The scope of this series of articles is to explore the use of graphic novels and comics in either an academic or public library . Comics have been proven to be an effective medium both for educational and entertainment purposes. Graphic novels are starting to be considered literature and even the comics’ standards started to be elevated to new heights in quality and literal merit. In countries like England, France, and even the United States of America, libraries have already started to exploit the allure of graphic novels and comics to bring new patrons to their libraries. Be it public or academic libraries, librarians are starting to see the multiple uses of having a graphic novel collection included with their general or special collections.
Another side of the graphic novels argument is the benefits it brings in the fight against illiteracy. Teachers in school have used multiple tools in order to stimulate and motivate students into reading. Nothing makes a student more curious than a comic book used in an educational framework. Comics not only inspire or allude to further reading, but they also stimulate the artistic veins of shy students whom otherwise would not find the strength in themselves to pursue artistic careers. Graphic novels also bring in the elements of visual literacy as readers would have to comprehend using the visual images presented in a comic book alongside some form of narrative.
It is a known fact that not everyone learns in the same way. Some people understand chunks of texts while others prefer a more visual approach. The graphic novel alongside other texts might help bridge the gap between these two ways of learning. An example of such use would be the use of graphic novels during language classes. When learning a new language, a very easy way to start is by using visuals. A comic book in the language being studied makes the life of an educator easier, as the student would be exposed to different aspects of the language and making comprehension easier.
We have already taken a look closer at what a comic really is. Whether you subscribe to Scott McCloud’s definition of comics “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, or to an expanded definition such as the one proposed by Dylan Horrocks “comics are a cultural idiom; a publishing genre; a set of narrative conventions; a kind of writing that uses words and pictures; a literary genre; and texts”, the visual is clearly an important part of comics and should not be seen as subservient to the written. To this Dale Jacobs adds “Comics are a rhetorical genre, comics are multimodal texts, and comics are both an order of discourse and discrete discursive events. As cultural artefacts, sites of imaginative interplay, and sponsors of literacy, comics are far more than simply “sequential art”. In other words, comics and graphic novels are media that use a combination of sequential art and text in order to create narrative meaning for the audience.”
This makes us understand that the comic book can be used by educators the same way books are used in schools for learning.
Comics in Libraries
In 2006, O’English, Matthews and Lindsay wrote an excellent summation of the many reasons academic libraries should stock graphic novels, though the only real instructional content in their work lay in using graphic novels as a tool for promoting literacy. This is a common theme argued by many that present comics as alternative means by which to inspire students into exploring characters and themes which might be otherwise obfuscated by the density of traditional prose.
However, in The Graphic Novel: ‘A Cool Format for Communicating to Generation Y‘ by Short and Reeves, they analyze various examples of comics which deliver content via comic book storytelling, similar to Eisner’s attitudinal instruction models. Will Eisner produced instructional comics for the US Army and for schools from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. He divided instructional comics into two categories: “technical instructional comics” and “attitudinal instructional comics”. Eisner’s categories represent respectively those comics which give “instruction in procedures, process, and task performance … such tasks are, in themselves, sequential in nature,” and those which are useful for “conditioning an attitude toward a task”. These comics allow educators to create comics which speak to a broad audience and instruct on multiple levels. An example of such comics is the ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ series by Larry Gonick, a massive project which combines solid historical scholarship with effectively humorous cartooning, creating a highly accessible survey of world history. Another good example but very different from the one above is ‘The Adventures of Johnny Bunko‘ by Daniel H. Pink and Rob Ten Pas. This is a career guide in manga format which teaches six essential lessons about succeeding in the work place.
As I have explained in my Part 1 article, comics have the potential to engage learners who may not excel or exhibit interest in library instruction or informational literacy. In a paper by Webb, Balasubramanian, Broin and Webb, entitled ‘Wham! Pow! Comics as user assistance’, it was found that students tend to prefer a comic instead of a PowerPoint presentation presenting the same information. The authors of this paper were prompted to create their own comic guides to libraries after seeing how often students disregard bland handouts and tedious lectures.
