Graphic Novels in the Classroom

This week we’ve discussed the graphic novels as historical fiction, the strengths of using graphic novels to discuss fraught material, and complex process of adapting historical research to sequential art. We would like to end our roundtable discussing more broadly the possibilities of using graphic novels in the classroom.

The first strength of graphic novels is their novelty. Assigning works like Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner or Fetter-Vorm and Kelman’s Battle Lines is a surprise to most students. By not being another monograph or set of primary sources, graphic novels shake up a syllabus. This is good for students, who may be interested in exploring a subject in a more unconventional way, and for teachers, for it forces us to reconsider how to teach subjects we may have taught many, many times. This novelty also adds some additional accessibility for students who might be skeptical of reading more traditional assignments.

The visceral nature of graphic novels also gives them great power in the classroom. Anyone whose taught with images and material culture knows the usefulness of visuals in the classroom. The advantage of graphic novels is that they broaden the palate of available images and experiences. The strength that contemporary graphic novels have over historical images—photographs, paintings, etchings, et al.—is that they can offer students representations of persons, events, and experiences which would have been highly unlikely to have been recorded visually within their historical context. Taught alongside primary sources, such modern artistic interpretations can hammer home, as Jessica noted on Tuesday, themes that may seem abstract or too overwhelming to students.

Teaching with graphic novels also raises questions of interpretation, which are at the core of all history courses. Walking students through a graphic novel’s interpretation of its subject gives an instructor yet another chance to hammer this home. In my experience I’ve found students much more willing to understand and challenge this aspect of history when it comes to graphic novels, over more traditionally assigned prose novels or monographs.

The central problem with including graphic novels in your history course is simple: they are not primary sources or a monograph. Syllabus space is tight and student attention short. Is shaking up your course worth it in such a context? Do the risks of such an innovation falling flat balance the possible reward? As powerful as graphic novels can be are they actually more powerful as teaching tools than traditional assignments and texts?

I want to end this post, and the roundtable, with a questions for The Junto community. Do you use graphic novels in your classroom? If so, which ones? If you don’t currently employ them in your courses, would you be willing in the future? If y you would not, why so?

8 responses

  1. This isn’t early America but I assigned the graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report in my modern U.S. survey course. It served two main purposes – it guaranteed that I’d make it past the 1970s or ’80s when many “1877-present” courses end, and it allowed me to end the class on a discussion of how we define history vs. current events. 9/11 is still so present in our collective memory, but these students were 6-8 years old when it occurred (and as every year passes, that age drops). I don’t love the graphic choices of this book – it’s hard to be whimsical or creative when you need people to recognize Bush or bin Laden – but it’s definitely easier to digest than the very long full report. I would assign it again, if only because it gives much more context of the event than I think they’ve picked up as casual media consumers in a post-9/11 America.

  2. I have not used graphic novels in my classroom but after reading this, I would consider it. I teach music appreciation and band. My music appreciation course is grounded in history and it has been difficult to get some of the students interested in that side. Hopefully I will be able to find some that would be good to introduce to my students.

  3. I think you are spot on in regards to raising questions of interpretation. Good historical study helps us to understand that historical arguments are rooted in the present and employ various texts and materials from the past. I think graphic novels can help students understand how this process is present in a wide range of discussions, such as politics, fiction, culture, etc. Historians like us know that our work is relevant, but I don’t think we should be afraid to go to creative lengths in order to convince others, our students especially.

  4. Good points raised by all.

    I am tinkering with my US to 1877 syllabus and plan on including Kelman’s “Battle Lines” because I think it will be a refreshing exercise for students by the time we get to the end of the semester.

    I think some of the concerns about the type of the reading that a graphic novel represents (ie NOT a primary source, ambiguous on where it stands historiographically) can be worked around by the structure of the course. In the past, I’ve had classes in which primary sources are discussed certain days of the week, usually after context is read/presented. So I’m not so certain this is as big a problem as we may think.

    Completely aside, but Dark Horse comics is currently mid-run of a mini-series titled “Rebels” ( that focuses on the Green Mountain Boys. depending on how the story wraps up, I may include it in my Revolutionary America classes in the future. So far it has been especially good at focusing on the the home front.

  5. Pingback: Toe to Toe: Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass versus Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave | Welcome to Pedagogy & American Literary Studies


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