I first taught a university comics course in the fall of 2008 at the University of Windsor. The course was offered under the rubric of Special Topics in Composition and Rhetoric, a course I regularly teach, and was open to third- and fourth-year English majors. Given this student population, I expected that the class would be populated by students already immersed in the comics form. To my surprise, about half the class had never read any comics outside of newspaper strips, a result that has held true in my subsequent experience in teaching comics courses. When I asked these students why they had decided to take the course, all of them said that it was an opportunity to think about and discuss something other than the word-based texts they had encountered not only during their English majors, but also in elementary, junior, and high school; for some, this experience involved a melding of their outside interests with school, while for others, it involved exposure to a potential new interest that was unexpected within the context of school. When I asked further about their experience with reading comics, however, I discovered that many of them, both those immersed in comics and those who claimed limited exposure to the medium, were regular readers of webcomics, comics available online at various websites, blogs, and wikis.
As I’ve continued to think and write about the subject of comics and literacy over the past few years, this discovery about the way many students engage with the form has stayed in the back of my mind, helping to complicate the ways that I think about what happens as readers make sense of comics, both in print and in the digital realm. In writing this piece, then, my aim is to begin to explore the complex literacies needed to make meaning from webcomics and provide a start to how we might think about the possible place of these texts in the classroom. As I focus on the literacies needed to read webcomics and the teaching possibilities they afford, I will look briefly at the comic strip xkcd before moving on to the long-form comic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.
Digital texts such as webcomics are part of the textual and social world students negotiate every day; as teachers, we can begin to help students think critically about the multiple literacies they use online. An approach that emphasizes multimodal and information literacies will help teachers and students to think productively about personal and public issues because it is an active and critical approach that focuses on how information is disseminated in multimodal texts. While pedagogies that focus on multimodality and information literacy are appropriate to the use of all types of comics and graphic novels in the classroom, I am focusing on webcomics such as xkcd and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge because of the way they are not only multimodal and densely packed with information, but also because of the way they are embedded in other multimodal sources of information. In the remainder of this essay, I outline a general framework for thinking about the multiple literacies used in reading webcomics, explicate some key concepts, and ask the kinds of questions that might inform classroom practice in discussing these literacies. Let me begin by briefly describing the general characteristics and possibilities of webcomics.
In my past work, I’ve argued that traditional print comics are themselves complex multimodal texts, comprised not only of linguistic elements, but also some combination of visual, audio (as represented visually), gestural, and spatial elements. As we read, we practice multimodal literacy, drawing on our available resources and using them to shape meaning from the multimodal elements particular to a comics text, including the combination of words, images, spatial layout, gutters, sound effects, panel composition, body language, facial expression, emanata, and other comics elements. Reading comics, then, is an active process, and a theory of multimodality helps to explain how meaning is created by readers of comics and how readers reimagine themselves in relation to specific comics texts.1
Working through this multimodal approach, my focus has mainly been on how readers make meaning at the level of the page. Of course, it is not only at this level that meaning is made by comics creators and readers, but also through the connections that are made between various parts of the comics text itself—what Thierry Groensteen calls arthrology—and between the comics text and external texts—what Gérard Genette calls transtextuality. Arthrology refers to internal textual linkages between panels, both in linear sequence within a page or page spread (restricted arthrology) and within the panels that comprise the text as a whole (general arthrology). Transtextuality refers to the ways texts must be interpreted within a larger system of external textual linkages in terms of intertextuality (direct references to other texts), paratextuality (elements such as the title, chapter headings, epigraphs, and so on that work as an entry point to the text for readers), metatextuality (critical commentary of one text on another), hypertextuality (modification of one text by another, as in spoof or parody), and architextuality (assignation of a text to a given genre or genres). Arthrology and transtextuality help explain how readers make connections within and between texts as additional meanings accrue through this layering of connections.
