes an examination of both sentence structure and panel and object structure. For example, in MAUS, when Art’s father, Vladek, relates a story of shooting a soldier during World War II, he uses pronouns to conceal his responsibility for the killing, but Spiegelman relates the importance of the death through a panel structure that emphasizes the stark difference between life and death.

  2. Classic or pop? I often use this question as another way to explore the literary implications of a graphic work. Students develop criteria for a classic work of literature and then compare these to the most defining aspects of the graphic novel. For example, many students understand the criterion that a classic work should express universal themes. An appropriate way to lead this discussion in MAUS is to examine whether Vladek, the protagonist in much of Spiegelman’s story, meets the characteristics of a hero. Comparisons with The Odyssey, Death of a Salesman, Paradise Lost, the Bible, and the Ramayana offer excellent discussions on defining a literary hero. The use of other sources, both scholarly and critical, will also help this examination. Charles McGrath’s New York Times article “Not Funnies” offers a discussion of those traits that graphic novels share with other classic literature, and Peter Schjeldahl’s “Words and Pictures” article for The New Yorker critically examines the durability of the graphic novel as a genre. Encouraging students toward a discourse on this subject will get them closer to understanding the reasons why certain works enter into the canon.

Applying Critical Approaches

A way to create meaning for students learning about literature is to introduce them to the various critical approaches for analyzing text. Teachers of world literature often like to expose students to the archetypical approach, introducing students to ideas originally put forth by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and for more advanced students, the criticism of Northrop Frye. Since graphic novels often incorporate many archetypical symbols and ideas, applying such an approach helps students connect this fairly new form to older pieces of literature.

Students also benefit from an understanding of some of the techniques of the deconstructive approach. Many graphic novelists use deconstructive techniques in changing the meaning of traditional symbols and words. Art Spiegelman has cited deconstructive influences such as the criticism of Jacques Derrida. A study of MAUS II: A Survivor’s Tale, particularly the chapter “Time Flies,” from a deconstructive perspective allows students to examine several levels of the text. Students may not need to know the somewhat complex terminology of deconstructive criticism; activities focusing on how the writer of a nonfictional graphic novel may take on different personas as the character representing him in his book can help students examine the subtle differences between authors and characters.

Spiegelman also reexamines the meanings of crucial symbols, such as ashes, in his carefully crafted relationship between the ashes of his cigarette and the ashes of death camp victims. He uses a similar technique in his later work, In the Shadow of No Towers, about the World Trade Center attacks, by comparing his burning cigarette to the flames of the terrorist attack.

Even if students are not ready to learn the formal terms of criticism, introducing them to the processes of literary criticism will promote the development of independent points of view. Another way teachers can approach many graphic novels is from a cultural and historical methodology. Because so many graphic novels are nonfictional memoirs or histories, a unit built with the investigation of primary sources and cultural information can show students the many pieces involved in creating nonfiction.

In the MAUS unit I use in my classroom, students combine the additional critical and historical sources we read into a research project. We develop a thesis statement examining MAUS’s status as a potential classic based on the way it has defined its genre, the new ways graphic novels are able to communicate, the specific subject matter of the Jewish people during World War II, and the more general genres of memoir and narrative. Students then compile information from documentary films, photos, historical documents, and articles to synthesize the discussion that has evolved concerning MAUS, as well as graphic novels, literature, history, and communication in general. In later years and college, students can apply these skills not only in the traditional tasks of research and literary analysis, but also to the emerging focus in many English classes on the examination of visual text and communication.

Resources

Here is a list of graphic novels and resources on how to incorporate them into your classroom.

Books and Articles

Eggers, Dave. “After Wham! Pow! Shazam!” New York Times, November 26, 2000.

Eggers, the editor of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, has become an authority in the literary world of the young avant-garde. McSweeney’s devoted issue 13 to an excellent collection of excerpts from graphic artists and samplings of historical sources for comic books. This article from the New York Times Book Review provides an example of the discourse that has surfaced on the graphic novel genre. Eggers discusses Lynda Barry’s The! Greatest! of! Marlys!; Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, containing the novella The Beauty Supply District; Daniel Clowes’s David Boring; and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. These works, the latter three in particular, are topics of discussion in other reviews and analyses of the genre and have become part of a foundation. Their comparison provides for a complex synthesis.

Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse, 1996.

Often called the “grandfather of graphic novels,” Eisner is a comic artist in his own right, creating the well-known Contract with God trilogy and The Spirit series. However, this book and his Comics and Sequential Art were among the first to examine graphic novels as an artistic form on a level with other art forms and styles of writing. Eisner primarily relies on analysis of action and adventure comics rather than the more mature comics that the genre now consists of, but teachers can apply the major concepts that he discusses – narrative tools, the function of symbols, methods of sequencing and pacing, devices used to develop voice, style and tone – to other graphic works.

Franzen, Jonathan. “The Comfort Zone: Growing Up with Charlie Brown.” The New Yorker, November 29, 2004. Also in Susan Orlean and Robert Atwan, eds. The Best American Essays of 2005. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

This article is a noteworthy piece that discusses the cultural function of graphic work. Although Franzen discusses Peanuts, which is not a graphic novel, his discussions of the broader implications of iconic visuals carry resonance. Franzen also analyzes how Charles Schulz was able to convey adult humor and themes through seemingly simple means. Like much of Franzen’s work, this analysis leads to larger conclusions about the atmosphere of the time period and Franzen’s life. Schulz also influenced many contemporary graphic novelists, particularly Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper, 1994.

McCloud’s work is an invaluable source for studying graphic art. Students will benefit from reading the entire book, but often this is not possible; the first or second chapter gives a good foundation in some key terms and concepts. Using his own highly developed graphic style, McCloud discusses the subjective and the objective, the role of the elements of graphic works, and ways to apply graphic terminology. He integrates philosophy, art, literature, and science into a new form of criticism. Teachers can also use this resource to give students a language for discussing other visual texts, and its layering of complex elements provides for high-level discussion.

McGrath, Charles. “Not Funnies.” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 2004.

I use this article with students to discuss the specific traits of graphic novels that make particular works candidates to become “classics.” McGrath, the former editor of the New York Times Book Review, discusses the merits of studying the graphic novel as a serious literary form through interviewing several key authors, including Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and the one-named Seth. The article also introduces the world of graphic novels as literature and not just “comic books,” and provides a discussion of the distinctions.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Words and Pictures: Graphic Novels Come of Age.” New Yorker, October 17, 2005, 162-68.

Almost serving as a bookend to McGrath’s “Not Funnies” article, Schjeldahl’s piece discusses the possible end of the graphic novel “trend.” Again, the analysis uses the works of Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, and Daniel Clowes as examples, citing the early historical influences of Will Eisner and R. Crumb. The article presents evidence that while the genre has expanded rapidly and has garnered incredible immediate publicity, it has established itself as part of the literary landscape rather than a short-lived art form.

Spiegelman, Art. “Little Orphan Annie’s Eyeballs.” The Nation, January 17, 1994. Repr. in The Complete MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale (CD-ROM). New York: Voyager, 1994.

Based on the discussion of a Valentine’s Day New Yorker cover Spiegelman drew depicting a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman (symbolizing racial tensions in New York in the early 1990s), this article presents an intricate argument on the role of symbols, particularly visual ones. Spiegelman discusses the generalizing nature of all words and images, a paradoxical problem that means that representation necessarily must be descriptive but will always be inadequate. He also discusses the practice of creating misleading symbols or words rather than more direct ones, such as the Nazi practice of using the word “extermination” rather than the more accurate term “murder” or the current trend of using “African American” rather than “black.” This article is a particularly effective reading for students because of its rich language, complex arguments, and the many important thematic issues it touches on.

Spiegelman, Art. “A Problem of Taxonomy.” Letter to the editor in the New York Times, December 29, 1991. Repr. in The Complete MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale (CD-ROM). New York: Voyager, 1994.

