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With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Comics

reviewed by Laura B. Turchi - May 10, 2022

coverTitle: With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning, and Comics
Author(s): Susan E. Kirtley, Antero Garcia, and Peter E. Carlson
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi, Jackson
ISBN: 1496826051, Pages: 270, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

How do we learn to read “Collective Shame,” the four-page graphic narrative (a comic) published in The New Yorker on April 18, 2022? How should we think about authorship? The first panel shows a man holding a pen and the words, “My name is Joe, and here I’m going to be Victoria Lomasko’s* pen.” A second voice, presumably Lomasko’s, narrates. The panels depict a short-haired, worried-looking person in Moscow sketching protesting groups and people beaten and jailed by faceless, black-armored officers. She flees Russia and yet finds herself sanctioned as a Russian, unable to access savings or work. A late panel labeled “after Victoria Lomasko” is in a different style, containing a copied montage: the narrator describes her work as stories of “ordinary Russians” and their choices. And this complex text ends with a complex question: “But what choices are there for someone caught between Putin, shame at the war, and what feels like western rejection of all Russians?”

Writing a description of comics requires this literacy educator to adopt an unfamiliar vocabulary that signals combinations of words and images. With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy collects comics writers, artists, and teachers in and outside academic settings. Their contributions detail teaching the reading, writing, and scholarship of graphic works.

Acknowledging comics pedagogy as a nascent field, the editors survey the teaching practices of those who make, those who consume, and those who engage in the participatory culture of comics, from fandom to cosplay. The editors see the interdisciplinary nature of comics as key for students: the essays celebrate what learners can do, and how they grow beyond “alphabetic-based literacy” through deliberate reading and a lot of drawing. Students can successfully bridge real world and academic contexts because comics cross so many boundaries between the serious and the playful, the scholar and the blockbuster.

In the first chapter of the collection, “Text, Object, Transaction: Reconciling Approaches to the Teaching of Comics,” Dale Jacobs describes literacy educators in a “vexed relationship” to comics, one that has evolved “from distractions seen as antithetical to both literacy and morality, to a site on which alphabetic literacy might be scaffolded, to a set of multimodal texts that use a combination of sequential art and text in order to create narrative meaning for the audience” (p. 23). Jacobs notes that while many educators incorporate comics in teaching literature, students must learn how the images matter and must be read. The text (the narrative, dialogue, and themes) is not the only thing that makes meaning: the artistic tools of line and color and shading are equally important. This the first of many essays that cite McCloud’s Understanding Comics here as a foundational text for reading and teaching words and images together.

Aimee Valentine’s ironically titled essay, “Wonder Women and the Web: How Female Comics Creators Leap from Private to Public in a Single Bound,” explains that not-so-great progress has been made for women as comics creators. Nevertheless, there is hope that the “leap” can be made to web publishing, overcoming constraints of production and distribution, and supporting a network of fans through comics with digital online presence.

In Bart Beatty’s “Teaching Typical Comics: Overcoming the Biases of Comics Pedagogy with Online Tools,” the key word is typical. Beatty notes the multiple artists, writers, and editors involved in the century of mass-market comics production. In contrast, Beatty writes that classes typically teach “single-authored, stand-alone graphic novels produced since 1986” and, as a consequence, “industrially produced comics [are written] out of the history of the form” (p. 54). Beatty notes that McCloud’s Understanding Comics is also, atypically, a first-person single-creator comics text, and yet it is in the Top 100 works taught on American campuses, on the list between Pride and Prejudice and Macbeth (p. 55). Beatty offers an alternative to the “great books” approach to comics that instead accesses digital archives to explore the development of the industry and find more diverse representations than might be imagined.

Johnny Parker II interviewed graphic artists and educators Brian Michael Bendis and David Walker for “Put Some Light Into the World,” a discussion about representation and “seeing yourself” in comics. The artists consider whether comics readers really want to see their world, or if “they want to read about the world they don’t live in” instead (p. 69). These artist-educators

recognize how the internet gives access and connections to comic fans. Bendis and Walker want to increase the inclusivity of these groups and “create a stew of truth, a diversity of truth, a diversity of perspective and experience” (p. 81).

