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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Graphic Novels in the ESL Classroom

Bill Templer, Malaysia

Bill Templer is a Chicago-born educator with research interests in English as a lingua franca, literature in the ESL classroom, and critical applied linguistics. He has taught in the U.S., Ireland, Germany, Israel/Palestine, Bulgaria, Iran, Nepal, Thailand, and Laos, and is currently at the Faculty of Education, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. E-mail:


Core theses
Going multimodal, honing visual literacy
Graphic novels come of age
Powerful direct appeal
Getting started: tips for teachers
Student-drawn comics as reader response
Surmounting discursive walls
More classroom-based research needed
Browsing the graphic book shelves
Conclusion: high time to experiment

If you have a child who is struggling with reading, connect him or her with comics. If an interest appears, feed it with more comics (Trelease, 2006, p. 99).

Research done by professionals in the field and real-life experience of librarians have shown that there is one format that covers a variety of genres, addresses current and relative issues for teens, stimulates the young people’s imagination, and engages reluctant readers: graphic novels (Gorman, 2003, p. xi).


Kids love comics, so do many adults. This also holds true for the fast expanding genre of graphic narratives – stories, novels, autobiographies – which lots of readers, even ‘reluctant’ ones, really like. There is growing evidence that plenty of readers of graphic narratives become better readers in general, so comics and graphic novels can serve as a “conduit to harder reading” (Krashen, 2005, p. 2). Krashen (1997; 2004a, pp. 91-110) makes a strong case for comics and graphic novels as a major underutilized genre for development of literacy skills, part of the pedagogical core of the “power of reading.”

On the eve of a major conference on “Graphica in Education” at Fordham University in January 2009, graphic novelist Josh Neufeld (2009a) reflected on changing approaches to comics, graphic novels and other graphic genres within education in North America:

Unlike back in my day, when the only comics in school were hidden behind my notebook during Spanish class (or when I drew my own during lunch hour), there are now official, sanctified comics-in-education programs springing up throughout the country, in schools, libraries, and higher education venues.

Neufeld’s (2009b) ‘docu-graphic’ novel about the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as experienced by six real people, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, has generated much interest since appearing online, and will soon be available in print. It exemplifies one major focus in the new graphic novel: exploring significant historical events and their human impact, foregrounding personal narratives fused with striking graphic art. As historian Paul Buhle (2007) observes: “The possibility that the lowly comic-format could become a vehicle for non-fictional versions of the big stories as well as the personal tale marks a turning point of sorts, for scholars with an inclination in that direction, but perhaps also for generations of students to come” (p. 320).

In this paper, I sketch an agenda for innovative pedagogy and classroom-based research, individual and collaborative, centered on experimenting with “getting graphic” (Gorman, 2003) hands-on in the ESL syllabus, concentrating on graphic novels and biographies (abbreviated as GN). I wish to argue that TESL teachers need to begin to experiment with incorporating the genre of graphic novels and related graphic non-fiction narratives – and even comic books and Japanese-style manga and anime -- as an alternative multimodal form of text in EFL pedagogy (Derrick, 2008). Heckman (2004, pp. 3-4) stresses:

The new popularity of Graphic Novels lends itself perfectly to becoming the new frontrunner for reading motivation. […] Their eye-catching illustrations give contextual connections to the written text, making them perfect for remedial readers. They give confidence to frustrated readers with non-threatening, much needed practice and experience. This also leads to the reader’s progress to more challenging text.

