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The Power of Comics

By Jennifer Marshall
 | Dec 20, 2018
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For a long time, comic books and graphic novels were geared toward children on the basis that, because they have pictures, they’re not “real books.” As a child, I wasn’t allowed to read comics for that very reason. I read my first comic book as an adult when I met my husband, who is the comic buyer for our local shop. Today, I am the mother of two girls who are obsessed with manga (Japanese comics). This year alone, I have read over 400 comic books. It’s safe to say that comics play a very large part of our family’s reading life.

Comics versus graphic novels

Stylistically, comics and graphic novels are very similar. Comic books are usually about 24 pages and are released in single issues usually once or twice a month. These individual books often form an ongoing story that spans several issues. Like TV shows, they are published regularly and collected in what are called trades. Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Bone are all popular examples of comics.

Graphic novels are basically longer versions of comics. Usually, graphic novels tell one full story and can be a couple hundred pages long. Examples include Amulet, The Witch Boy, and Smile.

Comics are a writing style; not a genre

The other thing that is important to understand about comics is that they are not a genre; they are a style of writing. Comics can be found in every genre, include all the literary elements you would find in traditional novels, and can be equally as complex. In the comic Ms. Marvel (Marvel), a young Pakistani girl from New Jersey named Kamala Khan tries to balance her new super powers with her religious beliefs. There are several moments where her family is made to feel like outsiders because they are Muslim.

In the graphic novel Witch Boy (Graphix), a young boy named Astor wants to learn magic. Although Astor could save his family, he is expected to do what boys do and ignore his talent for magic. In the March trilogy (Top Shelf Productions), John Lewis tells the story of his role in the fight for equal rights. I could list dozens of examples of complex stories and themes found in comic books, some meant for students and some meant for adults, just as you find in traditional novels.

The benefits of reading comics

There are fewer words in comics because much of the story unfolds in the visuals. For my students who struggle with vocabulary, these images offer visual clues to help decode new words. To fully understand the storyline, you need both the words and the pictures. If you are only reading the words or only looking at the pictures, you are missing half of the story.

When you reread a traditional novel, you may notice foreshadowing that you didn’t see before. Artists in comics do the same thing. Something that didn’t seem important in the first reading now stands out. For months, one of the major comic publishing companies, DC Comics, was inserting the same yellow button in the background of many of their books. This was a hint about the impending rerelease of a story that was popular in the 1980s.

The transformative power of comics in the classroom

When I began teaching Tier 3 reading, I had not encountered any research about using comics in the classroom. All I knew was that my family and I enjoyed reading comics and that my daughter, at 12 years old, had only finished one book that wasn’t a comic. I knew comics had the power to engage my daughter, who would not stay interested in a traditional novel long enough to finish. My students were below grade level in reading for many reasons—language barriers, sickness, high mobility rates, and more—but almost all of them had two things in common: gaps in their reading skills and a strong dislike of reading. I am a firm believer that if you find the right book at the right time, you can help a student learn to enjoy reading.

The student who helped me realize the power of comics was a seventh grader who very loudly and proudly would announce that he had never read a novel. He was obsessed with Japanese culture and had just watched an anime (Japanese cartoon) called Bleach, which is based on a manga of 74 books. This student, who had never finished a book, had read all 74 books within a couple months, found another similar series, and started those. All in all, he read 184 books that year. He had transformed from a student who refused to read to one who sought out his own reading material. Comics were the tool that engaged him and drove him to practice his reading, and that practice is what improved his reading skills.

This really pushed me to try to put comics into the hands of more students. I had always allowed students to read comics in class, but I had not purposefully encouraged them to do so. I spent that summer reading as many young adult comics as I could find. Each year, I see more students reading for fun once they have discovered comics.

Integrating comics into the curriculum

Something that I love about comics is that, no matter what interests my students, I can usually find a comic about that topic. This means that I can also find comics for various curriculum that I am teaching. There is a series called Science Comics (Macmillan) that delves into science topics, ranging from dinosaurs to plagues. In the book about dogs they explain the Punit Square and how it determines genetic traits of dog breeds.

There are also many retellings of classic literature. My sixth graders have a waiting list to read Moby Dick, Jayne Eyre, and The Life of Frederick Douglass. I have read comic versions of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and Beowulf, where every line of the original was included. Several authors tell their story in comic form, such as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (Graphix). So often when someone mentions comics we instantly think of the stories about Batman, Iron Man, or Spiderman, but comics are so much broader than that.

My students’ recommendations

Today, my students are excited to read comics. They recommend their favorites to others and begin to branch out by reading traditional novels or nonfiction texts about things in the comics. In Marvel Comics, the original Spiderman died for awhile and the mantle of Spiderman was assumed by a boy who was half black and half Puerto Rican. My students were so excited to see a superhero that looked like them. They not only read every comic they could find that featured Miles Morales, they also read the Jason Reynolds novel about Miles. Students who read the comic adaptation of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (Hyperion) or Marie Lu’s Legend series (Putnam) will often then reach for the novel. By not only allowing students to read comics but encouraging them to read and discuss them, I observed what every teacher and parent wants: an engaged reader.

Here are some of my students’ favorite comics:

  • Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (Graphix)
  • The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag (Graphix)
  • Smile, Sisters, Ghost, and Drama all by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic)
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normalby G. Willow Wilson (Marvel)
  • Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds (Marvel)
  • Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (First Second)
  • The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi (Graphix)
  • Bone by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
  • Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld (First Second)
  • Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial)
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale (First Second)
  • Quarterback Rush by Carl Bowen (Stone Arch)
  • The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second)
  • Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (First Second)
  • Angelic by Simon Spurrier (Image Comics)
  • Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel (Graphix)
  • El Deafo by Cece Bell (Harry N. Abrams)
  • Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (Square Fish)

Jenn Marshall teaches Tier 3 Reading in Kennewick, Washington. Comic books are her life; she incorporates them into her classroom and even reviews them in her spare time.  

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