The process for reading a comic demand both print and visual literary skills to navigate successfully. In,Lost literacy: How Graphic Novels can recover visual literacy in the literacy classroom’, C. Gillenwater notes that due to the multimodal nature of graphic novels, “there is no either/or dichotomy because words can take on properties of images and vice versa. It is the reader, however, who must synthesize these elements to make meaning.” Similarly, S. W. Smith in his paper ‘Academaesthetics: How the essay and comic can save each other’, argues that comics force the reader to address what is left unsaid, fill the gaps between the panels and come to terms with their own visual illiteracy and actively “extract information rather than absorbing it”.
As an extra incentive in instructional comics there is a narrative. This helps the reader to observe the behaviours of the characters and also dispel stereotypes. Another beneficial factor is the lack of spelling-out of everything that happens. This allows the reader to actively use his/her imagination to engage with the story. These are all factors that motivate reluctant readers to investigate comics in general.
A library is responsible to create an environment where patrons reflect and learn from their experiences, as well as, develop a more sound understanding of literature and literacy whilst providing a diverse body of knowledge to all its different patrons. The collection of “Graphic memoirs” or “Comic book biographies” in a library would help in both these fields. These are another form of serious narratives in the form of a comic book. It turns out that comics and memoirs are a great match: memories can be precise or hazy, trustworthy or otherwise, and comics can depict that in a way that’s sometimes much more evocative than prose alone. They can illustrate topics as diverse as science, religion, history and the future. Comics allow us to see the world the way the artist sees it, and that can be particularly useful in the case of memoirs as they show us life from one person’s point of view.
An example of this, is a graphic novel I have already discussed in this previous article,‘ Epileptic’ by David B. The story in itself is a biography of the life of his older brother who suffers from epilepsy. This is a comic that utilises the visual aspects of comics in the best way to show the epileptic fits that take over David’s Brother. This book would allow all those reading it to very briefly visualise what his brother is actually going through in a more direct way.
‘Persepolis’ by Majane Satrapi is another graphic novel which is a memoir in a comic book format. It is actually a collection of autobiographical stories of the author in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The second book takes her to Austria, where she was sent to continue her education, and then eventually back to Iran. The illustrations are a stark black and white, done in a clean, simple style that tells the story without a lot of distractions. There are a few dream-like scenes (particularly early on, when she speaks to God and wants to be a prophet when she grows up), but for the most part it sticks to a stylized realism.
In her introduction, Satrapi writes that her intention is to show the real face of Iranians, separate from the “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism” which is usually associated with Iran. Having lived in Iran and experienced the oppressive regime with its sometimes arbitrary rules, she has also encountered many Iranians who died defending freedom or had to flee their homeland, and it is their story she wants to tell.
The book, like life, has both tragedy and comedy. In the middle of threats from the regime or bombs from Iraq, there is time for parties and laughter and the absurdity of it all. Satrapi is honest about her own faults, often admitting to experiences she is ashamed of, but also taking pride with what she has accomplished.
Graphic Novels, like ‘Persepolis’, offer a window into another culture, which, in a comic book format makes it more easily accessible to younger audiences and appealing to unmotivated readers. Having books like these in a library would increase the potential to stimulate readers to other books/biographies in the main collections.
