Graphic novels draw in reluctant readers

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
Ever considered using Viz's Fat Slags to spark a class debate about gender representation? What about using Jackie to teach history? Or juxtaposing Japanese manga and Shakespeare? No?
Ever considered using Viz's Fat Slags to spark a class debate about gender representation? What about using Jackie to teach history? Or juxtaposing Japanese manga and Shakespeare? No?

In all likelihood, neither had teachers gathered at the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh, until they attended a recent continuing professional development session on using comics in the classroom by Dr Mel Gibson - or Dr Mel Comics, "because there's no point in doing a Google search for Mel Gibson".

Nat Edwards, head of education at the library, introduces Dr Gibson as a leading scholar on comics and graphic novels. Her job, she says, is to "enthuse" the assembled teachers, but she also wants to dispel any idea that such literature is "mostly violent and full of awfulness".

Comics are, she argues, a means of developing literacy. There is, for example, the Classical Comics range which includes Shakespeare's Henry V and Macbeth; there's Persepolis, an autobiographical novel by Marjane Satrapi depicting her childhood in Iran after the revolution; and The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot about a girl who has suffered sexual abuse. "It's a book about the power of literature and art to make life worth living again," Dr Gibson says.

She begins, however, by talking about manga, the Japanese graphic novel or comic. In schools it can be used as a means of exploring a different culture, Dr Gibson suggests, but it is also a "powerful vehicle for literacy and creativity". She continues: "Graphic novels are good at drawing in new and developing readers, but they also engage passionate readers, who will keep coming back wanting the next volume."

Every school will have its manga enthusiasts, she says. Track them down, help them start their own comic, and establish links between the art and English departments. For those still unsure, she recommends "safe" Raymond Briggs. His graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, about the aftermath of a nuclear attack from the viewpoint of retired couple Jim and Hilda Bloggs, can be used to discuss politics in the 1980s.

Geraldine Gould, an English teacher at Dalkeith High, has used two graphic novels in the past: Macbeth and Philip Pullman's Count Karlstein. The session, she says, has opened her eyes to the possibility of using graphic novels for "more able students". "In my old school there were a lot of less able kids. I found a graphic novel there and it was a life-saver. It enabled the bottom set to complete a novel and to enjoy it."

Mary Bovill, who teaches English at Musselburgh Grammar, is keen to make better use of graphic novels in a bid to move away from exclusively written texts, as required under A Curriculum for Excellence. "They are good for teaching tone and atmosphere - something even Higher kids struggle with," she says.

Comics, Dr Gibson argues, can even provide teachers with the context they need to get to grips with the medium. For an insight into how comics are constructed, there is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. For information on the history of comics, she recommends Paul Gravett's Great British Comics.

She also flags up Learning and Teaching Scotland's online resources, which she helped create, and her own free website.;

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