As a storytelling medium, comics have come of age in the last few decades. With an enduring history in North America as a venue for superhero quests, they have entertained many a young reader. When Will Eisner published A Contract with God in 1978, comics took a step forward and the graphic novel was born.
Graphic novels have become the obsessive read for our students. They are enthusiastic about the easier to read ones such as Sardine and Baby-mouse Queen of the World , and about the meticulously researched Age of Bronze series. There’s something for everyone: from girls’ favourites such as Amelia Rules! to the ever popular Bone series to those that are popular with teens, like Re-Gifters and Full Metal Alchemist.
Many titles lend themselves to fruitful literature circle conversations. The cross-cultural explorations of American Born Chinese and The Arrival are two fine examples. The more didactic series such as Phonics Comics and the Timeline sets can serve as updated teaching tools. Phonics Comics is a line of phonetically based easy-readers designed as comic books. The Timeline titles draw readers into curriculum-linked historical stories. (They come with teacher’s guides.) In-depth curricular connections are possible with powerful historical fiction like Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and Louis Riel: A Comic-StripBiography.
The proliferation of this literary form and the growing collections of graphic narrative titles in our classrooms and school libraries are tangible evidence of the joy students’ take from reading and of their engagement with this form of expression. Integrating technology with the study of comics, using software like Comic Life, can breathe new life into learning. 1
To capitalize on students’ engagement with graphic novels, let’s take a look at how to develop a comics unit as part of teaching media literacy. Here is a list of learning activities to support your students’ reading and deconstruction of the visual language of comics. As the students hone their visual literacy skills, they will begin to understand what Will Eisner calls the “grammar of sequential art.”2
- Begin with a comparison of magazine cartoons, comics, and graphic novels. Focus on the basic conventions: fonts, images, drawing style, inking for outline, icons, panels, colour or black and white design, dialogue, action, and characters.
- Be explicit with the vocabulary of the genre, such as gutter and panel-to-panel transitions.
- Have students review familiar graphic novels to identify examples of the conventions.