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Review of With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Comics

By Erika Rothberg

Review of Kirtley, Susan et al. With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Comics. University Press of Mississippi, 2020.

While comics studies courses can be taken at many universities around the globe, the field itself is still considered to be burgeoning. Comics studies has fought for its deserved seat at the table after years of being dismissed as a less-than-rigorous field of study. Although comics studies has now rightly claimed its role in academia, a potential gap remains: the discussion of pedagogical practices about how best to incorporate, teach, and use comics in the classroom. The book With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Comics, edited by Susan E. Kirtley, Antero Garcia, and Peter E. Carlson, is an excellent foray into this arena as it offers fantastic essays and insights into how comics function in the classroom from early education to college-level courses. The editors explain that this book grew directly out of a conversation at WonderCon’s Comics Arts Conference; they agreed that the workshops they participated in at comics conventions proved a real demand for “a more concerted conversation about pedagogy” that connects “K-12 teachers as well as university professors, devoted readers, and creative professionals” (VII). This preface immediately establishes the interdisciplinary, inclusive nature of the comics pedagogy strategies espoused throughout the following chapters.

The book is broken into three major parts that examine comics pedagogy’s roots, the functions of comics pedagogy in practice, and potential new trajectories for comics studies in the future, respectively. Each part includes three to five essays as well as an interview with comics creators. These interviewed creators are all comics industry titans—including Brian Michael Bendis (creator of Miles Morales, Spiderman) and Lynda Barry (pioneering cartoonist and Eisner Hall of Fame inductee)—who have also instructed comics or art courses. The interviews, as well as many of the essays, offer specific moments and case studies that show comics pedagogy in practice; each author grounds their essay in theory and includes practical elements which show real-world examples of using comics in the classroom.  

“Part I: Foundations of Comics Pedagogy” discusses “key theoretical and methodological approaches that have driven comics pedagogy thus far” (15). In the opening essay, Dale Jacobs traces the history behind the “vexed relationship” between educators and comics before offering a set of pedagogical perspectives that can help teachers utilize the comics medium in coursework more effectively (23). Jacobs’ suggestion to “think about comics as sites of commercial and cultural transaction” is a particularly apt one that encourages us to consider how comics function “beyond form or narrative alone” (31). Aimee Valentine’s essay hones in on particular comics representation in the classroom, focusing on female comics creators and exploring how women have been left out of comics publishing at large. While works of underrepresented comics creators have been made more accessible by the advent of internet comics and digital self-publishing, Valentine encourages educators to center these creators within the classroom. Bart Beaty—in an essay that one might find particularly helpful in this socially-distanced pandemic era—discusses online tools to use in the comics (or multimodal) classroom and how they remove access barriers to otherwise unobtainable comics. Beaty’s chapter also specifically focuses on how we can use these tools to overcome biases and foster a more inclusive, diverse curriculum—advice that all educators, regardless of specialization, should consider. The section closes with an interview between comics writers David Walker and Brian Michael Bendis, who reflect on their experiences as creators and instructors.

“Part II: Comics Pedagogy in Practice,” as you might expect, “details comics pedagogy in action” (16). The section begins with one of my favorite pieces in the book: a comic by Ebony Flowers Kalir, graphically representing an exercise she uses to show the value of copying. Her students learn to create (and re-create) their own art, “worrying less” about what they draw and instead allowing the drawing process to be more like “an experience rather than a premeditated plan” (87). Nick Sousanis’s following chapter gives a helpful account of how he incorporates comics production into his classroom. His approach of putting “hands-on comics-making front and center” enables his students to use this creative experience to understand “what the form is able to express” (92). We turn to multimodal study in Ben Bolling’s piece, which focuses on Bolling’s use of multimedia composition specifically in his course that tracks all the iterations of Batman through various forms of media. (This is a class I would have jumped at the chance to take if offered in my undergraduate years). Benjamin Villareal builds on Bolling’s Batman reference, showing his fascinating methodology for using superheroes to help students better understand canonical/classic literature. In the concluding critical essay of the section, James Kelley demonstrates how comics can help engage students in STEAM classrooms, which combine not just science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but the arts as well. The final piece in Part II is a particularly insightful interview between Dr. Leah Misemer and the incomparable Lynda Barry, who shares her experience as an “accidental professor”—as the subtitle of her acclaimed graphic novel Syllabus describes her. Barry’s unique pedagogical style is enlightening, as her embrace of the “uncritical eye” and responsive, flexible instruction illuminate ways to show all students—even those who feel they are not talented artists—that they are welcome voices in comics production (169).

“Part III: Future Directions in Comics Pedagogy” opens up possibilities for “new areas and questions” within the realm of comics studies, in the hopes that these perspectives push “conversations further” to broaden our current methods of instruction (16, 17). John A. Lent’s piece opens the section by focusing on the often-unexamined layers of “political economy and intellectual property” associated with the creation of comics (185 In his cleverly titled “Misunderstanding Comics” piece, Johnathan Flowers turns inwards from the political and asks us to question core components of comics scholarship. Flowers’ points encourage me to reexamine my own thinking in a bold and refreshing challenge. In the collection’s only co-written essay, Frederik Byrn Køhlert and Nick Sousanis argue for a collaborative style of comics instruction, using their co-teaching experience to illustrate their claims, to great effect. The final piece in the section is a short but striking interview between acclaimed writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and Jenny Blenk of Dark Horse Comics, in which the two discuss “the place and purpose of [DeConnick’s] unapologetically provocative and feminist comics in the classroom” (239). This section, while interesting, is not as robust as I had hoped, given the forward-thinking nature and tone of the rest of the collection. A subsequent volume of experimental teaching techniques could be useful in truly thinking through said “future directions in comics pedagogy” (185).

With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy closes with a conclusion that asks us to reflect upon what we have already discovered in studying comics pedagogy practices, while also urging us to look towards the future and its “multiverse” of “new directions” available (247). The playful co-opting of comics terms like “multiverse” perfectly exemplifies the tone of the collection, which uses highly accessible language and is far from the stuffy nature one might expect from a subject as generally serious as pedagogy. The book ends with a rousing call to action from the editors, who are “look[ing] ahead to the future and argu[ing] for the great responsibility of comics pedagogy” while simultaneously encouraging us to use the “passion of comics culture” to collectively expand the field of comics scholarship (248).

This collection is a remarkable one. To my knowledge, it is the first of its kind to offer specific comics-focused pedagogical case studies while working to advance this burgeoning field, through both theoretical study and comics creation. While each essay’s establishing critical theory sections and methodological examinations are thorough, the most useful portions come from essays that include real-world classroom examples. This is critical; as all educators can attest to, sometimes we have lesson plans that we think are spectacular on paper, yet they fail to resonate within the classroom. Seeing many of these case studies—which do not sugar coat their occasional missteps—is incredibly helpful. These will continue to be important as the field of comics studies is still considered to be in its relative infancy, unlike more canonical fields with decades, if not centuries, of history within the establishment of the academe. I imagine more educators will be interested in incorporating comics in the classroom in years to come.

One of the strongest elements of the collection is the integration of interviews with comics creators throughout the book. As a person who worked in the comics industry for four years in between earning my M.A. and beginning my Ph.D., I can confirm that the way I look at comics from a critical perspective was vastly altered by my time working in comics publishing. The inclusion of interviews with educators who have worked on both sides of the craft is an invaluable resource, especially considering the immense overlap and interaction between fans and scholars in comics studies. All the elements of this collection work in tandem to offer a unique, helpful resource that would be a wise read for any comics scholar or educator looking to utilize comics in the classroom. 

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