Important Conversations Inspired By Comics

All, Guides, Pillar

My head and my heart are so full, aching to the bursting point, that I must write. This pressure has built progressively thanks to a number of national events and local conversations including:

  1. My heartbreak and fear for my black friends (neighbors, fellow citizens) and especially those raising black boys which inspired the conversation I had with my son about white privilege.
  2. My frustration and anger with a country so steeped in rape culture that sexual assault and rape (not to mention the beating of women and children) goes unanswered and unacknowledged in the best case scenario and where often the victim suffers more from the system and public outrage than the perpetrator is topped only by my fear for the young women in my family, my church, my neighborhood, my country.
  3. Talks with pre-service and practicing teachers about how we can encourage our students to read and engage deeply and meaningfully with texts as well as whether or not we should require (nay demand) they read classic/traditional/canon literature or simply focus on getting them to read.
  4. Reflections on the life lessons learned from comics shared by the students in my comic book First Year Seminar.

I know. At first appearance it may not seem that the first two topics have anything to do with the second two, but bear with me for a minute. There is little that I can do about the first two topics. I can make my views known to others in the hopes of inspiring real dialogue and raising awareness; I can talk with my teenage son about white male privilege and respect; and I can talk about these issues with my students.

Conversations in any of these settings are tricky, but especially so in the classroom. Both of these topics are fraught with complications and peril and difficult to address in a class that is not about politics, government, etc. However, as a writing teacher, as an English teacher, I know that social justice has a way of creeping into any class and any discussion – especially when it is on our collective minds. I believe (quite fervently) in the power of words to help us communicate, learn, and understand. Words are an important part of our making sense of important, complicated things. We do this through writing, through stories. As Cindy Johanek notes in “Composing Research,” it is the stories we tell that demonstrate the interconnectedness  of people and of social responsibility. She uses Enos to note that “our stories, more than statistics, tell who we are” and further explain that “stories…make our histories more compelling, more true.” Story is an important part of history as well as our understanding or struggle to understand today.

give-back-more-than-you-receiveThis is part of Kevin English’s argument in Stop Slamming Stories in which he argues that stories are pervasive as they help us learn, think, communicate, and understand the world. He argues for writing and reading stories to help us understand. “If we don’t expose our students to all types of stories, as well as encourage them to craft their own, we are doing a disservice to them, their futures, and our profession.”

I couldn’t agree more and his argument resonates with Toni Morrison’s reasons for taking up her pen to write “Beloved.” As she notes in a recent interview (Toni Morrison on Beloved, racism, and the way we treat women): “I wanted to show how painful this this constructed horrible racism was on the most vulnerable people in the society.”

While we can take up our pens and we can encourage our students to take up theirs to tell their own stories about their experiences, we can use the stories of others to initiate and inform the conversations that we need to have in our classrooms and out – and this is where literature can play an important role.

Maria Popova argues that in fact storytelling matters more today than ever. She notes: “A great storyteller — whether a journalist or editor or filmmaker or curator — helps people figure out not only what matters in the world, but also why it matters. A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom.

“A great story, then, is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform — a great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self-transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.”

The literary canon is full of compelling stories that challenge what it means to be human and survive the human experience, but let’s be honest. These books are not a good entry point for most readers. Sometimes it is a matter of age, intellectual maturity, or simply taste; and sometimes it is a matter of skill, but not everyone is ready to dive right into Moby Dick (or Beloved). They need to be led there by a trail of breadcrumbs and that’s where comics come in.

the-choices-we-make-define-usComics are fun. Comics are easy (at least at first glance). Comics are accessible. But, just like great literature, many comics also explore issues important to the human experience. Want to explore racism and prejudice (I’m looking at you X-Men) or perhaps sexual violence and exploitation (Hey, Walking Dead) then you can find these topics and many more in comics. As I’ve noted in my presentations about Teaching With Zombies and Caped Crusaders, it is often more comfortable to discuss these topics in terms of an alternate universe and/or mutants than in terms of our own tragic, contested reality. Also, through stories we find it easier to understand and empathize with others because we know them better than the strangers on the news. Note: It is also satisfying to think about feeding a rapist to the zombies.

However, once we begin teaching our students to delve beneath the surface of a text and to peel back and examine the layers of meaning, I believe they will be hooked – comics can be the gateway to the classics if we do it right. And by right, I do not mean dumbing down the conversation or the ideas. Tim Smyth uses comics in his social studies classesDavid Cutler shares how he uses comics to teach English and history, and Harry Claus uses zombies to teach social studiesCreed Anthony agrees with my position and Cutler’s by noting: “I have been astonished by the amount of background knowledge that students gain from video games and comic books. From historical facts, geographical settings, to notable historical figures there are a number of facts that students learn from fiction. Comics also serve as preserved vessels of social commentary–a safe place for students to explore the complexities of social, political, and historical issues.”

Do you see the potential for comics and literature to helping us achieve greater understanding? The illustrations for this blog post were selected from presentations created by students in my comic-themed First Year Seminar. They created digital presentations illustrating the life lessons they gleaned from comics.


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