Graphic Novels Should Be Taught More in English Classes

Zakk Bluford

If the English language can be found in so many different media, why do most high school English teachers insist so strongly on teaching from traditionally written novels? Some teachers choose to deviate from this tendency, assigning their students poems, philosophical essays, or speeches to read. Others break away from traditional format more by showing films or art to give historical context or a different spin on a story. However, one medium that is often ignored by teachers is the graphic novel, commonly known as “comics.”

English teachers around the country should realize the benefits of teaching graphic novels and include them in their curriculum more often. This addition would popularize an often ignored yet beautiful medium, intrigue unenthusiastic students, and diversify a high school subject that is frequently taught in an archaic, predictable fashion.

First, I feel the need to defend a form of art that is often associated with newspaper funnies and silly superheroes. While there are many comics that fit these two descriptions (many of which are timeless masterpieces), there are multiple graphic novels that would suit an English class much better due to maturity in subject matter, quality in storyline, and complex character development.

Comics often depict realistic human life; Harvey Pekar’s series American Splendor follows the seemingly mundane life of its writer, a Cleveland resident who can’t find a way out of financial instability. Pekar manages to transplant poignant moments and life lessons into what seems like the worst possible idea for a storyline. Traditionally written stories can rarely tap into uneventful situations in this way.

Even if comics include supernatural elements or sensational occurrences, they carry underlying themes similar to those we study in English classes. The beauty of graphic novels lies in their ability to blend two types of storytelling: drawn art and written word.

Different comics vary in their ratio of these two elements, and an English class could benefit greatly from a book that focuses on the writing, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Although most English teachers would hesitate to assign a Batman story, they would likely be attracted to the extensive amount of dialogue and narration, which expose the book’s themes of perseverance and redemption.

The addition of graphic novels to an English curriculum would benefit the classroom in a variety of ways. Many students dislike their English class, probably because they are bored by reading solid text and have difficulty relating to their teacher’s interest in the subject. By introducing a graphic novel, an English teacher can show uninterested students a more accessible way to appreciate the English language and draw them deeper into discussions.

Not only would this diminish student-teacher resentment, but it could also give students a new perspective on English and increase their interest in the subject as a whole. After learning how to identify artistic symbols in graphic novels, teens would develop a greater sense for written symbols in traditional novels. The teachers would benefit by expanding their abilities and areas of expertise, as well as by learning how to make stronger connections between different genres.

Admittedly, some English teachers have already begun to teach graphic novels. Some Miramonte teachers have chosen to teach the book Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the life of a Holocaust victim in Poland during World War II and in New York City afterwards. In this symbolic tale, Jews in the Holocaust are depicted as mice, and cats represent the Germans. Freshman English teacher Steve Poling chooses to teach the novel both because of its high literary quality and because it exposes students to a style unknown to most.

“I think it is important for students to read as many different genres as possible,” said Poling. “There is a running tension between the images and words that you just don’t find in a traditional novel.”

Most students have responded positively to this interesting addition to their English curriculum. Freshman Megan Coleman is currently reading Maus in Poling’s class and is enjoying the change of pace.

“Maus is way easier to read than books we usually read in English. It’s fun to look at the pictures while reading and I actually look forward to English homework now.”

The absence of graphic novels in English classrooms is more due to stubborn traditionalism and misleading stereotypes than it is to a lack of quality in the books. Comics come from nations all over the world and are just as diverse in their subject matter and grand in their scope as the written novels that are most frequently taught in school. Some teachers have made important strides to include some of these outstanding pieces of literature in their curriculum, but more need to join the effort in order to give this medium the credit and the recognition it deserves.