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Teaching French Graphic Novels
Michael Gianfrancesco, Dr. Katie Monnin, and Ilya Kowalchuk

Literature in the 21st century has significantly evolved to be both textual and visual, to view and to comprehend merged into one overarching idea to define how we understand literature in modern society. Hence, the modern definition of what counts as literature in classrooms must place value on both textual and visual literature in the hands of 21st century readers. As our world advances and we increasingly rely on visual technology, screen and/or screen-based literacies have allowed us to focus predominantly on the visuals that tell very significant, globally impactful nonfiction stories. Accordingly, literacy scholarship has documented a marked increase in both the creation of and the market for visually-based literature.  Graphic novels now represent on average around 23% of the overall publication industry and that number grows each year with the format garnering 43% of book sales in France.

Bandes Dessinées have dominated the literary world in France. The diverse styles and stories represent the rich and long history that comics have played in French culture already. As we reflect as a diverse, collaborative group of professional writers who teach graphic novels every day we wish to express our deep and sincere appreciation for the French graphic novels being produced for graphic novel readers around the world. 

For that reason, and to highlight the seismic global impact of what it means for all literate citizens around the world to continue redefining literature in 21st century classrooms, this article will focus on the contemporary contributions of French graphic novelists. Spreading the word about the global graphic novel community is key to a continued redefinition of what now qualifies as literature in modern, culturally responsive classrooms.  In the examples that follow we hope to highlight how some of the best French graphic novels on the market can serve as literary tools for contemporary educators to explore just how textually and visually vibrant visual literature can be in globally conscious classrooms.


California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mommas and the Poppas

By Pénélope Bagieu

Published by First Second Books

This graphic novel spans some of the short life of the legendary vocalist Cass Elliot from the Mamas and the Papas; in doing so, it details her love of music, companionship, and freedom. True to its title, the book begins during Elliot’s childhood and ends just when she is about to join the folk group that would make her one of the most famous women in world.

Pénélope Bagieu is a writer and artist whose other books include Exquisite Corpse and the upcoming book Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World. Her artistic style is soft and melodic in appearance and, especially in California Dreamin’, this translates through the representation of melody and music which are not mutually exclusive ideas.

This text is a fantastic example of creative illustration. Bagieu draws songs as if they are traveling on small currents of air, flowing gracefully past those who are listening. Fans of the music of the 60’s will immediately hear those tunes play in their minds as they rise and fall on the page. As a result of this unique and melodic visual representation of story we can see this easily being part of an illustration course.

In addition, we would pair this book with Baby's in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles by Arne Bellstorf because both focus on famous musicians and their lives before hitting it big. Thematically, they both touch on how these artists struggle to make it big, but still revel in the freewheeling lifestyle with which the slow rise to fame is paved.


The Death of Stalin

Written by Fabien Nury and Illustrated by Thierry Robin

Published by Titan Comics

With Russia having become a major factor in international politics in recent years there is no better time for this darkly comic graphic novel to appear. When Joseph Stalin was found unresponsive on the floor of his bedroom, the political insiders immediately jump to contain the news and ensure that the country remains under the control of the government.

Along with this title, author Fabien Nury has written a few graphic novels that are steeped in history, but often fictionalized (like the Legion series, which is set during World War II). The illustrator of The Death of Stalin, Thierry Robin, also has other titles, most notably the Li’l Santa series. His art is very cinematic in nature (which is appropriate, considering that it has been adapted for an upcoming film) and uses angles and lighting that you might see being staged on a movie set.

We would caution high school educators about some of the sexual content of this graphic novel as it pulls no punches in representing some of the behind the scenes “activities” of powerful men. That said, The Death of Stalin illustrates the nature of the power vacuum left behind when an authoritative leader suddenly vanishes. In a history course that touches on how empires fall and/or rise this text could help illustrate the chaos that follows when fate suddenly changes the game.


Water Memory

Written by Mathieu Reynes and Illustrated by Valérie Vernay

Published by Lionforge under their Roar imprint

A buzzword that often gets tossed around when describing literature is “haunting” and it is even sometimes overused. In the case of Water Memory there isn’t a better adjective to describe the story. After putting the book down, we defy you to not feel haunted by the events of the story – in particular the ending. It tells the tale of a young girl named Marion whose single mother just inherited her childhood home and has decided to move them in. In her adventures around the costal town, Marion learns that her family’s history is far more complicated and intriguing than she or her mother ever thought.

