Lin Lucas, Educational Assistant at Paulo Freire Middle School-University Campus, on how comics can be primary texts for social justice pedagogy.
Author Scott McCloud has called comics “the invisible art” because the deceptive simplicity of the form masks a complex, expressive medium in which words and pictures are combined, challenging readers to draw from their own experiences, connect ideas, make inferences and synthesize information contained within the visual-narrative “paragraphs” of panels and pages.
The use of comics and other popular art forms as tools for examining social issues is one that is often overlooked when educators design curriculum. While a few graphic novels have gained literary acceptance within libraries and classrooms—historical memoirs such as Art Speigelman’s, Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—comics in general, remain a disregarded medium for many educators,
one ill suited for serious consideration within core curriculum. Yet, one has only to recall the violent attacks on the French Weekly, Charlie Hebdo in 2015 to gain a sense of the evocative power that comics and cartoons can have when viewed through a sociopolitical lens.
Political cartoons are by their very nature provocative. Through the use of symbols, analogy, exaggeration and distortion, a few well-placed lines on paper can invite dialogue, rebuttal, and protest. But looking beyond works of intentional historical or political commentary, there exist a mass of popular comics, films, television programs, and music that also serve as windows into the sociopolitical zeitgeist. Thanks to the success of lucrative franchises, comics such as the X-Men, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and others have gained increasing recognition within mainstream popular culture, but their value as allegories for examining issues of race, sex, class and privilege alongside more traditional classroom literature, remains largely untapped.
Threats and Response
In 2001/2002, during the anxious months following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I like most Americans, was immersed in the deluge of news regarding what the U.S. responds should be. I sifted through
stories about ties between Iraqi leader, Sadam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. I listened with growing tension to reports on the “weapons of mass destruction” that the Iraq was allegedly amassing in preparation for an imminent strike against the U.S. and watched as the call for preemptive war gained momentum.
At the time, I was teaching comics art at an independent high school in Seattle. Prior to 9/11, the focus of my class had been solely on making comics, not on their cultural content. With war looming ever closer, I became deeply concerned with the role that fear seemed to play in galvanizing public support for military action. Our fear seemed to negate any possibility of substantive dialogue about the costs of war or the value of diplomacy and seemed a greater threat to democratic process than any posed by outside forces. I wanted to address this concern within my classes and assigned readings to help frame our examination of these issues.
Comics as Primary Texts
Comics have long been a medium in which conscientious creators like Joe Siegel, Will Eisner, Trina Robbins, Alan Moore, Gene Luen Yang, Kelly Sue Deconnick, and countless others, have portrayed the cultural landscape of the moment through entertaining stories: sometimes challenging the status quo, often merely reflecting the societal trends and ideologies of the day. Through selected comics, I hoped to give students an opportunity to examine how strong emotions dictated the actions of characters and shaped events.
“Threat and Response” was the thematic lens through which we explored character and story development. While none of the selected narratives dealt specifically with the topic of war, each centered on characters facing the consequences of painfully urgent choices. Discussions underscored the connection between individuals and their communities. We examined what I called, “threat pressure” on the psyches of the protagonists and how their central conflicts created shock waves or tertiary threats to the cohesion of their communities.
Though class discourse only occasionally drew explicit parallels between the comics and the on-going debate on issues related to the second Gulf War, the looming international conflict was the subtext of all discussion, as students reflected upon the complex web of ethical questions, actions, and consequences surrounding any political debate.
Comics (and other popular media) can be springboards for powerful classroom engagement. Popular culture plays a central role in shaping the interests, attitudes, and opinions of students. Bringing consumer artifacts into the classroom where they can be critically examined is culturally responsive practice. It allows teachers to help students differentiate between media representations that reinforce cultural biases and oppression and those that challenge assumptions and prejudices.