Recently the topic of ‘teaching comics’ has received a lot of attention. For example, the International Comic Arts Forum held a “Comics Pedagogy” roundtable last fall (chaired by Qiana – Frank also participated), and a number of recent books focus on educational issues, including:
- Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, Stephen Cary, Elsevier Press 2004.
- Teaching Visual Literacy: Using Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Anime, Cartooning and More to Develop Comprehension and Thinking Skills, Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher, Corwin Press 2008.
- Teaching the Graphic Novel, Stephen E. Tabachnick, MLA Press 2009.
- Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives, Robert G. Weiner, McFarland Press 2010.
- To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, William Meyers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner, Teachers College Press 2010.
In addition, there are textbooks on making comics, such as Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s excellent Drawing Words and Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics (2008 & 2012, First Second). It is clear that these texts are not all aiming at the same target, however. Instead, there are a number of distinct tasks that fall under the general heading of “Comics Pedagogy” or “Teaching Comics”, including:
- Using comics to teach other subjects or skills.
- Teaching students how to understand, analyze, and interpret comics.
- Creating comics about the educational process.
- Teaching students how to make comics.
Cary and Frey & Fisher focus on the first task, Tabachnick focuses on the second, Meyers and Alexander-Tanner focus on the third, and Abel & Madden focus on the fourth (the essays in the Weiner text hit more than one).
All of these are of course admirable and valuable uses for comics. The questions I would like to ask concern the connections and contrasts between these different roles. For example: Will using comics to teach other subjects also help students hone their ability to analyze and interpret comics themselves? Does effectively teaching a subject using comics require that students have at least some baseline set of interpretative skills?
One particularly pressing question is this: Is it possible that learning too much comics theory could hinder a student’s ability to create good comics? About a year ago I had a conversation with a local, very successful professional comic artist who often teaches courses on making comics. He described an exercise he used in the classroom, and I objected that the exercise presupposed an overly simplistic account of how comics worked. He agreed with me in principle, but argued strenuously that, when actually creating comics, it was often more useful to have a simple theory that could be applied easily rather than a more complex theory that would be difficult to apply in practice,even if the complex theory was actually correct.
Regardless of whether the artist in question was right, the conversation strongly suggests that the connections between these different roles that comics can play in education are not necessarily simple. Further, it suggests that truly effective use of comics in education will need to consider the interrelations between these different roles carefully.
So, what is “Teaching Comics”?