Writer Mathieu Reynès is known for his Alter Ego and Harmony series of books. Valérie Vernay is a children’s book illustrator who is known in Europe for her Agathe Saugrenu series. Together, they have created a mysterious tale that keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

The themes of isolation and family collide in a compelling manner in Water Memory. The main character’s sense of curiosity often lands her in hot water (no pun intended) as she seeks to unlock the mysteries of her new home. The conclusion will raise endless questions in a middle school classroom about the nature of closure and how the book approaches it. In addition, the art style can be a great model for visual storytelling, especially due its unique use of perspective and color.


Castle In The Stars

Written and Illustrated by Alex Alice

Published by First Second Books

Set in Western Europe in 1869, Castle in the Stars tells the fantastical story of a family of scientists searching Earth’s upper atmosphere for the mythical “Aether”; once they find it the mythical “Aether” will fuel transportation through the stars. This incredibly powerful discovery becomes the driving force behind international espionage where even the great Bismarck’s machinations play a role.  

The original French comic was translated and published by First Second in 2016. The art and story are beautifully interwoven. Alice uses a gorgeous steampunk and watercolor aesthetic, firmly placing the reader in the 19th century. The translation is masterful, deepening the reader's’ immersion into the late 19th century and attachment to the dynamic characters. The final panel is as cliff-hangery as they come. In fact, after reading the cliffhanger many readers have searched online to see if the second and final volume would be and is available. Sadly, it’s not. Hint hint, First Second!

This comic naturally pairs with Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy – both storylines explore the mystical materials that facilitate previously unimagined travel and all the associated metaphors. Alice also draws heavily from Jules Verne so any of his works can easily be paired with Castle in the Stars.


Doomboy

Written and Illustrated by Tony Sandoval

The Magnetic Press / Lion Forge

Nominated for a San Diego Comic Con Eisner Award as Best Graphic Novel for Teens, Doomboy follows the path of D, a young man who’s true love has died. He tries to heal the hole left in his heart through his guitar. D broadcasts his pain-infused ballads across the ‘cosmos’ (radio waves) – but unknowingly, his songs are picked up and loved by the local rockers. He doesn’t want the attention, and has to deal with all these problems at once.

Doomboy is yet another example of how French publishers just get “it”, what makes a solid prose and visually successful graphic novel story. The story focuses on what’s important, and the little details come together to move the reader in unexpected ways. Visual references are masterfully used by Sandoval to potently touch on themes of heartbreak, loss, and ethereal connection. It is also important to note that this book explicitly tells the story of a hidden homosexual relationship and the associated conflicting emotions.

I’d recommend pairing this book with others that cover themes of loss and love for teens, like Generations by Flavia Biondi.


Park Bench

Written and Illustrated by Christopher Chaboute

Simon and Schuster

This comic masterfully explores the role that an oft-ignored and common feature plays in marking time: the park bench. Chaboute (Alone, Moby Dick) explores how the bench intersects with various lives, dreams, and perspectives. In this wordless novel, Chaboute builds relationships between his reader and characters through facial expressions, posture, and routines. Another impressive aspect of this graphic novel is how he reveals the passage of time – showing the seasons of life.

Park Bench can be used to explore several themes, including impermanence and perspective. How do tales shift when the anchoring object is inanimate? There are also opportunities to consider how we view individuals, communities, and individuals and communities together.

Suggesting other wordless graphic novels like Gon and Owly certainly work when comparing technical aspects. However, they don’t allow readers to fully explore the emotional depth of this powerful work. We are recommending pairing this graphic novel with Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do and the Tamaki’s That One Summer to explore the layered complexities of life and time.


As we reflect as a diverse, collaborative group of professional writers who teach graphic novels every day we wish to express our deep and sincere appreciation for the French graphic novels being produced for graphic novel readers around the world.  The diverse styles and stories represent the rich and long history that comics have played in French culture already. And, what is even more important to note is that comics and graphic novels currently make up 43% of book sales in France! We hope that more and more of these beautiful stories are translated in into a host of world languages in the near future.