Image, Text, and Story: Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom

By Williams, Rachel Marie-Crane | Art Education, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Image, Text, and Story: Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom


Williams, Rachel Marie-Crane, Art Education


Comics and graphic novels are powerful teaching tools; reading and making comics encourages students to become more skilled at critically consuming and creating texts that examine complex concepts (Frey 8c Fischer, 2004; Morrison, Bryan, & Chilcoat, 2002; Berkowitz & Packer, 2001). Students and teachers can use comics to examine personal experiences in the form of narratives related to empowerment and empathy. Brent Wilson (2005) agreed that embracing comics is one way to blur the boundaries between visual culture, the classroom, and the practice of contemporary studio artists. In this article, I present a rationale for comics in the classroom, discuss the connection between comics and the "Art" world, and share information about my experience teaching comics. Finally, I make a case for why comics are the perfect medium for crossing boundaries, creating empathy, and educating students about the artistic production and consumption of powerful texts.

Why Comics?

There are at least three reasons why comics and graphic novels are useful teaching tools: (1) there is a great deal of student interest in this genre; (2) they are inexpensive to obtain; and (3) the vocabulary is not difficult so they are easy to read (Wright & Sherman, 1999). Most important in the art room, comics create opportunities for teachers to engage students in meaningful discussions about visual perception, drawing and design, art history, and content on multiple levels (Berkowitz & Packer, 2001).

Teachers who skillfully use comics and graphic novels in their curriculum present numerous opportunities for students to deconstruct these texts on multiple levels. This layered deconstruction may include examining the story; the creator's intention, characters, and context; as well as the relationship between the design, words, and images. While words, images, layout, and story are all elements in these texts, none dominate the act of "reading." Students are usually comfortable decoding (reading) the visual system of letters and words. Pairing visual images with words is an easy way to help students develop stronger visual literacy. Comics offer an opportunity for students to scrutinize how interdependent images and words can create a strong sequential narrative. These texts do not dictate what students notice first, how or what they "read." Like scanning a work of art, the reader can decide where to begin and how long to look. Readers can choose to look at the words or the images first, or take the page in all at once as an integrated design.

Comics, Visual Culture and Wilson's Three Cultural Sites

In most classrooms there is a gap between the work of artists in the contemporary art world, popular culture/art, and the curriculum taught in typical K- 12 art classroom and at the post-secondary level (Gude, 2000, 2007). Comics are one way to enter what Brent Wilson categorized as space between the school and the realms of contemporary art and popular visual culture: a para-site alongside the main site (Wilson, 2005). "In this site students would be encouraged to play intertextually between the conventional content of their art classes and the things that interest them from popular visual culture" (Wilson, 2003, p. 225). According to Wilson, teaching visual culture provides a bridge between the traditional art classroom and the world of images in which children are gladly submerged. This art/literary form presents an opportunity for students to explore stories, art, time, design, aesthetics, culture, history, and manual and computer techniques for image making (Frey 8c Fisher, 2004).

Comics, the Classroom, and the "Art" World

While it seems obvious that comics and graphic novels are suitable fodder for any classroom, including the art room, to boost literacy, there is some resistance by educators and critics to acknowledging comics as legitimate art or literature (Groensteen, 2000; Thompson, 2007).

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