Another graphic novel which would be an asset in a library collection is ‘Blankets’, by Craig Thompson which is a semi-autobiographical story about growing up, sharing a bed with his kid brother, his first love, his religious convictions and then the loss of them. Like his earlier comic book ‘Goodbye, Chunky Rice’, ‘Blankets’ is bittersweet, and addresses many of the same themes: friendship and goodbyes. But it’s also much more personal. It’s hard to say how much or what has been fictionalized, perhaps “dramatized” is a better word. ‘Blankets’ won the Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz best Graphic novel awards in the same year it was published, 2003. Thompson’s illustrations depict perfectly his own state of mind, from images of Hell and Heaven during Sunday school to visions of his girlfriend Raina as his muse. He struggles with new passions as they conflict with old values but in the end, neither seems to win out. It’s hard to say what he’s really left with in the end, which is a shame compared to all the beauty he saw earlier. The picture he paints of his church is perhaps a sad-but-true scenario, in which he’s told that drawing is the worst sort of idleness and escapism. His Sunday school teacher dismisses his passion scornfully: “How can you praise God with DRAWINGS?” You can’t help but wonder what Craig’s story would have been in a different context.
The Local Picture
Looking at local libraries, it is a common sight to see that libraries react to the demands of the patrons. I am not say that that should not be the case, however, I am more to the opinion that sometimes libraries should be on the avant-garde for new genres and stimulate their patrons to explore and interact with different mediums. Instead of adopting, “the patron creates the demand” approach, the library should experiment with more innovative marketing campaigns to achieve a library that creates demand for new material and new ways to modernise its collection and appeal to a wider audience. If you take into consideration the local attitudes towards libraries presented by the public, you notice the apathy that the majority of the patrons have. This can be tackled by introducing new media in the library and stimulate the patrons to use or even venture into unexplored territory in the literary world. What I am trying to say is that for Malta to be in par with European and American institutions, when it comes to graphic novels collections, it is the library’s responsibility to introduce the genre to the public in a way to inspire readers venture into the library in the first place. Graphic novels can be a stepping stone for future relations with such patrons. Comics attract reluctant readers and offer a medium in which a multimodal text approach is used to convey a narrative which would be difficult to put across using other mediums. By introducing graphic novels in a library, the library would be exposing its patrons to this kind of story telling whilst also making itself appealing to other potential patrons.
If we make a comparison between foreign libraries and local ones, we will see that we are very behind when it comes to collecting graphic novels. These foreign public and academic libraries have specialised collections and librarians swear to the positive benefits they have brought to their libraries. Most even go as far as suggesting that these special comics collections are the most popular with their patrons.
In this article I have talked about how comics can be instrumental in a library and explored a few biographies in comic book format to serve as an example. We are slowly realising how important comics are becoming to the next generation of readers, and by time, libraries will have to adapt. However, I wish Malta to be more on the front lines of such developments rather than, like always, just following the masses after years have passed. WE, as a country, are already behind in this subject matter, and the only people who are suffering because of it are those who do not know it yet, because they are missing out on the chances to explore the world of comics through graphic novels. Libraries are missing out on potential patrons, and the whole academic environment is losing the motivation of future students to explore new areas of research especially in the fields of education, literature and cognitive sciences. These are all missed opportunities which could be avoided if libraries locally would start adding graphic novels and comics to their collection and having a greater role in marketing the library as a whole.
Gillenwater, C. (2009). Lost literacy: How graphic novels can recover visual literacy in the literacy classroom. Afterimage, 37(2), 33-36.
Jacobs, D. (2007). More than words: Comics as a means of teaching multiple literacies. English Journal, 96(3), 19-25.
Liu, J., Blum, M. & Denmead, K. (2013). Geek dad, raising geek generation 2.0. Retrieved, 2013, from http://www.wired.com/geekdad/
McCloud , S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art [ ] William Morrow Paperbacks.
Smith, S. W. (2007). Academaesthetics: How the essay and comic can save each other. Text, 11(2), 1-55.
Upson, M., & Hall, C. M. (2013). Comic book guy in the classroom: The educational power and potential of graphic storytelling in library instruction. CULS Proceedings, 3, 28-38.
Webb, E. N., Balasubramanian, G., óBroin, U., & Webb, J. M. (2012). Wham! pow! comics as user assistance. Journal of Usability Studies, 7(3), 105-117.