Comics in school? It’s about time.

1 08 2008

I wish I had gotten to go to Comic-Con. All the cool guys and gals are there. Phil Plait, Wil Wheaton, Stan Lee, John Ostrander, the Mythbusters, Seth Green, Batman…

Lego Batman!  Bet he hits like a ton of bricks!

(That Batman is made entirely of Lego’s, BTW!)

Here’s something that interests me above all the movie and TV hype the con has turned into — academia. That’s right — there are things you can learn that can be useful in life and *used* in a classroom by an enthusiastic teacher like me, Terry Johnson.

First off, graphic novels have for many years contained complex content that pushes the ideals of ethics and morality into the deepest parts of your psyche through both imagery and situational storytelling. (I know, I know. This means nothing without examples. Fine!)

My all-time favorite superhero is DC’s The Spectre. If you don’t know this character, you should definitely look up some artwork — especially from Tom Mandrake! (Click that ‘artwork’ link at least. You won’t regret it.)

The Spectre is a being of epic power. He is “the Vengeance of God” bound to a troubled human soul. God selects a deceased person’s soul who died under special circumstances requiring some sort of resolution before a judgment can be made on his/her final destination. The soul he is bound to gets switched out occasionally as the soul has found resolution to whatever internal conflicts he had and thus accepted into Heaven. In the 90s the series was written by John Ostrander who spent a year in seminary, so the story was AWESOME — touching on some pretty tough issues. Imagine a being of nearly infinite power being allowed to judge and execute evil-doers at a whim.  With no ill consequences to possibly misguided actions or going on personal vendettas. Feeling that your actions mimic the Almighty’s wishes. Such power would cause insanity, which was why The Spectre had to be bound to a human conscience. I’m glad DC let Ostrander and other guest writers take the story into directions that forced the reader to feel the terrible burden of absolute power. The story arc even had him punishing (executing) an O.J. Simpson look-alike in the opening panels of one issue. And one story arc (the cover with Superman up there) started with the Spectre passing judgment on an entire country for practicing ethnic cleansing.

When Ostrander was writing the story I was at the comic book store every Wednesday when the comics were being put on the shelves looking for any cross-overs I hadn’t heard of yet. The Spectre was an atypical hero and I liked that. It made me think deeper about my own ethics than most novels or movies. I shared the stories with friends and lent out so many issues I still don’t know where some of them went. I wanted to talk about the actions and consequences with others — to hear what other people took away from the stories — but there wasn’t a forum for that. In my college literature class we discussed Yeats and Plath, even James Michener and Steven King. But no Carl Barks, Roy Thomas, Neil Gaiman, Jim Aparo, Jeph Loeb, or the man who took Green Lantern through a decade-long social commentary in the 70s, Neal Adams. (yeah, yeah…for those keeping score Barks didn’t do much controversial writing while working for Disney, but he was without question one of the most influential writer/artist talents in the history of the industry and was honored numerous times by his peers)

Sometimes the art speaks louder than the writing, which is kinda the point of reading a *graphic* novel. As in Kingdom Come by Mark Waid. The story is absolutely amazing and easily the most thought-provoking graphic I’ve ever read. But beyond the story is the artwork of Alex Ross. There are many panels that grab me with their emotional honesty.  The story could almost be told with the visuals alone.

There are numerous Batman novels that I could mention as well. Batman is such a great character to build an eviscerating and conflicted storyline around!

The point of all this is that there is a growing acceptance of graphic novels and comic books in the classroom. This year at Comic-Con there were almost 24 hours worth of academic discussions and workshops. Many school libraries are stocking this type of media with a growing understanding of how enriching it really can be. Some schools even sent their grade-level teachers to Comic-Con this year for feedback on introducing illustrated stories to elementary kids. 200 California third-grade classrooms are expected to use comics next year, and other states may be making similar provisions soon. I couldn’t be happier!

On the more mature side of things, a few colleges are now offering advanced courses that critically analyze the deeper moral and ethical issues presented in current titles like The Watchmen, Jonah Hex, and — of course — Batman. How vigilante justice is viewed by society. How Arkham Asylum and the treatment of mental issues are dealt with. How mutants, like The Thing, cope with isolation and societal rejection because of physical differences. How sometimes it’s not entirely clear who’s good and who’s evil. Writing a thesis on a comic-related topic may get you high accolades from younger, more accepting professors, but there are still plenty of older professors who will be skeptical of its legitimacy. But I suspect that will change as a new generation of geeks enters academia.

