Saving the Day, One Nerd at a Time

Hi, folks!  Thanks for bearing with us through our conclusions, and sticking around to hear our reviews pertaining to the literary quality of some great graphic novels.  To round off our more serious discussion of what we would call the necessity of incorporating this medium into the curriculum of schools nationwide, I thought I’d indulge everyone in something a little more frivolous: our favorite pop culture, fellow comic book nerds!  Enjoy.

Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj of The Big Bang Theory.  They may have their doctorates in Physics and other impossible subjects, but their near-genius status doesn’t prevent them from knowing the merits of a great comic.  Obviously all four are particularly partial to the super sonic reflexes of The Flash.

Supposedly based on every comic book guy in America, we love The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy for his wit and quips.  Drop on by his shop to pick up the latest and greatest in the world of comics.

Harvey Pekar.  This guy loved comics so much that he developed his own autobiographical series, American Splendor, that was later made into an award winning film starring Paul Giamatti. Embracing all that is mundane, we love Pekar’s statement that “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

That’s all for now, you readers out there in the blogosphere.  Hope everyone is having a smooth ending to the school year and lovely transition into a sweet, sunny summer.  ‘Til next time!

-Elizabeth

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Conclusions, Sweet Conclusions

I entered into this project with an already deep affection for the graphic novel (and comic book) medium. I love the ways in which images and words are allowed to intermingle and build upon each other. I have for a long time now, been aware of their literary value. Art is something that can engender an emotion, and mine have been riled up by this medium more than once. I felt a deeper connection to Yorick’s pet monkey Ampersand in Y: The Last Man than I did for my grandmother’s cat Ricky.

Because of this, I had thought that my potential for learning from this project may be stunted. However, my learning did come – not from doing this project, but simply from having an assignment about graphic novels. I engaged in conversations with my peers about what work I had to do instead of hang out with them. I was surprised to find that not everyone is on board with the literary merit of my beloved graphic novels. What I have learned is that the stigma of their lesser value runs deeper than I have previously thought.

Because of this, I feel more strongly that graphic novels ought to be taught in schools. Through this, people will have available to them a whole new slew of literature which can help them to further make sense of experience, emotion, and more.

I have also observed from these conversations that many people avoid graphic novels because “they are harder to read.” No longer do we simply guide our eyes from left to right, from left to right, and so on until the end. The panel layout of graphic novels does not adhere to any one standard, thus requiring one to pay closer attention to the story. I say this because in a good graphical novel of literary worth, the layout is organic to the story, in harmony with it. As such, attention to the story guides the eye. Through introducing many of my friends over the years to graphic novels, I have found that they at first express frustration with the panels, but in time come to read anything that I hand them without an issue, despite how differently they have been arranged.

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The merit of the Graphic Novel

I never thought I could go to check out a graphic novel tell the (smirking) librarian, “no I really am reading this for a project,” but it has happened. After perusing the comic book collections of friends and eBay, standing for hours in front of the piles of graphic novels at the book store, and shuffling through the teen area of the library; I feel I have exposed myself to a wide swath of the comic book / graphic novel genre. Am I a graphic novel expert? By no means, but I have a deeper appreciation for the literary and artistic merit this medium offers.

After looking closely at the way in which artists depict each scene, usually in relatively high detail, I appreciate the interplay of art and how it supports the narrative structure. This is much more than a picture book and often borders on film. The characters each have well-developed personalities and even postures and gestures that come across only vaguely in a non-graphic novel.

The stories are just as well-developed as a standard book, many dealing with issues that are faced by their intended audience. For example, Black Hole deals with sexual promiscuity, STDs, love and relationship issues and Brody’s Ghost works with teen cancer and death as well as relationships and self-discovery. These are viable tools for young adults to connect with and see their own problems fleshed out in very concrete characters.

I have found, however beautiful some of the modern artwork can be, that I am partial to the Classics Illustrated‘s recreations of classic literature. Maybe it’s the English major in me, or maybe it’s simply that they have the most readily available use in the classroom. Either way, I enjoyed revisiting old favorites in the form of shortened, illustrated books. These books could serve as bridges to the longer, more difficult to understand novels. Teachers could easily bring them into the classroom to introduce students to them for free reading time or to help work through dense dialogue to reach the plot. The CI books are far from perfect depictions, but could be an adaptable tool that is unique and interesting to students.

Within the classroom context, whether using an old Classics Illustrated or a more modern graphic novel, there are numerous ways in which it can be incorporated into the learning environment. A teacher could use them to discuss: characterization, plot development, dialogue, setting, historical period, issues faced by characters, and the list goes on. I think this is a vastly untapped resource that could pull “non-readers” into the discussion as well as open a new medium for already established readers.