Core theses

The paper is grounded on seven working theses:

  • Graphic novels, biographies and histories can serve as a unique and powerful motivator to stimulating English language learners to more independent free voluntary reading/FVR (Krashen, 2004a) and recreational reading in ESL.
  • Much graphic narrative material is especially suitable as “young adult literature,” a recognized underdeveloped focus (Too, 2006a; 2006b) for literature in the ESL classroom. The top recommended ‘Great Graphic Novels for Teens’ for the past 3 years, including nominations 2009, of the American Library Association are here:
  • Graphic novels, biographies (Jones, 2008), and graphic histories (Buhle, 2007; Zinn, 2008) often address crucial issues in society such as racism, war, poverty, justice, inequality, gender rights – the core of education for citizenship which is a desired focus for children’s books, especially teaching “tolerance and respect for other people and cultures” (Kryszewska, 2008). Using GNs in the EFL classroom can help “prepare students for democratic living, one of the major goals of public schooling” (Schwarz, 2007, p. 1), contributing to a TESOL of solidarity and inclusion.
  • Graphic narrative materials are an excellent means to reduce the “affective filters” of anxiety and lack of confidence blocking student pleasure in learning L2. They can spark student interest, thus increasing acquisition of L2 and invigorating kids to become “autonomous acquirers” (Krashen, 2004b).
  • GNs sharpen and deepen visual literacy (Schwarz, 2006; Burmark, 2008), and are for many young people, like video games (Gee, 2003), an important multimodal learning tool, schooling multiple intelligences (Quedo & Cabello, 2008).
  • Students drawing their own comics to tell the basic narrative of a text they are reading, or to invent a comic of their own (Carter, 2008b; Zimmerman, 2009), is a form of active multimodal production – individual and collaborative -- that teachers can readily experiment with in their own classrooms everywhere (Chandaran, 2009).
  • Only classroom-based research by teachers in their classrooms across a range of cultural and social settings can shed real light on learner response to graphic narrative materials and their effectiveness, and needs to be promoted. (Liu, 2004; Carter, 2007a; Schwarz, 2008). Graphic narrative is international, but specific pedagogical experience in elite contexts in the Global North may not be readily transferable to other teaching environments, and needs inventive adaptation.

Going multimodal, honing visual literacy

Maley (2008) has argued for revitalizing an “aesthetic approach” in materials and method in ELT, a “texture of learning permeated by the art of its inputs and methods and by the artistry of its teachers,” with stress on multimodality in genre (word, image, sound) and modes of learner autonomy. He does not mention comics and GNs, but they fit well within his framework of aesthetic transformation. Graphic narratives are a prime example of a ‘play genre’ in literature, central to Cook’s (2000, pp. 195-196) stress on giving literature a reconstituted and broader role in play-focused language and literacy pedagogies. Surveying the profession’s recent past, Canagarajah (2008, p. 539) has noted new paradigms in EFL teaching, reflecting a conceptual shift from “treating competence as rational to developing it as multisensory […] from communication as solely verbal to multimodal or polysemiotic […] These conceptual shifts portend significant changes to the way we practice language teaching.”

Multimodality and its analysis is an expanding focus in cultural studies, discourse analysis and other fields (O’Halloran, 2006; Molle & Prior, 2008; Jewitt, 2009). Burmark (2009) stresses that while doing her research, “I already knew in my gut from years of classroom teaching and professional development: students learn more, faster, and retain it better with image-rich instruction. No one doubts the need for print literacy: reading and writing words. I would advocate that visual literacy – reading and writing images – is an even more basic skill.” Does graphic narrative enhance and shape visual literacy? More investigation is imperative, but experience from North America (Cary, 2004; Rudiger, 2006) suggests that students, working with such materials, do learn to better read and interpret gesture, facial expression, movement in space, clothing, perspective, typography, use of color, sequencing of panels, and other features integral to comic-graphic illustration in GNs and other graphic narratives --- the elements of a kind of “visual grammar” (Cohn, 2007).

How do these various semiotic choices and modalities integrate and combine to make meaning, i.e. how is that meaning orchestrated? Graphic narratives can stimulate students to explore what Gee (2003, p. 207) calls the “Semiotic Principle,” coming to appreciate “interrelations within and across multiple sign systems,” a principle also central to the learning experience with video and computer games. Many pupils from all backgrounds have a keen interest in such games, and we know far too little about what they are actually learning as they explore the complex interactive terrain of this new ‘semiotic domain’ (ibid., pp. 13-51).

