Saturday, September 19, 2009


By Nate Stearns
Staff Writer

As a High School English teacher I have a number of go-to moves, party tricks, techniques that have been honed through years of practice and zen-like study. You might, if you're feeling uncharitable, also call these ruts – stolid, unimaginative ways of looking at literature and writing that have become ossified and boring. That is one of the reasons that including graphic novels in the high school classroom has been so useful to me. All of a sudden, expectations about what is English and what is something else get blown up. There is art to contend with as well as words. Dialog is more common than either exposition or description. Even the spaces beween panels can be as important as the panels themselves, and OMG, the main character is a mouse that smokes!

My first attempt at teaching graphic novels involved combining two classic works: Scott McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS and the big 1000-pound gorilla of the graphic novel world Art Spiegelman's MAUS. Students can and do tackle Maus on their own without McCloud's exhaustive analysis of how a comic page is put together, because Spiegelman's work does a masterful job of teaching you how to read it as it goes, even for students who have little experience with graphic novels or comic books.

For a teacher, though, it's very helpful to have someone else parse the elements of grammar in a graphic novel. It's difficult to suddenly confront a puzzle-like page of cartoon characters grappling with the enormity of the Holocaust and its effect on the author's father when your training (and all of your free time?) involves pages and pages of text. How do I diagram a speech bubble?

English teachers will often look to find entry points in text along common literary terms. We teach concepts like theme, characterization, and symbolism as a way of making sense of large narratives, to begin to see beyond our emotional reactions to a story and to analyze what an author is trying to accomplish. Graphic novels play with the same tools, but how we analyze them needs to change with the medium.

For instance, when we discuss theme in a piece of literature, we're often looking for conflicts of ideas, how a writer is using the literary work to make sense of big abstractions in the personal lives of the characters depicted. Sometimes it is overt and didactic: Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE wants you to know that capitalism is bad news when it comes to making sausage. A book like Maus is more circumspect. Does the horrific experince that Spiegelman's father experiences in the Holocaust justify his less-than-stellar actions as a father? Are we captives to history? The artist's decision to render his father as a mouse, along with other mice being savaged by Nazi cats suggests powerlessness. But the narrative constantly references his father's ability to use his wits to survive; he doesn't seem powerless in the story he tells.

Or if, as is an English teacher's wont, we try to construct how an author develops a character (characterization) and we use a short list of characterization methods such as: actions, thoughts, description, reaction to a character, and dialog. In this way, Maus is like a novel in that we seem to be getting a classic depiction of a complex character. We see Vladek conduct himself in the most difficult of situations with courage and compassion; we also see him in the present day, consumed by racism and petty jealousy. One subtle aspect of this is facial expression. Of course, a novelist might describe a facial expression, but the power of an excellent artist in using the face can transcend words; people are well-trained to extract meaning quickly from faces and McCloud spends whole chapters unpacking how artists can mix, match, and combine facial expressions for complex effects.

Again, any English teacher with a modicum of self-respect will at some time ask students to look at the scrambled eggs, the plum tree, or the haunting eyeglasses of TJ Eckleburg and connect it to something larger. Symbolism is our super power, but graphic novels introduce another layer of complexity. As McCloud notes, graphic novelists use a spectrum of realism in their art (from smiley face to photo realistic portraiture) to invoke increasing or decreasing levels of particularity or universality. In MAUS, though the story is about the author's father, he seems physically indistinguishable from his fellow Jews. Is that a commentary on the Nazi tendency to see all Jews through the same lens or of Spiegeleman's attempt to connect Vladek's story to a larger narrative? Is it about the artist's ability to depict something or a conscious choice meant to evoke a more primal emotion?

As McCloud explains (more graphically and more eloquently than here) comics require a new set of both grammar, vocabulary, and an understanding of time than we are used to in our study of literary works. For instance, he notes that almost all of the action in a graphic novel has to come from how a reader fills in the connecting movement between panels. If panel one shows an innocent face, panel two a face with a pie attached, and panel three a smirking face, readers quickly connect these isolated moments into complete story. That insight is particularly helpful in a conflicted narrative such as MAUS where the author is never sure whether he is capable (or even if it is possible) to capture the enormity of the Holocaust in pictures/words.

When we do return to the world of words, it's helpful to remember that words themselves often teach us more in what they suggest and fail to say as much as they do in what they spell out.

Some Resources:

UNDERSTANDING COMICS summary in Wikibooks
Browse UNDERSTANDING COMICS at HarperCollins

Browse MAUS at Google Books
Teacher's guide to MAUS by Random House
Robert S. Leventhal's analysis of the structure of MAUS

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