I remember for the first four years my son was in school, I would enter the parent teacher conferences with one question for the teacher: How will you get my son to read books other than graphic novels?
Comic books, manga, and other forms of graphic text were his favorites. It was near impossible for him to consider anything else. It wasn’t until fifth grade that he met his match in a teacher. Ms Menoher, while an avid fan of graphic novels, also loved science-fiction and fantasy and she was an amazing teacher for boys. Her love of various forms of literature was infectious and was passed onto my son. Not only did chapter books enter our home, but really big chapter books were present and being devoured by my once laser-focused, graphic novel loving boy.
Recently, for his English 10 class, my son brought home a graphic novel series entitled Persepolis. Persepolis is a visual autobiography of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood through young adult years during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Though “its graphic language and images, (caused) controversy surrounding the use of Persepolis in classrooms in the United States,”1 neither my son nor his teacher were swayed by the warning. Instead, the images and language rich text provided depth to a story that sought to share realities of life lived within political and social upheaval. As expected, this format captivated my son’s attention and provided insight to a culture and situation he had never considered.
The use of graphic novels in education is on the rise. Indeed, interacting with this genre requires high levels of concentration, as complex reading skills are needed. Care should be taken though, before rushing to implement such texts into a curriculum. It’s shown that they are best used as a bridge between in and out of school literacy. The strength of graphic novels lies in their format where there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and those sections are held together by strong character development through conflict and climax. Another strength is their ability to effectively develop grammatical skills and literary understanding through a creative medium.2
It is evident that this upsurge in popularity in graphic novels has poured over into the adult learner realm in the form of Graphic Guides. Graphic Guides are “unique, comic-book style introductions to humankind’s biggest ideas and thinkers.”3 These small, pocket guides tackle some of humankind’s most complicated philosophical, sociological, and cultural issues, ranging from politics to Shakespeare. In particular, in Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide, authors Sim and Van Loon tackle the history of critical thinking from The Enlightenment to Postmodernism. The text is filled with countless “-isms” and names of individuals, both remarkable and obscure. Through image and small segments of text, examination of critical theory is attempted.
With its vast amount of content, tackling the history of critical theory in a concise and creative way is both ambitious and ineffective. The presentation of material is disjointed and lacks cohesiveness, especially for the novice critical theorist. While many of the illustrations are engaging and telling, the text often fails to move smoothly from one time period to another.
Sim and Van Loon would have done well to capitalize on the graphic novel genre by utilizing a compelling story form to communicate their overview of the subject. Placing it in the context of a narrative, with a clear begging, middle, and end, driven by the development of a main character, would have grounded the complex concepts in a way that was more relatable to the critical theory novice, and likely would spur more robust interest for further study. I could imagine this being done with a Dr. Strange-type of character who pops in and out of time to discover the latest philosophical thinking of the day, including the pros and cons of each. The authors close the book with the thought, “Theory is power.”4 While that may be true, the power of communicating theory is significantly lessened in this page by page, illustrated timeline format.
Still, there must be some value in the genre, as there are numerous Graphic Guides for sale. While the reviews for Critical Theory are at best mixed, I personally would not opt to pick up a Graphic Guide for further academic study. Though if I had a lead mentor like my son’s fifth grade teacher, who is totally and completely head-over-heels giddy about the Graphic Guide, I suppose I could be slowly persuaded to give these handy, pocket sized editions another try. Until then, I will look for my super heroes in the pages of comic books, instead of in the illustrated and theory packed Graphic Guide texts.
4 4. Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon. Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide (London, UK: Icon Books, LTD, 2009) 164.