The Children of Anthropomorphic Guns: Current Scholarship on Teaching with Comics
PS Magazine, Issue 44, Will Eisner, 1956
by Nate Garrelts
One of the reasons Will Eisner quit working on the Spirit in 1952 was so that he could continue working on PS Magazine, an instructional comic dedicated to teaching enlisted men how to perform preventative maintenance on U.S. Army equipment. While there certainly may have been other contributing factors to Eisner’s decision, like the progressive downsizing of the Spirit supplement and changing public opinion about the caricaturization of black sidekicks (Fiore, 2011), there is little doubt that Eisner had a genuine interest in using the medium of the comic to educate audiences. In a 1968 interview with John Benson (2005), Eisner said:
I have been devoting the last 20 years, really, to developing the comic-strip medium, which I had always experimented with, into a legitimate teaching tool. This is really the thing I’m proud of. I’ll teach anything with that tool. I’d teach how to conduct a peace march in that tool, if we had a customer for it, or if I felt it was useful, or if I had a place where it could be distributed. I’ll teach … do a comic strip on how to burn your draft card, if I felt that was an area … fix an engine … anything.
Although Eisner wasn’t the first artist to create comics aimed at teaching readers something, he was certainly a pioneer and had a significant impact on using comics in informal educational settings. Today’s audiences can enjoy comics on topics ranging from the Iraq war to physics. This is in addition to a steady steam of traditionally entertaining comics that also have serious literary and cultural value. Still, in formal educational settings, it seems comics are largely absent—especially what Eisner would consider instructional comics. While one could certainly argue that educators misunderstand the medium and fail to see the potential, this may be misplacing the blame. In an age where teaching practice is governed by scientifically based evidence of effectiveness, comic scholars have not made a compelling case for teaching with comics. Despite efforts in the early twentieth century to demonstrate the pedagogical potential of comics, there is a dearth of scholarly research on teaching with them. This situation is exacerbated by a comics marketplace and library cataloging system that makes it difficult for teachers and scholars to find the most recent titles, in effect leaving comics pedagogy to the cult of fandom.
Comics are More Than Entertaining
In Comics and Sequential Art (1985) Eisner divides comics into instructional comics and entertainment comics with several subtypes ranging from technical comics to graphic novels. Such comics could teach readers how to perform a process or even how to think about it. However, Kent Worcester (2010) contemplates “a third category – comics that neither ‘instruct’ [n]or ‘entertain’ but play with abstract ideas.” He gives the example of Richard McGuire’s “Here” and its “detached, cerebral, dare-I-say-it ‘philosophical’ quality.” Yet, while the purpose of a comic can certainly shape the resulting expression, the context of distribution and consumption is as important as the comic itself when it comes to teaching with comics. For example, Hall and Lucal (1999) use popular superhero comics in sociology classes to study gender, social inequality, and practice content analysis. They write that the “anti-mutant sentiment in X-Men titles easily corresponds to institutional and everyday racism, (hetero)sexism, homophobia, and anti- Semitism” (63).
When teaching lab safety to chemistry students DiRaddo (2006) uses Flash and Batman as examples of what not to do. Most notable is physics professor Jim Kakalios who not only has published a book titled the Physics of Superheros (2009) but also maintains a website that features many cool lectures on the subject. There are also comic enthusiasts and scholars whose work can easily be adapted to the classroom. For example, two lawyers, James Daily and Ryan Davidson, write a blog called Law and the Multiverse in which they consider topics like whether the “federal government can regulate superpowers as weapons without running afoul of the Second Amendment” (Gardner, 2011).
That being said, instructional comics are more popular than ever. The website HOWTOONS features short single frame comics and comic strips that teach kids how to build cool stuff or understand the world using math and science. The comics range in topic from marshmallow shooters to binary code. Factoring with Mr. Yang & Mosley the Alien (2003), created by Gene Yang, is a unique web based strip that teaches students math skills. There are also many excellent instructional comic books in hard copy and available for download on the internet. Among these are titles such as Adventures in Synthetic Biology (Edney, Deese, & Wadey, 2005) and Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law (Aoki, Boyle, & Jenkins, 2006). More lengthy graphic nonfiction is especially abundant in hardcopy form. Larry Gonic, in particular, has illustrated books on topics such as sex, physics, chemistry, genetics and calculus. There are also graphic novels about notable figures such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Feynman. Finally, there are new media hybrids like those produced for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) that pair notable lectures by people like education guru Sir Ken Robinson with the real time drawing.
