In their comics, superheroes save the world. But can comics and graphic novels rescue struggling readers? Can they direct our attention to issues that matter? Have they earned their popularity?

Comics have existed for a long time — depending on your interpretation, maybe even as cave paintings in ancient cultures. Different people have seen comics as a menace, a boon, and an aid to noble ends. A trip to any bookstore or library will reveal that today, they are more popular than ever.

A Medium with Many Genres

Breeann Kyte Kirby, Ph.D., assistant professor of creative writing, teaches a class on world comics at PLNU. In her course, students use Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as their textbook and define comics as a form of sequential art that conveys information or ideas to the reader. Kirby believes that comics are a medium — a way of communicating — rather than a genre.

“Comics are an artistic medium that many genres fit into,” she explained.

For example, serialized superhero comics are a different genre than graphic memoirs though both use the medium of comics to share their message with readers. In bookstores, graphic novels (book-length comics) for adults and children are popular, and they include a wide array of topics and styles.

“Graphic novels are actually comics, too,” she said. “They just aren’t serialized.”

In Kirby’s course, students read a variety of lengths and styles of comics from different cultures. Aside from choosing the readings based on what is available in an English translation, Kirby also aims to choose non-Western texts when possible and those that are freely available. Some of the comics she has introduced to students are Color of Earth from Korea, Daytripper from Brazil, and Ghost in the Shell from Japan.

“We encounter diverse voices in world literature,” she said. “We ask, ‘What kinds of conversations [in these texts] are similar to or different from what we have here?’ We look at cultural concerns, narrative, and story. We talk about them as literary artifacts — we look at the historical context, the conversation with the culture [in which they were created], and the conversation with our culture. Of course we also talk about the visuals and the visual representation of metaphor.”

Kirby said her students also discuss some of the problematic content in older comics — for example, visual shorthand of harmful stereotypes. However, Kirby does not believe that all comics are racist or sexist.

“I don’t think people realize the diversity in comics and how much social work has been done since their inception.”

That’s something that’s very important to Toby (20) and Ricky (20) Franklin. The two siblings, who are twins, created a book-length comic together for their senior honors project at PLNU. The comic is entitled Mask of the Sentinels. Toby, a writing major, wrote the words, and Ricky, an art major, did the drawing. Their comic was not only “a fantasy world with monsters and this cool, fun, elemental world” but also a chance to process some of what they had been learning about colonialism and imperialism through their classes.

“Comics can bring life and bring perspective to the experiences of different types of people. Comics put the power with the artists and creators.”

“Comics can bring life and bring perspective to the experiences of different types of people,” Ricky said. “With movies, you have to have a huge Hollywood budget. Comics put the power with the artists and creators. I love indie comics because anyone can tell their stories, and social media is a great way to get their message out there.”

Inspiring a Love of Reading

Kirby has wide-ranging interests as evidenced by her master’s degrees in biology and literature. She has her doctorate in creative writing, has a popular science book coming out with MIT Press, and is the director of PLNU’s environmental studies program. Yet it wasn’t her own interest that first brought her to studying comics — it was for her son, who didn’t love reading when he was young.

“I got him Tintin and Astrix comics [from Belgium],” she said. “That was his gateway to reading. He got really into manga [a Japanese style of comics and graphic novels]. When we went to Iceland, we got him comics on Norse mythology. Now he’s 18, and he’ll read anything.”

Kirby’s son’s experience of finding a love of reading through comics is one that is familiar to Isaac Richert (MAT 14), teacher/librarian at Del Oro High School. Richert says that graphic novels are “hugely popular” in his school’s library. These texts often appeal to reluctant readers or those learning English as a second language because the visuals help make the text more accessible.

Graphic novel images

“Graphic novels can be a gateway into classic, inaccessible literature. We have a lot of old texts reimagined like Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice. It’s really cool to see kids pick those up.”

“They don’t want kids’ picture books,” he says of English language learners. “These graphic novels wrestle with big themes and big ideas.”

An example he gave was Maus by Art Spiegelman. Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father and his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. The story is told as an allegory using animals. The comic form allowed Spiegelman to tell his story in a raw, compelling way that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

Richert says manga, especially, is very popular at his school. Some of the bigger comic book arcs within manga contain tens
of different publications.

