My Year With Comics (So Far)

Teachers are a strange lot. Especially English teachers. Think about it: we are the ones, for better or worse, who are tasked with preparing students for the realities that await them outside of our rooms. Everyday, we mold minds into the future we want to live in…and we actually WANT to do this. See? Strange. But that’s not the only reason we’re strange: we are secretly anarchists who scoff at flimsy things like “time.” More specifically, we laugh at the Gregorian calendar. While most (shout out to Chinese New Year!) of you all are slaves to the January to December , us Educational Time Lordsmark our time via solstices and equinoxes like some kind of Knowledge Wizards (also ). With that being said, you won’t see my Year End List (you guessed it…T to the M) until June. But I do have some mid-year reflections on comics in my classroom:

something terrible cover

Something Terrible by Dean Trippe

I love showing my students the power of story, and I especially love when I get to do that with a comic. Something Terrible was a short story when I first encountered it (available here for download at a great price), and it is the memoir of Dean’s sexual assault as a child, and having to wrestle with the Cycle of Abuse theory into adulthood. It’s a powerful example of the effect stories, specifically comics, can have on our lives, and Dean’s story is so important that I decided to include it as an introduction to comics for my students. Besides it’s strength as a comic, Something Terrible is also very easy to read, while still offering a challenge (there is very little dialogue), and I knew my students would be drawn into it immediately.

I used it in my senior English class and, most of my kids really dug the comic, but the most memorable thing about our experience reading Something Terrible was our class Skype with Trippe himself. Students were able to ask the author questions about the story, his intent in writing it, and even questions about the creative process (you can see the results here, here, and here). The chance to talk to a living and breathing author can be transformative, and I think the comics community is great for this because they don’t often get to have their work considered for schools (although tis is changing). Dean was great for agreeing to speak to my kids, and I think that was one of the most memorable moments of my teaching career. Something Terrible will soon be available in a physical format, and I can’t wait to have it on my bookshelf.

march book one cover

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

 This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. March is the autobiography of Congressman John Lewis presented as a graphic novel. John Lewis was an integral participant of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was present for many of the touchstones of history that helped establish some of the progress people of color experience today. That presence is what makes this book so special. It puts the reader in Mr. Lewis’ shoes, allowing us to be present at those pivotal moments in history.

When I taught this book, I would say it was received well, but there were quite a few hiccups. One, although we practiced reading comics, I think the seriousness of the subject matter, and sophistication of how it was presented was a bit over my kids’ heads. Secondly, my seniors had the benefit of reading Something Terrible, and years of building reading endurance, where my freshmen, who read March, weren’t quite there yet. They struggled a bit with comprehension, and weren’t always as engaged with the text as they could have been. Finally, we read the book as an eBook and I don’t think kids that age are really into reading an entire book that way. There’s something about the tactile nature of reading a book that makes it more real for them, and I don’t think it really resonated with them the way it could have. Don’t get me wrong, I think it went well, but I would give March a much better lead in, like a graphic novel they could relate to a bit easier, first.

 killing joke cover

The Killing Joke (Deluxe Hardcover) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

The Killing Joke is one of those books that is held up as an essential part of the comics canon, and it has definitely earned its place if only because of its lasting repercussions on the Batman universe. My students were excited to read it, and they flew through it in a matter of days, which allowed us to slow down and examine the art and dig into author’s intent. With Batman as the subject matter, there was immediate buy-in from readers, and once they got into the book, the art and writing kept them there.

I’ve always been curious about The Killing Joke as a classroom text. The comic fan in me loved it when I read it, but as I began thinking of it as a text for my class, I saw it in a different light. For one, there are definitely some problematic parts of the book. Barbara Gordon’s sexual assault, and the lack of any female characters with agency is tough to deal with. The brevity of the book also makes it difficult to find any real weight, at least subconsciously. It also didn’t help that I knew I was following this book up with I Kill Giants, a much heavier book in my opinion. I think the next time I use The Killing Joke, I will focus more on the dichotomy between hero and villain, because Moore and Bolland really did something special with the characterization of the Joker.

 i kill giants cover

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura

I love this book. It’s one of those books I give to people to convince them that comics are more than just capes and tights. Kelly and Niimura tell the story of Barbara who…kills giants. Or does she? I’ve always had success with this book, and after reading Something Terrible and The Killing Joke this year, my seniors were primed and ready to read and write about a graphic novel as serious literature.

I’ve never had 100 percent buy-in on any given thing I’ve done in a class, but this book and the next one I’ll discuss are probably the closest I’ve come to it. I’ve surveyed classes about I Kill Giants before, and it was always the favorite of everything we read that year. If you aren’t sure about comics in the classroom, give this one a read. I HIGHLY recommend you check out my friend Meryl Jaffe’s lesson plan on how to use I Kill Giants in the language arts classroom. She is an amazing resource, and I lean on her work heavily!

my friend dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Here was the biggest surprise for me of the year. My Friend Dahmer is the story of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, told by the people who knew him as a kid. For people who were alive at the time, Jeffrey Dahmer is both fascinating and terrifying. My students, however, were not alive at the time, and had no idea who Jeffery Dahmer was. Still, the idea that someone would sink to such levels really captures the imagination, and my seniors were thirsty to read the book. It ended up being the overwhelming favorite of the class, and led to one of the better papers my kids wrote about whether nature or nurture was more of an influence on Dahmer’s actions.

The senior English class I teach is called Man, Myth, Monster, and I got the idea to use My Friend Dahmer when my boss made an open call for material requests. He mentioned that we need to not only give our students intellectually challenging material, but to also prepare them for the adult conversations they will be having in their post-secondary lives. To paraphrase him, I’ll be damned if one of my kids is the one snickering in the back of a lecture hall because his professor said “vagina.” Dahmer isn’t adult in that way, but there is still that voice in the back of my head that says “the kids won’t be able to handle this one (or worse yet, their parents).” But I quieted that voice long enough for me to re-read it, and see it for what it is: a story about a troubled, lonely high school student who ended up becoming one of the most monstrous killers of the 20th century. From the author’s standpoint, it’s also a story of how so many people failed to help this young man when they had a chance. My Friend Dahmer was the best book for this particular class, since the subject himself was a man with a considerable mythology, who became a monster.

So far, this has been an amazing year for comics in my classroom. We went to San Diego Comic Con for the first time this year, and we put together a full block of educational programming for New York Comic Con. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year. I know there are some amazing things lined up, and I can’t wait to share them with you all!

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