But for some classrooms, comics have been a part of the curriculum for years. Well, one comic anyway.

This adorable guy who looks quite similar to Walt Kelly’s Pogo is the title character of a series whose first issue has now sold over 5.9 million copies. [Odd as this tie-in may seem, Pogo was temporarily banned by several southern newspapers back in the 50s for commenting on the state of integration in the school system in several strips. The Arkansas Gazette was not one of them.] Bone’s creator, Jeff Smith, has now won more national and international awards than any other comic creator in history. This might have something to do with the fact that Jeff published himself! This maintained the novel’s integrity and originality and presented an unbelievably rich story that could entertain anyone who could read. It was through reading Jeff’s work that I learned how critical the art was for the reader to catch the timing of the dialogue and events. And as you all know, timing is everything to a good storyteller. This series really showed how a story could be told in a form much like watching a movie, but while still having a grounding in literature that provokes one’s imagination. Even the comic was in black and white (originally) which forced the reader to fill in the blanks for himself. Brilliant.

How big has Jeff’s work become? Check out this picture.

That’s a metropolitan arts center hosting an entire exhibit just for Jeff Smith’s work. I’m guessing they must think his work is pretty important, too. That exhibit closes after this weekend, but the pictures are still impressive.

Scholastic, realizing how this could positively impact a generation of kids, started selling Bone and other age-appropriate graphic novels under their Grafix label. I believe this is a solid step forward in sparking creativity, imagination, and a love of literature in students who will one day be in my classroom. And it helps kids question the ideologies that popular culture throws at them. And you all know how important those qualities are in whatever disciplines you take, even physics.

So here’s to Comic-Con. I hope someday my administration will see the impact that comic books can have on shaping the futures of our students and send me to do a workshop. Or at least to get some pointers to make the inclusion of comics in the classroom more logical. Until then, I’ll just forge ahead like I’ve got good sense. Maybe Scholastic and the other graphic novel publishers should bring some of their comic creators to a teacher convention sometime.

Hmmm???

Bone is Trademarked and Licensed by Cartoon Books. All DC Comics characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © 1941-2008 DC Characters, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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6 responses

1 08 2008
Nick Jones

Dude! I freaking love the Spectre!!I haven’t read any in a long time though. I really like the atypical super hero too. Their conflict is always much deeper and thought provoking. Thanks for the awesome post. I love the Mythbusters at comic con. You know that they’re there because they’re nerds not celebrities.

1 08 2008
Trey French

I have never heard of the Spectre but it sounds awesome. I’m going to have to check it out sometime. Using comics in class would be really cool. Thanks for the post, it was awesome.

5 08 2008
Astro Girl

I stumbled upon this today: http://monkeytrials.blogspot.com/2008/08/jim-ottaviani.html
It’s more on educational comics from the ComicCon – these are directly related to science.

28 05 2009
LadyH

Okay, so I’m a little behind in reading this blog, but I find it interesting that you wrote this when you did. There are now people who are also advancing the legitimacy of graphic novels in the English classroom for teaching comprehension techniques such as inference. Very cool, indeed.

29 05 2009
Infinitewell

I bought my oldest son Bone: One Volume, which is a compilation of all the issues — some 1400 pages, when he was 9. He sat down and read the whole thing practically nonstop. While not quite as tantalizing to me as picking up individual comic books, flipping through the pages, and reading the letters at the end; it does keep him away from my bagged and boarded collection until he and his brothers are old enough to keep them in pristine condition. heh.

The re-issue by Scholastic is in color instead of the original black & white art. The color separations were nicely done and probably at great expense, but I just like the b&w better. It forces you to see the panels as a sketch — a glimpse — of the action and to focus more on the story itself. My son has noticed that, too. Which is cool.

With so many talented writers making very good livings scripting screenplays and novels based upon the comic heroes of their past, it looks like this medium would have more credibility by now. Maybe the tide is turning.

29 05 2009
LadyH

Possibly, but don’t hold your breath! You would be worm-dirt before you see it mainstreamed into English curriculum! Change is incredibly slow in the machine that is known as public school curriculum! However, I personally plan to integrate this medium into my own curriculum.

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