Comic Matters

Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.”

-Art Spiegleman

by Mark Pett. Cottonwood Press. 2000

“Get a real book.”  “That’s not real reading.”  What are the chances that some student in your classroom has heard that remark from some well-intentioned adult in their life?  There is a common perception that comics are the equivalent of our trashy novels or beach reads, something to be read for fun or escape but not to be taken seriously.  I think it is easy to understand that analysis if your evidence is a limited to noticing a small amount of text in relation to pictures and an audience that includes a large amount of reluctant readers.

But for anyone who has looked closely or studied some of the creative process that goes into creating a comic, a different perception emerges.  Recently I have developed a deep appreciation for the intentionality and design of comics and think we can use these elements to help our readers and writers build stronger literacy skills.  Entire books have been written to help with this, but I’ll just mention a bit of my latest thinking.

Comic authors get to the heart of the story.

Because space is limited in a comic, authors need to make purposeful decisions about what to include and exclude in their comic.  Their word choice is often quite precise and concise.  Their dialogue is relevant and moves the story along effectively-there is little room for superfluous chit chat.  What images and text they choose to include in each panel is meaningful to telling the story, rarely are they unrelated to the ‘main idea’.

How could this help your students?  Imagine giving them the opportunity to write summaries of their reading in a comic format.  Could they retell the heart of the story with a few panels?  Imagine them planning their stories as a comic first-this story board format could help them organize a logical event sequence, focusing in on important plot points.

Comic authors force their readers to infer…a lot.

Comics are a perfect example of the concept of closure.  Author Scott McCloud defines this as “a phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole”.  The readers sees two panels that may seem unrelated and they piece together the story that connects them.  The “gutter” is the term that refers to the gap or line between panels.  Readers must infer what happens in the gutter in order to make sense of the sequence.  This “filling in the gaps” is the essence of inferring.  Those transitions are important parts of the story that are actually excluded from the story, forcing the reader to interact with the text more closely and collaborate  with the author in telling the  story.

How could this help your students?  Engage students in conversations about those gutters?  What do they think is going on?  What makes them think that?  Why do they think the author excluded that from the panels?  Invite them to write those transitions for the gutters.  When discussing other types of texts that have transitions in time or setting, relate these to the concrete notion of “gutters” to encourage readers to think about what happens between those transitions.

Comic authors show, don’t tell.

The concept of “Show, don’t tell” in writing is a hard one for many of our students to comprehend.  We encourage our writers to share experiences in their pieces with actions, thoughts, senses and feelings rather than description.  We share examples such as His hand trembled as he reached for the bloodstained doorknob, and yet students still write He was scared.  He opened the door.  The illustrations and icons in comics show the reader the important elements going on in the story and allow the reader to interpret them through their own lens of experience and knowledge.

How could this help your students?  Being able to show, don’t tell in writing requires the author to first visualize what it is they want to say.  They have to ask , “How do I convey that the character is scared?  How do I show that?”  They have to visualize it first and then share that image with the reader.  Inviting these writers to visualize the scene in their head the way a comic author does,  before they write it down could be tremendously helpful.  Sometimes it is okay to tell, if writers showed everything the story would be bogged down in the minutiae of details.  Discussion about what comic authors choose to show and what they choose to tell, could help clarify this concept for our writers in other formats or genres of writing.

Comic authors are artists.

For anyone who has taken an art appreciation course, the elements of design that we studied are exemplified in every panel of a comic. The level of realism or abstraction that the author chooses to use cause the readers to engage in very different ways.  When realistic images are stripped down the author/illustrator is focusing our attention on what they think is important.  They can amplify aspects in a way that realistic art can’t. We can often see ourselves in a more abstract, cartoonish image than we can in a realistic image of another person.  We respond and connect to the image more easily if we can see ourselves reflected back at us. These choices are conscious decisions by the author.

The way authors convey movement, action, time through a series of still drawings is purposeful and effective.  Their use of design elements “tricks” our brains in to seeing movement that isn’t there, hearing sounds that aren’t audible, and passing time that isn’t real.  The shape and layout of the panels helps to tell the story sequence and duration.  Are these design elements obvious to our students? Could raising their awareness deepen their comprehension?

For many of our students, this is as close to art appreciation as they will ever come.  Taking time to discuss design elements and principles, variety of media, and style would enrich our students’ respect for art and help them see the role it plays in our lives.

by Mark Pett. Cottonwood Press. 2000

Comics are fun.

I think the number one reason for encouraging comic reading is that it is enjoyable.  Sure, we can learn a lot about art and literacy from comics, but not if students don’t enjoy them.  Tapping into their natural love for the format is a great way to sneak in a little education for those who seem resistant!  Don’t teach the books to death, enjoy them while you learn.  When our students can appreciate them more deeply they will begin to respect the literary and artistic aspects of the work and perhaps transfer that understanding to other works.  We want our kids to read.  We want our kids to write.  For some, comics might be that gateway drug that gets them hooked!


What’s On My Book Radar?

The two books that have most informed my thinking this year around comics and graphic novels are Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud and Draw Out the Story: Ten Secrets to Creating Your Own Comics by Brian McLachlan.

81VZc-YIAiL Scott McCloud has written a fascinating book that reveals the incredible amount of design and detail that goes into creating comics.  Told in comic format, he gives explicit examples of the concepts he discusses and shares the history and psychology that has shaped this popular media.  Intellectually stimulating for adults and very accessible for advanced elementary, middle school and high school students.  Though written in 1993, it is timeless and priceless.  I would have this as a “must read” for so many teachers!


91dWiidU8CLBrian McLachlan has written a fantastic “How To” book for designing and creating your own comics.  He breaks down the text features and design elements he calls “Comics Grammar” to help students appreciate what decisions go into making a comic.  This one is a current MSBA nominee that I think a lot of students will love.  I would definitely have a copy of this in any elementary or middle school classroom library.

51ee81F+HhLI would LOVE to purchase a copy of Mark Pett’s 2000 book Mr. Lowe: Cartoons from the Classroom but a new copy costs $6005.13 and a used paperback version starts at $53.76 so I might need to ask Santa for this one!  For now I visit his webpage to read some of his sample comics and thoroughly enjoy his energetic and fresh  perspective from new teacher, Mr. Lowe!

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