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Comics in the Classroom--aFunny Idea?

Patrick McEvoy-Halston

EDCI 3534'.
Ann Beck
09 October2003
RoccoVersaci,in "How Comic Books CanChangethe Way our StudentsSee

Literature," hasa proposalfor teachers:he asksthat teachersintroducecomicsinto their middle

andhigh schoolclassroomasa meansof engagingtheir students'interestandenhancingtheir

(the studentd)tteracy. This is a bold proposal. Comics,after-all, arestill thoughtby manyof us


'^f;\?t*)^"@hildish(;Jundemanding
readingmaterial,andmiddle andhigh schoolasthe time andplace

to leave childish things behind. In order for them to becomeliterate, many of us likely think,

young adultsneed to be introducedto literature,and this meansreadingbooks--specifically,the

" great"books of the English canon. But Versaci not only believesthat comic books are the ideal

medium to turn adolescentsonto reading,he also believesthat they constitutea form of

literature. He thinks that the contemporarybias againstcomic books is as unwalrantedas was

the previous bias againstnovels; and, as one whose most memorablereading momentsin his

adolescencecame from comic books, I applaudhis attemptto redeemtheir value as meaningful

readingmaterial. However, even I am not sure whethercomic books get studentsmore


't{r.gae-
"'
interestedin reading. My own suspicionis that it is a comic's graphicmaterial(i.e.,its pictures)

which has the greatestimpact on the readerlviewer.This suspicion--onewhich I believe is

sharedby many--is not adequatelyaddressedin his essay. In fact, his most convincing example

of the sophisticationof comic books, and of the complex interrelationshipbetweenimagesand

words that they purportedly offer, really is one in which he persuasivelydemonstratesthe


-
communicativepower of its visual images. Though there is much to be said for helping students

becomemore critical in their viewing habits,it would seema sort of intellectual development

that ought rightly to hold a secondaryand distant place in an English classto the developmentof

verbal literacy.
V"^"J nr CJ

of how most of his adult


Versaci begins his article by summarizinghis assessment

students remembertheir middle and high schoolEnglish classes.He tells us that most of them

were left thinking of literature as "medicinal" (61), and reading as a chore. Literature, according
^"d
to Versaci,is frequentlytaughtwith suchreverence,canonizedworkpfe too often

unquestionablyconsideredcontainersof greatriches,that studentsleam or intuit that it is their

role to leam to appreciateitytheir (literary books)value. Versacibelievesnot only that comic

booksarea type of literature,but that they areideally suitedto capturethe interestof

adolescents.Because"readers'see' the charactersthroughthe illustrations," comic books"'put

a humanface' on a givensubject"(62). Accordingto Versaci,youngadultsfind comicsmore .t "


()
a^t *il ^rae gtal\'^'
inviting and accessiblethan other sortsof books,but he arguesthat comic booksneednolbe any

lesssophisticatedor demandingthanother forms of literature. He suggeststhat the "interplay of

the written andthe visual" (62) in comicsmeansthat readingthem demands"an active [. . .]


/ qoe o*e
participationon thepartof thereader"(6r. X'ofo-r-''

Versaci not only hopesto convince us that comic books can captureand excite students'

interestin literature,he also wants us to believe that intrgducing comic books into classrooms
- C'icqaaoou'r) d] J{w&-*rn :
-;;do?
will help make($r)aware that there are "high" and "low" forms of literature. When comics are

incorporatedinto the curriculum, he believesthat students,finding it strangethat they are asked

to study and analyze comic books, ffe encouragedto think about the consequencesof
y/

attributionsof literary worth. He clearly hopesthat studentswill judge contemporary

designationsas to what constitutesliterary quality as largely arbitrary, and that they will learn to

value their own judgments of literary worth.

of literary merit,
In order to help nurture doubt as to the value of current assessments

Versaci feels he has to succeedin convincing teachersto begin introducing comics into their

classes.He has a powerful "card" to play, and he plays it early in his essay--andwell. Most of

us probably feel ambiguousat best about the curriculum we were required to cover in high

school. And if he is right in implying that the traditional canonpersistsand continuesto

dominatethe middle and high schoolcurriculum, it is all to easyfor us to imagine it as a source


3

of continued frustration for current and future middle and high school students. Versaci, then, in

with intimidatingworksof literature,M


remindingusof ourownlikely difficult encounters -ft]lU*\
preparesus to at least to listen to his argumentin favour of comic books in the classroomas a

possibleway to turn studentsonto reading.

Versaci doesnot try and "sell" teachingcomic books in the classroomas the ideal means

to slowly introduce studentsto the literary canonf--comicbooks are not to Versaci a "stepping

stone" which lead studentstowardsdiscoveringthe celestialriches found in true literature. This

unapologeticappreciationof the value of comic books is beguiling, but makeshis task harder

than it might have been had he acknowledgedthe "supremacy"of books over other written

mediums. So strong is the influence of the existing assessmentof comic books asjuvenile

readingmaterial that we might more readily and openly attendto an argumentin favour of its

incorporationinto the middle and high school curriculum had he made clear that he considered

comic books merely a useful teachingaid. Comic books as literature, comic books as different

from but equal to books, is simply a very tough sell. However, Versaci shows some skill, some

"salesmanship,"in making his case.

For example,Versaci staysvery far away from the likes of Supermanand Spidermanas

examplesof what he would like to seeexplored in class. Instead,he draws our attentionto

comic books such as Daddy's Girl, which dealswith an adolescentgirl who has been "sexually

abusedby her father" (64), and to Art Spiegelman'sMaus I and II, a serieswhich "retell[s] the

story of the author's father, a Holocaustsurvivor" (63). Comics, he is attemptingto get us to

contemplate,can be seriousstuff--so serious,in fact, that they might be deemedinappropriatefor

young adult readersfor reasonsvery different from thosewhich here-to-foremight have come to
/ w A a . : e .' '
mind. Versaci also takescare to mention the namesof writers of comic book writers (such as

Neil Gaimon) who also happento have establishedthemselvesas award winning writers of
young adult and adult fiction. The quality of the writing in thesescomics, he is preparingus to

believe,can be no different from what we find in "great" literature.

Versaci also doesa good job, then, in getting us to conceiveof the writing in a comic

book as potentially very literate, and of its subjectmatter as potentially both seriousand suitable

for youngadultminds(thoughit is worthnotingthathe fie&il supportsthe suppositionthat

literature,even if it can be expandedto include comics, must necessarilydeal with "serious"

subjectmatter). He is also persuasivewhen he arguesthat, becauseyoung adults are not

intimidated by comic books, they thereforefeel more comfortableengagingcritically with them

than they do with books they recognizeas part of the English canon. However, most teachersare

probably concernedthat comic books are all about the picturesfthat is, they likely believe not
-L\e"

only that there is too little writing in comic books but that whateverwriting exists in eomie
Z\ 7S. -
b*€Ullryur1ubly g-9olgrwhelmed!y the powerof thEpicturesthat accompanie{$)Versaci
at,..t..9"sr.r"$'.F: J)l-r'

beginsto make an argumentwhich addressesthis concern,but ultimately ends up reinforcineiour

li*etrtctief that comic books are more accuratelyconceived more as a visual medium than as a

written one.

Versaci doesnot directly addressthe concernthat there might be too little actual writing

in a comic book to develop literacy, but he characterizesthe readingprocessinvolved in

exploring a comic book so that we are likely remindedof the one form of writing whose

is consideredamongstits primary virtues--namely,poetry. He slyly suggeststhat


sparseness

becausereadersof comic books must constantlyrelate words to imageswhile they are reading,

that there is more going on, word-for-word, in a comic book than there is in a "traditional" book.

