Aug 16 2011

Discussion: Why Aren’t More Graphic Novels Assigned for English Classes?

Published by at 4:27 pm under Discussion,Education/Schools,Graphic Novels

Guest answer from English professor and superhero scholar Chris Gavaler:

“I would say there is a slow building of graphic novels in classrooms. My daughter, for instance, read Maus in 8th grade English last year. But I emphasize the word “slow.” It took the NYTimes weeks to notice that Maus was a memoir (even though it had talking animals) and move it to the appropriate best-seller column.  I would say the graphic memoir has reached a level of cultural legitimacy (again, look at the NYTimes Book Review for evidence), but comic books as a genre are still weighed down by their past and, frankly, their present. Only an “innovative” teacher is going to introduce a comic to a syllabus, and then probably only a memoir because it balances the stigma of the form with the aura of fact. It’s those guys flying around with capes that drag the genre down. Though there are several superhero graphic novels deserving classroom study, the vast majority do not, and those that do are worthwhile because they subvert their pulp genre so interestingly.”


Answer from a rookie ESL instructor (me):

1. I think most teachers probably aren’t personally receptive to graphic novels or comic books. That’s just a guess, but the demographics are not promising—for example, 76% of U.S. elementary and secondary school teachers are women and 56% are older than 40.  According to another survey, only 8% of women read a graphic novel in the average year (compared to 15% for men).  Only 8% of people aged 46-64 and 4% of people aged 65+ did.


2. I think the teachers that are personally receptive would have to overcome fear of disapproval by other teachers and administrators.  Among other factors, teachers are under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests and graphic novels are not as intuitively useful there as non-illustrated works.  Standardized tests tend to focus on the reading/comprehension of non-illustrated prose rather than other forms of reading (graphic novels, poetry, etc).

2.1. Challenging the status quo requires courage and risk tolerance.  In contrast, sticking with what has been done (novels and nonfiction, in this case) is easier and entails less personal risk if things go wrong.


3. I think novels and nonfiction tend to enjoy more intellectual prestige than graphic novels.  There are exceptions–Maus won a slew of literary awards (including a Pulitzer)–but I think that’s exceedingly rare.


PS: If you’re interested in using graphic novels in a classroom, I’d highly recommend checking out Teaching Graphic Novels.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Discussion: Why Aren’t More Graphic Novels Assigned for English Classes?”

  1. Castilleon 16 Aug 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Hmm… There’s two graphic novels that I would teach in a classroom setting right off the bat.

    ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Killing Joke’.

    Read both of them, and agree that they definitely deserve more study.

  2. B. Macon 16 Aug 2011 at 7:40 pm

    “There’s two graphic novels that I would teach in a classroom setting right off the bat.
    ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Killing Joke’.” If I were starting something experimental, I’d feel more comfortable leading with something that didn’t have as much adult content.

    When it comes to teaching something that did have adult content, I think it’d be safer to select a work widely regarded as a literary classic, like 1984, Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I think that teachers will get more latitude teaching these works because, although they have mature elements, they’re literary classics respected by many educators. I would not count on such latitude for Watchmen or TKJ.

    According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Most school districts have established processes for handling complaints about course materials. If a parent objects, a teacher may assign an alternative reading. The next step typically is a formal review by a committee of principals and curriculum specialists. Finally, a parent may appeal to an elected school board and make the case for the book’s removal at a public hearing where all sides get to have their say.” When I’m getting grilled by “curriculum specialists,” I’d feel more comfortable arguing the literary merits of George Orwell or Mark Twain than Alan Moore.

  3. JMelloulon 16 Aug 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Beyond that Maus, as a great literary work is also worth study and I actually studied it in one of my classes.

  4. B. Macon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Yeah, I could see Maus or Persepolis. Maybe As the Wind Blows, although it does describe a death by radiation in some detail (and, of course, a nuclear war in the background).