Research on Teaching With Comics
The looming question for educators is can comics be used effectively in the classroom? Despite studies as early as Lehman & Witty (1927) and many efforts in studying comics in the 1940s, controversy over comics in the 1950s spurred on by Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and subsequent congressional hearings brought research to a halt (Yang, 2003). Wertham’s rhetoric even indicted academics, as he accused scholars who published in the Journal of Educational Sociology of being in collusion with the comics industry (Wright, 2001, p. 162). Research in the 60s was questionable as well: Wilson and Schaffer’s (1965) study of 63 third graders discovered the students found the “typewritten page more appealing than a comic strip as a repository of scientific information” (82). Aside from a slight resurgence of scholarship in the 70s and 80s, Yang (2003) argues that it was not until Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer Prize that comic scholarship recovered.
Adventures in Synthetic Biology, Comic 1. Story by Drew Endy, Isadora Deese and The MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group, art by Chuck Wadey, 2005
Still, research on comics in the classroom is in its infancy. Mallia (2007) pointed out that there has been little research on whether comics can provide “a total means of instruction, in the way that non-illustrated or illustrated texts can.” To that end he conducted an experiment on 90 students aged 14-15 using a text about Maltese history and the same text converted into a comic. The students who read the comics tested as well as the students who used illustrated texts and both better than the students who use print only texts. Similarly, Hosler and Boomer (2011) studied students in four different biology classes and measured their “attitudes about biology, attitudes about comics, and content knowledge about evolution before and after using the science comic book Optical Allusions.” Their results suggest that comics were effective for communicating course content, especially for non-majors.
While using comics in place of, or to supplement, traditional texts may enhance content mastery, this is not the only reason to use them. The urgency of living and working in a culture that is increasingly visually oriented demands that teachers prepare students with multiple literacy skills. Afrilyasanti and Basthomi (2011) have studied the use of comics in India and argued that using them in the classroom prepare students for 21st century multi-modal communication. High school teacher Colleen Ruggieri (2002) chronicles her use of not just comics, but poetry, music and many other forms of expression in the classroom. Her goal is to consider the multiple intelligences of her students in choosing genres, activities, and assessments and to help students see the relevance of these activities outside of the classroom (p. 68). In his article “Marveling at the man Called Nova: Comics as Sponsors of Multimodal Literacy” Jacobs (2007) recounts his experience as a child with comics and proposes that understanding comics as multimodal texts and sponsors of literacy can help us better understand the many other multimodal texts with which we interact (Jacobs, p. 185). He says this is a shift we as teachers must make in the classroom to address the changing literacy needs of students.
Challenges and Opportunities
An undeniable challenge for researchers and educators is finding the right comics with which to teach. One cannot simply go into a library and browse the comics available in a particular field or even all of the comic materials at once. As pointed out by Green (2010), academic libraries use the Library of Congress system for classifying materials, which is unfortunately at odds with itself on how to classify comics. Call-numbers are assigned to publications according to discipline with each part of the number signifying a further division. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are also assigned to titles. According to Green the majority of graphic novels and comics are classified as “PN6700-6790=Comic books, strips, etc.” However, some of the materials appear in “NC1300-1766=Pictorial humor, caricature, etc.,” and others appear across the disciplinary spectrum. Furthermore, no single LCSH will call up the entire collection. Even worse yet, Green says that self-published comics may not have an ISBN and cannot be found except by searching the author or title in a library’s database.
Tales from the Public Domain: Bound By Law?, Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins, 2006
Fortunately, some organizations actively promote teaching with comics and there are several websites dedicated to this end. The Maryland Comics in the Classroom initiative is a partnership between the Maryland State Department of Education and Diamond Comic Book Distributors whose “goal is to develop a Maryland plan and instructional strategies that support the use of graphic literature in elementary, secondary, adult, and corrections education.” The National Association of Comics Art Educators (NACAE= NAYSAY) also hosts a resource website with lesson plans, handouts, syllabi, and contact information for comics teachers. The frequency of books directed at primary and secondary school teaching practice seems to have also increased (Bitz, 2010; Bowkett, 2011; Bakis, 2012; Carter and Evensen, 2011; Hart 2010; Monnin, 2010; Rourke, 2010). Tbachnick’s (2009) collection, Teaching the Graphic Novel, is the most recent text to address teaching at the university level. Finally, like Will Eisner, there are many dedicated comic artists who actively create instructional comics or promote using comics for education. Among them are Gene Yang, Scott McCloud and Larry Gonick. Let’s hope that with all of these combined efforts that we have finally reached critical mass—Avengers Assemble!