-Darlene

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A Collusion on Conclusions (Hopefully)

This picture, and the others in this post, come from the popular manga Full Metal Alchemist, starring the young man with the metal arm, Edward Elric. The series is widely acclaimed for dealing with issues about the line between science and religion, the value of faith and life, as well as the moral implications of scientific experimentation. In Edward’s world, “alchemy” is the science, an art which allows the manipulation of elemental material in seemingly supernatural ways.

How can you explain what’s depicted in these panels? How many words would it take? Would describing Edward Elric’s mechanical prosthetic really be as effective as seeing him transmute it into a blade? Well, after several reviews, some historical research, and a thousand comic panels, I think our brief foray into graphic novels is coming to a close. Elizabeth has provided unparalleled academic context and ground-breaking research into the educational merits of graphic novels. John contributed his own erudite and rare perspective, a unique and necessary one for understanding the reader-response portion of our inquiry. Darlene gave us insightful and moving commentary and voracious curiosity toward a normally passed over genre. And I hope I facilitated understanding of the more semantic, syntactic, and prosodic methods used in these graphic novels, as I attempted to give the novels the structural attention their unique medium deserves.

As for my conclusions about graphic novels, they are legion. Through my research, I have come to the conclusion that graphic novels have a history as long and colorful as the modern novel, film, or artistic movement. Through my reviews, I have discovered that graphic novels convey all of the same information as prose, but by a different method. Prose utilizes the varied, deep, and rich vocabulary at our disposal as writers to convey meaning, narrative, theme, and character purely linguistically. Graphic novels are  a shift in that paradigm, relying on illustrations to mimic the massive amount of non-verbal communication we take for granted every day.

In a novel, the facial expression of a character may be described holistically (“A look of terror passed across her face.”), comparatively (“He looked more excited than he felt.”) or even literally (“Her left eyebrow and lip both kinked in the corner, belying the bemused disbelief she felt”). However, none of those sentences will tell a reader the same nuanced information as a detailed illustration of a person feeling those same emotions. We have been hardwired to read other people in this manner, a manner that graphic novels take advantage of to tell stories with just as much literary merit as Melville and Tolstoy. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case so is a panel. Graphic novels have the unique opportunity to take advantage of our natural proficiency in nonverbal communication (intentional or not) to give readers the same important information Dickens spent hundreds of pages of text on.

This is a fantastic way to depict actions, emotions, and characters in ways that would take pages of text to accomplish. The hubbub in the second row of panels is a fantastic visual way to depict the commotion in the room, and Edward Elric’s sweating face in the last panel characterizes his amazement, confusion, and frustration better than a page of dialogue.

Some may warn that the overthrow of classic literature is nigh, and the next generations will be raised nearly illiterate if all of their reading happens a sentence (or fragment) at a time: I am inclined to agree. Too much research has shown the links between rampant reading and intelligence, academic success (even in unrelated areas) and all around life improvement to allow prose to quietly die.

I foresee an eventual merging of the genres; a hybrid graphic novel, which combines the inherent narrative ability of comic frames with the beauty and power of language. I’m imagining author-illustrators using comics as illustrations alongside a page of text, to clarify and intensify the action described there.

Just a thought!

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A Reader’s Tale of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

Overview:

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is the author’s memoir of listening to his father – Vladek Spiegelman – talk about his experiences before and during the second world war as a Polish Jew. The book switches back and forth from describing Vladek’s past experiences and his/his son’s present day life.

Character:

Due to some of Spiegelman’s artistic choices that I will explain a little later under the style section, the readers of this graphic novel discern character from only a few aspects. First among these is the dialogue. Spiegelman makes terrific use of vernacular language to flesh out his characters. Also, he uses very simplistic drawing methods to illuminate expression and emotion.

Plot:

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is the author’s memoir of listening to his father – Vladek Spiegelman – talk about his experiences before and during the second world war as a Polish Jew. The book switches back and forth from describing Vladek’s past experiences and his/his son’s present day life. The change in focus oftentimes reflects instances where the past has helped to influence the present.

Setting:

The story is set in Manhattan, New York in the 1980s as well as eastern Europe of the 1940s. The black and white art style is kept for both locales, but the change in setting is very noticable, and one will not become confused about where the characters are in time or space.

Style:

The art in this graphic novel is black and white, and well done. While reading it, I didn’t experience any of the confusion that is common to that medium. More interestingly, Spiegelman decided to draw people according to their nationality – German people are cats, Jewish people are mice, French people are frogs, and Polish people are pigs. In each panel, it is nearly impossible to tell one person from another (it is though, characters often address each other by name, and some wear the same clothes throughout the piece). This way of depicting people at first seemed rather offensive, but as I read on, I started to pick up the notion that it was calling attention to the absurdity of looking at a person and seeing only a nationality.