As my thinking about how people make sense of comics texts continues to evolve, the theoretical notions of arthrology and transtextuality have pushed me to complicate how I conceive multimodal literacy. That is, I want to build on the multimodal approach I’ve taken previously by developing ideas about how linkages both internal to the text and external to other texts are a crucial component of multimodal literacy. These linkages account for how readers move beyond the individual page or screen and make sense of a comics text as a whole. Since webcomics are surrounded by and implicated in other multimodal texts that, taken together, form a web of interlinked information, they are a natural site for extending this thinking. In considering this complex picture of literacy, then, my previous notions about multimodal literacy, in combination with Groensteen’s and Genette’s ideas and recent developments in information literacy, provide a useful theoretical framework for examining the use of webcomics in the classroom.
Webcomics can take many forms, encompass many genres and subjects, and, like any other kind of text (graphic or otherwise), be of varying quality. As Sean Fenty, Trena Houp, and Laurie Taylor wrote in 2004 (and Marianne Hicks echoed in 2011), “When speaking of webcomics, we specifically mean comics that are made first for the web, made by an independent creator, who may be working with others, but who all have no originary print version and no corporate sponsorship.” In other words, webcomics are texts that are born digital, distributed through the Web itself, and read online. Such distribution channels keep costs lower, both for producers and consumers, but only after the initial outlay of money for the computer equipment necessary to “produce, distribute, receive, and also read them” (Dittmar 83). Here, as with all aspects of digital communication, it is important to keep in mind the complexities of the way the Web is embedded in the material realities of the world at large. As Barbara Warnick writes of online rhetoric in general, however, “it is the case that Web-based affordances offer a number of advantages for public discourse that are unavailable in mass media. Among these are affordability, access, opportunities for horizontal communication and interactivity, online forums for discussion and mobilization, networking capacity, and platforms for multimedia” (6). Not only do more people have access to both the production and reception of webcomics because of the lowered cost structure, but the medium allows the potential for a greater degree of dialogue through the interactivity that can be included within the texts themselves. Moreover, the platform itself can be used in many different ways than those that are possible in print form.
In thinking about webcomics in contrast to print comics, then, it is important to keep in mind what Collin Brooke, in discussing new media in general, calls “the move from text to interface” (23). This move entails some degree of remediation on print forms because, as Jay David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin write, “Our culture conceives of each medium or constellation of media as it responds to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms other media.… Media are continually commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other, and this process is integral to media” (55). In this way, webcomics reproduce, comment on, remix, and/or adapt previous comics forms such as the comic strip and the long-form narrative. For example, xkcd, which bills itself as “[a] webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” is clearly remediated on the comic strip, such as those that appear in the daily newspaper. In the xkcd strip below (Figure 1), the first three panels set up the last panel, which provides the punchline for the joke. As displayed here, outside of its original context, readers make sense of the strip in ways that are very similar to any comic strip—through the words, the images, the body language of the characters, the audio (as represented visually), and the progression of the panels, linked as they are through the gutters. In making connections between these panels, readers make sense of the spatial layout or what Groensteen calls restricted arthrology, making and remaking meaning throughout the course of reading. My key point, however, is that it appears to function in the same way as a print comic strip.2
There is, however, one key difference in what is possible in the webcomic version, as can be seen here (http://xkcd.com/597/): when you scroll over the strip, a text box appears, which reads, “But if you unplug everything it gets so quiet you hear that high-pitched empty-room hum. And then the whispers begin.” Since it pops up when rolling over any portion of the strip, this text serves as additional commentary on the strip as a whole, adding a layer to the creation of meaning that is not possible in a strictly print version. As Jakob F. Dittmar points out, “digitally transmitted comics that are shown on-screen but are not supposed to be printed out can use additional layers of narrations apart from sequential juxtaposed images and text” (88). Not only does this feature provide an additional resource in writing, but it asks the reader to be cognizant of the possibility that resource will be used, an idea familiar to readers of this strip (in which rollover text is often used) but not immediately apparent to new readers of webcomics. That is, frequent readers of xkcd will have the available skill set to recognize that rollover text is always a possibility and mouse over the text just in case. While this strip offers a modest example of the possibilities for narrative and meaning making within the realm of digital comics, it begins to show how “digital technology offers new avenues of aesthetic experimentation” (Fenty, Houp, Taylor). Comics such as this one, then, reproduce the basic form of printed comic strips, but then deviate from them, adapting and commenting on them through the affordances of the new medium.
A more extreme example of the possibilities of webcomics can be seen in the well-known xkcd strip, “Click and Drag” (http://xkcd.com/1110/). As the reader approaches this strip, the first three panels appear to be much like any other comic strip. However, when the reader mouses over any of the panels, the words “click and drag” appear. If the reader follows these instructions, the final, much larger panel becomes an opportunity to scroll in all directions, uncovering more and more parts of the narrative world. By tracing this panel in these additional directions, the reader gathers further material that provides commentary on the way both the strip and fourth panel originally appeared. In this way, the additional panels created through the act of clicking and dragging must be assimilated into the meaning of the strip as a whole. On one level, as the reader scrolls through some portion of the possible content, meaning is created through the multiple modes of comics, as we have seen already. However, it is really in the linkages that this ever-expanding set of panels makes both internally to the strip and externally to other texts that the reader must grapple with meaning.
Each time the reader lifts a finger from the mouse, this panel becomes static for the moment, but always with the dynamic potential to change. In that temporarily static moment, the reader has the opportunity to make sense of the new final panel in relation to the three extant panels (restricted arthrology), a relationship that may or may not make sense, depending on where the panel has settled. In addition, the reader makes sense of the panel through general arthrology, which usually refers to the connection between panels on different pages of a printed text, but in this case can be seen to refer to different panels created in the act of clicking and dragging. That is, the reader must hold these disparate panels in mind and make connections between them when attempting to make meaning from the strip as a whole. As well, long-time readers of xkcd may connect the actions of specific characters within these temporary panels to other panels in the series, a connection that is both akin to general arthrology (if xkcd as a whole is taken to be a larger textual unit) and to intertextuality (if each strip within xkcd is regarded as a text unto itself). Finally, then, the reader makes sense of the strip partly through the external, transtextual connections created by these multiple, temporary panels. Not only are there intertextual connections to other xkcd strips, but there are visual and verbal references to Super Mario, Jay-Z, and Jurassic Park, to name but a few. As the reader first reads the strip, it appears to be an inspirational comic/text about the beauty and wonder of the world (as in texts such as Oh The Places You’ll Go), but the multiple iterations of the final panel belie this conclusion, linking the strip in metatextual ways that provide critical/parodical commentary on affirmational texts of this sort. Finally, by modifying the expectations readers bring with them to a traditional print strip, these final panels also make hypertextual modifications to the architextual linkage the reader can see to print strips.
As demonstrated in these two examples, webcomics have their own set of possibilities that simply are not available in print comics, possibilities that allow for a range of questions that might inform classroom practice and discussion. When reading “Click and Drag,” for example, how do we decide to navigate the narrative and aesthetic possibilities? How do we make sense of the arthrological links created from this navigation? How do we make sense of the transtextual linkages? How do these internal and external linkages help to create meaning? How do these additional layerings of information (whether mouse-over text or stable-for-now panels) affect how we read and make meaning from the texts? How do our varying backgrounds with comics and/or computers affect how we make meaning? What differences are there between reading a print comic strip and a webcomic? How do these differences affect the ways we create meaning? In teaching students the habits of mind necessary to successfully and critically negotiate the worlds they inhabit, we can productively use the kinds of affordances, linkages, and questions seen here and in the following discussion of A.D. : New Orleans After the Deluge.
