The Allure of Graphic Novels
As Michael Wenthe sees it, the best graphic novels—more broadly known as comics—demand attentive reading skills just like any other work of complex literature, which is why they are part of the GDS curricula.
“Some cartoonists’ work is a pleasure to look at just as some writers’ voices are a pleasure to read,” said Michael, a published cartoonist who has been teaching English at the High School for more than a decade. “But good graphic novels are not just to be looked at and admired; they are also to be read and thought about.”
A growing body of research suggests that graphic novels enhance students’ interpretive and decoding skills by challenging them to synthesize information from text and images. A widely cited study from the University of Oregon found that comics even help build vocabulary, averaging 53.5 rare words per 1,000—more than adult books. In other words, graphic novels are not lightweight reads. The format has grown in sophistication and acclaim, gaining standing as a literary tool that offers rich storylines and complex characters, especially after Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Maus made its way into GDS High School English classes at least a decade ago along with other award-winning works, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. More recently, the Middle School launched a graphic novels unit for its 6th graders. This school year, 7th graders will be reading the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary. Laura Loftus, head of the MS English Department, said comics help students develop competencies critical to deciphering the visual stimuli that they’re exposed to on screens.
“We were deliberate about which books we chose and how we have kids work with them,” Laura said. “We hope that these books will help students become better writers and well-rounded readers who use a critical lens to frame questions about what they’re reading and looking at, such as: Why does this image look this way? What is the goal of the creator?”
The “Power Duo”
During the graphic novels unit, each sixth grader chooses one of four books to read, each with a social justice theme. After doing some background research on their theme, students learn about the structure, terminology, and basic elements of comics and then regularly write journal entries about their chosen graphic novel, with an eye toward how the images and words convey information.
Rafa Westelius ’28 said that reading John Lewis’s civil rights memoir March last year was one of his best experiences in an English class so far. The illustrations by Nate Powell helped him deeply connect with Lewis’s character, he said. Rafa spoke of an image in the book (co-written by Andrew Aydin) that captures the darkened profile of five-year-old Lewis sitting on a porch reading from the Bible to the chickens on his family farm. The words of the scripture were written on Lewis’s body, Rafa said, signifying how deeply Lewis meditated on those words.
“With text and images, it’s like a power duo,” Rafa said. “Every time you reread a book, you can always learn something new, but that’s especially true with graphic novels because there are so many details. … It’s a lot to process.”
That’s an understatement given the cognitive work graphic novels demand of readers. In his book Understanding Media, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan described old-school comic strips and comic books as “cool media” that provide less sensory information than films, for instance. They therefore compel the reader to participate in “completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines,” McLuhan wrote. His analysis took place before the umbrella term “comics” came to encompass graphic novels or the comic techniques from France (la bande dessinée) and Japan (manga), according to the McLuhan Galaxy blog.
Scott McCloud, a cartoonist best known for his seminal book Understanding Comics, built on McLuhan’s work by asserting that the heavy lift for readers takes place in the empty spaces, or “gutters,” between panels. That’s where readers intuit what’s happening in a sequence even though they only see the before and after images. In essence, readers have to fill in the blanks, a phenomenon McCloud calls “closure.” In his book, McCloud offers two panels–one of a man about to be attacked by an ax-wielding assailant and the next of the scream “EEYAA!!” over a darkened city landscape. The reader is forced to actively participate by drawing conclusions.
Emotions are conveyed between or within panels of images as well, drawing from the parts of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses. Comics can capture internal monologues, offering a contrast between what characters are thinking versus what they’re saying. Illustrators can draw in a realistic style to evoke a reaction or an abstract style that amplifies a particular detail for effect. And due to space constraints, effective comic writers strip text to its essence to elicit a powerful emotional punch—if words are used at all.
“The potency of the picture is not a matter of modern theory but of anciently established truth,” William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained psychologist and creator of Wonder Woman wrote. “Before man thought in words, he felt in pictures.”
Seventh grader Maceo Lindsey intuitively understood that concept last school year when he read They Called Us Enemy, Star Trek actor George Takei’s first-hand account of his family’s incarceration at a Japanese internment camp. Maceo said he knew very little about that period in history, and the graphic novel riveted him, particularly the detailed images by artist Harmony Becker of where the inmates ate and how they slept.
“If it was a normal book, they could have given all the description in the world and I wouldn’t get the same emotional feeling,” Maceo said. “The drawing was very direct.”
The Golden Age to the Modern Age
The “Golden Age” of comics took off with the debut of Superman in 1938 and then Batman a year later, creating a mass medium read by 70 million Americans of all ages, or roughly half of the U.S. population, according to estimates cited in a 1945 article by Yank Weekly.
