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Review of Teaching the Graphic Novel

By Sarah N. Petrovic

Teaching the Graphic Novel. Ed. Stephen E. Tabachnick. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009. Print.

Editor Stephen E. Tabachnick’s recent book Teaching the Graphic Novel is a significant publication because while comics and graphic novels have been used in university classes for over a decade it has often been to the horror of canon-adhering faculty. Certainly, this book is unlikely to change the minds of those deeply entrenched in opposition to graphic novels in the classroom. For some, the MLA endorsement will add an air of respectability to the field, but this book neither apologizes for the form of its subject nor suggests there is a deficit to be overcome. Instead, this collection of essays, covering a wide range of texts, from the literary graphic novel to underground comix, enthusiastically reaches out to those who may be thinking about incorporating graphic novels into their classes and serves as an introduction to the field for those whose interest is still growing, while providing a rich source of ideas for those already teaching and studying graphic novels.

Tabachnick’s introduction excitedly notes there are many possibilities available for both the teacher and the academic with the relatively recent emergence of a new medium for which there are no clearly or rigidly set teaching practices. Tabachnick enumerates the variety of themes and issues addressed by graphic novels; he discusses how the form is uniquely suited to a modern audience, classroom and student, and how the medium lends itself to useful employment in literature, art, history, composition and film adaptation studies, noting it is “truly a form for all seasons” (5). Tabachnick includes a succinct six page historical overview of the graphic novel medium, tracing the various European and American protogenitors of comics and the graphic novel and then describing American comics for roughly a century, dividing the history into four periods: early American comics (1890-1930), the Depression and WWII (1930-1950), postwar and underground (1950-1970), and finally the contemporary period. This introduction to the generic and historical issues can easily be utilized in the classroom and provides a framework that helps contextualize the majority of the essays in the book.

The five essays in “Part I: Theoretical and Aesthetic Issues” begin with Charles Hatfield’s discussion of the definition of comics and the debate over how absolutely they should be defined. In the next essay, Brian Tucker explains the benefits of using Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön to discuss the interplay of word and image as well as to consider the verbal and the visual media separately. The remaining three essays are concerned with the mechanics of the medium: how time is represented, experienced, and theorized (Eric S. Rabkin); the layouts of whole pages and what these signify for the tension between continuous text and discontinuous images (Jesse Cohn); and what panels can indicate or create for the narrative (Elizabeth Rosen). These three essays all have excerpts from a variety of texts and cite typical classroom discussions around their respective issues, and, though Hatfield and Tucker are concerned with broad topics, their essays give extremely detailed activities for introducing the medium to the classroom, which can readily be adapted or adopted by teachers.

The essays in “Part II: Social Issues” discuss a variety of specific texts that suggest various ways of representing cultural topics and conversations in the classroom. Michael A. Chaney examines graphic novels by writers and artists who self-consciously identify as black in order to discuss racial identity. Terry Barr looks at Maus and how it informs an interdisciplinary class on the Holocaust, how the texts relate to one another, and how the reverberating trauma is still influential in the second generation of survivors. Anne N. Thalheimer discusses texts that she has used in a variety of courses, which show the significance of women in the comics movement, with primary attention to A Bitch is Born. Tammy Horn discusses how three graphic novels, Comanche MoonPedro and Me, and Persepolis, can be used to fill in “zero images,” or unknown quantities, for students in regards to social justice issues and representation. Finally, James Bucky Carter explains how the use of Watchmen as a central text for a composition course taught in 2002 was productive for discussing prophetic literature and using history to inform the post-9/11 confusion and ambiguity many students were experiencing. While all these articles explain typical classroom discussions and most suggest texts to complement the graphic novels, Carter’s article is the stand-out for offering numerous activities and assignments as well for practical ways of using the graphic novel as a means for engaging with social issues.