Rudiger (2006) is a compact introduction to visual literary analysis centered on reading graphic novels. She stresses that the images don’t just supplement the story, they are the story, which means schooling visual literacy in surprising new ways. Schwarz (2006, p. 58) comments: “The time has come for secondary English teachers to explore and use the graphic novel to build multiple literacies.” Campbell (2007, p. 201) agrees, stressing that “graphic novels belong in our middle school and high school classrooms.” Graphic narrative materials can challenge students to think in fresh ways about how stories, true and fictive, are told and unfold (Eisner, 1996).

Graphic novels come of age

The genre of graphic novels, a close cousin of comics and manga/anime, is today the fastest growing book genre in the U.S. (Gravett, 2005), and a new focus in literacy and language arts education. “Just as comics experienced a ‘Golden Age’ of popularity in the United States in the 1940s, comics and the graphic novel are experiencing a burgeoning Golden Age in education today” (Carter, 2007b, p. 1). Writing in Time magazine, Grossman (2003) notes that “some of the most interesting, daring, and most heartbreaking art being created right now, of both the visual and verbal varieties, is being published in graphic novels.” Weiner (2002) suggests the great breakthrough in real interest in graphic literary materials in the United States came roughly with the new millennium, although they had already appeared poised to break into the adult readership mainstream in the mid-1980s, with the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning Holocaust narrative Maus (1986). Some panels from Maus can be viewed here . Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978) is considered by many the first major GN in its contemporary mode to appear in the United States.

Raymond Briggs pioneered the genre in Britain with his now classic When the Wind Blows (1982), about a nuclear attack on England, seen from the perspective of an elderly working-class couple in rural Sussex. His Ethel and Ernest (1998) portrays London working class life (and British history) from 1930 to 1970, in the true story of the author’s own parents. Interest in graphic narrative is now burgeoning in the U.K.: Mulholland (2007) musters evidence that “the graphic novel - loosely defined as a novel whose content is displayed in both images and text - has, in the past two years, begun to break into the British mainstream.” In Japan, manga and other forms of graphic literary materials have long been an integral part of the national reading culture, for adults as well as their children, a heritage of remarkable breadth and diversity since the end of WW II (Gravett, 2004). In the Philippines, Arnold Arre’s The Mythology Class (2005) is a fantasy tale that weaves together strands of Filipino legend and myth, while his much-discussed Martial Law Babies (2008) explores the experience of a whole generation born under Marcos and growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

This narrative “sequential art” (Eisner, 1985) ranges widely, from memoirs (Satrapi, 2007; Arnoldi, 1998) and biography (Jones, 2008) to fantasy tale, history (Buhle & Schulman, 2005; Zinn, 2008), and full-scale novel. A highly political graphic narrative is Sacco’s (2001) Palestine, which paints a grim picture of everyday life under Israeli occupation and is considered a minor masterpiece of graphic documentary narrative. A surrealist fantasy novel from Israel set in a purgatory specially designed for suicides is Etgar Keret’s Pizzeria Kamikaze (2006), discussed later below. Lat’s Kampung Boy (1979) is an engaging graphic tale about growing up in a traditional Malaysian Muslim village in the 1950s, drawn with remarkable artistry, recently reissued in the U.S., along with its sequel Town Boy (1980). Excerpts can be viewed here: . Lat pioneered the genre in Southeast Asia, and was recently honored on a set of commemorative stamps by the Malaysian government. Kampung Boy is also available as an animated film, in part online: One major rapidly expanding subgenre is graphic versions of canonical literary works, such as Eisner’s (2001) Moby Dick, Kuper’s graphic versions of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (2003) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (2005). Shakespeare’s Macbeth as graphic novel is now available in a versatile form: a simplified ‘quick text’ and a ‘plain text’ original dialogue edition, with remarkable artistry by illustrator Jon Haward. These 144-page editions can be used both with pre-intermediate and more advanced students, with a choice of British or American English: .

A prime current in GNs are true personal narratives of coping and survival. Three recent such tales explore a French family dealing with the severe disability of an epileptic child (David B., 2005) a young New York woman’s battle with breast cancer, Cancer Vixen (Marchetto, 2006), and Penfold (2005), an autobiographical tale about domestic violence and spouse abuse. Panels from David B.’s Epileptic, with exceptional visual artistry, can be viewed here: . Cancer Vixen is reviewed on youtube, with emphasis that the book is “nicely told […] incredibly accessible, incredibly honest”: . Penfold’s Dragonslippers is explored a bit here: . Its translation into Bahasa Indonesia has been much discussed across Indonesia, where abuse of wives has become a focus of discussion in the public sphere: .

Powerful direct appeal

In North America, it is a fact that graphic novels appeal to adolescent readers (Gorman, 2003). A study at a library in Florida showed that although graphic novels constituted only one percent of total holdings, they accounted for more than 25-30% of circulation (Heckman, 2004, p. 3). Visual messages alongside minimal print help ease frustrations of beginning or struggling readers (Gorman, 2003, p. 11). Liu (2004, p. 238) found that “the reading comprehension of the low-level students was greatly facilitated when the comic strip repeated the information presented in the text.” The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in the U.S. recently published an excellent collective volume on using graphic novels hands-on in the classroom (Carter, 2007a). Frey and Fisher (2004) report on how they have utilized graphic novels as a basis for writing in a U.S. high school where many students struggle with learning school-based English and its styles.

A substantial body of evidence asserts that using graphic novels and comics in the classroom produces effective learning opportunities over a wide range of subjects and benefits various student populations, from hesitant readers to gifted students. (Carter, 2007b, p. 1). They can teach students new perspectives on better grasping plot, character, theme and other story elements through visual cues that aid comprehension. Derrick (2008), a concise introduction to comics & graphica for EFL teachers, notes that kids quickly learn

the visual symbols and shorthand that comics use to represent the physical world. For example, two or more wavy lines rising up from something indicate smoke. With flies added, they indicate a bad smell. Lines trailing after a person or a car indicate movement. Text bubbles change their form to indicate if a person is thinking, speaking, or shouting. Also, comic book artists sometimes use a dashed or dotted outline to show invisibility or Xs in place of eyes to represent death.

Commenting on Free Voluntary Reading (Krashen, 2004b, p. 10) stresses: “Such a program will work, of course, only if a large supply of interesting reading is available, a super-library filled with books, comics, magazines, films and tapes.” That super-library should, I would argue, also contain numerous graphic narratives, both fiction and documentary.

Getting started: tips for teachers

Cary (2004), available in part online, is an excellent introduction to comics in the ESL classroom, including many activities for students, and can be combined with Derrick (2008). VOA Special English has a brief overview on comics and the emergence of GN, in their simple English, good for lower intermediate students: . Smith (2006) provides a succinct guide for teachers, with concrete activities. .

McCloud (1993) is an inventive introduction to comic art, itself written as an ‘academic comic.’ Brenner (2006) and Schwarz (2002; 2006) are good brief introductions to the genre of graphic novels within the language arts/English instruction more broadly. Whitworth (2006) argues the case for comics in the broadest sense as an educational tool; his views, grounded on extensive personal experience, can be readily transposed to GNs. Eisner (1996) is an excellent introduction to storytelling with sequential imagery; it can motivate students not only to read but to draw their own simple narrative tales and mini-comix.

The website ESL and Archie Comics provides a learning guide for select comic strip episodes, with a glossary and cultural notes, and a podcast for listening ( ). The National Association of Comics Art Educators has many exercises, articles, handouts, study guides, and syllabi at its web site ( ), looking both at comics and GNs in U.S. schools, primary to tertiary level. Weiner (2001) provides a description of over a hundred major graphic novels, and Weiner (2004) and Gravett (2005) can be used as excellent overviews. A contemporary array of representative GNs in print are featured at First Second Books ( ), and numerous links to articles and sites are available here: .

Student-drawn comics as reader response

Using graphics can also mean students drawing their own graphic sequences, individually and in groups, for any text they are reading – a short story, a poem, a short personal narrative (Carter, 2008b, as one way to engage actively hands-on with the text and its imaginative world, a form of graphic reader-response. Chin (2004) is one text that teaches students such skills. Cary suggests tasks such as students adding a panel (2004, p. 74), and other concrete activities, such as interpreting jokes and humor, often also visual, in pairs or groups, and Derrick (2008) describes analogous learning tasks. Schwarz (2006) points to observed levels of heightened emotional and mental involvement in classes where students create their own miniature graphic novels based on a story or play they are reading, such as Romeo and Juliet (p. 59). Even if you hesitate to use graphic narrative as set or optional reading material, your students can be responding to any text by creating their own graphic sequences (for handouts and exercises, see ).

Chandaran (2009) describes an empirical study involving Malaysian high school students working in collaborative groups drawing mini-comics in response to their reading of Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl. She comments that in working several years teaching The Pearl to somewhat reluctant readers of ESL in their final year at secondary school, she has never found her students more enthusiastic, and never saw them having so much fun with a literary work in the classroom, in part using cooperative learning techniques (Jacobs et al., 2002), what Maley (2008) terms “ensemble work.” Chandaran’s experimental study involved a hands-on form of reader response that tapped student artistic creativity working in small groups, and produced a set of comic episodes that can be displayed on a class wallboard, a school newspaper, and elsewhere. One of Hemadevi’s students (S3) in interview commented:

The graphics give us a clearer picture about what’s going on in the story […] The storyline stays in your head and we understand it faster […] The graphic supplement triggers group discussion and exchange of ideas and opinions between us pupils in the class. We become more confident to communicate in English and speak up in class.

She notes (p. 52):

The researcher discovered the groups had discussed a division of labour and each student in a group creates and thus ‘owns’ a character in the panel throughout the whole process. Students take on roles as scriptwriter, illustrator, and ‘director’ […] this process developed student ability to self-evaluate and engage in reflective thinking through oral discussion of work.

Such comics drawn by students go far beyond the visualizing activity “Sketch to Stretch” that has become popular, often involving a small drawing or sketching of a “metaphor” to reflect some character, mood or emotion in a tale (McLaughlin & Allen, 2002). Nor should they be confused with “visual organizers” ( ). In an analogous vein, the Comic Book Project at Teachers College, Columbia University engages children in designing, writing and publishing “original comic books on topical themes, such as the environment, money and real-life superheroes” ( ). Bill Zimmerman (2009) invites EFL learners to make their own comics online at a creative new site, Make Beliefs Comix.

Surmounting discursive walls

I wish to argue that better gearing teaching to what most ordinary, non-privileged working-class learners like and can enjoy, both kids and adults, is part of what rethinking the ‘E’ in TESL requires It may be necessary to ‘decolonize’ existing literacy practices and syllabus canons, interrogating our own often elitist notions of literacy. We need to make school discourses more democratic and open to actual learner interest and their life worlds (Templer, 2008).

For many of our learners wherever we teach, reading comics in some form in their L1 is the prime focus of their “primary Discourse” outside the school. These vernacular literacies (sometimes termed ‘borderland discourses’) need to be made welcome within the elite “secondary Discourses” of the school as well (Gee, 2008, pp. 175-177, 189-194). In Malaysia, for example, many kids love to read comics and manga in Bahasa Melayu, but know what they relish in their own peer-linked literacy practices is strictly taboo on the school grounds. Importantly, it offers a way to link “classroom literacies with students’ out-of-school literacy” (p. 207) and bring popular culture directly into the classroom. Striking an analogous chord, Kryszewska (2008) reminds us of the importance of connecting with pupils’ life worlds, stressing that teachers and textbook writers

need to produce peripheral materials to supplement the course which are in tune with what native children experience. The outcome are courses which strike a cord with the young learners of the language by following the experience native children enjoy and help teachers to constantly improve the quality of their language classes and the pedagogical outcomes.