Theme:

Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale has a few major themes running throughout it. The most apparent of these is the absurdity of racial, national, religious, and so on, barriers that keep people from one another. But, that has been explain a bit above already. Another of the major themes within this work is the potency of the past, and learning to make sense of experiences unhad that have shaped a person. The main character could arguably be Arthur, Vladek’s son, who is in the graphic novel trying to come to terms with his father’s formative past, and the repercussions that it held. This becomes especially illuminated while Arthur is reflecting on the existence of his older brother Riechu, who died before Arthur was born. The mourning expressed by his father and mother led Arthur to deep feelings of sibling rivalry throughout his life. Yet, through the graphic novel, he comes to terms with this through gaining a better understanding of the past.

Viewpoint:

The point of view in this story is third person omniscient. However, it is told as the narrative of a Holocaust survivors son. Within that narrative is framed his father’s story of surviving the holocaust. The stories overlap very organically, showing how one event or situation in the past has helped to shape the present.

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The WWWWWH of Graphic Novels

After a few months of additional exploratory graphic novel reading, I’m finding myself more compelled than ever to make a case for this genre in the classroom, and to back up my initial desire to expand my knowledge about this burgeoning book form with not only my own observations, but the evaluations of educators and experts who have first-hand experience watching the graphic novel enhance students’ comprehension in schools and libraries everywhere.  Please have a look at my findings below, and get a systematic overview of the WWWWWH (who, what, where, when, why, and how) of graphic novels!

Keeping up with the Jones’

Let’s face it: the contemporary world has ushered in ever-expanding modes of technology, and for the younger generations, said advancements have become an inherent part of the vernacular of every day comings and goings.  While my
mom is considered a computer guru at her work for knowing how to add an attachment to an email and for following me on Facebook, for anyone born in the Digital Age these mundane tasks are as expected of us as it was of our grandmothers to know how to sew on a button and hem up a skirt.  Because we’ve been bred to keep up with the times, my generation and subsequent generations are unavoidably prone to seek out what’s new, whether it be in the world of technology, art, or otherwise.  So when a genre of literature comes along that, if well executed, in many ways blends what’s renowned about classic

A graphic novel display outside of the Keane State College Mason Library

works – poetic language, complex characters, and the like – with modernity – images, which with the media, have become another intrinsic part of our current milieu, and even the web as grounds for publication – it is only natural that we latch onto them.  As Gretchen Schwarz, who earned her doctorate in secondary education, and who teaches college courses on media literacy in curriculum, notes in her chapter, “Graphic Novels: New Sites of Possibility in the Secondary Curriculum,” “Students need a new kind of curriculum in the Digital Age, new sites of possibility for learning and creating knowledge.  One medium that offers such a site is the graphic novel.  The graphic novel can drive current traditional curriculum goals, teach new literacies, offer new topics with which teachers and students can engage, and enable new ways of learning” (Schwarz 53).  While students outside of school fill their leisure with text messages, Facebook perusing, music downloading, blog reading, Wikipedia searching, and so forth, schools seem to be attempting more and more to hark on the old forms of print and spoken media, at the expense of helping students to learn how to correctly navigate these newer forms of media.  As Palfrey and Gasser, two professors of law at Harvard and University of St. Gallen, respectively, and authors of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, put it: “Our challenge is to help them make sense of these new contexts and new meanings, and to think synthetically and critically, rather than letting them lose their way” (Palfrey and Gasser quoted in Schwarz 56).  In the classroom, educators can use recognized graphic novels as a literary way to help enhance traditional and imagistic literacy, providing a springboard and scaffolding for interpretation of our myriad forms of new media.

Not your run-of-the mill comic book

Alright, so you get it: the graphic novel fits well with this not-so-new concept I’ve brought up of emerging technologies.  But what, exactly, is a graphic novel?  Art Spiegleman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic memoir Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, about his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust, defines it quite simply as “a comic that you need a bookmark for” (Spiegleman quoted in Schwarz 54).  To expand upon that definition, “the graphic novel is longer, packaged as a book, and usually centered on serious material; graphic novels receive critical respect as well as popular notice” (Schwarz 54-55).  Though there’s no denying the literary elements present even in comic books (See my post, “Why Spiderman is Poetic”), the graphic novel expands upon this form, breaking out of the bounds of fantastical superheroes and polarized moralities, and focusing on truly life-like characters and the more nuanced realities of life in general. Baird and Jackson, librarians from New York who have published scholarship on the literary form remark that, “a successful graphic novel starts with a stellar story told with words and pictures that augments the story, providing insight that text alone cannot do” (Baird and Jackson quoted in Griffith 182).  This combination of words and pictures is what gives way to the interaction of print and image, forcing readers to learn how to comprehend multiple forms of media at once.