Part III’s subtitle “Individual Creators” is a slight misnomer as three of the articles focus on themes exemplified in multiple graphic novels rather than a single author or text (Darren Harris-Fain, Laurie N. Taylor, Frank L. Cioffi) and seem more suited to “Part IV: Courses and Contexts” in subject matter. The essays in this section span a wide range of English texts by numerous creators—only Alan Moore and Frank Miller are discussed in multiple essays and even then in relation to different works. Many of these essays are closer to critical, rather than pedagogical; pieces of particular graphic novels that highlight themes, issues, and connections that the authors see in the text are discussed with only broad references to how these were addressed in class discussions, or hypothetical class discussions. A welcome alternative to these critiques might have been detailed case studies of classroom experiences, suggestions for how to elicit such observations from students, or specific activities and writing assignments like those provided in the exemplary articles by Anthony D. Baker, Martha Kuhlman, and Paul D. Streufert. Nearly every article provides general information describing how the author conceptualizes the form and what sorts of analytic tools he or she employs (literary, cinematic, socio-historical) and would have some interest for readers who are looking for ways into any graphic novel, not just the specific ones highlighted.

In Part IV, the essays summarize a variety of types of courses and units; this seems to be the potpourri section. There are essays aimed at showing the utility of graphic novels in non-literature or composition courses; Bryan E. Vizzini discusses the history classroom, Claudia Goldstein art history, Ana Merino Hispanic cultural studies, Rachel Hutchinson Japanese studies and Michael D. Picone French. Many essays also discuss the interdisciplinary nature of the medium and its place in either interdisciplinary courses (Jan Baetens and Pamela Gossin) or team teaching (Alison Mandaville and J. P. Avila). Like Part III, most essays include ideas about how to discuss specific graphic novels in the classroom and a few offer more extensive activity suggestions.

The final section, “Part V: Resources,” is brief and contains Chris Matz’s “Supporting the Teaching of the Graphic Novel: The Role of the Academic Library” and a bibliography. Matz’s article addresses both teachers and librarians while cataloging the numerous issues and concerns that must be considered for a library to be able to support the instruction of graphic novels. The bibliography is separated into books, websites, and articles that relate to comics studies, which supplements the works cited and further reading provided by each essay in the collection.

One of the significant drawbacks to this excellent collection is the uneven treatment of non-English comics. While Tabachnick initially cites the Franco-Belgian and Japanese traditions along with the American as the main producers of comics, his introduction provides barely a paragraph devoted to their combined history. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, originally written in French, is discussed throughout the book, but this is the exception, and it is not until Part IV that there is any significant engagement with comics originally published in languages other than English. Rachel Hutchinson and Pamela Gossin both write about their experiences teaching manga, though only Gossin provides any background for, or overview of, the Japanese version of the medium. However, Michael D. Picone’s article on the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée or BD is an exemplary preparatory piece, providing extensive history and ideas for structuring an introductory course based on either artists or genres. Given that manga and BD are consistently cited as part of the graphic novel tradition, a separate section dedicated to them and discussion of their relationship to the medium is warranted.

Problematically, only nine of the thirty-four articles herein include actual samples of graphic novels, despite the continual reinforcement of the medium as being uniquely and equally concerned with the visual in addition to the textual. Most essays do an adequate job describing the visual elements of the text, but this mediation diminishes the impact of their examples, as readers are asked to simply trust that these cases do what the authors suggest without concrete proof. In an essay on Chris Ware, Anthony D. Baker notes that “one of the most effective ways to help students understand such a postmodern treatment of time and space [in Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth] is to assign them the challenging task of rewriting this page exclusively in prose” (117). Yet, Baker’s essay is pure text and the page he cites has only been described in the previous paragraph. Baker’s class activity is a valuable one for it “produces many different versions, some conflicting, and subsequent class discussions will suggest a wide variety of valid narrative possibilities and chronologies for this single page of comics” (117), and the inclusion of this page (from a book without page numbers) in his essay would have dramatically increased the effectiveness of his demonstration. Baker’s essay is not the only one to suffer from this lack of visual illustrations, and, while copyright issues may have been a factor, a book of this high caliber about teaching the graphic novel should certainly have a little more showing and a little less telling.

Despite its uneven treatment of non-English comics and the scant inclusion of visuals, Teaching the Graphic Novel is a commendable work and an invaluable one for all teachers looking to incorporate this medium into their classes, regardless of their previous comics experience, as the profile of comics continues to rise in academic and literary circles. While Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics is undoubtedly an essential theoretical foundation for the field, and is thus frequently cited by the authors here, this collection approaches the medium from a pedagogical, not creationist, standpoint and thus usefully contributes to comics discourse from an instructional standpoint. Spanning a range of types of graphic novels—those in the popular superhero genre, the auto-biographical, and the political, as well as those forming the alternative movement—teachers will find a wealth of classroom approaches to both the form itself and specific texts.

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