Jim Gee (2008) observes: “Children will not identify with – they will even disidentify with – teachers and schools that they perceive as hostile, alien, or oppressive to their home-based identities” (p. 39).

In my own conception, a key thesis deriving from this is that resistance to school-based ‘sanctioned’ discourses among many youngsters and young adults helps drive and reproduce

  • a ‘submerged comics-life’ (‘c-life’), interlinked with
  • a ‘g-life’ of video games
  • an ‘e-life,’ associated with online and cell phone activity
  • an ‘m-life’ (music-life) grounded in listening to/creating pop, rap and other music & lyrics
This gives rise to a prime tension between two discourse realms:

c-life / g-life / e-life / m-life
[all multimodal]
→ ←
school-anchored Discourses,
including ‘literature’ in the ESL
classroom, often print / monomodal

So-called ‘reluctant readers’ can be avid message texters, their ‘e-life’ more dynamic and relevant than their everyday encounters with language at school and home. Such factors, operative within what Willis (1977) in his classic study called “counter-school culture,” have a clear impact on ELF/EFL instruction across the planet, but have been little investigated along empirical lines.

More classroom-based research needed

Krashen (2005, p. 2) notes: “There is no current research that I know of on the use of graphic novels, but there is evidence suggesting that comic book reading can be a conduit to ‘heavier’ reading. In our study, we found that middle school boys who read comic books read more in general than boys who did not read comics, read more books, and enjoyed reading more”. He also comments that there are “compelling case histories of children who were reluctant readers until they discovered comics […] Comic reading led to other reading.” That is also supported by Norton (2003) looking at readers of Archie comics and their heightened motivation. Yet recent volumes on EFL and children’s literature (Talif & Jan, 2007) and young adult literature (Too, 2006a) in Malaysia make no mention whatsoever of comics or graphic novels.

As Cary (2004) and Carter (2007a) stress, such empirical research on how graphic storytelling can be utilized for teaching in the English language arts and EFL classroom is crucial. Carter: “What is needed is more evidence from researchers that graphic novels improve literacy skills. These research studies would necessarily be conducted in concert with evidence from teachers who have used the format successfully, but these articles are also still relatively scarce” (p. 16). He concludes: “More success stories are needed, particularly via practitioner-based essays detailing use of graphic novels in actual classrooms” (p. 24). Schwarz (2008) points up the imperative to explore questions such as what multiple literacy skills are actually involved in reading graphical novels, and why some teachers (and education officials) resist using graphic narratives of any kind. Inquiry can involve action research (Burns, 1999), and in-depth case study of selected learners (Stake, 1995).

Browsing the graphic book shelves

Copyright restrictions make it difficult to use reproduced extracts from graphic narratives. I will point readers to some panels from the texts and youtube video materials accessible online.

Islamic graphica from Iran

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is the principal graphic novel/memoir to date that is set in a Muslim country, the autobiographical narrative of a rather ‘dissident’ girl from a progressive family growing up in Iran during and after the Revolution. Its huge popularity in Europe and North America (now approaching nearly 500,000 copies sold) is due in part to its appeal as young adult graphic fiction, set in a society few non-Iranians know much about during a critical period in its history. The novel can be combined with the 2008 animated film version, an Academy Award short on the Oscar-nominated animated film Persepolis is here: .

Important is research on how effective the combination GN plus cinematic version are as a teaching tool for introducing students to a literary work of this type. One approach, explored by Harris (2007), is to link reading of Persepolis with other text-only narratives in young adult fiction. Spangler (2008) suggests how students can use this graphic tale to search for more background material on the recent Iranian history which Marjane depicts from her insider, often critical perspective. Ankiel (2007) offers a well-structured lesson plan based on the novel, from which much can learned about presenting GNs in the classroom, with appropriate learning tasks. Selected panels from Persepolis can be seen here: . Marjane talks about why she wrote Persepolis here: .