He writes:

Comic books facilitate [analytical and critical thinking skills] t. . .l in a way

unlike more "traditional" forms of literaturebecausein addition to making use of


standardliterary devicessuchaspoint of view, narrative,characterization,

conflict, setting,tone,andtheme,they alsooperatewith a poeticsthat blendsthe

visualandthe texrual[.] 64 /

He certainly seemsto be arguingherethat comic bookscanbe usedby a teacherto developall

the sortsof critical thinking skills that bookscan (aswell assomethey can'ysdthis argument
d'6c" ot"*
is simplytoo onesided,overblown,andimplausibleto be persuasive. \'r-'titl -wtdtr ">i
V..r-^o ae *o !Dh')-

But he makesa muchbigger mistakewhen,in his exampleof how text andgraphics


t.€Va-{t t hr t
interrelatein a comic book, he is-e+iden{lyrnostinterestedin the communicativepower of the

comic's pictures. He writes aboutthe effectsof the presentationof the characterLily in Debbie
's
Drecshler'sDaddy Girl on his studentsthnsly:

Forcedto look at a relatively confinedspacewith suchintensity, studentsnoticed

that the panelsgraduallybecomedarkerasLily's initial enthusiasmat havinga

diary is undercutby the fact that her privacy hasbeenviolated. They alsonoticed

how the direction of Uly's gazevariesthroughthe four panelsandthat in the

crucial third panel,wheresheis respondingto this violation, sheseemto be

looking directly at the reader. Somestudentsinterpretedthis visual strategyas

Drecshler'sway of "reachingout" to readers[.]65

ThoughVersacitakescareto characterizethe studentsasreadershere,clearly, in this description


nf
of the graphicdramaof Lily's gaze,they arc betterandmore accuratelyconceivedof asui"*"f .'.,^t

Versaciseemsmorehonestin his characterizationof studentswhenhe writes that "this activity

it forcesthisl t. . .l studentsto be morecritical viewers[emphasis


to thiml t. . .l because
appeals

addedl" (65). It is undeniablya terrific thing, ashe argues,in this ageof "movies andtelevision"

(65), to developcritical attentionto the visual medium,but comparingcomic booksto movies,

television,andevento video gamesdoesnot do his causemuch good. Too much hasbeenmade


6

of getting studentsto read and write, too little has yet been said about the virtues of visual

literacy, that the very last thing he should have done is to have linked comic books to

predominatelyvisual mediums such as movies and television--especiallythose which sharetheir

somewhatless than reputablestatus.

However, simply becauseVersaci fails to convince me that comics do encourageverbal

readingskills as much as they do visual reading skills doesnot mean that he leavesme

convincedthat they do not promote literacy, nor that they are inadequatematerial to get students
,/
to think critically about what they read. I imagine if I was in a classroomin which someof the

studentswere having difficulty with the offered curriculum, and if I possessedthe power to alter

the existing curriculum, that I might just introducethem to someof the comic books that Versaci

introducesus to. But I am aware,though, that there are other options. For instance,the books I

am readingfor my EDCI 353, books which apparentlyI will have the ability as a teacherto

incorporateinto my classes,may not have the graphic enticementsthat comic books have to

attractattention,but they likely addressadolescentconcernsand interestsfar better than the older

curriculum must have done. They have the addedvirtue of being--self-evidently--reading

material. In sum, there may be other sourcesfor teachersto turn to other than to comics if Huck

Finn, Shakespeareet al. continue to bore and intimidate current middle and high school students

as much as they may have previous generationsof adolescentstudents. And, given that he leaves

me imagining comic books as more akin to video gamesthan to classicsof literature,I'd

probably try thesebooks out on them first.

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Work Cited

Versaci,Rocco. "How Comic Books Can Changethe Way Our StudentsSeeLiterature: One

Teacher'sPerspective."EnglishJournal 9I.2 (2001) : 6I-7.