Author Bio

How Comics Can Be an Entry Point to Prose Novels

posted: 5.30.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Today’s guest blogger is Daniel Jose Ruiz, assistant professor and Vice-Chair of English/ESL at Los Angeles City College. Daniel teaches a wide range of courses, from basic skills to literature, but his emphasis is always on fostering a student’s engagement with a text. Daniel is also known for using a variety of materials ranging from YA literature and SF/Fantasy to canonical works.

Imagine that you learned two languages primarily aurally and visually. You did not receive much, if any, formal education in literacy in either language. You were taught to read, but only to the extent that you can navigate the world. You can read basic expository text, but you cannot read subtext or layered prose. You learned both languages by hearing others speak them, speaking back, and consuming media within that language, not by reading.  You may have never even finished a full length novel in your life.  Your primary source for written text is through social media, advertising, and blog/article posting.   If your primary means of engaging language is by speaking, by hearing, and by seeing it displayed, how would you be expected to engage with Orwell’s masterpiece 1984? The answer, generally, is not very well.  This is the struggle that the students in my basic skills courses face.  They are intelligent students, eager to learn and engaged with the concepts of the class, but their literacy skills are often weak.

This past semester, I have taught two works and had two very different experiences.  1984 is a masterpiece (few would dispute this), and its themes of surveillance and tyranny often mirror our own world.  My students struggled with it, even my best.  V for Vendetta is a masterpiece (to the graphic novel crowd), and it is often included in the same list of “canonical” graphic works along with Watchmen, Maus, Persopolis, or The Sandman series.  The themes of surveillance, ideological extremism and purity, and terrorism also mirror our own world. My students excelled with it, even my weakest.  My students found themselves deeply immersed, making poignant connections back to 1984 or contemporary issues, and I never had to worry about asking a question based on a plot point and having the room stare blankly back at me.  Why? Simply, the visual nature of V for Vendetta allowed my students to utilize more than just written literacy.  Even if the words or location were unfamiliar (none of my students had ever been to London or were very familiar with English history), they could look at each individual panel and begin to construct the narrative.

This is not to say that it was easy for them; hardly. For most of my students, it was their first comic book, and learning how to read from panel to panel and in which order was a skill that had to be explained.   Together, we went over how different fonts, italics, and the visual nature of the written language were meant to signify something, a guide from both the artist and writer to lead the reader through the piece.  It did not take long before my students were happily pointing out subtle changes in shadow and composition between panels, different typefaces, and speech bubbles.   It did not matter if a student had learned English as a primary language, a secondary language, or learned it concurrently with another; all of my students could access the text and began to understand its multiple layers of meaning and construction.  I often call this moment “Seeing the Matrix”: where a student finally understands how a text is composed of many, many different yet interwoven layers.  It was exciting for them, and it was exciting for me.

I would often point my students back to 1984, highlighting how Orwell’s text often uses different typeface and visual cues to alert the reader to the change in narration.  While I had explained this to my students already, having read V for Vendetta better demonstrated the point, and now they were able to engage with 1984 in a richer way than before.  In my 7 years of teaching, I have always brought in pieces of visual texts for my students, but this semester marked my first outing with a complete work, and I do not think that I will be going back.

So much of teaching composition is about leading a student to engage with material, but a fundamental problem exists: What happens if a student is lacking foundational literacy skills?  At the institution where I teach, the vast majority of students test into a level or two below freshmen comp.  This is the reality of teaching at a community college like LACC, and each instructor finds a way to educate despite this reality.  For me, graphic novels and visual story-telling have proven to be a consistent means of allowing students to fully engage material despite any foundational gaps.  Once students have developed an understanding of how texts work, it becomes easier for them to see how their own writing works, and it then becomes easier for them to express their thoughts clearly and logically. More importantly, once students feel confident in their abilities, they are more likely to push themselves forward, addressing the foundational gaps that may exist.  A student that feels ashamed for not being able to read at a college level is not going to want to read “college level” novels, let alone write about them.  A graphic work allows them to fully engage, and material like V for Vendetta or Watchmen is neither “teaching down to them” nor “easy”.  In my experience, any text is teachable.  Getting a student to engage and getting a student to think are the ultimate goals, and for me, graphic works provide that balance between the literary and the accessible and the bridge between disengagement and critical thinking.

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One Response to “How Comics Can Be an Entry Point to Prose Novels”

  1. Diantha Smith, Utah State University Says:

    I really love the way this post pushed me to reimagine “literacy.” I look forward to helping my own students “see the matrix” in the future. Thanks for sharing these thoughts on comics in the classroom!