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The close-up: The power of the graphic novel in education

Photo by Kay Kim

While the days of reading Shakespeare will never die, schools are introducing new ways to present students with texts. Behold: the graphic novel.

Remember when you were growing up and your parents would tell you to turn off the TV and pick up a book? Then they would come into your room and find you reading a Spiderman comic and chew you out about how comic books were not considered “reading.” At a young age, comic books seemed to be strictly for leisure activity and disregarded in education. Yet as alternative methods for education are increasingly being explored, the graphic novel has made its way into classrooms everywhere, from junior high to seminars of higher education.

Caroline Chung-Simpson, an English professor at the UW, has constantly praised the use of graphic novels in the classroom. She has even made them part of her syllabus, including “Palestine,” a graphic novel that reflects an American journalist’s experience in Palestine in the early ’90s and the intense differences of their culture compared to that of the West.

“We live in a world in which meaning, even the meaning of written texts, is mediated visually,” Chung-Simpson said of her approach. “How much are the stories and conclusions we draw framed by visual evidence, by the logic of visual units of presentation, by the measure of time required for visual perception? Studying graphic novels, then, is a way to begin to theorize this development.”

The graphic novel and the basic comic book might seem like the same thing to most people, but there are significant differences: The graphic novel presents one story all the way through, whereas the comic book is more of a short story or compilation of short stories. The graphic novel also will tend to have a more mature subject matter. The history of graphic novels date back to the early 20th century, when early editions focused on themes of spy and noir-oriented comics and eventually expanded to the mainstream comics like Marvel. It wasn’t until the late ’70s when graphic novels really started to catch on, covering genres from science fiction to horror to Santa Claus.

In 1986, graphic novels entered the mainstream when Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” — a retelling of the life of the author’s father, who was a Holocaust survivor — won a Pulitzer Prize. This historical narrative depicts Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, and shows how graphic novels can translate into historical, nonfictional events.

Within a year, DC Comics released “Watchmen,” arguably the most popular graphic novel of all time. It is included on TIME Magazine’s, “100 best English novels written since 1923.” The novel focuses on an alternate history, in which superheroes help the United States win the war in Vietnam, yet the story seems to primarily focus on the flaws the superheroes have and the relationships they hold with one another. The novel also addresses the nature of humanity and human psychology.

Graphic novels have not only had an impact on English literature but they also have found their way into being a major part of comparative literature classes as well.

“Comics engages the parts of the brain involved in the perception and decoding of text and the perception and decoding of images, simultaneously,” said Jose Alaniz, adjunct associate professor of comparative literature.

Alaniz also went into detail about how graphic novels contrast with films and books as a legitimate medium in the classroom by quoting comics scholar Charles Hetfield, saying a comics artist’s work is a “narrative drawing,” and comics, to some extent, are related to hieroglyphics.

“I’m not one that advocates seeing hieroglyphs as comics, but like its precursors, comics can definitely make us question why we reflexively think of words and pictures as different — they’re really not. In this respect, comics are very different from other media like cinema or novels, in which, as a rule, such questions don’t come up.”

Aside from professors, students have embraced the graphic novel for decades, and the students of the UW’s Graphic Novel Society (GNS) are enthusiasts when it comes to the subject. The group engages in deep discussions on the educational value of graphic novels.

“Graphic novels can be a very valuable pedagogical tool,” said Matthew Fitzgerald, the GNS public relations officer. “In our modern society, younger generations are becoming more and more accustomed to visual learning and are also developing shorter attention spans. Graphic novels help maintain the interest of the student as well as provide a medium with very interesting possibilities.”

Paige Eve Chant, another member, teaches at the Robinson Center for Young Scholars and said graphic novels are a huge success in keeping young scholars interested. She also said graphic novels ask readers to read in a new and different way: They have to fill in the gaps between panels, which requires a different kind of “reading” than they usually do when there are no illustrations to accompany text.

Graphic novels have had a major educational effect worldwide.

“Countries sell educational graphic literature that touches on historical subjects, like in Italy where you can find graphic novels on Joan of Arc and History of Italy,” Fitzgerald said.

The use of graphic novels has also helped students learn about the culture and language of another country through graphic text.

“When I first learned English, the text was in the form of a graphic novel, which enabled me to grab a better choice of words when the Chinese translations for different English words were the same,” GNS member Kuei-Ti Lu said.

Universities are adding graphic novels to their curriculum because of their ability to connect visual art and creative texts together in order to draw in the reader and in some ways get across a more effective story than a traditional text.

Graphic novels, however, are still not as popular as some would like.

“I wish that more classrooms would utilize this resource for those of us who have trouble focusing when information is presented in the typical text-only format,” GNS member Katie Young said.

Students and professors agree that graphic novels are burgeoning medium in the world of academics. It’s promising to see such a young yet engaging medium finding a place in education, bringing a brand new set of tools to the learning process.

Reach reporter Michael Lantz at arts@dailyuw.com.

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