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Review of Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice

By Oriana Gatta

Dong, Lan. Ed. Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Print.

The use of comic books as educational tools in the U.S. has a long, complex history. Between the 1940s and today, scholarship on English language acquisition; literary analysis; and alphabetic, critical, cultural, visual, and multimodal literacy have characterized comics with pedagogical potential. While a small amount of work on comics as educational tools in undergraduate classrooms has been published, notably Stephen E. Tabachnick’s (2009) edited collection Teaching the Graphic Novel,1 comics pedagogy scholarship primarily focuses on elementary and secondary educational contexts.2 To remedy this situation, Lan Dong’s purpose in Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice is to “promote the legitimacy and value of graphic narratives in college and university classrooms by bringing together essays on theoretical approaches, pedagogical strategies, and classroom practice” (Dong 5-6). Though the project began at an MLA session entitled “Teaching Graphic Novels in Literature Classrooms,” essays in this collection move beyond the literature classroom and address the interdisciplinary perspectives of American Studies; Ethnic Studies; Women’s and Gender Studies; Cultural Studies; Genre Studies; and Composition, Rhetoric, and Communication. Dong uses these perspectives as the collections’ organizational categories, making it easy for a reader who identifies thusly to locate potentially useful material. The value of Dong’s collection, however, transcends these distinctions, as all of the essays included, to varying degrees, use multiple theoretical lenses to engage comics as sites of individual and collective meaning-making in intersecting aesthetic, historical, cultural, political, material, and media(ted) contexts. More specifically, for those interested in engaging students in explorations of 1) the visual representations of racial, ethnic, national, sexual, and gender identities; 2) the intersections of genre and media conventions; and 3) the process of literary canon formation, Dong’s collection is a worthwhile read. For those, like me, looking for ways to build on this critical analytical work and give students tools to move from passive consumption to intentional cultural production, the collection falls short.

A few essays do point to comics as models for student production. Susanna Hoeness-Krupsaw asks her students to compose personal experience essays using Abouet and Oubrerie’s Aya as a visual example: “[Students] noted Abouet’s use of a lead, her development of Aya’s persona and voice, the management of time and space, and other descriptive details” (163). Hoeness-Krupsaw also suggests that composing comics of their own might benefit students. Even in this case, though, the intended audience is circumscribed to the classroom, as comic composition is used as a strategy for revising the narrative personal experience essays (164). Katharine Polak MacDonald assigns multimodal compositions to give students the opportunity to test out the elements of multimodal literacy they have learned via the comparative analysis of comics and more traditional literary texts (222). Working from the assumption that students will identify with Huey’s character in Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, Daniel Stein frames comics as sites of topical invention and comic characters as potential models for student behavior: “Huey … represents the kind of active engagement students … should take in their own education” (30).

More often, as a precursor to cultural production, comics in this collection are framed as sites of critical resistance to “cultural norms and prohibitions” (Jonet 120). Edward A. Shannon uses American comics from the 1890s to contemporary graphic novels, poetry, and fiction to identify and challenge definitions of high and popular, or “low” culture (11). Examining Gene Luen Yang’s “revival of the ‘heathen Chinee’ image” and accompanying stereotypes in American Born Chinese, Anne Cong-Huyen and Caroline Kyungah Hong point to Yang’s “exaggeration of caricature” as a method for turning “these stereotypes on their heads” (85). Jessica Knight’s students are “highly attuned to … the everyday strategies of resistance to mandated visibility” in Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (101). Knight also takes issue with the pedagogical approach to multicultural literature that focuses on expanding the literary canon to include texts based on the “social identity of the author” and that assumes a “clear relationship between the representation of marginalized groups on literary syllabi and the greater political enfranchisement of such groups” (95). Instead, Knight advocates a multicultural pedagogy that fosters simultaneously empathetic and self-reflexive readings to aid our understanding of “how we are all implicated in the social forces that inscribe identities and power relations” (97). Similarly, Judith Richards and Cynthia M. Williams encourage students to “unveil their own cultural ignorance and prejudices” related to veiling practices by asking them to write on an outline of a veiled woman the words they associate with the image of a veiled woman, draw their own bodies, write the language they would use to describe themselves, and compare the bodies of language (135). Christina Meyer argues that Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers problematizes “the idea of unity and identity formations in times of crisis” via his representation of the “intricate mediatization of the terrorist attacks … [and] the social and political transformation in the aftermath of 9/11” (54). MacDonald addresses the representation of media in comics as a way to explore “the ways in which these other media are also constructed” (224). Surprisingly, however, given the growing number of web comics, none of the essays discuss digital media’s potential implications for the study and composition of comics.

Comics are also employed as an “accessible” entré into course material that has the potential to complicate students’ understanding of the relationships among identity formation, history, culture, politics, and aesthetics. Adrielle Anna Mitchell posits that individual comics “can be chosen to illuminate an issue, time period, identity, or style” (202). Cong-Huyen and Hong use Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology to introduce students to “critical race, Asian American [and] literary studies” (87). Joshua Kavaloski characterizes Jason Lutes’ Berlin City of Stones as a “unique vehicle for teaching students about the history of Germany’s Weimar Republic” based on the “palpable tension between its single-point visual aesthetics and its multiperspectival narrative” (147, 146). Mary Ann Tobin uses the filmic adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 to “explore the form and function of epic poetry as oral history” (232). Comparing graphic novels by “Alicia Torres, Seth, Chris Ware, and Kim Deitch alongside experimental fiction by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicholson Baker and extended poetic sequences by Gabriel Gudding and Martha Collins,” Edward Brunner asks his students in a graduate-level seminar on trauma to “test whether graphic narratives are as effective as experimental fiction and poems in extended sequences in calling the reader to pay close attention to text that present circumstances that are inherently troubled or controversial” (186).

Overall, then, Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives works well as a set of models for the critical analysis of comics, particularly with regard to representations of race, ethnicity, and nationality. It may be that Dong does not want to cover ground already traveled by discussions of comic production in elementary and secondary classrooms. However, by only briefly addressing comics as student-produced culture, Dong reinforces the dominance of alphabetic textual production in collegiate education and unintentionally delegitimizes comics in the same context.


[1] See also Brocka; Haendiges; Jacobs; King; and Wysocki.

[2] See Bitz; Carter; and Frey and Fisher.

Works Cited

Bitz, Michael. When Commas Meet Kryptonite: Classroom Lessons from The Comic Book Project. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010. Print.

Brocka, Bruce. “Comic Books: In Case You Haven’t Noticed, They’ve Changed.” Media and Methods 15.9 (1978): 30-32. Print.

Carter, James Bucky. Ed. Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2007. Print.

Frey, Nancy and Douglas Fisher. Eds. Teaching Visual Literacy: Using Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Anime, Cartoons, and More to Develop Comprehension and Thinking Skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2008. Print.

Haendiges, J. A. (2010). Mobility and the digital page. Washington State University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

Jacobs, Dale. “Marveling At ‘The Man Called Nova’: Comics As Sponsors Of Multimodal Literacy.” College Composition And Communication 2 (2007):180-205. Print.

King, Richard C. “Envisioning Justice: Racial Metaphors, Political Movements, and Critical Pedagogy.” Writing the Visual: A Practical Guide for Teachers of Composition and Communication. Eds. Carol David and Anne R. Richards. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2008. 87-104. Print.

Tabachnick, Stephen E., Ed. Teaching the Graphic Novel. New York: MLA, 2009. Print.

Wysocki, Anne Frances and David A. Lynch. Compose, Design, Advocate: A Rhetoric for Integrating Written, Visual, and Oral Communication. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

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