A.D. is a webcomic created by Josh Neufeld and presented by SMITH Magazine, a primarily online magazine. SMITH utilizes all of the multimodal possibilities of the web in bringing together blogs, podcasts, memoirs, art, photographs, mash-ups, social networking, and webcomics, both in terms of content for readers and tools for creators. SMITH attempts to create active participants, both as readers and as creators, an orientation from which we can benefit as educators by attending to students’ multimodal literacies and information literacies. As Warnick writes in Rhetoric Online, “online interactivity [is] a means of activating user response and as a mode of address can influence users and can itself be rhetorical in its effects” (71). By attending to these rhetorical environments, we can help students to actively and critically engage with these online texts/spaces.
A.D. first appeared in late December, 2006 and was subsequently serialized in 16 parts of eleven to nineteen pages, each consisting of one to three panels.3 The webcomic tells the story of six real people (Leo and Michelle, the Doctor, Kevin, Hamid, and Denise) who survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Each section of the comic deals with specific aspects of Hurricane Katrina as it affected these six people. For example, the two-part Prologue (“In the Beginning…” and “The Storm”) sets the scene through a focus on the coming storm and its general impact on New Orleans, Louisiana and Biloxi, Mississippi; the Prologue chronicles the time period from Monday, August 22, 2005 to Wednesday, August 31, 2005. Chapter One (“Riders of the Storm”) pulls back to Saturday, August 20, 2005 in order to introduce the characters as they were just prior to the hurricane. Readers are not only able to read the stories of these six individuals as they are presented by Neufeld in webcomics form, but are able to engage the words of the actual people themselves through audio, video, and blogs. By adding this extra layer of information through surrounding the text with additional information and additional voices that are simply not available within a printed text, A.D. attempts to refuse the monolithic authority of Neufeld as writer and instead foster a dialogue that includes not only the readers of the text, but also the subjects of that text. In this way, A.D. is much like David Weinberger’s characterization of the web in general in which, “an Oz-like authority that speaks in a single voice with unshakable confidence is a blowhard. Authority now comes from enabling us inescapably fallible creatures to explore the differences among us, together” (143). By focusing on these multiple perspectives, teachers can help students acquire and hone the tools that they need to productively engage with the complex issues that arise in the story of Hurricane Katrina and its afermath.
In order to examine the pedagogical possibilities that exist in a webcomic such as A.D., let me begin by describing how meaning is made at the level of the page/screen before moving on to the way this particular comic sets up internal and external linkages. As I wrote earlier, comics in any form are multimodal texts in their own right, a fact that in itself opens up tremendous possibilities for the classroom. In Graphic Encounters: Comics and the Sponsorship of Multimodal Literacy, I described the complexity of the comics page in this way:
As texts, comics provide a complex environment for the negotiation of meaning, beginning with the layout of the page itself. The comics page is separated into multiple panels, divided from each other by gutters, physical or conceptual spaces through which connections are made and meanings are negotiated; readers must fill in the blanks within these gutters and make connections between panels. Images of people, objects, animals, and settings, word balloons, lettering, sound effects, and gutters all come together to form page layouts that work to create meaning in distinctive ways and in multiple realms of meaning making. In these multiple realms of meaning making, comics are inherently multimodal, a way of thinking that moves beyond a focus on strictly word-based literacy.… By embracing the idea of multimodal literacy in relation to comics, then, educators can help students engage critically with ways of making meaning that exist all around them, since multimodal texts include much of the content on the internet and interactive multimedia, and in newspapers, television, film, instructional textbooks, and many other texts in our contemporary society. (9)
Within the page, a comic involves us as readers in not only the linguistic realm, but also in the visual, the audio, the gestural, and the spatial. As readers, we make meaning from each of these semiotic modes, but we also engage in multimodal design where the meanings from these multiple modes come together to create overall meaning.
