Comics in Education: Derek Newman-Stille
Ashley Kronsberg

Graphic Novels have had a historical year in literary acclaim with John Lewis' graphic novel memoir, March, winning the prestigious National Book Award. But even before this celebrated win, professors have been including graphic novels in their curriculum even in higher education courses. BookShelf Editor, Ashley Kronsberg, talks with educators about their use of graphic novels in their classrooms and the benefits they have in their curriculum.  In this addition we speak with Derek Newman-Stille, a university professor and literary researcher of representations of disabilities in fiction.


Ashley Kronsberg (AK): First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching college courses, what do you teach, etc.?

Derek Newman-Stille (DNS): I primarily research representations of disability in literature, focussing on genre fiction. I began teaching university courses in 2009.

AK: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum?

DNS: This is the first year that I will be teaching a full course on graphic novels. I have previously guest lectured for colleagues on graphic novels, examining works like V for Vendetta and Maus. I began researching graphic novels long before I started to teach about them in the classroom, so it seemed like a natural next step.

AK: Were you an avid graphic novel reader prior to teaching them in your classroom? And now that you have taught them, do you find yourself reading them more outside of the classroom?

DNS: I have been an avid graphic novel reader since youth, and have written academic papers on graphic narratives before teaching them, so I have looked for an opportunity to bring them into the classroom. I find that teaching graphic novels shifts my focus on the type of graphic narratives I read. I often seek out narratives that have gathered attention on online fora and discussion groups for their exploration of political or identity issues.

AK: How has working with graphic novels evolved or changed your way of teaching?

DNS: I don't think that teaching graphic novels has changed my way of teaching overall, but it certainly evokes a different style of teaching when I am directly addressing them. I tend to rely far more on visual representations of the comic page, using PowerPoint to show the comic page and then bring attention to features of the artwork while addressing literary themes.

AK: Do you notice any differences among students’ interest or responsiveness to a topic working with a graphic novel as opposed to another literary format?

DNS: One of the challenges of working with graphic novels, particularly when teaching English Literature students, is to convey the idea that there is value in reading graphic novels. Frequently, literature students are biased against the graphic medium, viewing it as a lower literary form. I have had to incorporate a few lines about the value of graphic narratives into most discussions of the format when addressing students. I often have to talk to students about the value of graphic narratives as a combination of the literary and the artistic and focus on the notion that graphic narratives represent a different type of reading that has not been addressed in other literature courses. I often evoke Marshall McLuhan's phrase "the medium is the message" and discuss the importance of the medium of comics shaping the type of narratives that can be told.

AK: Is there a specific lesson plan that has become your “go-to” when teaching graphic novels?

DNS: When addressing graphic novels as opposed to other types of literature, I tend to foreground comic terminology, explaining features like the gutter, the panel, and the dialogue box. Since I frequently teach literature students, I tend to focus on artistic analysis first on the premise that they may have training in literary analysis, but may be lacking in artistic analysis.

One of the activities I like to do with students is to provide them with a comic page where I have removed all of the words, getting them to focus on the analysis of the images themselves and looking at the story that the images can tell. This allows them to sharpen their graphic analytical techniques. I then provide them with a page where only the words are provided and get them to analyze the words on the comic page. This two step process allows students to see the power of combining the image with the word and the composite story that is told through both word and image.

AK: Have there been any big challenges with using graphic novels? What have been the major rewards of teaching them?

DNS: The biggest challenge when using graphic novels is that students assume that graphic novel courses are "bird courses", and are unchallenging. This frequently means that students encounter challenges early on in the course with the workload and the depth of analysis.

The major rewards of teaching graphic narratives is that I am able to help students who haven't read comics in the past to encounter a new medium and to discover some of the exciting narratives that are out there for them.

AK: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built in to your curriculum for the upcoming semesters?

DNS: This semester, I will be incorporating a wide variety of graphic novels into my curriculum including:

Fables Vol 1
Through the Woods
Rat Queens Vol 1
Lumberjanes Vol 1
The Beauty Vol 1
It's Complicated: A Collection of Comics With Everyday Feminism
Nelvanna of the Northern Lights
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection
Hawkeye Vol 4
Red: A Haida Manga
Ms Marvel Vol 1
The Complete Essex County
Saga Vol 1
The Sandman Vol 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

AK: For college professors looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?

DNS: This really depends on the type of course being taught.

  • For a course on political literature, I would recommend Maus, and V for Vendetta.
  • For a course on indigenous literature, I would recommend Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Kagagi, and Red: A Haida Manga.
  • For a course on feminist literature, I would recommend Rat Queens, Bitch PlanetIt's Complicated: A Collection of Comics With Everyday Feminism, Dykes to Watch Out For.
  • For a course on disability literature, I would recommend DumbThat Deaf GuyEl DeafoEcho, and The Disabled Life.
  • For a course on Queer or LGBTQ literature, I would recommend Assigned MaleIt's Complicated: A Collection of Comics With Everyday Feminism, Batwoman: Elegy, and Fun Home

AK: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?

DNS: My favourite graphic novel to teach is probably V for Vendetta and that is largely because I can illustrate to students the political power of comics. When teaching V for Vendetta, I am able to draw student attention to the way that groups like Anonymous have picked up the visual form of the comic, using the Guy Fawkes mask to evoke the notion of political dissidence and protest group solidarity.

AK: And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?

DNS: I adore the graphic novel Monstress because it is just such a powerful narrative and the artwork is absolutely incredible. The Ms. Marvel comics are also incredible for their playfulness, and their willingness to explore the complexity of teen life.


To join the converstaion, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at kashley@diamondcomics.com.


Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille has a Masters Degree in Anthropology from Trent University, focusing around an analysis of ancient Minoan and Mycenaean Art. His interest in the archaeology of ancient societies has had a great deal of impact on his own artistic trends. In his youth, Derek was told that he had a fine motor learning disability and that this would prevent him from developing fine motor skills and thus not allow him to do fine art or any form of highly skilled artistic work. Derek’s love of art, need to express, and belief in the importance of art pushed him to continue to develop his style and engage with various creative fora.

Derek Newman-Still also researches Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monsters to explore the representation of disability issues. He has taught courses at Trent university on "Werewolves as Symbols of the Human Experience" and "Witchcraft in the Greek and Roman World," and has presented papers on the Canadian fantastic at the Popular Culture Association of Canada, The International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as at several other conferences on various aspects of his research. Derek has previously published an academic essay titled “Morality and Monstrous Disability in Topographia Hibernica” in a book titled The Treatment of Disabled Persons in Medieval Europe: Examining Disability in the Historical, Legal, Literary, Medical, and Religious Discourses of the Middle Ages.