Graphic Novels

1. Definition

A novel whose narrative is related through a combination of text and art, often in comic-strip form. (The Free Dictionary). The fundamental difference between a novel and a graphic novel, is that the latter always contain illustrations. They are integral to the understanding of the work. “Pictures presented in a framework on each page tell the story. Like the novel, graphic novels include characters, setting, dialogue, descriptive language, and a plot that offers conflict and resolution" (Downey 3). While often lumped into the category of “comics”, there are several distinctive qualities that differentiate the media. Most comics offer serial stories. Each issue contains part of a story, but the reader must wait for the next issue to find out how the plot resolves. By contrast, a graphic novel is a stand-alone piece of literature; it tells a full story.

1.1 The Legitimization of the Medium


The medium has evolved into a legitimate form of literature over the past couple of decades. Witek makes the argument that “as both narrative and cultural production, the medium of the graphic novel warrants our careful attention and critical analysis (Witek, 1989)”. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, helped legitimize the genre when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Maus has since become one of the most frequently studied graphic novels at the intermediate/senior level. It has been embraced by educators due to “the complexity of its theme, the subtlety of its characterizations, the visual metaphors expressed through its compositions, and its seriousness of purpose” (Chun 3). The genre received further validation when Time Magazine included Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel The Watchmen, in their list of 100 greatest novels.

2. Why the Graphic Novel is Effective in the Classroom

The Graphic Novel has been introduced into the classroom in an effort to:
- reach reluctant readers
- engage visual learners
- improve comprehension and interpretation of themes, literary devices, and social issues.
Educators are becoming aware of the media dominated culture that their students are growing up in. It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage today’s youth in the traditional format of the novel. Students have grown accustomed to the rapid pace of television, videogames, and the internet, and are seeking a similar pace in their reading materials. As Professor Elizabeth Downey points out, students are looking for “a scaled-down approach featuring short narratives and graphic indicators.” She goes on to point out that “graphic novels are useful tools in classrooms where students are primarily visual learners. They illustrate cognitive and literary concepts resulting in stronger comprehension of the materials.”
When introducing a graphic novel into the classroom, a teacher can begin by asking the class three questions:
  1. Why has this text been written?
  2. Who is the text addressed to?
  3. What is the topic of this text?
These questions will help the students contextualize the work, and begin to think about the medium critically. As Chun points out, “an understanding of the reasons why texts are written for specific readerships and how they achieve their purposes in conveying particular messages is at the heart of critical literacy” (Chun 4). The introduction of the graphic novel can be considered an inventive method to promote a lifetime reading habit. Below is a video from CTV News detailing the benefits of studying graphic novels in the classroom.

2.1 Knowing Which Graphic Novels to Study

  1. Books such as Katie Monnin’s Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom and Teaching in the Pop Culture Zone: Using Popular Culture in the Composition, offer examples of suitable graphic novels, as51NCk1pl+xL._SL500_AA300_.jpg well as lessons plans to teach the material.
  2. The Young Adult Library Services Association publishes an annual list of the best graphic novels for teenagers. The 2010 list focused on those graphic novels published between late 2008 through 2009. The 2010 list, as well as their previous list can be found here: YALSA
  3. Below is a brief video summarizing the themes of several seminal graphic novels including Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Craig Thompson's Blankets, and Judd Winick's Pedro and Me. The narrator focuses on why these titles are effective for classroom study.

3. Graphic Novels in the ESL Classroom

While the graphic novel has begun to carve a legitimate place in the English classroom, educators have also begun advocating the use of the media to teach English Language Learners. Chun argues “ using graphic novels in the classroom contextualizes the featured language in ways that aid ESL students in learning how to use the language” (Chun 3). The visual component allows students to follow the progression of the story while connecting the images to the text. The images “can provide clues that shed light on the meaning of an unfamiliar word or grammatical structure” (Krashen 402). The dual nature of the graphic novel allows ELL’s to participate in class discussions that are not always possible with written text. The images act as a “scaffolding of textual meanings through their rich visual modes of representation” (Chun 3). Below is a video focused on building literary connections with graphic novels.

4. Graphic Novels and the Ontario Curriculum

Teaching the graphic novel in the high-school classroom satisfies the media literacy strand of the English 9-10 Ontario Curriculum. This strand, “focuses on helping students develop the skills required to understand, create, and critically interpret media texts. It examines how images and words are used, independently and in combination, to create meaning. It explores the use and significance of particular conventions and techniques in the media and considers the roles of the viewer and the producer in constructing meaning in media texts. Students apply the knowledge and skills gained through analysis of media texts as they create their own texts”. The curriculum also outlines 4 expectations of the media literacy strand. It explains that students must:
  1. Demonstrate an understanding of a variety of media texts.
  2. Identify some media forms and explain how the conventions and techniques associated with them are used to create meaning.
  3. Create a variety of media texts for different purposes and audiences, using appropriate forms, conventions, and techniques
  4. Reflect on and identify their strengths, areas for improvement, and the strategies they
    found most helpful in understanding and creating media texts

The following five lessons reflect the goals of the media literacy strand, and cover the four listed expectations.