Take, for example, the three panels in Figure 2, which are in many ways remediated on print comics. In the first panel (set on its own screen), we are formally introduced to Leo as he exits the restrooms of what must be a restaurant or bar. After clicking on the first panel, we are given panels two and three; the second panel pulls back for an establishing shot (a panel depicting the exterior of a location in which the action of a scene takes place) of the bar in which Leo finds himself, while the third panel re-enters the bar, seemingly following the music that we see emanating from the building in the second panel.
What do we know from reading these three panels? We know that the character is named Leo because of the presence of a caption at the top of the panel and that he is the main character in this sequence because of his central positioning within the composition of the frame. We know that he is either nervous or ill because of the presence of sweat beads and the expression on his face in panel one; this information comes to us both as a visual cue that depends on our previous exposure to comic book conventions that may form part of readers’ available resources and through the gestural mode that depends on our ability to read facial expressions. We know where Leo is and what kind of place it is because of the establishing shot in panel two; we garner this information through the visual (the way the building is drawn), the linguistic (the signage on the building, including the font/style in which it is written), and the gestural (the body language and postures of the patrons seated on the bench by the patio). From these elements, we are able to produce meaning about the nature of the building based on our individual resources for making meaning from these multimodal elements, but since we all have slightly different resources available to us, each of us will make sense of the panels in slightly different ways.
From these panels, we can also surmise that it is a bar that plays music because of the audio element that forms the top of the panel; we know it is music because of the way the letters are superimposed over a musical staff (another comics convention) and we know the music is loud because the letters are all upper-case and in bold. That is, the audio information (as represented by visual elements) pushes us towards these meanings, but does not determine them. As we move to the next panel, we know the music is angry or aggressive in tone because of the body language and posture of both the singer and the dancers (the gestural element). Here, as in all comics, the audio is represented by other elements (linguistic, visual, gestural) that come together multimodally to give us an impression of audio that we are unable to hear in traditional comics. At the level of the page/screen, then, we might consider these questions: How does the artist/writer create multimodal meaning—through the interaction of words, images, spatial design, gesture, and visual representation of sound—within the specific rhetorical environment of that comic? How do you practice multimodal literacy as you read the comic? How do the formal elements function together to create textual meaning? As I argued in “More Than Words: Comics as a Means of Teaching Multiple Literacies,” by engaging with the multimodal literacy skills needed to read these elements at the level of the page, we can help students to develop the habits of mind necessary to both read and compose multimodal texts.
The multimodal elements present in print comics are not the only ways through which meaning can be made in webcomics, as we saw earlier in the case of xkcd. In A.D., for example, it is possible to hear the track that emanates from the club by simply clicking on the link below these two panels labeled “Apocalypse Dance Card” by One Man Machine (http://www.smithmag.net/afterthedeluge/2007/03/04/chapter-1/4/). This hypertertext link builds on the intertextual linkage created through the mention of the band, a linkage that would make sense only to the relatively small number of people who understood the reference. The presence of the link immediately gives readers additional information regarding the name of the song and the band; the presence of the link heightens the intertextual linkage and the meanings that can be made through it. Moreover, clicking on the link allows readers to experience the actual audio and compare it to the meanings derived from the comic itself, thus also creating a kind of hypertextual link in Genette’s sense of the term by demonstrating how the comic version is a modification of one text by another. Many of the additional possibilities that adhere to webcomics as teaching tools exist in the presence of such hypertext links, both within and surrounding the comic itself. These possibilities can be seen in the other major difference between webcomics and print comics: the layout or, in multimodal terms, the spatial element.
