In our English classes, we sail with Odysseus on his journey to battle against the Cyclops, travel to a dystopian world of book-burning in “Fahrenheit 451,” ponder the horrors of war in “Night” and relate to angsty adolescent Holden Caulfield. These are the classics we read, study and discuss in English classes nationwide.
While classic literature is important, class curriculums should further explore another avenue of thought travel that’s just as powerful: comics.
Graphic novels provide a nuanced form of storytelling. They’re capable of conveying characters, actions and ideas in ways just words or pictures can’t accomplish alone. Comics mix mediums, thought bubbles, colors and text to tell stories about justice, explore age-old battles between good and evil and introduce many students to a new medium.
Further, comics play an integral part in understanding both past and current historical movements. X-Men paralleled the civil rights movement in the ’60s, garnering support and solidarity. Comics’ visual representations of marginalized perspectives and investigation of what society should look like has taken the form of propaganda, posters and fictional battles that are entrenched in our understanding of the world today.
Sana Amanat, co-creator of Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan—Marvel’s first major Muslim superhero—argued that comics “share stories of heroes that showcase what the world actually looks like because diversity is not a trend, it is simply life” at the White House during Women’s History Month in 2016.
Comic books shatter the idea that superheroes are perfect: superhero Aura has a bipolar disorder and Tony Stark battles alcoholism. Smashing boundaries as easily as buildings, comic superheroes embody real human beings.
A social studies teacher told PBS that graphic novels help his students relate to literature because of their diverse characters: “My students might see themselves in a female Thor, who is also fighting breast cancer, a black Captain America, a gay Iceman, […] a Korean-American Hulk.”
It’s time to break the stigma surrounding comic books. Comics aren’t childish and their simplicity should be appreciated. They allow students to study literary tools like rhetoric, examine tone and question ethical dilemmas.
It’s no wonder comic franchises have developed a cult-like following and even created major events like comic-conventions. As they continue to grow in popularity, comic books present an innovative tool for learning and empowerment.
Photo: Mitch Rosen