Sparking Media Literacy with Comics
by Peter Gutierrez

I’m afraid I have same bad news for movies and television.  Oh, and for videogames and the Web, too.

That’s because experience is slowly leading me to believe that leveraging graphic novels, comics, and manga may be the best way to drive K-12 media literacy instruction—especially within the ELA curriculum. 

All right, so I’m overstating the case.  But that’s probably in response to the tendency I’ve noticed in media literacy circles to relegate sequential art to an afterthought when compared to its cousins with all the moving parts.  In contrast, I’m going to make the argument for revisiting comics as an inherently effective teaching gateway to a variety of media as well as a means to address broader issues of process and the role of media in society.  

One of the great things about using comics in media literacy is that they can be adapted to virtually any grade level as long as one shifts the content for age appropriateness and interest level:  the clarity with which this medium can illustrate the core concepts of media literacy remains. 

So what are these concepts?  In a nutshell, they relate to how media messages are made, by whom, and for what audiences and purposes.  By exploring comics as a font of pop culture from which hit movies, animated TV shows, videogames, and licensed products all spring, students come to understand the profound similarities and differences that exist across media.  Moreover, they can easily reflect on their own roles as readers, consumers, fans, and even fledging creators.  In the end, students come to see how they contribute to the flow of market forces and in turn actually shape the evolution of art forms.  They never knew they were so powerful. 

I make these claims primarily because of three properties of comics, which

1)  represent a unique opportunity to teach both visual and print media.  
2)  allow educators to extend learning to other media “centrifugally.”
3)  provide a powerful way for students to activate prior knowledge.  

Kathleen Monnin, Assistant Professor of Literacy at the University of North Florida, likes to point to the central role of comics by invoking today’s all-important goal of “image literacy.”“We find ourselves living during the greatest communication revolution in history, where image-dominant literacies of screen, animation, technology, video game, and picture are starting to share the stage with the traditional print-text literacies.” Comics, then, represent a key entry point for K-12 into this “multi-modal literacy world.”  And while “visual literacy” (and sometimes “critical literacy”) has long been an element in basal reading and lit programs, rarely are the resources provided as rich and engaging as those in the graphic formats. 

In short, want to show kids how billboards catch your attention in a matter of seconds as you drive along the highway?  Study comics.  Want to teach the way that the layout of a print ad or a Web page maximizes the impact of the available space through strategic combinations of print and graphics?  Ditto.  You can teach formal elements such as composition, rhythm, color, typeface, page navigation, and many more, all by using comics as your springboard. 

But it’s not just a matter of teaching message-making techniques in stasis.  Comics present a terrific way to study the social evolution of media itself.  The focus of study can be an iconic character such as Wonder Woman, who is particularly fascinating (kids love to learn about how she “lost her powers” in the late ‘60s), or a particular creator.  For the latter, you might want to consider someone like Will Eisner, whose work appeared in strip form and was later reprinted in comics and comic “magazines,” and who of course helped pioneer the graphic novel, too.  At higher grade levels you may want to discuss Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess winning the World Fantasy Award in 1991, and the subsequent altering of the rules to prevent comics from being considered “short fiction” in the future.  What cultural forces are at work there—and, moreover, are they in some way necessary, so that we can keep our “category definitions” discrete in order to aid us somehow as consumers? 

Even the term “graphic novel” invites discussion.  How are graphic novels like and unlike prose novels?   And besides the obvious formal considerations, what are some other reasons—ones of connotation, not denotation—for why creators and publisher might prefer this term?  Through such inquiry, students can come to learn how critical and commercial discourse about media helps shape the direction of media itself.  

One of the ways that I narrow and personalize such issues is through the concept of target audience.  In this respect, manga, with its explicit classifications of shojo, shonen, and so on, makes for a wonderful teaching tool.  If students are unaware of these terms, consider presenting an array of titles and have them select those that appeal to them… then track whether the publishers have “hit their targets.”  When I do this with students we examine not only the narrative content, but also the storytelling and graphic styles.  Do these break down along age and gender lines?  Then we extend learning by identifying where this happens in other media as well.

I also point out that often the same artists who create manga and comics produce visuals for advertising purposes, too.  I have students analyze comic shop posters of the type distributed at conventions and discuss what they share with movie posters (e.g., creators’ names displayed as prominently as those of movie stars, release dates cited, etc.).  By the way, that’s another nice thing about teaching media literacy with comics—promotional items are high-interest and easy to come by.

Yet perhaps the strongest way to encourage analysis is to focus on adaptations of characters and specific titles over time and across media.  For example, in what ways does a 1940s serial have more in common with monthly comics (or multi-volume manga) and TV series than with movies—even though such serials were shown in theaters?  Answer:  the cliffhanger is a narrative device that ensures future attendance/receipts—just as it has done so for decades in comics and television (i.e.,  “Who Shot J.R.?”, which began the convention of season-ending cliffs, is really just a variation on “Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel”). 

Of course what’s most fun for students—and where they can leverage their prior knowledge in exciting ways—is when we explore a popular character such as Spider-Man.  We do analyses of the Lee-Ditko comics alongside the 1960s TV show and then compare that entire relationship to the current one between Ultimate Spider-Man and the impressive new WB series The Spectacular Spider-Man.  To what extent have the television producers drawn on the comics, and for what reasons?  More importantly, how do the constraints and strengths of any given medium inform this dynamic?  At the higher grade levels, works such as Ghost World or American Splendor may offer more compelling themes, but the principles at work are unaffected.

In pedagogical terms, what’s really at work here is the idea behind most forms of effective education:  explain the unknown in terms of the known.  Some students will be more familiar with broadcast cartoons than comics, and others the opposite.  The point is that each of these groups brings a body of knowledge to the conversation that enriches learning for all. 

Another powerful way for students to activate prior knowledge concerns media production, a necessary but sometimes overlooked component of media literacy.  No one has to teach young people to love creating their own comics—they seem to gravitate towards it naturally.  And if it’s not mini-books or items that are instantly recognizable as comics, kids will work comics-like elements into everything from science dioramas to homemade birthday cards.  Major publishers such as Marvel and DC have a history of producing engaging “how-to” books and to these I’d like to suggest adding the more far-ranging Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden.  The title itself not only sums up the artistic mindset necessary to creating comics, but also perfectly puts a name to concepts that are at the heart of visual literacy itself.

Finally, the rewards of media literacy are not totally divorced from those of print literacy and therefore the intangible benefits that stem from appreciating art and literature in a more general sense.  All that media literacy does is peel back the surface to expose the churning gears that project the finished products onto our imaginations.  This process of demystification, which is largely based upon making text-to-world and text-to-text connections, is no way intended to supplant the primacy of text-to-self, but rather to provide an alternate lens through which we can view that relationship.  Does mass media create modern mythologies by connecting all of us with common stories that evolve through continual retellings?  Or does the process of creating something for mass consumption dilute the capacity of any given “message” to inspire us personally?

These are not the kind of questions whose value lies in their ability to be answered.   The point is not to demonstrate to students how they can avoid being consumers, as if there were something to be shunned about that role, but rather how to be educated ones.  As an example of what this might look like, educators who use comics in the classroom probably only need to point to themselves.  In the end, what you’re teaching kids is that they can keep their brains open as well as their hearts.

An Eisner-nominated comics creator, Peter Gutiérrez has developed curriculum for over a decade and currently teaches media literacy in the Montclair, New Jersey school district.  He frequently speaks on the role of comics and graphic novels in the classroom, and has been appointed to serve on NCTE’s Commission on Media for 2009-2011. You can contact him at fiifgutierrez@gmail.com