Things in Print :: academic applications of graphic novels in high schools

2 Jul

So I had this really interesting idea to look at graphic novels that are taught in school and analyze it. We found a list and then I realized I… had read exactly 1 out of the 111 items on the list.  But hey!  I can talk about that really quickly, then hand it over to my drift partner.

The one I can talk about is Batwoman: Elegy.  I have read this exactly once, almost exactly… gosh, I want to say three years ago, because I read it when my friend lent me her copy while we were sitting in a park eating terrible food waiting for a fireworks show to start on the Fourth of July.  I was very fond and I should probably acquire my own copy at some point.  The way my friend got me to read it was by informing me that Kate Kane, Batwoman, is in fact a lesbian; I mean, I would have probably read it anyway, but I’m always on the lookout for queer characters, especially queer female protagonists.  And it did not disappoint.  It read very quickly, in my opinion, but in a good way, combining both an origin story and a fight-the-supervillain story, full of training and relationships and really interesting developments and twists.  I can imagine irate parents telling their children’s teachers off for making them read this, because irate parents are afraid of the gay oftentimes, but I think it’s great.  It’s a fairly standard narrative with a fairly unstandard protagonist.

And I have read 22 of them! Although some of them not since high school so my memories are fuzzy and I’m going to pick and choose about which to comment on. I definitely agree with the inclusion of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, because while he went off the deep end in later years (do yourself a favor and never, ever read All-Star Batman and Robin), in his prime he was very, very good at telling Batman stories. TDKR is a strange animal because it was a flash-forward comic back when those weren’t common at all; it posits a world where the Caped Crusader retires and Gotham basically goes to shit because of it. Eventually, of course, he realizes that he must return to work, taking with him a 13-year-old named Carrie Kelly. She becomes the new Robin and he the Batman once again. Another interesting thing about this comic is that, while Batman is the protagonist, he is not always painted in the best of lights. Frank Miller is really good at writing steely protagonists that must make Hard Decisions and how much you’re able to put up with this can vary, but in TDKR it works really well. Batman is world-weary, he is angry, and he makes a lot of mistakes in this comic that are very unflattering. It’s one of the more interesting takes on the character that I’ve seen. At the time, it was revolutionary, and it’s an important part of graphic novel history.

There are several more superhero books on the list that I think are worth endorsing, including Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb, which functions both as a spectacular mystery/suspense book and as a parade of Batman’s Greatest Hits, and is probably objectively one of the best comics I’ve ever read; All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, which is truly Superman at his best and could be used in discussions of, for example, fate vs. choice in fiction as well as the appeal vs. necessity of superhero stories; and Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon, which is an accessible introduction to anti-mutant prejudices and a solid story (fun fact: the Cure plotline in this story was what inspired X-Men: The Last Stand, so if you want to see that idea actually done well, read this comic). There is also one that I’m frankly appalled that anybody thinks anyone, but especially teenagers, should be reading, and that is Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. At this point, making fun of Mark Millar is old news, but I feel it needs to be done as often and loudly as possible. Mark Millar does not understand any of the Marvel characters and that he was allowed to write them for so long is a mystery to me. Mark Millar’s idea of drama is writing everyone horrifically out of character so they can be assholes to one another for no good reason. I’m not 100% sure whether he originated the idea that Hank Pym beat his wife Janet, but it sure left an impression on me regarding that character at age seventeen. Oh, and he’s where the Maximoffs incest meme came from. Thanks, Mark Millar. (Warren Ellis gave him the best possible burn, though.)

As far as non-superhero fare on the list goes, Persepolis is a very important story because it offers a look at Iran mid-and-post revolution. Author Marjane Satrapi wrote it to be autobiographical, and I know that when I read it in college it helped me to understand a great deal of things I was never taught about Middle Eastern culture and what it’s like to live through such a dramatic period of history. I think this one is sometimes taught in elementary and middle schools, and in my case I read it during a class on middle and high school age literature. As I understand, it gets challenged a lot, which surprises me not at all, because different is scary or something. Sigh. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan is a beautiful, tragic story about a group of lions who are accidentally freed from the zoo during a bombing of the city. It’s a great look at the realities of war, from a very different perspective. It might be a bit much for more sensitive students (I cried) but it’s important.

And, finally, there were several comics on this and other similar lists that I strongly disagree should be suggested for high schoolers: Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and Alias by Brian Michael Bendis. These are all great comics, ones that I will recommend until I’m blue in the face. But I think that their subject matter is a little over the heads of high schoolers, frankly. Y might be the least difficult, since it’s a fairly simple plot: every man and male animal in the world is suddenly struck dead by a mysterious disease, except for Yorick and his Capuchin monkey. Now he must figure out how to exist in the world, while trying to get back to his girlfriend. It tackles a lot of important issues like gender and morality and feminism and the needs of the many vs. the few, and it would be a great jumping off point for discussion. But I could see a lot of parents being offended by some of the more extreme elements (there are fairly graphic sex scenes and a lot of language), and like I said, it might be slightly too sophisticated for the average high schooler. Sandman is DEFINITELY too sophisticated for high schoolers to analyze for a class – I didn’t read it until sophomore year of college and I still feel like I didn’t understand parts of it. It’s a gorgeous, important story, but one that you need a little more life experience to be ready for. And Alias is a detective story about ex-Avenger Jessica Jones, who now runs a PI agency and takes whatever cases she can. Think Veronica Mars all grown up and more prickly. Again, great comic – really emotionally dark, deals with a lot of Issues, and probably not something high schoolers are prepared to discuss for a grade. Also, language out the ass. Literally the first page has a great big FUCK on it. It was the first in Marvel’s Max line, for Serious Adults. Jessica’s getting her own Netflix series sometime this year and I couldn’t be more excited, but if the comic’s anything to go by, it’s definitely going to be an adult show.

I didn’t see Watchmen on the list either, which is perhaps an indicator of how inappropriate it is for the classroom outside of college (that is another Serious Adult Comic), but that and V For Vendetta are ones that always get mentioned when the art form of the graphic novel is under question. They’re good stories, though they have their problems. Again, too sophisticated for high schoolers, but worth mentioning for completeness’ sake.

This post is a bit scattered but, essentially, I think that graphic novels in the classroom are most useful when they’re presenting real world concepts in a fantastical way, or telling the stories of real life people who don’t often get a chance to speak (I hear American Born Chinese is very good at this but I haven’t read it yet). And sometimes, it’s important to talk about why people love heroes (All-Star Superman) and why those heroes are tremendously flawed (The Dark Knight Returns).

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