  5. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 17 Aug 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I think it’s mostly because graphic novels and manga are considered less noteworthy and prestigious. Whenever someone saw me reading one at school, they’d say: “What are you reading? …ohhhhh, COMICS…”

    I mean, come on. Just because the story is mostly told in pictures, that doesn’t mean it’s worth any less than a novel.

  6. B. Macon 18 Aug 2011 at 1:10 am

    “Just because the story is mostly told in pictures, that doesn’t mean it’s worth any less than a novel.” Many decades ago, comic books used to be written for kids, and I think that reputation persists.

    I definitely agree with you that comics generally lack prestige. I don’t think it’s a lack of prestige for pictures in general, though. Visuals/images are frequently incorporated into ESL classes, particularly classes that use the direct method.

  7. Wingson 23 Aug 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I’ve been offered money by parents to stop reading manga in the past. It’s the same sort of thing with comics: just because the “majority” of manga is violent, racy stuff, doesn’t mean it all is – I’d still put Fullmetal Alchemist up there with my favorite books.

    Comics lack respect, but the genre isn’t really helping itself. I don’t remember the last time I saw a woman in recent comics who wasn’t an object of fanservice as opposed to a person.

    – Wings

  8. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 23 Aug 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I think most parents want to raise smart kids and I totally sympathize with that.* However, in my limited experience, I personally don’t feel that most novels aimed at young adults are significantly more educationally valid than most graphic novels. There’s a generalization that longer works are deeper and more mentally stimulating, but sometimes word-count is just a word-count. (Hopefully no one would conclude that I Am Number Four was deeper than a National Journal article or a scholarly article in APSR (yeahhhh, APSR) because it had more words).

    *Personally, I’d be pretty disappointed if my kids only read Stephenie Meier and devastated if they only read Newsweek and Time. If I were a parent, my three main rules would be no guns, no drugs and no Newsweek. And the guns might be negotiable.

    I haven’t read all that many manga. Are they more violent than most action novels or more racy than most romance novels?

    I can think of quite a few novels that are violent and/or racy, and at least five luridly violent and/or racy novels that have significant literary value (Crime and Punishment, pretty much any classic war novel but especially All Quiet on the Western Front, The Clockwork Orange, Silence of the Lambs and Slaughterhouse Five).

  9. ekimmakon 23 Aug 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I didn’t think that Manga was racy or violent.

    But then again, all I have is Case Closed. I havem’t exactly been immersing myself in the topic.

  10. Wingson 23 Aug 2011 at 7:28 pm

    To answer your question, B. Mac and company…stereotypically, yes.

    Manga is kind of notorious for fanservice, even outside of hentai manga, where that’s the entire point. Like, you know how in comics, there’s always one or two scantily clad women? With harem mangas, that’s the entire cast. It’s generally worse in shonen (boys) manga aimed at teenagers (Gurren Lagann has Yoko, early Dragon Ball had Bulma, Bleach has…almost everyone female, etc.).

    At first glance, manga’s probably worse when it comes to violence – I’d guess that’s due to differing standards in Japan, though. I mean, in most cases the violence isn’t much worse (or more realistic than)…the stuff in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the limbchopping and fountains of blood. It’s unrealistic enough so that it doesn’t stick with you too much. I’d say that manga’s more violent in general but what comics have in general is a lot worse*.

    There’s a lot of pretty harmless manga, with moderate violence and little to no fanservice (ex: Which fairly violent, Fullmetal Alchemist has almost no intentional fanservice, though this may be because the author is a lady), but it doesn’t get noticed as much. It’s like how if there’s one rotten apple in a barrel, all of the apples are considered rotten and therefore useless.

    Meanwhile, shojo (girls) manga is getting Twilightier and Twilightier by the hour. Just go Google “black bird manga cover”. Ugh.

