When I was in college, a textbook purchase gave me a volume with very few pictures and a ton of words. Novels assigned to students for reading were pages and pages of words, interwoven to form a narrative. We students, as the readers, would try to engage with and imagine the characters as they came to life before us. Imagery and symbolism were left to the readers to engage with using their own imaginations, and we tried to determine what a character looked like based upon what the author provided. The context was crucial in understanding and analyzing a literary work. Oftentimes, frustration emerged if you were unable to decipher the "code" the author provided for you. Students who were slow readers often felt stressed to keep up with the monumental amount of reading thrust at them in the classroom. Today, by contrast, the rise of the graphic novel for all age groups has opened the door to a secret garden and invited everyone in—fast readers, slow readers, disengaged readers—and provided pictures worth a thousand words or more.
In truth, the graphic novel does even more than that. It entertains us and helps us comprehend subject matter. Graphic novels are the new genre employed to help students retain information without memorizing. These works capture our imaginations, guide us with the narrative and the pictures, and help us understand actions and reactions. In short, they help us analyze in a much deeper way. We become engaged—not passive couch potatoes who are trying to navigate 400 pages of text—but readers absorbing 400 pages of graphics and text in conversation with each other. Each picture begins a conversation. And these graphic interpretations of plot elements, conversations, characters, and emotions are interspersed with the text throughout the printed volume. This enables the reader to see what his or her imagination is already forming and validates the thinking process. In other words, the graphic elements help us decipher the "code" provided in the text.
The importance of graphic novels has not gone unnoticed. The publishing industry has been pummeling our children with them for decades, but now the wider world is ready for the graphic novel. Today, new generations have a phone, or a tablet, or some other portable electronic device where satisfaction is gained through a click on the internet, followed by a barrage of images and videos. People are grabbing hold of the graphic novel and refusing to let go because they consume images daily at amazing speeds. A January report from economics research publisher Statista said sales of graphic novels in U.S. were up more than 16 percent, compared to an overall decline of 1.3 percent in the American book sales.
Students in colleges and universities are getting the opportunity to enroll in classes on the genre. At Saint Leo University, the Department of Language Studies and the Arts will launch a new minor in Literary and Cultural Studies in Fall 2020. This minor is just a stepping stone to a new way to read literature, classic or otherwise. In Fall 2019, a DC and Marvel Universe course was offered, and students flocked to it. In Spring 2020, the featured course is Major Writer, and faculty member Dr. Lee Hobbs chose Alan Moore—the author of such works as V for Vendetta, among others. Even J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has an illustrated edition, and Dr. Kathryn Duncan, the professor who introduced this course at Saint Leo University, is ready for yet another installment of the Harry Potter class that has sorted students (pardon the pun) at Saint Leo for two years now.
The rise in graphic novels has not just been for the consumption of literature. Many different disciplines are using the graphic novel for conveying key concepts and producing the desired learning outcomes. Matthew Price, in the January 15, 2013 issue of the Oklahoman, described an experiment with a business course. He wrote, "In the experiment, one set of participants read a short excerpt from Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure, a graphic novel created to teach key management concepts using the storyline of two students aspiring to start their own business. A second set of participants read material from a traditional textbook covering the same topics." Students who read the graphic novel retained more information than the traditional textbook readers. When a quiz was conducted, students who read the novel were better able to "recognize direct quotes than those who read the traditional textbook" (Price, January 15, 2013).
While the study had a small number of participants, the key point is that literature is life, and graphic novels capture that. They enhance, educate, and enlighten the new generations about management, leadership, mental health, mindfulness, medicine, and everything in between. The graphic novel is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with for generations to come, in the classroom and in the workplace. Why lead a workshop on a manual about proper workplace behavior or etiquette when you can read a graphic novel that captures daily workplace challenges, ignites the imagination, and teaches, all in one? The graphic novel truly educates, enlightens and inspires. Why not pick up your copy of the newest graphic novel today. You may be surprised what you learn.
Chantelle MacPhee, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and chair of the Department of Language Studies and the Arts at Saint Leo University.
Graphic Novel Recommendations from Saint Leo University's Department of Language Studies and the Arts
- Drama by Raina Telgemeier
- Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Meltdown by Jeff Kinney
- El Deafo by Cece Bell
- New Kid by Jerry Craft
- Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle
- Watchmen by Alan Moore
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
- Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin,
- Yossel by Joe Kubert,
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
- Kindred by Octavia Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy