Comic books are complicated and becoming more complicated pieces of literature not only in the plot, story and characters, but also in the reading strategies necessary to understand and enjoy them. Joshua Cole
No matter what we are reading there are effective reading strategies we use in order to make meaning from the text. Many of these strategies can be taught with comics and graphic novels. The ones discussed below are particularly important when reading graphic texts.
In comics and graphic novels, perhaps more than any other text, readers must build understanding by filling in gaps. A whole world of information is left in the gutter between the panels. The comic artist expects the reader to infer the action that takes place off the page. The more complex and sophisticated the comic, the more important this strategy becomes. If the reader is not making inferences, he is lost. Understanding this strategy and using it effectively in reading visual texts will help students read ’between the lines’ in more traditional print narratives.
Students who struggle with reading may not understand what should be going on in the reader’s imagination during reading. With comics and other visual texts, the images are there for the reader. Through comics, students can be taught how to create their own mental images when reading more traditional texts.
It is important that students understand the visual cues that are provided in the text. Although the words and images work together to tell the story, comics are primarily visual narratives. Therefore, readers must draw on and integrate some important background knowledge and understandings about visual texts, comic elements and narrative structures in order to make meaning. The more knowledge readers have about the way visual texts work, the more successful they are likely to be.
Have students look in comics to find examples of codes and conventions that are different than what they would find in more conventional texts. This activity will help students realize that comics draw on commonly understood meanings to communicate. Have them try to illustrate some concepts (heat, cold, surprise, etc.), with their own ideas.
Because comics are highly visual it is easy to find examples of symbolism. Students can explore the use of symbolism in comics. What is its purpose ? Why is it used ?
Students can experiment with their own use of sound effects in a comic panel or strip by producing the same event or scene with or without sound effects. Students can identify the way sound is depicted in a graphic novel or comic strip and consider how it contributes to the meaning.
Students can create a dictionary of comic book words that represent different sound effects. Check out Ka-Boom ! A Dictionary of Comic Book Words, Symbols & Onomatopoeia, By Kevin J. Taylor
Comics are really a storytelling medium. The following activities will help students better understand how narratives work in comics and graphic novels.
Cut some comic strips or stories into individual panels.
Have students work in pairs or small groups to put them back into an appropriate sequence.
Have them discuss the clues that helped them. (Many of these clues will be codes and conventions specific to comics. The complexity of this activity will depend on the sophistication of the comics chosen by the teacher.)
Have students discuss the transitions between panels in a comic and the ways in which they contribute to the meaning of the comic or graphic novel.
Click here for an excellent activity on transitions.
Give students individual panels to a comic strip but leave out the final frame. Have them create a number of possible endings. Students then share their ideas with each other saying why some of the endings are more likely than others. (This activity requires the students to consider the textual and visual cues that appear in the original frames as well as draw inferences and fill in the gaps between the panels.)
In more complex comics and graphic novels readers must look for clues to help them understand narrative elements such as characterization.The following activities can help students think about the way characters are developed in comics. Before having students create their own comic book character have them identify characteristics of different comic characters.
Gather pictures of a variety of comic characters.
Talk about the types of characters that are found in comic books?
Ask students to interpret the character and discuss the reasons for their interpretations.
Ask students to consider the purpose of using stereotypes in creating characters in comics. What are the pros and cons or their use?
Have students create their own comic character.
There are a number of ways to do this:
Once the character has been created students can brainstorm possible story lines, make a storyboard, and create the comic by hand or on the computer.
Critical Literacy views readers as active participants in the reading process and invites them to move beyond passively accepting the text's message to question, examine, or dispute the power relations that exist between readers and authors. It focuses on issues of power and promotes reflection, transformation, and action. Fieire, 1970
These questions will help students begin to think more critically about the comics they are reading.
Serious Comics: Graphic Novels in the Classroom is an excellent video that provides a brief summary of a number of sophisticated graphic novels that can be used with secondary students.
Check out Teaching With the Power of Comics for more classroom ideas.
Language and Literacy Theory and Practice is an excellent website with information for using graphic novels with students.
You can find more information about critical literacy at Critical Thinking International.
Some of these activities have been adapted from Teaching, Viewing and Visual Texts by Rod Quin, Barrie McMahon and Robyn Quin, published by Curriculum Corporation, 1996.
Other ideas have been adapted from Media Education in the Primary School. Carol E. Craggs published by Routledge 1992.