Enriching Literacy

Since its emergence as a form, many educators have vied for the graphic novel as a legitimate tool to engage both reluctant and remedial readers.  Boys in particular, who have at times proven hesitant or unwilling to read much else, have been shown to latch onto graphic novels.  Scholars have also noted that sequential art, graphic novels included, can help to assist secondary English language learners (ESL) build their reading skills.  Many teachers have found that the form “invites students to review the basic elements of literature…and asks them to apply this knowledge,” while still others use them as a bridge into dense, otherwise intimidating classics (Hart quoted in Schwarz 55).  And it’s not only in English classes that the form can be used: teachers have reported success using them in history rooms, business courses, art programs, and elsewhere.  In short, “graphic novels can contribute to interdisciplinary thematic units or can serve as an introduction to specific content area,” all the while reaching even the hardest-to-reach students (Bucher and Manning quoted in Schwarz 55).

Concluding Remarks

Click here to enlarge and view Griffith's recommendations for graphic novels' connections to a variety of middle school curriculum.

All along in our efforts, we’ve been analyzing the graphic novels we’ve picked up in terms of their literary quality in attempts to elucidate and validate their status as a real, accepted, literary genre.  So when I ran across a list of criteria for evaluating graphic novels developed by a Doctor of Education with nearly twenty years of experience working in school libraries, I was thrilled, and even more delighted to hear her assert, “these criteria are familiar, but they are listed here to emphasize that good graphic novels contain all the literary elements we expect for quality fiction and nonfiction books” (Griffith 186).  And that’s that, folks: graphic novels, as us Graphic Novel Hovel writers have suspected all along, can be analyzed, understood, and studied in the same way as any traditional work of literature. So, without further ado, let me direct you to our page of recommended graphic novels so you can start along your merry way and get reading!

-Elizabeth

Works Cited
Griffith, Paula E. “Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School     Libraries.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54.3 (2010): 181-     89. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Apr. 2011.
Schwarz, Gretchen. “Graphic Novels: New Sites of Possibility in the Secondary Curriculum.” Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue 12 (2009): 53- 65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Apr. 2011.
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A Written Review of The Unwritten

Character:
Character’s come to life this in a few different ways. First and foremost is their actions and their words – as with any other story. But what is unique to The Unwritten is the size of the letters and the font of the letters for the speech of a character. For example, their is a moment where magic is performed by one of the characters. A spell is cast. The letters for that are: I -M-N-I-C-U-S A-B-S-E-N-T-O.
But in the graphic novel, they are written more like this:
IMINICUS ABSENTO
(Apologies, dear readers, the font on my computer screen, which is curvy, bold, italicized and more did not come through on this. I assure you though, such a change does have a noticeable affect… the text on my screen is very pretty)
As you can see, this change in font helps to better imagine a type of sound and also aids in developing one’s imagination. It should be noted that the change in font occurs for several reasons throughout the series, this spell only being one of them.

Plot:
The story revolves around Tom Taylor, a man who was made famous by the novels written by his father. The novels are akin to the Harry Potter series, and enlist the authors son as the protagonist (similar to how Christopher Robin of Winnie-the Pooh was based on Christopher Robin Milne). This became a great source of discontent for Tom. When it comes to light that there is no proof of Tom Taylor being his father’s biological son, many (eventually including Tom himself) begin to question if he is in fact the Tommy Taylor of the novels brought to life. From this, the cultural and ideological power of stories is explored.

Setting:
This is primarily set in the present day world. This is elucidated by the language used in dialogue, the buildings of the artwork; and even more noticeably, it is elucidated by the pages devoted to the information age (which you read read about in slightly more detail under the Style section). However, there are occurrences within this story where its characters dive into another story, which will often move the setting to wherever that story was set. For example, in issue 15, one character submerges herself into a Dickens novel, and the artwork and dialogue of those that she encounters resembles that very closely.

Style:
This is a story that is concerned about the nature and power of stories – not just novel stories, but stories in general. Because of this, the graphic novel explores various mediums to tell it’s tale. There are some pages that have been arranged to look like a computer screen rife with various websites onscreen, typically blogs, televised news feeds, and instant messenger services. Other times, the pages will have one large image accompanied by large blocks of prosaic text – meant to give the feel of a novel. This style helps to accommodate many things, not least of which is the process of immersing the reader into the fantastical world of The Unwritten.

Theme:
Another effect of the style is that it forces the reader to recognize the fluctuations of truth inherent to the process of telling a story. Many of the information age pages (those with blogs, texts, instant messages, news feeds, etc) contribute to one of the essential themes of the work. Where does fact end and fiction begin? What is the full extent of creative power held by an author? Similarly, what is the full extent of the power of the reader? The Unwritten explores these questions by having its main characters actually explore stories.

Viewpoint:
The point of view of this series varies greatly because of its “story about a story” nature. Sometimes third person omnicient, other times third person limited, or sometimes still as a narrative.

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