Comic books are a topic that I am (sometimes obsessively) passionate about, and like many who have entered academia in the past twenty years, I do not let traditional definitions of literature and what constitutes serious scholarship trouble me much. Academia is more and more willing to accommodate fan culture as a legitimate enterprise.
In my own research, I pontificate about the importance of incorporating comics into the historical narrative, and even explored the realm of semiotics (the study of how texts make meaning) by looking at onomatopoeia in comic books (“bam,” “pow,” “kaboom”). But my research is not by any means unprecedented.
Schools have experienced a sea change in the way that so-called “low brow” literature has been represented in the classroom, with states like Maryland offering instructional strategies for the use of comics. Meanwhile, scholars increasingly look to comics as both a form of literary expression and as pertinent, under-studied cultural texts.
Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco, and Gene Yang, among other names, may have been appeared on your school or university readings lists. Comics provide a multi-sensory means to exploring traditional subjects, and if your teachers and professors are candid, comics offer a more engaging avenue to learning. Though this has been recognized by education theorists at least since the 1930s, comics did not gain scholastic credence until the mid-1980s; today works like“Maus” and “Watchmen” are recognized as among the greatest ‘novels’ of all time.
To begin deconstructing the use of comics in the classroom, let’s explore the two primary ways comics can be used as a means of teaching by drawing on history and the social sciences.
In 1987, the quality of history instruction in American classrooms was questioned extensively — and remains in question today, with the biggest issues being which historical narrative gets taught and how effective that teaching is. In the same year The National Council for History Education formed the Bradley Commission to conduct research in regarding the effectiveness of history pedagogy, resulting in a report of the same name that acknowledged the need to change historical education.
Still, professors of history conducting their own research in following decades have consistently recognized that (1) Americans do not consider learninghistory to be an end in itself and (2) that history as a subject is considered irrelevant or boring. This despite the fact that many Americans consider experiential history learning — like going to museums or talking with elders — to be integral to personal development of civic prosperity. So why the discrepancy?!
History, along with subjects like math, the hard sciences, literature (oh heck, all of it!), is not interesting as a textbook subject in the same way that less traditional methods of learning make it. This is not to say that comics provide the de facto solution to the United States’ education deficit, but at least they are an end to furthering student interest in subjects that, for students with learning disabilities or alternative learning styles, may not be appealing.
History may be taught through the medium of comics as historical fiction (e.g. Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Sacco’s “Palestine,” Satrapi’s “Persepolis”) or as historical textbooks in comics format (e.g. Gonick’s seven volume “Cartoon History of the Universe,” Hennessey and McConnell’s “The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation,” or Butzer’s “Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel”).
Luckily for those not interested in history, there are comic textbooks available for just about any subject, from astronomy and physics to calculus and statistics. For those students who find literature challenging for any number of reasons, just about every major — and at this point, minor — work of literature has been adapted to the comics medium. While many adaptations suffer from choppy plot and aesthetically repulsive art, Eureka Productions has published dozens of “Graphic Classics” volumes which include some of the finest comics in the industry.
Increasingly, as English teachers assign “Maus” and journalists read the works of Harvey Pekar, and children in biology read “Cartoon Guide to Genetics,” cultural historians are giving Batman, Krazy Kat, and underground comix a spotlight at specialist conferences and in comics studies journals, and producing theories of how the human mind processes comic books and similar art forms. This type of scholarship treats comics as history and analyzes the methods and rhetoric of production, the history of the industry, the demographics and responses of audiences, and the cultural values of comics as a medium.
At a time when comics research is challenging the industry by critiquing the historical racism evidenced in its treatment of African Americans and Native Americans, exposing the cultural ties of the Cold War to Marvel’s explosion of superheroes in the 1960s, and calling into question the narrative treatment of female characters, it would be ignorant to ignore the usefulness and importance of comics as both a significant cultural institution and a method for advancing educational aims.