The Genteel
October 26, 2020


A page from Art Spiegelman's Maus. Source:

Heather: It's just like Hamlet said, "To thine own self be true." 

Cher: Hamlet didn't say that. 

Heather: I think I remember Hamlet accurately. 

Cher: Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn't say that. That Polonius guy did.

This exchange between L.A. airheads Cher and Heather, from the 1995 film Clueless, satirised the fact that growing numbers of young people were rejecting "old-fashioned" books in favour of new media. Since then, the hybrid of entertainment and education has only grown. While pedagogical information conveyed by TV and film may have been around for awhile, there's a new mode of learning that has been gaining gravitas: the "serious" comic book.

The idea, that the comic format could be a conduit for heavy issues, was successfully conveyed amid the rise of the graphic novel in 1991, with Art Spiegelman's Maus. Based on the events of the Holocaust, his message was erudite enough to earn him a Pulitzer Prize. At the beginning of the new century, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, based on her experiences of growing up in war-torn Iran, soon followed. It was then transformed into an animated film that gained praise at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, in 2007.

With plaudits coming from Pulitzer and Cannes, the humble comic book may have found its place.

Joe Sacco is one of the latest artists to throw his hat into the political comic book arena. Originally published in 1993 as nine separate comics, Sacco's Palestine earned him the respect of the late scholar Edward Said, who wrote the book's introduction. Said praised Sacco's illustrations and accessible approach to an opaque subject. He emphasised that the book, "[defies] the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and reshaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures."

Since Palestine, Sacco has produced further comic works, examining the conflict in the Middle East with Footnotes in Gaza (2009) and has created two books based on the war in Bosnia: Safe Area Gorazde (2000) and The Fixer (2003).

Sacco's trademark approach to his controversial subjects is one of emotional immediacy that links audiences to his themes quickly and directly. In his newest work, Journalism (2012), he attempts to explain why his work is becoming more popular than, say, documentaries on the same subject: "I ask pertinent visual questions, [like] how many people were there? Where was the barbed wire? Were the people sitting or standing? At the minimum I want to orient readers to a particular moment but my goal is to satisfy the eyewitness;that my drawn depiction essentially represents his or her experience."

Perhaps because this approach verges on primary research, the comic genre has been welcomed and even embraced by academics. For Beginners is one of several popular series focused on academic subjects, including linguistics, physics and philosophy studies. Subjects are broken down into visual chunks, clarifying and illustrating complex points in an engaging and dynamic visual idiom. While some educators worry that graphic novels may limit students' reading skills, others believe they may actually enhance literacy. In fact, several lecturers I spoke to admitted using a few images from these books themselves in their PowerPoint lecture presentations and were insistent that students were more likely to remember material that has a visual accompaniment. 

Philosophy Graphic Novel.

For instance, Tony Corballis, a lecturer at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies insists that graphic textbooks, "can only impact well by broadening accessibility. They no doubt will be a springboard for tough topics, attracting young minds and are therefore of terrific relevance in spurring inclusiveness and 'widening participation' in education." When questioned whether he thinks these books may simplify subjects too much, he says they are, "no less simplifying than a lecture may be."

The rise of the use of the tablet in the classroom means that books are easier to download than ever and are visually appealing enough to sustain interest in what could otherwise be tedious subjects. "I never would have understood semiotics if I hadn't read the comic version of it," says Nadia Nabayov, a student at King's College, London, "It bored me. But the pictures helped it all make sense." The Scottish Education Board has picked up on this phenomena and is now encouraging staff to create materials for the classroom that emulate the graphic novel format. 

It would seem Cher and Heather weren't so clueless after all when it came to using new media as a valuable, academic resource. With plaudits coming from Pulitzer and Cannes, the humble comic book may have found its place.



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