Last year the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) added the first graphic novel to its VCE English text list. Maus by Art Spiegelman is about a Jewish cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story of surviving Hitler’s Europe. It’s wonderful that Maus has been added, but considering Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for Maus back in 1992, was it really such a bold move by the VCAA – or just long overdue?
In the same way that comics and graphic novels are hardly ‘new’ art forms (with origins traced back to poet William Blake), using comics in the classroom is hardly a novel concept to many teachers and school librarians. Rather, it’s the treatment and teaching of comics and graphics novels as worthy literary texts that is in need of an overhaul, particularly when there has been an assumption that ‘graphic novels’ are synonymous with material for reluctant readers.
Adele Walsh taught in secondary and primary school settings for seven years before becoming Program Coordinator at the Centre for Youth Literature. She agrees that many educators use comics and graphic novels as an enticement to reluctant readers with the hopes that they’ll be a gateway to ‘proper literature’ eventually.
‘Yes, comics can be an entry point for those struggling to engage with reading,’ says Walsh, ‘but they are also a legitimate form of storytelling with literary merits. To frame them exclusively as a tool or a stepping stone is demeaning to the creators. It also frames comics as something easy to consume, whereas they are often quite sophisticated.’
There’s also a pervasive assumption that because most reluctant readers are boys, graphic novels are a remedy specifically for them. This sort of thinking goes hand-in-hand with the equally insulting presumption that ‘girls don’t read comics’ (*ahem* Womanthology: Heroic).
Walsh agrees: ‘There is a growing acknowledgement of the artistry in comics, however there needs to be less congratulation for those who are using comics only as a means of tackling the ‘boys books’ problem. Comics are for all readers and we should be promoting them as such.’
‘All literature programmers should be taking their cues from the audience,’ Walsh advises, ‘and in this case, teens have been reading comics and manga for a long time. It’s time for everyone else to catch up.’
We should also be embracing local talent – everyone from Shaun Tan to The Deep series for younger readers. Comics and graphic novels have been a thriving literary industry in the US for a long time now, and institutions like the Young Adult Library Service Association (YALSA) offer wonderful resources, such as the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.
The Eisner Awards (prizes for creative achievement in American comic books) have been awarding best publications for young reader titles since 1996, with separate categories for children’s and young adult works as of 2012.
And while there’s plenty of comic material that is teen-specific, there are also many ‘adult’ titles worth exploring; from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs, to Brian K Vaughan’s Saga series and Joe Hill’s Locke and Key.
Comics and graphic novels are wonderful literary forms that explore new storytelling dimensions, and marry high art with evocative text. They should be embraced in the modern classroom, not merely used begrudgingly as stepping stone literature for reluctant readers.
Walsh concurs; ‘Reading is almost always an exercise in bravery and immersion so jumping into a new medium (although lets face it, comics aren’t new) is something we should all be very excited by.’