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Funny Idea?

Comics in the Classroom--a

Patrick McEvoy-Halston

EDCI 3534'. Ann Beck 09 October2003

See the RoccoVersaci,in "How Comic Books CanChange Way our Students introducecomicsinto their middle Literature," hasa proposalfor teachers:he asksthat teachers their as of andhigh schoolclassroom a means engagingtheir students'interestandenhancing (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 onto reading,he also believesthat they constitutea form of medium to turn adolescents literature. He thinks that the contemporarybias againstcomic books is as unwalrantedas was the previous bias againstnovels; and, as one whose most memorablereading momentsin his came from comic books, I applaudhis attemptto redeemtheir value as meaningful adolescence readingmaterial. However, even I am not sure whethercomic books get studentsmore

in interested reading. My own suspicionis that it is a comic's graphicmaterial(i.e.,its pictures) which I believe is which has the greatestimpact on the readerlviewer.This suspicion--one in sharedby many--is not adequatelyaddressed his essay. In fact, his most convincing example of the sophisticationof comic books, and of the complex interrelationshipbetweenimagesand the words that they purportedly offer, really is one in which he persuasivelydemonstrates 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.



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of Versaci begins his article by summarizinghis assessment how most of his adult 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

workpfe too often canonized to Versaci,is frequentlytaughtwith suchreverence, leam or intuit that it is their containers greatriches,that students of unquestionably considered itytheir (literary books)value. Versacibelievesnot only that comic role to leam to appreciate booksarea type of literature,but that they areideally suitedto capturethe interestof throughthe illustrations," comic books"'put Because "readers'see' the characters adolescents. more (62). According Versaci, youngadultsfind comics to a human face' on a givensubject"
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that comic booksneednolbe any than other sortsof books,but he argues inviting and accessible that thanother forms of literature. He suggests the "interplay of or lesssophisticated demanding "an the written andthe visual" (62) in comicsmeansthat readingthem demands active [. . .] o*e / qoe X'ofo-r-'' (6r. participation thepartof thereader" on
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 finding it strangethat they are asked incorporatedinto the curriculum, he believesthat students, of to to study and analyze comic books, ffe encouraged think about the consequences

attributionsof literary worth. He clearly hopesthat studentswill judge contemporary as designations to what constitutesliterary quality as largely arbitrary, and that they will learn to value their own judgments of literary worth. of In order to help nurture doubt as to the value of current assessments literary merit, to Versaci feels he has to succeedin convincing teachers begin introducing comics into their well. Most of classes.He has a powerful "card" to play, and he plays it early in his essay--and 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


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

worksof literature, with us reminding of ourownlikely difficult encounters intimidating M
prepares to at least to listen to his argumentin favour of comic books in the classroomas a us 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 the than it might have been had he acknowledged "supremacy"of books over other written of mediums. So strong is the influence of the existing assessment 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," making his case. in 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 girl who has been "sexually comic books such as Daddy's Girl, which dealswith an adolescent abused her father" (64), and to Art Spiegelman'sMaus I and II, a serieswhich "retell[s] the by story of the author's father, a Holocaustsurvivor" (63). Comics, he is attemptingto get us to can be seriousstuff--so serious,in fact, that they might be deemedinappropriatefor contemplate, young adult readersfor reasonsvery different from thosewhich here-to-foremight have come to mind. Versaci also takescare to mention the namesof writers of comic book writers (such as as themselves award winning writers of Neil Gaimon) who also happento have established

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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

that the it for youngadultminds(though is worthnotingthathe fie&il supports supposition
literature,even if it can be expandedto include comics, must necessarilydeal with "serious" young adults are not when he arguesthat, because subjectmatter). He is also persuasive intimidated by comic books, they thereforefeel more comfortableengagingcritically with them are than they do with books they recognizeas part of the English canon. However, most teachers probably concernedthat comic books are all about the picturesfthat is, they likely believe not

only that there is too little writing in comic books but that whateverwriting exists in eomie



olgrwhelmed!y the powerof thEpicturesthat accompanie{$)Versaci g-9 at,..t..9"sr.r"$'.F: J)l-r'



this beginsto make an argumentwhich addresses concern,but ultimately ends up reinforcineiour li*etrtctief written one. the Versaci doesnot directly address concernthat there might be too little actual writing the in a comic book to develop literacy, but he characterizes readingprocessinvolved in exploring a comic book so that we are likely remindedof the one form of writing whose that is sparseness consideredamongstits primary virtues--namely,poetry. He slyly suggests readersof comic books must constantlyrelate words to imageswhile they are reading, because 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 in unlike more "traditional" forms of literaturebecause addition to making use of that comic books are more accuratelyconceived more as a visual medium than as a

literary devicessuchaspoint of view, narrative,characterization, standard conflict, setting,tone,andtheme,they alsooperatewith a poeticsthat blendsthe visualandthe texrual[.] 64 /

to He certainly seems be arguingherethat comic bookscanbe usedby a teacherto developall the sortsof critical thinking skills that bookscan (aswell assomethey can'ysdthis to and overblown, implausible be persuasive. \'r-'titl is simplytoo onesided,
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But he makesa muchbigger mistakewhen,in his exampleof how text andgraphics in interested the communicativepower of the interrelatein a comic book, he is-e+iden{lyrnost Lily in Debbie of comic's pictures. He writes aboutthe effectsof the presentation the character 's thnsly: Drecshler'sDaddy Girl on his students noticed with suchintensity, students Forcedto look at a relatively confinedspace at that the panelsgraduallybecomedarkerasLily's initial enthusiasm havinga diary is undercutby the fact that her privacy hasbeenviolated. They alsonoticed how the direction of Uly's gazevariesthroughthe four panelsandthat in the to crucial third panel,wheresheis responding this violation, sheseemto be interpretedthis visual strategyas looking directly at the reader. Somestudents out" to readers[.]65 Drecshler's way of "reaching here,clearly, in this description as the ThoughVersacitakescareto characterize students readers conceivedof asui"*"f of the graphicdramaof Lily's gaze,they arc betterandmore accurately whenhe writes that "this activity of morehonestin his characterization students Versaciseems to it appeals thiml t. . .l because forcesthisl t. . .l students be morecritical viewers[emphasis to in addedl" (65). It is undeniablya terrific thing, ashe argues, this ageof "movies andtelevision" (65), to developcritical attentionto the visual medium,but comparingcomic booksto movies, much good. Too much hasbeenmade doesnot do his cause television,andevento video games nf .'.,^t


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 those which sharetheir predominatelyvisual mediums such as movies and television--especially somewhatless than reputablestatus. Versaci fails to convince me that comics do encourageverbal However, simply because readingskills as much as they do visual reading skills doesnot mean that he leavesme material to get students convincedthat they do not promote literacy, nor that they are inadequate ,/ to think critically about what they read. I imagine if I was in a classroomin which someof the the studentswere having difficulty with the offered curriculum, and if I possessed 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 that comic books have to may not have the graphic enticements incorporateinto my classes, adolescent concernsand interestsfar better than the older attractattention,but they likely address curriculum must have done. They have the addedvirtue of being--self-evidently--reading to material. In sum, there may be other sourcesfor teachers turn to other than to comics if Huck et Finn, Shakespeare al. continue to bore and intimidate current middle and high school students students. And, given that he leaves of as much as they may have previous generations adolescent 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.