Don't Call Them Comic Books: What We Can Learn From Graphic Novels

Though the medium of sequential art has traditionally gotten a bad rap from educators and parents alike, more sophisticated graphic novels have begun to change some minds. Even comics' humble beginning as a home for brightly-costumed crime-fighters is not without academic merit. Schools offering Graphic Design degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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According to a 1988 study, comic books placed second only to scientific papers in a ranking of texts by usage of 'rare words,' or words used infrequently in conversation that apt readers should master. While scientific papers packed in 128 rare words per thousand, comics managed a respectable 53, edging out adult books - which use 52 - and clobbering children's books, which incorporate a meager 30 words per thousand. Indeed, what would comics be with the 'megalomaniacal' Doctor Doom or the Incredible 'irradiated' Hulk?


Some teachers have found useful inroads to classroom studies by employing comic book characters with mass media appeal. For example, educator and blogger Chris Wilson recommends using Iron Man to interest students in a discussion of machine interfaces and cybernetics. Wide familiarity with these characters and their worlds can lead students to many interesting conversations about whether or not such feats are even possible, as fans of the medium have debated for decades.


Many of the most acclaimed graphic novels mine rich historical veins to uncover emotional truths. For example, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis tells the tale of her life under the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Shaun Tan's wordless The Arrival looks at the experience of an immigrant first coming to a strange land. Although abstract, many can draw lessons from its fish-out-of-water portrait. And of course there's Art Spiegelman's Maus, a harrowing look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a survivor's son.

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Even the most basic superhero stories hinge on ideas of right and wrong, good and evil. More sophisticated entries into the genre can present positively mind-boggling ethical dilemmas. Consider, for instance, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, one of the most complexly-structured texts of the 20th century in any medium. Few are the novels that can frustrate readers like that one, which leaves you with the sinking sensation the that 'villain,' for all his horrific actions, may have been right.


Like all good literature, the best graphic novels speak to our souls. The above-mentioned Maus and The Arrival may hold comfort for those dealing with issues of parenthood or alienation. And why do superheroes exist if not to inspire? In the excellent 2010 collection All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, the title character is forced to consider what the world will look like after his death. In a fascinating bit of meta-commentary, he finds that if the world lacks a real Superman to motivate people to great heights, humanity will simply create one, if only in stories.

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