Their popularity spanned the Depression and World War II, offering cheap entertainment in the form of idealistic and patriotic superheroes. But as comics sales soared, some companies began publishing stories of gore and violence, giving rise to vocal critics who claimed that comics corrupted youth and incited juvenile delinquency. The theory gained ground in 1954 with the release of psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s now widely discredited book, Seduction of the Innocent. A U.S. Senate subcommittee added fuel to the fire by holding televised hearings that prominently featured Wertham and his views. Soon after, the comics industry tanked.
It took decades for the industry to regain its footing. After the hearings, the surviving publishers adopted a Comics Code that imposed strict rules on storylines, reducing comics to an “infantile state” populated by “dopey superheroes, tame romances, funny animals, and half-baked extensions of popular TV and movie brands,” according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
An underground comics culture developed. Only when comic book shops started opening in the 1970s did comics start to flourish again. Publishers could then sell directly to retailers and bypass the middleman distributors, who insisted on carrying only Code-approved comics.
As the Code became less important for publishers and retailers, longer comic books with serious ambitions or intended for more mature audiences began to be marketed as “graphic novels,” though that term is used loosely and (unlike prose novels) can include nonfiction. Graphic novels have boomed in popularity. The most recent figures from NPD BookScan show that graphic novel sales jumped in 2021, up 65% from the previous year.
Reading Leads to More Reading
LMS librarians Lisa Fall and Jenny Perinovic have witnessed firsthand the surge in popularity. They note that fifth graders recently added a graphic novels category to the Hopper Awards that they grant to their favorite books. In the past three years, four of the top five fiction titles checked out of the LMS library were graphic novels. None of them were assigned readings, which suggests that students checked them out for pleasure.
“Promoting a lifelong love of reading is part of the library’s mission statement,” said Lisa, chair of the LMS library department. “When we see kids make a beeline for the graphic novels section, we know we’re fulfilling our mission. Enjoying a book makes the reading habit stick.”
An added benefit: Racial, ethnic, and religious identities are much more visible in a comic than they are in writing, where references can be subtle. “Students, especially those who feel marginalized, get so excited to see themselves represented,” Lisa said.
Parents often worry that their kids will fall behind or miss out on “real” books if they read only comics or repeatedly bring home the same ones, Jenny said. But research shows that adolescents are more motivated to read when they choose reading materials that interest them, including comics. They then gain confidence and read even more.
“There’s a long tradition of dismissing graphic novels as something you should grow out of instead of recognizing that these types of stories are meeting kids where they are and speaking to them about the world around them in ways they can understand,” Jenny said. “Even if they’re reading the same book 100 times, there’s a memory that’s being built and associations being made that are really comforting.”
At the High School, HS librarian Rhona Campbell has noticed a sizable overlap between kids who read comics and those who read in general. “The two are not mutually exclusive,” said Rhona, who co-hosts a GDS minimester class on graphic novels with HS English teacher Michael Wenthe. “For the most part, book lovers are book lovers.”
Rhona increased the library’s budget for graphic novel purchases this year. She said some HS students are exploring the possibility of creating a graphic novels book group.
Graphic Novels; They’re Not Just For Kids
Graphic novels align nicely with the High School’s emphasis on “close reading,” a method of teasing deeper meaning out of facets of a story in order to better understand the whole, said Katherine Dunbar, head of the HS English Department.
“Instead of taking a landscape view of a story, close reading requires English students to keep a tight lens on the page in front of them,” Katherine said. “By keeping their eyes trained on the details, they make thematic discoveries. They read from the page out instead of bringing preconceived ideas from the outside in, and graphic novels are a beautiful way to do that work.”
Consider American Born Chinese, Katherine said. A page can show a character breaking out from a panel. What does that mean? What does it mean when a character falls off the edge of a page? Why does one page have speech bubbles and another no text at all? Why has a character become smaller, or why does one character block the view of another behind him? “The point is, the non-written content tells crucial stories too,” Katherine said. “The world is not always written down for us.”
Nora Schrag ’25, a self-described voracious reader, said she loves graphic novels but has to “actively work harder” to read them. The art styles can be complicated, she said. At the HS library, she picks up a few comics and flips them open to make her point. In one book, a panel fills an entire page. In another, the reader must flip the page around to read it, an interactive element that adds to the storytelling.
“Pictures don’t really work with my brain,” Nora added. “So there are moments when I’ve stopped reading [a graphic novel] and said: ‘I’m going to sit with this for a moment and take it all in.’”
These stop-and-think moments can be the most rewarding for students and teachers alike. Michael, GDS’s in-house comic writer and illustrator, said he remembers a student a few years back who picked up on a visual element in the graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass: a figure standing on a precipice casting a shadow that partly spelled the word “shadow.”
“I was so astonished when I read it in the student’s paper because I had never seen it before, and now I can’t unsee it,” Michael said. “It was one of the greatest gifts I got from a close reading assignment because that’s exactly what we ask students to do, to dwell on the material with focus and attention.”