“There’s something triumphant when students finish a 40-volume manga arc,” Richert said. “It’s very cool to me that they are spurred on like that.”

“There’s something triumphant when students finish a 40-volume manga arc. It’s very cool to me that they are spurred on like that.”

Richert feels that manga has benefits beyond getting kids to simply read.

“Manga is kind of like an entry into Japanese culture for a lot of kids. I’ve had students who have used an interest in manga to start learning Japanese.

“They request trips to Japan … A lot of students are drawing all the time, and some are pretty talented in the manga style. I want to look into helping them self-publish. As a librarian, I’m looking into media technology that they can check out, like high-end styluses.”

In addition to manga, Richert has seen kids be drawn to graphic novel versions of literary classics.

“Graphic novels can be a gateway into classic, inaccessible literature,” he said. “We have a lot of old texts reimagined like Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice. It’s really cool to see kids pick those up.”

A cartoon from a graphic novel of a statue with water.

“Getting kids to slow down and pay attention to details is one of the harder things in education, but it helps in so many ways… Literacy begets literacy.”

Provoking Deep Thinking

Richert also likes the way the medium can be used across the curriculum.

“A new trend I really like is the nonfiction and memoir texts being graphic novelized for world history,” he said.

Because graphic novels and comics require an analysis of both words and pictures, they can help students develop visual literacy skills.

“If a kid can analyze a character’s facial tics or emotional nuances in a picture, those are skills that we can use in any subject,” Richert said. “Getting kids to slow down and pay attention to details is one of the harder things in education, but it helps in so many ways whether that’s in art history or doing a close reading of a poem or article. Literacy begets literacy.”

For those who might harbor uncertainty about the value of graphic texts, Richert encourages an open mind. “There are adults making their living writing graphic novels for adults,” he pointed out. “I think they are the literature of the future, not just for kids but for everyone.”

Like Richert, the Franklins both emphasized that comics can not only appeal to adults but also be powerful literary works.

Toby said the first comic he read in a classroom was American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. The book won a Michael L. Printz Award, was a National Book Award finalist, and became a New York Times bestseller. Now it’s being made into a Disney+ show. Ricky noted that during their time at PLNU, they were able to attend events related to the One Book One San Diego program sponsored by the library. In 2021, the adult and teen books were the same for the program for the first time — and the selected book was a graphic novel: March by John Lewis. Ricky explained that the book details Lewis’s experiences in the Civil Rights movement and discusses protests both peaceful and otherwise.

“It was such an amazing memoir,” they said. “It used a visual way to tell this story that couldn’t have been done with just text.”

“Comics aren’t just adventure stories or pulp fiction,” Toby added. “They can have excellent writing and beautiful artwork. That’s why I believe comics belong in schools.”

Leaving Bias Behind

In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertherm wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent in which he said that comics were causing young people to become juvenile delinquents. Wertherm’s work and testimony to a Congressional committee led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). The CCA served as a form of self-censorship from within the industry as an alternative to government regulation. If a comic’s cover had the CCA stamp, it was seen to be in compliance with the code.

“You had to have the stamp if you wanted advertisers and to be on newsstands,” Toby said. “The Amazing Spider-Man #96 was the first to do away with this when Stan Lee wanted to do, essentially, a PSA [public service announcement] on the dangers of drugs. The CCA said he couldn’t talk about drugs [at all]. He decided Spider-Man was popular enough that he would just release it without the stamp.”

Although the CCA ended in the 2000s, not all stereotypes about comics and their readers have disappeared. That’s why courses like Kirby’s and libraries like Richert’s are important.

“Comics have never been viewed as high art, and that’s actually the battle that happens in the classroom where it’s not seen as valid as a great American novel or even paintings,” Toby said. “But if you break it down to the elemental levels, people love literature, and people love art. Why does putting them together make it lesser?”

“People love literature, and people love art. Why does putting them together make it lesser?”

Like Toby, Richert encourages people to be open-minded when it comes to embracing comics and other means of expression that may be new to them.

“I think it’s important for teachers and people in general to be open to art forms they don’t understand,” Richert said. “I didn’t grow up reading manga and graphic novels, but I love that they exist and that they serve a student population that I think we overlook a lot. I just think we would all do well to embrace the art forms and groups of people that we don’t necessarily understand that well.”

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.