I watched a movie the other night called “People, Places, Things” mostly because Jemaine Clement starred in it and I will follow him to the ends of this Earth. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when Jemaine’s character drew comics and taught a class on the ways graphic stories can convey important messages to readers. He also argued the importance of adding graphic novels to the texts discussed in college-level Literature classes and that the genre’s absence from Literature classes keeps its stories from being perceived as a legitimate form of literature. The presence of these elements of what I assumed would be a typical romantic comedy took me by surprise since just last week I read my first graphic novel and immediately saw the value of adding it to a classroom setting.
Every person learns differently. Every person has different interests and skills that can affect the way that they intake information, or fail to do so. I, for one, am a very visual learner. I can hear something all day long and I’ll absorb it as well as possible, but when I see something, not visualize but physically see it, my ability to retain that information is increased tenfold. Herein lies arguably the most valuable feature of the graphic novel. Not only am I reading the author’s words, but I’m unmistakably seeing what (s)he intended for me to see. Now, some may argue that this removes the reader’s ability to use their imagination to formulate the images, but I say poo-poo to that argument. Sometimes, the author needs to convey messages that may be beyond the reader’s imagination, or at least outside of what readers may be comfortable picturing. Such was the case with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novels, Maus and Maus II.
The stories are told from the perspective of Art who is telling the story of his father, Vladek Spiegelman’s, experiences during World War II and the Holocaust. Understanding the horrific magnitude of Vladek’s memories would be visceral and disturbing enough if told in a standard, narrative novel format, but the use of images to support the story and offer visual perspective elevates the level of understanding and thereby disbelief at the atrocities recounted in the stories. Through my reading experience, I repeatedly noted that in order for these novels to be incorporated into a high school classroom, I would have to ensure that my students were mature enough to digest the information appropriately, or simply limit their exposure to the most graphic parts by only reading excerpts instead of the whole. However, I don’t wish to do that in my classroom. The fact that these things are hard to read does not in any way mean that they should not be read, and we do not reverse the course of history by veiling the truth. The truth deserves to be told, and I wouldn’t hesitate to incorporate these graphic novels into a WWII or Holocaust-focused lesson.
These novels have a story to tell and, if one can only set aside any preconceived ideas about the maturity or age level of “comics,” you could truly learn something from them. I highly recommend them.