In multimodal terms, the spatial usually refers to environmental and architectural space, but in the case of comics it can be conceived as the layout of panels on the page and the way these panels are configured in relation to each other through use of gutter space. When we talk about a traditional comic or graphic novel, the spatial is concerned with the unit of the page or two-page spread and the relationships between panels created within those units.4 In a webcomic, on the other hand, the possibilities of panel display and interaction not only shift, as seen in the earlier examples, but the comic itself is often embedded within other information, some of which is also hypertextually linked to still further information. As well, the line between restricted arthrology and general arthrology can become blurred through the ways that panels are sequenced on the screen. For example, the first panel in Figure 2 appears on its own in that it is isolated from the other two panels in the sequence (which appear together), so that we consider it in isolation from any other immediate panels, but also in arthrological relation to the panels that preceded it and on which we clicked to get to this panel. This relationship is not unlike turning the page in a conventional comic and having the memory of the preceding panels linger as we read. However, the nature of hypertext links makes the relationship less linear (although that linearity still holds if we decide to read the text sequentially without break) because the link to the next panel is only one of many links that exist in the layout of a webpage in which a webcomic is embedded. Webcomics are surrounded by and implicated in other multimodal texts that, taken together, form a web of interlinked information that provides opportunities and challenges that were never faced by preceding generations of students (and teachers).
Navigating the deluge of information seen in this layering of multimodal texts requires that students develop what has become known as information literacy, in addition to traditional and multimodal literacies. The concept of information literacy, as it is used in the practice and scholarship of librarians, involves the act of not only finding information, but also retrieving, analyzing, and using it. Information literacy is of fundamental importance, then, especially in the increasingly complex digital world that our students inhabit, including the complex digital environments of webcomics. According to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, information literacy “enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning” (http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency). Taken together with increasing command of multimodal literacies, information literacy allows students to better navigate and get things done in their worlds. To this end, the American Library Association (ALA) has come up with a set of standards for information literacy. According to these standards, an information-literate individual is able to:
- Determine the extent of information needed
- Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
- Evaluate information and its sources critically
- Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base
- Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
- Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally (http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency)
In other words, teaching the habits of mind associated with information literacy pushes students to be active and critical, engaging with the material of the world around them (including the digital world) rather than simply accepting it at face value. A pedagogy based in information literacy helps us to foster in our students critical thinking about information within the sphere they encounter both inside and outside of school.
As Thomas P. Mackey and Trudi E. Jacobson write, “Information literacy is the metaliteracy for a digital age because it provides the higher order thinking required to engage with multiple document types through various media formats in collaborative environments” (70). While A.D. does not take advantage of many of the formal possibilities of an online comic (as we saw in xkcd), it is embedded fully in the various media formats of the online world. In this way, it provides an excellent site for classroom thinking about how information literacy can help students to think about these various multimodal/digital texts such as interactive discussion boards, podcasts, blogs, photographs, soundclips, and links to related websites and video. As a comic, A.D. is itself a text that is presented in multiple semiotic modes, but as a webcomic it is also embedded within an environment that is itself multimodal and information rich. For example, when seen in the context of the original webcomic (http://www.smithmag.net/afterthedeluge/2007/03/04/chapter-1/3/), the first panel in Figure 2 is surrounded by other information and other hyperlinks, all of which represent other paths through which to navigate the experience of reading the comic and its attendant material. At the top of the page, the reader finds links to other segments of SMITH, a search bar, and a registration tab, as well as a link to the A.D. homepage. Elsewhere on the page are links to Neufeld’s other projects. Before we come to the panel itself, we are given the option to skip to any one of the nineteen pages that comprise this chapter. As well, there are links to email the page to a friend, link to this page from your own website, and bookmark the page via one of several social bookmarking sites (including Digg, del.icio.us, Fark, and Reddit, among others). At the bottom of the page are links back to SMITH Magazine and the content there. Finally, one can read the comments that other people have left about the chapter or leave a comment of one’s own, thus becoming part of the text itself.5 In other words, there are many ways to navigate the webcomic and the abundance of information surrounding it and many possible paths that our readings can take. Thinking through the spatial, then, involves thinking about not only the relationship between the panels in the webcomic, but also the relationship between the webcomic and the material around it, and the possibilities for sharing and interaction created by it. In order to help students think about the complexities of webcomics and their surrounding material, we need to engage not only with concepts of multimodality, but concepts of information literacy.