Growing up Asian in North America

Prejudice toward Asians in California is the focus of the recent and very popular graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang (2006), American Born Chinese, winner in 2007 of the Printz Award for young adult literature in the United States, explores contemporary American-Asian adolescence and some of its ‘darker’ sides. Representative panels online can provide some idea of the artistry and story: . A handy lesson plan, “Teaching History with American Born Chinese,” is also available, drawn from Cary (2004, see ). The tale presents a kind of autobiography of Jin Wang, a young boy from an immigrant Taiwanese family growing up in California, as he encounters prejudice in his elementary school. It is especially interesting for Asian students of EFL, not just of Chinese background, and touches on universal themes important in young adult literature, such as bullying, peer pressure, consolidating personal identity (Too, 2006b), and inter-ethnic tensions in the U.S. today. Here a video introducing the graphic novel: ; here a review of the book: .

Redrawing the West: An abducted settler girl turned Comanche heroine

An extraordinary narrative is the true tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, a Texas girl abducted in 1836 at the age of 9 by Comanche Native Americans and integrated into the tribe. It is retold in graphic form, with superb artwork, in Jackson’s 1979 graphic novel Comanche Moon. Cynthia became a blue-eyed, blond Comanche woman, brought up by a loving family there as Naduah, and renowned throughout Comancheria. Naduah refused to leave the tribe and go back to the white settler community, despite various demands for her return. She was later recaptured in 1860 by Texas Rangers, and returned involuntarily to white society. Her life after that was a nightmare of repeated attempts to escape back to her tribe and Comanche family, and her death in 1870. The narrative calls this “Cynthia Ann’s second captivity.” Her son Quanah was the last great chief of the Comanches. Naduah and Quanah are still remembered and honored among Comanche Americans in Oklahoma and Texas (see ). Hollywood and the U.S. media conglomerates have never presented this story of the ‘alternative’ Comanche West, a genuine mind-opener for EFL students.

Surviving as a single teenage mother

The theme of the unwed young mother as developed in Arnoldi’s The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom (1998) is a contemporary graphic window for looking at the classic predicament of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (Carter, 2007c). This is a first-person chronicle of a teenage mom from a low-income background who has one dream besides bringing up her daughter Stacie: she wants to go to college. Katherine Arnoldi, a rape victim left with a baby at 17, is forced to take a hazardous factory job, leave her mother and hit the road. Yet in despair she does not give up, and Katherine wanders westward in search of her chance to succeed. The recounting of her ordeal, with remarkable artwork, has a clear message of personal grit, stamina and courage. Students can also read Arnoldi (2003), which details how she became a GN writer, and learn about the special scholarship fund she has set up for teenage mothers in the U.S.: .

Coping as a 9-11 widow

Arnoldi’s tale can be combined with Alissa Torres’ American Widow (2008), a graphic narrative of a young woman nearly eight months pregnant when her husband Eddie died in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. Alissa describes her life in the wake of the disaster, as a bereaved single mother, trying to cope with her loss, the chaos, the bureaucracies around her, the profound grief, the political ramifications. It is also a story of strength and determination. Reading the GN can be combined with an interview with Alissa: .

Waking up after suicide

Pizzeria Kamikaze (2006) is literally a walk on the wild side by one of the most popular fantasy fiction writers among Israeli Jewish youth, Etgar Keret, illustrated by Asaf Hanuka. It is about a special purgatory/hell where only those who have committed suicide go, to live on forever in a workaday surreal world populated by other suicides. The tale is narrated by Mordy, a broken-hearted young Israeli who kills himself after being dumped by his girlfriend Desiree, only to find himself working in a pizza joint called ‘Kamikaze’ in suicide hell. When he learns Desiree killed herself shortly after his funeral, he goes off in search of her, a road trip through a strange underworld. The novel follows that Gothic quest. As Michaelson (2007) notes:

Keret’s hell looks just like this world, with pizzerias, segregated neighborhoods, cigarettes and sex. But it’s populated only by people who have killed themselves — those who died of poisoning have their bodies intact, but those who took their lives more violently carry their wounds with them. In short, it is a suicide’s worst nightmare: Life continues as before, only this time without end.