    – Wings

    *When a Dragon Ball Z character gets an arm laser-chopped off, we get a relatively innocuous, bloodless stump, then it grows back perfectly in a few frames. When Rogue gets an arm laser-shot off in Ultimate X-Men, we see her shoulder explode in a pulpy, gory mess, and then it grows back little by little, still gushing blood the entire time.

  11. ekimmakon 23 Aug 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Twilightier? Is that even a word?

  12. Wingson 23 Aug 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I used it, so it’s definitely a word now.

    – Wings

  13. ekimmakon 24 Aug 2011 at 1:11 am

    Maybe so, but I doubt that there’ll ever be a book in a few centuries called “The Complete Works of a Blogger Named Wings”

  14. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 24 Aug 2011 at 1:59 am

    Well, I know there won’t be a book called The Complete Works of B. Mac–not least of which because I plan to write under my given name.

  15. Sylaron 05 Aug 2012 at 7:48 pm

    For a mature high school setting, I’d recommend the Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Sandman # 19 (the only comic to win a World Fantasy Award as “Best Short Story”)

  16. Edgukatoron 05 Aug 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Speaking as an English teacher and comic book enthusiast:

    – The first issue is cost. If we want to teach it, we have to have copies of it. Typically, the books we teach are bought through academic book publishers, who shy away from selling graphic novels due to a host preconceptions. You also need to get it added to a budget that is generally squeezed by politics.

    – The second is getting it past the authorities who have the final say, so you’re fighting whatever conservative forces (I mean this as a description, not in the political sense) may be arraigned above you. The first school I taught at had a department head focused on “passing the test” and a headmaster focused on keeping kids in order, rather than engaging them.

    – Parents can be a big concern. I was asked at a job interview, being religious, if I would have a problem teaching a book where two teenagers chose to have sex. Apparently, there had been a big kerfuffle over a book taught in the previous year by a religious parent, who had taken the issue through the PTA and almost got a teacher fired.

    – There is still a prevailing notion amongst language teachers that, past a certain point, we should avoid books with pictures because they “give too much away”, so that children don’t bother reading the words and just look at the pictures. There is some truth to this, I remember the point when I switched from looking at pictures to dutifully reading the text, but they miss one big point: pointed out that the alternative to reading a novel is not reading a graphic novel, its not reading at all.

    – Violence is a big issue, as superhero comics get stereotyped as big men in spandex beating each other up (much like pro-wrestling, I guess). Especially today, anything that deals with violence (especially some of the better works, like Watchmen and Kingdom Come, where the violence is actually a theme of the story) tends to be marginalised for fear of it “setting the boys off”. Forget the fact that the marginilisation of violence doesn’t get rid of the violence, it just banishes it to the shadows of the playground where teachers have little or no influence over it.

    – Subject matter is a big concern, which is why Persepolis and Maus probably have an easier time. There is a misconception that science fiction, fantasy and similar literature only appeals to a small sliver of people. They miss that this “small sliver” tends to be boys (which is why boys tend to do worse at reading… in part because of a host of preconceptions about “good” literature) and that when you look at the classics of the previous centuries, the stuff we would put in science fiction and fantasy actually does pretty well.

    Just reading a list of “classic books” will turn up a lot of fantasy / sci-fi books – Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Nightmare Abbey (OK, this was a satire, but still), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Brothers Karamazov, Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wind in the Willows, The Trial, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four, Lord of the Rings… but this is hard to point out to many of the older teachers that I have worked with. They were flattened when Harry Potter became a sensation, and many through it in the same category as a book like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” – fantastic, but ultimately lightweight. I think what surprised them most was that this was a fantasy book that was a big hit with girls.

    – I would say Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Sandman have very little chance to get into schools unless there is some form of individualised reading program. I would love to teach Kingdom Come, which has themes of power, control, heroism and democracy, but because it gets tied up in superhero mythology, teachers either react to it viscerally (“that’s not literature, it’s a comic book”) or gets discarded as irrelevant (“It may be about all those things, but first you’ve got to get the kids past the violence and spandex”).

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