What Can Comics Do? Tapping Into Empathy and Flexibility - National Council of Teachers of English
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What Can Comics Do? Tapping Into Empathy and Flexibility

This post was written by NCTE member and author Jason D. DeHart, PhD.

When I write the word comics, many images and ideas might spring to mind for the reader. Maybe it is first the action figure or bombastic film that occupies a child’s life that you know, or maybe a stack of floppy magazines ready to throw into the trash. Comic strips might come to mind, or the colorful images of middle grades graphic novels.

Whatever that image is for you, I can confess in all honesty that I have learned so much about the wide range of comics through my years as a reader and teacher. What began as a fascination with heroic characters has turned into an appreciation for a medium (notably, one in which many genres can be presented).

When I began teaching English in 2007, I was fairly skeptical. I had not read comics since the late 1990s, and, though I still visited the options at my local bookstore, I did so with a feeling of hesitance and even shame. I thought: What if one of my students saw me reading these books? Surely, as a teacher with a Master’s degree, I should be reading Shakespeare or John Updike or some other author whose notable distinction as a literary voice held sway.

What I have learned since then from spending time with comics, as well as from scholars in literacy—and even from my students—is that any type of story can be told in comics, and that feeling of shame that I carried with me for enjoying them was out of place.

A Vision of a Life

One of the major elements of reading books that I have grown to appreciate more and more is the way an author can speak across pages, times, spaces, and even centuries to help a reader know that they are not alone. As I have shared in other NCTE posts, when I look back on the titles that I assigned in my first few years of teaching, I am struck by how male-centered and white-centered they were.

We know from the work of Sims Bishop (1990) that readers need to see themselves represented on the page, and they need to be able to take a peek into the lives of those who may not be like them in all ways. Apart from gaining new vocabulary and unlocking complex texts—which is valuable work, to be sure—books are invaluable as cultural artifacts that build upon the inner life and improve the human condition.

When I read Constellations by Kate Glasheen, I am struck by the semi-autobiographical story of an author and artist who grew up in much the same time I did, but whose experiences were vastly different. While I was figuring out what it meant to be a kid growing up in a rural small town and exploring questions of fitting in, Kate was exploring their own questions.

When I read Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, a dissertation published in comics/graphic novel form, I am struck by the ways words and images combine to share a researched narrative of symbolic and philosophical depth. It is definitely a book to reread.

Both of these examples are complex in their own ways—and both are rendered in comics form.

What about the tried-and-true superhero books that have been popular for decades? Yes, even these books cause me to think. When I revisit the narrative of Bruce Wayne/Batman, I see a character who was wounded as a child and who discovered a sense of agency in imaginative ways. While nowhere near to the ways I would find my own voice and work, this book inspired me as a young reader.

In short, the visuals and words that are part of these texts, to say nothing of the design features and imagistic motifs, can not only build criticality—they can help us become better humans, if we answer the literary call.

A Number of Approaches

So, empathy is one avenue. What about the standards-based work I have to do as a teacher? As someone who is currently in the high school classroom, has spent almost a decade in the middle school classroom, and has worked at the college level, I can safely and reasonably share that comics are useful for virtually any type of reading and writing activity that a teacher wants to explore.

Science Comics and History Comics can capture information-based ideas in creative and visually appealing ways. Adaptations have their value for comparative thinking, and comics of any genre—from memoir to Western to science fiction—include the possibility for thinking about characterization and character development, themes, plot development, vocabulary knowledge, engagement with challenging text, thinking about ideas across types of texts, sharing our own adaptations, explaining processes, engaging in digital creating and revising, exploring grammatical forms, developing visual and verbal persuasive techniques, and even considering how the words on the page can be elevated for speaking and listening. If all of these possibilities sound familiar, that is because I was running through the catalog of state standards I am required to teach and thinking about how I’ve linked them to comics.

I also want to be clear—not all students will have their lives changed by comics. They are not the magic button to the top tier of literacy for all students, and that is why we need rich and robust classroom libraries and meaningful curricula to engage and develop readers. However, there certainly are those students who discover their reading superpowers in the pages of comics.

Want to Learn More?

I have continued to explore comics as I have talked with authors and illustrators for my podcast, and as I have edited book collections. I am pleased to share that there is much more for teachers to consider. In Building Critical Literacy and Empathy with Graphic Novels, coming from NCTE in February 2024, I explore and unpack lesson plans, instructional steps, and loads of examples from comics I have used in practice.

This book features examples of how graphic novels can be used to link to critical questions and engaging topics, and I share from reading, writing, and composing work I have put into practice. The book also includes words from a number of authors and artists, including Jarrett Lerner, Andy Runton, Chad Sell, Duncan Tonatiuh, Sara Varon, and many others.

I sincerely hope that you are inspired by the book and not only try out some of the ideas, but put your own spin on them for the needs of your students. And I am always glad to talk comics and teaching as a colleague and supporter of the work you are doing in literacy.

Jason D. DeHart, PhD, teaches English at Wilkes Central High School in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He taught English language arts to middle grades students in Cleveland, Tennessee, for eight years, earned his doctorate, and served as an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University before returning to his first love, the secondary classroom.
Jason’s work has appeared in Edutopia, SIGNAL JournalEnglish JournalThe Social Studies, and the NCTE blog. See all of Jason’s MiddleWeb posts here—including a three-part series with teacher and school librarian Jennifer Sniadecki on using picturebooks with middle level readers. His website, Book Love: Dr. J. Reads, offers book reviews and author interviews.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.