As I enter my 10th year of teaching English at the high school level, I have been very fortunate, so far, to have had colleagues and administration that support my use of comics/graphic novels in the classroom; growing up, I was a comic book kid, and there was no way I wasn’t going to bring my love of comics into the classroom.
Like many educators, I used Spiegelman’s Maus as an entry point into teaching graphic novels; Maus, as many of you know was the first comic to win a Pulitzer, adding a bit of credibility to the medium. As my students explored Spiegelman’s pages and became invested in the work, I quickly began to explore other titles. I began using more graphic novels in the classroom, and to make a long story short, I became better at using them, and my work became featured on the front-page of the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune’s publication lead to me being contacted by Candlewick Publishing; they wanted to know if I’d be interested in presenting at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention with critically-acclaimed artist/graphic novelist Gareth Hinds. Uh, yes, please…a no-brainer, right? So, Gareth, my colleague Ronell Whitaker, and I developed a presentation about using graphic novels to teach characterization and inference in the high school classroom.
As of right now, our sold-out world tour is taking a break after three cities, so I decided to take some of the ideas from our presentation, along with some new thoughts and inquiries and pick Gareth’s brain for my blog about using comics in the classroom. He graciously accepted my invitation to bug him, and what follows is that interview mixed with some of my own commentary and reaction. If you are reading this post somewhere other than www.theothercomicbookteacher.com, it may be edited, so please visit the blog for the full interview.
I hope you enjoy the thoughtful responses from Gareth Hinds, and as always, if you have any questions about what is happening here, what I’ve done in my classroom, or need some classroom suggestions, don’t hesitate to contact me.
EK: When you are creating your adaptations, to what extent do you consider that your books will be used in the classroom?
GH: When I started out (Beowulf, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice) this was not a factor at all. I was just creating the book I wanted to create. Now I’m much more aware of how widely my books are used in the classroom, so I do give some thought to making them age-appropriate (mostly this means no nudity), providing author notes that are aimed at teachers and students, and in some cases collaborating with my publisher to provide classroom guides that help teachers use my books. None of these are very demanding concerns, so 99% of the time I am still just focused on creating the best graphic novel I can.
EK: I often find myself struggling with not being able to use certain amazing titles due to questionable content, and I recently spoke to that struggle in a recent blog. It’s amazing that your titles are so classroom friendly. But with that being said, how do you handle the balance between editing a classic piece of literature for your page and maintaining the work’s original intent?
GH: I’m pretty much always trying to maintain the work’s original intent, but that doesn’t mean I don’t change anything. When translating from one medium to another, sometimes things have to change in order to preserve the same effect. For example in The Odyssey I made changes to certain scenes because they didn’t have enough impact when I tried drawing them “as written,” and I wanted them to have the same impact in my version as in the original.
The only time I’d say I deviate from the work’s original intent is when I think that intent just doesn’t come across or doesn’t “work” for a modern audience. For example, some of Shakespeare’s humor doesn’t make sense anymore unless you stop to explain it. Or sometimes Homer’s digressions are too long, they break the dramatic flow of the story by taking you completely out of the main story line. So I might shorten, rewrite, or remove things like those. If I ever do War & Peace you can bet that I will remove a lot of Tolstoy’s editorial rants, because although those are clearly a big part of what he wanted to get across, they mostly just bog the reader down.
EK: When you are creating these works, what are some of the things that you think about when shaping iconic characters for the graphic page such as Romeo or Beowulf?
GH: I want the character’s personality to come across quickly in their body language, manner of dress, physique, facial expression and so on. I also have to make sure their appearance matches how they are described in the text, and keep them in the right size and age relationship with the other characters. Occasionally I get a very clear picture of the character in my head as soon as I read the text, but more often I will do a lot of “visual brainstorming,” just sketching lots of different ideas and then picking the one that works best.
EK: You have been very bold in tackling gigantic pieces of classic literature. Besides the huge task of representing those characters, what do you feel are your biggest obstacles in the creation of these immense classics as a whole?
GH: Well, the length of the story is often scary — It’s a huge amount of art to create, and I’m not getting paid by the page, so I have to try and keep it relatively short. At the same time, my main goal is to really do justice to these great works, so I want to make sure I’m fully expressing the story and all the key points and themes, not making it feel too rushed or crowded. The text presents different challenges depending on my approach. Sometimes, as in The Odyssey, I’m re-writing the text, trying to shorten it radically while keeping the tone and all the relevant information. With Shakespeare, I’m using the original text, and the challenge is to abridge it and break it into smaller chunks that fit in dialog balloons without sacrificing the beauty of Shakespeare’s verse. They’re both difficult in different ways.
EK: Has the adaptation process of these titles, especially the Shakespeare ones, taught you anything about the literature that you have been working with?
GH: Yes, I get to dig pretty deeply into the text and think about themes, character arcs, symbolism, and so on — and also uncover details that usually get glossed over: for example, in Macbeth Act 4, did you know that one of the ingredients in the witches’ potion/spell is a “witches’ mummy?” That’s something you don’t see in many productions! I also get a lot of opportunity to really appreciate the exquisite writing of these immortal authors.
EK: So, do you see any advantages that the graphic medium may have over printed text? If so, what are those advantages?
GH: It’s more engaging to any reader, especially a reluctant reader. It can make some of the symbolism clearer. I like to think it encourages multiple readings a bit more. It also ties in to the theory of multi-modal learning, and there is a growing body of research indicating that information delivered by images and text working together, each “channel” presenting different but complimentary information, is easier to learn and retain than almost any other format.
EK: I definitely see comics and graphic novels reaching a larger variety of readers, and they certainly do encourage multiple readings and multi-modal learning, but there is still some teacher/administrative kick back to using these types of titles. What would you say to teachers and administrators that were hesitant in using comics/graphic novels in the classroom?
GH: My books are (I think) a very effective bridge to the original text. Not just to getting them to read the original text, but getting them to appreciate it. As for graphic novels as a whole, as literature, they are a different art form that engages the reader’s brain in a different but equally active way, and that art form can be used to tell any kind of story, not just to deliver light entertainment. Really I just think everyone needs to read Understanding Comics, Maus, and Persepolis, and that should convince them. And by the way, they’re also the highest-circulating category in most libraries.