This is Art Spiegelman’s letter to the editor of the New York Times following the listing of MAUS II on the best-seller list under fiction. The letter, while humorous at moments, offers an important discussion of MAUS’s status as nonfiction. It is a good source to use when examining modes of rhetoric and classification of literature. Also valuable for discussion is the editor’s response to Spiegelman (included in this article), which lists the Library of Congress’s categorization of MAUS.

Twiddy, David. “Library Patrons Object to Some Graphic Novels.” Washington Post, December 18, 2006, C03.

An excellent way to approach reading any graphic novel in the classroom is to find recent articles that discuss young readers and graphic novels. Graphic novels face a conflicting challenge: they are interesting to young people and therefore can increase curiosity in reading, but they also contain more adult material, which can be inappropriate. Twiddy’s article summarizes arguments of proponents on both sides of the issue. Teachers might also use this article for a discussion about people finding graphic depictions more offensive or provocative than text, as in the case of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Websites

Pantheon Graphic Novels
This website provides information about the authors, works, and visuals from Pantheon, a dominant publisher of graphic novels, including MAUS and Persepolis. Because of the site’s interesting design and its primary function as a promotion tool, teachers can also use it for a visual analysis of a website.

Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians
The links contained here provide a simple array of key points good for educators and parents. Teachers will find these links useful for introducing the genre to their classes.

Graphic Novels

Nonfiction

Sacco, Joe. Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2000.

Unlike many graphic artists, Sacco’s style is not rooted in personal narrative. He acts more as a journalist, with the exception that his stories feature cartoons and dialogue alongside traditional fact-based narration. What results is essentially truthful and objective, but with the emotional resonance necessary to relay the tragedy of the war.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2003; and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. New York: Pantheon, 2004.

This autobiography of Satrapi’s experiences as a young girl during the Islamic Revolution in Iran is surprisingly simple without being simplistic. Like MAUS, Persepolis depicts a complex historical period through the eyes of one individual, and through iconic visuals it makes the powerful emotions and events of that period accessible to the reader.

Spiegelman, Art. MAUS I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon, 1986; and Spiegelman, Art. MAUS II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1991.

Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for MAUS in 1992 in the Special Citations and Awards category, the first (and only, so far) graphic novelist to do so. While I teach MAUS I with my students, with excerpts from MAUS II, teachers can use the two in many ways. MAUS II has more postmodern aspects, and Spiegelman involves the text more directly with his father’s experiences in Auschwitz. Additional sources on MAUS include:

  • Geis, Deborah R., ed. Considering MAUS: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.
  • Spiegelman, Art. The Complete MAUS (CD-ROM). Prod. by Elizabeth Scarborough. Voyager, 1994. ISBN 1-559-40453-1.

I don’t recommend that teachers use In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, 2004) with students: highly charged racial and political issues, as well as some explicit language, make it inappropriate for most schools. But this work, which Spiegelman calls a “graphic novelty,” is worth looking at for the sheer diversity of artistic methods used and as an example of how the graphic genre might evolve with improved technology.

Fiction

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. New York: Pantheon, 2005.

This is an intricate graphic novel that describes a fantastical sexually transmitted disease in Seattle in the 1970s, and explores the teenage problems of sexuality, alienation, the search for independence, and more fundamental problems of human relationships in an honest yet subtle approach rarely shown in novels about teens. While it may not be right for a high school classroom, high school and middle school teachers would benefit from reading it.

Clowes, Daniel. Ice Haven. New York: Pantheon, 2005.

This short novel tells intertwining stories that take place in a small town and incorporates many artistic elements that teachers can use to explore the applications of the graphic form. Clowes retells the story of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, layering a commentary on the graphic genre itself, and utilizes the modern convention of varying points of view.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000.

Chris Ware’s work is often cited in graphic novel criticism, perhaps because it exemplifies one of the unique characteristics of the genre: it is simultaneously incredibly complex and simple. Almost mathematically perfect, Ware’s illustrations use solid colors and round, smooth shapes, but his narrative timing, pacing of panels, and creation of mood heavily contrast the neat drawings with a messy realism and awkwardness. Like MAUS, Ware creates two different stories, but he tells the stories of Jimmy in the 1980s and his grandfather during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in the 1890s.