Tapping manga from East and West

Cary (2004, pp. 66-68) is very positive about using Japanese manga in English with English language learners, since manga comics and in effect graphic novels are generally “text-lighter”; they have far fewer words per page than many American graphic tales, and have become hugely popular in the U.S. Manga are available in English in mega-quantity (ca. 750,000 pages) online at several sites (see , and ; for a basic detailed introduction, see ).

A good historical overview of the development of manga-influenced comics throughout East Asia is provided by Lent (2007). Across much of the area, he notes that “a significant change during the past decade and a half has been the elevation of the comic book from a child-only medium to an art form, educational tool, and money-making engine, worthy of recognition and respect in governmental and cultural circles.” The manga tale Nana, now with some 80 chapters, is a good example of young adult fiction in English set in Tokyo: two young women, both with the name Nana, one from a punk background, the other more naïve and provincial, meet, move in together and pursue their dreams and careers (see the series here: ). InuYasha is now some 560 chapters, one of the most extensive manga fantasy tales online,> . Anita Hage’s Gothic Sports is a new manga from Germany in English, chronicling a group of independently-minded high school girls who start their own soccer team. Its heroine Anya, aged 16, loves Berlin and competitive team sports; her main dislike is “being written off”: .

Graphic histories: a tool in shaping critical awareness

Schwarz emphasizes that graphic texts can, in unique ways, implement critical literacy in the classroom: “literacy that affirms diversity, gives voice to all, and helps students examine ideas and practices that promulgate inequity” (2006, p. 62). Briggs (1982) can be combined with the anti-nuclear animated film version When the Wind Blows (1988), available on youtube: . The graphic history by Laird et al. (1997) Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans challenges many assumptions students may have about the history of African-Americans, their social exclusion and dreams for equality. Zinn (2008) is a critical narrative of American geopolitics from 1890 down to the present, and the existence today of an American Empire. An animated video on the book’s theme can be viewed here: .

Buhle & Schulman (2005) present a graphic history of a major radical labor organization, the IWW, founded in Chicago in 1905. It played a major role in organizing workers in the early decades of the 20th century in the United States and elsewhere. The IWW is now expanding on several continents, including Industrial Union 620 for education workers everywhere:

Conclusion: high time to experiment

Carter (2008a, p. 47) notes:

The existence of literary canons and teachers’ purposeful or inadvertent propagation of them are seen as probable reasons why comics and graphic novels have yet to be properly integrated and acknowledged in education […] by viewing the canon as an evolving force, teachers can be empowered to embrace sequential art forms and elude the effects of elitist thinking that might have kept comics and graphic novels at bay for so long.

Despite lingering obstacles from school principals, officials in education ministries, parents and other stakeholders -- and a natural reluctance among many educators to provoke controversy -- ESL teachers should consider embarking down this road to alternative graphic multimodal textual worlds. Most students will welcome any experiments at “going graphic” in the English language classroom -- and, for that matter, other areas of the curriculum, such as history and current affairs. It is part of the task of energizing them to become self-propelled “autonomous acquirers,” while schooling their imagination. Experience in Malaysia indicates that the easiest and most practicable approach to introducing graphic work in public schools, where set syllabi often allow little space for experimentation with alternative texts in class, is to have students drawing their own reader-response comic sequences to any texts and genres being read, preferably as ‘ensemble work’ in Maley’s (2008) core aesthetic sense. That door is open to us all.

In sum, there is a need to develop curricular strategies and research agendas for graphic materials in EFL at all levels. This can include joint projects, forging links among teachers of EFL, art, history, moral education and other disciplines. That can bridge across subject areas while enhancing a key component in any chemistry of pedagogical change: teacher connectivity.


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