Afrilyasanti, R., & Basthomi, Y. (2011). Adapting comics and cartoons to develop 21st century learners. Language in India, 11(11), 552–568.
Edney, D., Deese, I., & Wadey, C. (2005). Adventures in synthetic biology. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/46337
Aoki, K., Boyle, J., Jenkins, J., & Duke University. (2008). Bound by law? Tales from the public domain. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bakis, M. (2012). The graphic novel classroom: Powerful teaching and learning with images. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Benson, J. (2005). Will Eisner: Having Something to Say. The Comics Journal, 267. Retrieved from http://www.tcj.com/will-eisner-having-something-to-say/
Bitz, M. (2010). When commas meet kryptonite: Classroom lessons from the comic book project. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Bowkett, S. (2011). Using comic art to improve speaking, reading and writing. Florence, KY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
Carter, J. B., & Evensen, E. (2011). Super-powered word study: Teaching words and word parts through comics. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Pub.
DiRaddo, P. (2006). Chemistry for everyone: Teaching chemistry lab safety through comics. Journal of Chemical Education, 83(4), 571.
Eisner, W. (1985). Comics & sequential art. Guerneville, CA: Poorhouse Press.
Fiore, R. (2011). Whatever happened to Will Eisner? The Comics Journal. Retrieved from www.tcj.com/whatever-happened-to-will-eisner/
Gardner, E. (2011). Kryptonite and punishment. ABA, 97, 10.
Green, K. (2010, November 9). “Whaddaya Got?” Finding graphic novels in an academic library. PublishersWeekly.com. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/comics/article/45109-whaddaya-got–finding-graphic-novels-in-an-academic-library.html
Hall, K. J., & Lucal, B. (1999). Tapping into parallel universes: Using superhero comic books in sociology courses. Teaching Sociology, 27(1), 60–66. doi:10.2307/1319247
Hart, M. (2010). Using graphic novels in the classroom: Grades 4-8. Westminster, CA: Teacher Created Materials.
Hosler, J., & Boomer, K. B. (2011). Are comic books an effective way to engage nonmajors in learning and appreciating science? CBE Life Sciences Education, 10(3), 309–317. doi:10.1187/cbe.10-07-0090
Jacobs, D. (2007). Marveling at “The Man Called Nova”: Comics as sponsors of multimodal literacy. College Composition and Communication, 59(2), 180–205.
Lehman, H. C., & Witty, P. A. (1927). The compensatory function of the Sunday “funny” paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 11(3), 202–211.
Kakalios, J. (2009). The Physics of Superheroes. New York: NY. Gotham.
Mallia, G. (2012). Learning from the sequence: The use of comics in instruction. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 3(3). Retrieved from http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v3_3/mallia/
Monnin, K. (2010). Teaching graphic novels: Practical strategies for the secondary ELA classroom. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Pub.
Rourke, J. (2010). The comic book curriculum: Using comics to enhance learning and life. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Ruggieri, C. A. (2002). Multigenre, multiple intelligences, and transcendentalism. English Journal, 92(2), 60–68.
Tabachnick, S. E. (2009). Teaching the graphic novel. New York: MLA.
Wertham, F. Seduction of the Innocent. New York, NY: Rinehart.
Wilson, R. C., & Shaffer, E. J. (1965). Reading comics to learn. The Elementary School Journal, 66(2), 81. doi:10.1086/460267
Worcester, K. (2010). The use of sequential art. The Comics Journal. Retrieved from http://classic.tcj.com/blog/the-use-of-sequential-art/
Wright, B. W. (2001). Comic book nation: The transformation of youth culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
Yang, G. (2003) Factoring with Mr. Yang & Mosely the Alien. Retrieved from
Yang, G. (2003). History of Comics in Education. Comics in Education. Retrieved from www.geneyang.com/comicsedu/history.html
About the Author:
Nate Garrelts is an Associate Professor of Languages and Literature at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. His scholarship focuses mostly on media culture, and he has edited two collections of essays on digital games: Digital Gameplay (2005) and The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (2006). He is also a regular contributor to Bad Subjects.