Comics Across the Curriculum: Math

The combination of images, words and storytelling in comics and graphic novels create endless communication possibilities. This month, BookShelf takes a look at a number of graphic novels with mathematical themes and examines each one's unique approach and appeal to readers.

Manga MathFor young readers, Graphic Universe's Manga Math Mysteries is a series of short graphic novels about a group of young students at a school for Kung Fu. Each book focuses on a different topic, such as geometry (The Book Bandit, ISBN: 978-0-76134-909-9), fractions (The Ancient Formula, ISBN: 978-0-76134-907-5) and others. In each book, math problems are presented as mysteries for the main characters to solve.

Aside from being presented in the context of a story, math problems also benefit from visual treatment. In The Ancient Formula, the page layout is cleverly used to demonstrate fractions: three panels show individual pieces of a whole picture. Readers are encouraged to solve problems along with the characters, resulting in graphic novels that are both engaging and educational.

HerevilleBarry Deutsch's Hereville: How Mirka Got her Sword (Abrams, ISBN: 978-0-81098-422-6) is not specifically about math but very much about cleverness and problem solving. When eleven-year old Mirka runs afoul of a troll, she ultimately uses her wits to outsmart him. Throughout the story, Mirka learns how to think her way out of difficult situations. This emphasis on problem-solving serves Mirka well when she comes up against the troll, a witch, bullies, her family and an enchanted pig.

An early example of Mirka's mind at work has her solving a math problem for homework; a typical word problem that involves dividing three pieces of cake among four people. Deutsch uses characters to dramatically act out the word problem in Mirka's imagination, cleverly giving visual life to the process of solving the problem. Mirka's solution is also presented in simple images that perfectly illustrate the answer.

Prime BabyOriginally serialized in the New York Times "Funny Pages" section, Gene Luen Yang's Prime Baby (First Second, ISBN: 978-1-59643-612-1) is a goofy, light-hearted story that blends sibling rivalry with science fiction. Thaddeus is a selfish, lonely kid who aspires to take over the world. An early scene features a lesson on prime numbers, in which a classmate complains "how's this ever gonna be useful in real life?" Thaddeus, however, finds the lesson extremely useful when he realizes that aliens are using prime numbers to make contact with the human race through his own baby sister.

Yang, who is a major advocate for the educational potential of comics and graphic novels, has also created series of webcomics for algebra students: Factoring with Mr. Yang and Mosely the Alien. More of Yang's work on comics in education is available here.

LogicomixFor older readers, Bloomsbury's Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth (ISBN: 978-1-59691-452-0) brings together mathematics, philosophy and mythology in a self-aware biography of Bertrand Russell. This is an ambitious book that explores the life of its subject while introducing complex mathematical and philosophical theories and asking unanswerable questions about the relationship between reason and madness.

The graphic novel form serves the story well, cleverly relating a lot of information in a compact space. Explanations of subjects such as Boolean logic are integrated into the story through the use of a hedge maze and the old game of "he loves me...he loves me not" played with flower petals. The authors and artists also appear as characters, illustrating their own challenges in thinking about the material. Because of this, Logicomix is compelling and fun to read, despite its heavy subject matter. Detailed notes at the end provide more in-depth information and point to further resources.

This list is only a sample of what's out there; we encourage you to share your own favorites on our Facebook and Twitter pages. And if you are an educator who uses comics to teach mathematical concepts, we'd love to hear about it!