Existing as they do within a vast amount of surrounding information (multiplied many, many times over by the linked nature of the internet), the panels and this page provide not only a good entry point into discussions of multimodal literacy (including both arthrological and transtextual linkages), but discussions of information literacy as well. As I described earlier, the homepage and the pages within which each section of the webcomic is embedded include an enormous amount of information. On the homepage (http://www.smithmag.net/afterthedeluge/), for example, there are links to archived news stories, articles, and blogs about Hurricane Katrina, to photos and video of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and to books about Katrina and its aftermath. In addition, there are blog entries by the creator and links to interviews about the comic, as well as podcasts of interviews with the “characters” in the webcomic. This wealth of information offers the cross-curricular potential for learning in subjects such as English, History, Political Science, Sociology, and Meteorology. Each subject productively informs the others so that the students get a more and more complex picture of the events of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, including important issues such as racism and poverty. Using this webcomic, then, teachers could not only teach critical thinking about the various aspects of Hurricane Katrina, but in doing so, would also be teaching both multimodal literacy and information literacy. In this way, information literacy is about helping students to place themselves in relation to information and the conversations that surround the creation and use of information in the world.
The meanings we assign to the material in and surrounding the comic are not uniform because each of us has slightly different, though overlapping, resources for making meaning and uses those resources in slightly different ways. Even the few panels seen in Figure 2 and the way they are embedded within other material can be a useful starting point for a discussion of how each of us comes to make sense of a text in comics form. How does each of us make decisions about how to navigate the material? What order do we choose to read in? How does the surrounding material affect the resources that we bring to the comic and vice versa? How do our varying backgrounds with comics affect the way we read and make sense of the material? How do our varying backgrounds with computers affect the way we make meaning? How do the meanings we create from webcomics change depending on whether you are using a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone? How do we sift through the vast amount of information contained just on this single page? How are our experiences with this text different from a physical version of a comic or graphic novel? How are they different from a word-based text? These are the types of questions that we can bring to the fore with students to get them thinking critically about how they use multimodal literacies to make sense of and engage the world around them.
In effect, the approach I have described scaffolds explicit instruction about multiple literacies (including multimodal and information literacies) and how students graft them onto their existing practices and contexts. By having students engage with texts such as xkcd and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, we engage them in the kind of texts in which they are interested and which can offer us teaching possibilities through discussion and response. Moreover, a text like A.D. can move students towards thinking about larger issues that exist in specific social and cultural contexts by asking them to think about the meanings created around New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina in both the webcomic and the surrounding material, how they themselves create meaning from these texts, and how both these texts and each of them form part of a larger conversation about Hurricane Katrina, race, poverty, and other issues. As students make meaning, they should be gaining new resources to help them think about how to intervene in issues such as this one that affect their lives and the life of the nation. In other words, they should be developing critical habits of mind that are grounded in teaching and learning about how meanings are created and contested in specific situations. In this essay I have attempted to outline some of the possibilities for teaching with webcomics within the pedagogical framework of multimodality and information literacy. I encourage you to explore comics on the web and what they have to offer for your classroom.
 Pantheon published a print version of A.D. in 2009. A hard copy of the book opens up still more pedagogical possibilities as we help students to think about the differences in web and print mediums. Further research into the connections between webcomics and print versions of those webcomics and the pedagogical applications would thus be a valuable addition to the literature on comics and education.
Association of College and Research Libraries. (January 18, 2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. Print.
Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009. Print.
Dittmar, Jakob F. “Digital Comics.” Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art 1.2 (Autumn 2012): 83-91. Web. 27 Sep. 2013.
Fenty, Sean, Trena Houp and Laurie Taylor. “Webcomics: The Influence and Continuation of the Comix Revolution.” english.ufl.edu/imagetext. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 1.2 (2004). Web. 27 Sep. 2013.
Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln. NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beatty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2009. Print.
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