Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Five Graphic Novels You Should Teach

Comics are cool and trendy. Well, wait, not quite. People like comics in theory. They like comic spinoff movies because they're big and flashy and have great personalities and take us away from who we really are. Guardians of the Galaxy has been massively successful and has blitzed box-offices worldwide this year. Days of Future Past likewise. I am happy for comics. I am happy that they are finding success; the industry sure needed it after the big publishers pretty much ravaged it for flea-bitten alternate-cover cash in the early nineties. But, and you have my permission to call my sour here, it makes me sad that the best of the industry is oft-ignored.

Too often, what I see in schools is bad 'graphic novel' versions of Shakespeare plays, or 'difficult' novels given to students so that it can be made easier. My heart sinks, somewhat painfully, into my gut when I see these because it is indicative of the frivolity connected to comics and graphic novels: They are easy. They make things easier. They are a substitute used when things get tough. And so, in light of this, I raise a giant metaphorical banner (what i'm really doing is drinking tea) and I present you with a list of five challenging, engaging and interesting graphic novels or comic sets that you can teach in schools. That is, if anyone takes your idea seriously. One: V for Vendetta

There is no way I couldn't include this on the list. Moore and Gibbons novel is a wonderful indictment of fascism written during the cold war. It gives an (in)human face to terrorism and questions what is right and wrong and, most markedly, the language is beautiful.

Yes, you could watch the film, but it misses a lot of the point. Moore was writing against Thatcherism. He was quite serious when he predicted the rise of militant fascism in Britain and there a lot of tropes in the novel that echo true today. This is a truly exceptional, and eminently readable, novel.

In my opinion this book is a relevant and  powerful as 1984. It is brutal in places but it looks at the human impact of theocratic government. Read it, teach it. Heed its warnings.

Extract: But it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it's all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch we 
are free.
Number Two: Maus

Much has been written about Maus, and that is entirely correct. It is the only graphic novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize, and if there is to be only ever one to win it, then this is surely deserved. Art Spiegelman's biography of his father's time as a Jew in Auschwitz is also an autobiography that explores survivor guilt and the difficulty of growing up under the weight of the need to tell the story of his father. This is an exceptional work. It utilises the jarring effect of anthropomorphised characters living human lives: Jews are mice; Nazis, cats; Poles, pigs. It is like reading the most distressing Mickey Mouse comic ever written and that is quite the point. Stylistic, heartfelt and personal, this is perhaps the most affecting thing that you can read, and therefore it should be read. If we teach students about the holocaust, why don't we show them the experiences of what it was like.

 Extract: Many young Germans have had it up to HERE with  holocaust stories. These things happened before they were evenborn. Why should THEY feel guilty?"
 "Who am I to say." Three: Blankets

 Something a little more tender now. Craig Thompson's Blankets is probably not something you've heard of despite winning so many awards it could open a shop selling them. It is an autobiographical bildungsroman about Thompson's first love and the tensions between his religious upbringing and his own urges. When I bought this I started reading it at ten at night and proceeded to read the entire 582 pages without a break. 

But why teach it? Because it is so relevant. It describes to students exactly how they feel. It doesn't lie about teenage love, or parents, or society. Oh, and it's one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. It is Salinger, Homes and Bloom. It is open and unexpected but it provides a raft of language for students to peer into and consider. It is contemporary, relevant and unusual. It is, and I hesitate, scared a little, to say this, as close to perfect as I can find. 

Extract: Her hair was silky and sprawled across her forehead. I smoothed it back and tucked it behind her ear. She was restful and yet her eyebrows were knit in a worried manner, forming a permanent furrow upon her brow. What was she worried about? Four: When the Wind Blows

Raymond Briggs is well known for being the man behind The Snowman but this very thin volume (it's only 38 pages long) is, in my opinion at least, his magnum opus. Brigg's cartoon style contrasts with his story about a pensioner couple in the wake of a nuclear explosion. This is one of a few books that reset my tear-ducts to 'just dumped teenager'. The impact of it is incredible and indelible. No-one should grow up in a nuclear age without reading it.

The raft of context behind it including the modelling of the protaganist couple on Bigg's own parents, the constant allusion and mis-allusion by the couple to events contemporary to its writing, and the use of quotation from genuine nuclear preparation pamphlets, makes the novel ripe for discussion. These are figures trapped in a situation they have no say in. Stylistically the novel is characterised by its over-A4 size that blends dense conversation in tiny panels with giant double page spreads including, as the centrefold linchpin of the story, a double page that is bright, printer-paper white.

Extract: I saw it last week in a magazine in the public library. I learned it by heart-'Inter-racial harmony in a Multi-ethnic society' Good, isn't it?

Number 5: The Arrival

Now, Shaun Tau's wonderfully illustrated tale of immigration set in a strange and unreal world is a bit of a wildcard on this list because, well, it hasn't got any words in it. At all. But that is the point. 

 The story follows a lone character who moves to a new city where he understands very little of what is going on. It is strange to describe a book as quiet, but this is eminently so. The very real tale of disconnection to the surrounding world uses surrealism to provide its momentum but it is intriguingly followable. this is a very modern story told in the sepia of memory and the lavishness of beautiful pencil-work. 

So that is my list. Please, even if you don't think you have an opportunity to teach one of these, go an order one off amazon or, even better get it from a bookshop or, if you are pressing for an A* then find a comic shop and support it. There are hundreds and thousands of graphic novels that could be on this list, but I tried to provide some variety in style and substance. I could have easily put on Watchmen, Ghost World, Bone, Akira, The Killing Joke or any other 'stalwarts' of the medium but I chose things that I thought had genuine educational benefit. 


No comments:

Post a Comment