5. Lessons

5.1 Historical Fact Finding

Have the students read Frank Miller’s 300. The graphic novel focuses on the Battle of Thermopylae, in which the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300-man army fought the immense army of Emperor Xerxes of Persia. While the Spartans emerge victorious in Miller’s story, historical records point out that the Persians were actually the victors. Have the student explore the historical accuracy of the story, by researching the battle of Thermopylae. Students can use encyclopedia entries, history textbooks and Internet resources to gather information about the battle. Have the student create a chart that highlights certain key events in the storyline, and a corresponding column that describes the historical authenticity of that event. NOTE: Due to scenes of violence in Miller’s 300, this exercise is only recommended for mature high school students.

5.2 Comparative Literary Study

A UK company called Classical Comics creates graphic novel adaptations of canonical literature. Have the students read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and follow up by looking at sections of Jason Cobley’s graphic novel adaptation. Have the students discuss the techniques they thought were effective in representing the text through visuals. As the graphic novel is considerably shorter than Shelley’s original, have the students discuss the editing process. Have them select an event from the novel that was not included in Cobley’s adaptation, and ask them discuss why they thought it should have been included. This exercise focuses on how visual storytelling is similar to and different from verbal storytelling. Have the students take a key event from another novel they have read in class, and have them sketch out that scene using the techniques they observed in Colby’s adaptation. NOTE: Classic Comics also has a selection of graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.

5.3 Visual Prompts

Have the students read Postcards: True Stories that Never Happened edited by Jason Rodiguez. The graphic novel is a collection of 16 stories inspired by the images and brief statements found on a collection of vintage postcards. Discuss the techniques that each cartoonist uses to craft their story. Have the students write their own stories based on their examination of a vintage postcard. Students can choose from a variety of different postcards based on era or theme at Vintage and Vintage

5.4 Visual History

Have the students read Jonathan Hennessey’s The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation as well as excerpts from the actual United States Constitution. Discuss the ways in which Hennessey was able to bring the document to life through the use of visual images. Have the students study the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982 Canadian Constitution Act, 1982 Using Hennessey’s work as a guideline, have the students create their own graphic novel inspired by the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982.

5.5 Geographical Stories

Have the students read Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Canadian Québécois author Guy Delisle. The graphic novel documents the author’s experiences working and traveling through North Korea. Have the students pick a country and create their own comic about their travels through that country. The students can incorporate actual images from Google Maps and Google Earth.

6. Resources

6.1 Websites

Build Your Own Comic
This site allows the user to create their own comic. Students can add their own text balloons in to the backgrounds and characters provided. The comics can be printed and colored.
Disney's Comic Creator
This site allows the student to incorporate four Disney characters into a single panel cartoon.
Garfield's Comic Creator
Students can create comic strips using Garfield characters as well as their own creations.
Kabam! Comic Creator
This site allows the student to tell a story through comic strips. However, they do not have very much creative control.
Make Your Own Graphix
This site provides a set of characters, objects, and settings that the students can use to create their own comics.
Students can create a 4-panel comic strip using characters with differing emotions.
Another site which allows students to create their own comic strips. This site provides a extra resources specifically for schools.
ReadWriteThink Cartoon Creator
Make a very simple comic strip using a set of visuals provided.
This is a fairly simplistic site that allows students to create their own comic strips using the provided elements.

6.2 Books

  • Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom by Katie Monnin
  • Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Grade 4-8 by Melissa Hart
  • Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue by David J. Flinders (Chapter 4)
  • Developing and Promoting Graphic Novel Collections by Steve Miller
  • Teaching in the Pop Culture Zone: Using Popular Culture in the Composition by Allison D. Smith

7. References

Chun, Christian Walker. "Critical Literacies and Graphic Novels for English-Language Learners: Teaching Maus." Academic Search Complete. EBSCO, Oct. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2010.

Downey, Elizabeth Maurice. "Graphic Novels in Curriculum and Instruction Collections." Academic Search Complete. EBSCO, 3 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2010.

Krashen, Stephen. "Language Teaching Technology: A Low-tech View." Language Teaching, Testing, and Technology: Lessons from the past with a View toward the Future. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 1989. 393-407. Print.

Mifflin, Houghton. "Graphic Novel - Definition of Graphic Novel by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia." Dictionary, Encyclopedia and Thesaurus - The Free Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. < novel>.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: the Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1989. Print.

1. Definition | 2. Why the Graphic Novel is Effective in the Classroom | 3. Graphic Novels in the ESL Classroom | 4. Graphic Novels and the Ontario Curriculum | 5. Lessons | 6. Resources | 7. References