The case for comics in the classroom

Comics have recently undergone something of a renaissance in the literary world, transforming from stories of superheroes smuggled into class behind textbooks to texts increasingly recognised for their value as literature or works of art. In recent years, awards as diverse as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Caldecott Medal for illustration have honoured various American comic books. Acclaimed authors such as Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay and Ta Nehisi Coates have turned their prize-winning talents to the world of comics to address issues such as black rights and the environment. With Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird becoming the latest widely-taught classic to be adapted into graphic novel format, the comic should no longer seem out of place on classroom shelves.

However, the artist behind the Watchmen series, Dave Gibbons, argues that comic authors remain “side-lined” in the UK, in contrast to how they are perceived internationally. “In France, comics are called the ninth art, they stand alongside music and literature”, whereas in the UK they “have always been associated with very cheap and somewhat lurid entertainment”, he says.

I am familiar with the embarrassment that often comes from being seen in a comic-book store - cue the image of a literature student clutching her Penguin Classics tote-bag as if to say ‘see, I do read proper books too!’ - even though I know that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about in loving this art form. However, the generally negative perception of comic books is pervasive.

This is why the potential of comics as an educational tool with an enhanced appeal for reluctant readers and the 65% of the population who are visual learners has been largely ignored. This is difficult to justify when the National Literacy Trust’s statistics show that whilst 72% of boys and 83% of girls in the 8-11 age range reported enjoying reading, only 36% of boys and 53% of girls aged 14-16 claim the same.

Spearheading the campaign to promote the educational value of comics in schools is Comics Literacy Awareness (CLAw), whose projects include the Excelsior Award. The prize asks 11-16 year olds to nominate and vote for their favourite graphic novel or manga (a popular style of Japanese comic books), giving young people the power to shape the literary landscape in ways young and struggling readers often feel excluded from.

However, it is important to be careful about how comics enter the educational system. They should not just be presented as an enjoyable stepping-stone to encourage reluctant readers before they move on to ‘real’ literature.  This disregards the unique qualities of the genre, including the use of both complex visual and written modes of storytelling that help equip young readers with the analytical skills necessary in a world where television and the internet have made visual culture as significant as the written word.  

Comics often deal with difficult subjects in an accessible manner. Take Marjane Satratpi’s Persepolis (Vintage), a humorous coming–of-age memoir set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, or Stephen Collins’s The Gigantic Beard that was Evil (Picador), a tale about a man who cannot stop growing a beard in a society where facial hair is forbidden. Through surreal drawings, they explore typical teenage experiences such as identity crises, rebellion and fitting in. These familiar topics act as a bridge to experiences unfamiliar to many readers. For instance, there is a scene in Persepolis where young Marjane (“Marji” to her family) floats in space; she is upset, lonely, and confused about the world around her. Reading the comic, I felt as though Marjane and I were experiencing something shared, until I reached the jagged speech bubble at the bottom of the page that reads, “Marji, run to the basement, we’re being bombed!” This was an experience that I could never imagine occurring in my own home in England. Combined with the bordered panels, which create the impression of seeing Marji’s world through a window, I was being asked to reflect on my role as a witness to her experiences.

This is one way comics are able to foster empathy, a particularly important aspect of children’s education considering the current English Literature curriculum, with both GCSE and A-level students rarely reading beyond British and American texts. Students have little opportunity to develop an understanding of other cultures, leaving them poorly informed about the multicultural world outside and inside the classroom.

The potential of comics to encourage reading, develop analytical skills, and reintroduce empathy into the school curriculum is clear. If we are to capitalise on this potential, out-dated perceptions about the simplicity of the genre must be shed. Comics can be powerful teaching tools, as CLAw’s work shows, but like the best superheroes, it is only once their mundane disguise has been cast off that their superpowers are revealed.

Four comics to convert a classroom

Maus by Art Spiegelman (Penguin)
Recommended for A-level students, Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning memoir of his father’s experience of the Holocaust is canonical in the comics world.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Vintage)
In equal parts humorous and heart-breaking, Satrapi depicts life in Iran during the Islamic Revolution through the eyes of her childhood self.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins (Picador)
A beautifully drawn fairy-tale about difference, fear, and forbidden facial hair.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (HarperPerennial)
A comic book about comic books, this is a great resource for teachers seeking to understand comic book theory and what comics can offer.

Alice, a YA Shot intern, has just completed a degree in Comparative Literature at King’s College London. Rather than fretting over Russian surrealism or modern Egyptian poetry, she can now be found sharing her love for YA fiction in her role as a mentor for London-based refugees, and is aspiring to a career in the charity sector. In her spare time, she enjoys globetrotting, listening to strange '80s music and seeking out like-minded souls to gush about children’s literature with (although this usually ends in the shifty admission that she has never actually read a single Harry Potter book…).

Alice researched, conceptualised, wrote and redrafted this article as part of her first year internship with YA Shot, with detailed advice, input and two stages of in-depth edits from her second-year peer-mentor, Ella Whiddett.