In Part 2, “Comics Pedagogy in Practice,” the editors insist that teaching with comics does not mean abandoning “powerful theories of learning and instruction” (p. 84). Comics classrooms are parallel to writers’ workshops, particularly when comics-focused teachers scaffold and comfort “non-drawers” much as literacy teachers attend to reluctant readers. Class sessions include joy, fun, and play as students engage in process, meaning-making, and production. Students learn to let go of paralyzing self-consciousness and self-criticism.

Ebony Flowers Kalir’s “On Copying” is the only graphic chapter, although others in this section include illustrative student work/exercise examples. For Kalir, copying is a strategy that re-channels the recurrent student concern of “I can’t draw.” Kalir describes methods that entice students into learning almost despite themselves. This graphic essay depicts multiple mirroring/copying/co-creating techniques for drawing comics. Kalir explores the dilemma of “academic honesty” in the context of material that may best be learned through copying, where “ripping off one another helps people tolerate the lines they make to create a comic” (p. 85).

In “Thinking in Comics: All Hands-On in the Classroom,” Nick Sousanis describes facilitating the comics-making work of students. His exercises are designed to convince students “how much more capable they are at visual communication than they realized” (p. 92). While teaching form and its useful constraints, Sousanis values how students immersed in the making experience play. His instructions balance intentional ambiguity with guidance for constructing a sequential narrative, offering “enough structure so that they aren’t lost” (p. 98). Sousanis demonstrates that teaching comics is in fact teaching close reading. He tells students “if they spend at least half an hour moving their hand and eyes over a page, they will absolutely start to discover all sorts of things about the maker’s choices and the creative decisions within…” (p. 100).

Ben Bolling teaches Batman. In “Transmedia Superheroes, Multimedia Composition, and Digital Literacy,” it is the common text and cultural reference. Bolling works to avoid the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (p. 119), a literary lens he sees in students who are distrustful of meaning that seems too obvious. Bolling describes dealing with students who are “far more fluent in modes of digital consumption than in applications that foster[ed] participation or production” (p. 122). His class requires students to create comics in teams, and he enjoys the role of teacher-as-showrunner, demonstrating creative decision-making as well as managing process.

Benjamin J. Villareal’s “Truth, Justice, and the Victorian Way: How Comics and Superheroes Might Subvert Student Reading of Classic Literature” also considers literary lenses and the need to “subvert” them with comics. In teaching Victorian literature (like Dickens’s Great Expectations), Villareal wants students to appreciate different heroic journeys and recognize how a hero’s experience of challenges in a Victorian novel has some parallels in comics texts. Students learn that stories and characters are products of their settings—for instance, in contrasting the self-discovery of Pip with that of Spider Man.

James Kelley, in “The Uncanny Power of Comic Books: Achieving Interdisciplinary Learning Through Superhero Comic Books,” makes brave claims based on an afterschool comics club. As a result of his work with middle-grade students, Kelley asserts that “superhero comic books can adapt to almost any curriculum in any subject. Superhero comic books can help secondary-level educators create a unique learning environment in which they combine multiple subjects into their classrooms such as science and English Language Arts” (p. 149).

Leah Mismer is a former student of acclaimed cartoonist Lynda Barry and interviews her for “Teaching the Unthinkable Image.” They discuss the experiential nature of Barry’s comics classroom, where work is always discussed along with the experience of viewing it or reading it. Barry prioritizes the language of comics and insists this doesn’t include “the talking part of speech.” Barry also describes the teacher as an artist who is making art along with the students, insisting that for them “the most important thing is having somebody around who’s doing it” (p. 170). Teachers must be “completely willing to improvise, to see what’s there” in the work of students (p. 184).

To begin Part 3, “Future Directions in Comics Pedagogy,” John A. Lent writes on “Comic Art Research: Achievements, Shortcomings, Remedies,” criticizing the field for its scant research on the industrial-commercial dimensions of the comics universe. Lent wonders why more attention isn’t paid to comics owned by conglomerates (think Disney as well as Marvel) and points out the unequal treatment of labor within the industry caused by digitalization and outsourced comics art labor. If commodification—the blockbuster films, the merchandizing —isn’t obviously a problem, Lent reminds us of political cartoons. He advocates for more legal studies of comics related to freedom to work, if not expression. There is a grim reminder of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and growing intolerance of provocative works or criticism of public figures. It’s impossible not to think of the banning of Maus in this country (as well as Victoria Lomasko).

Johnathan Flowers’s “Misunderstanding Comics” critiques the 1993 McCloud text cited often in these chapters for its claim of cultural neutrality in the language of comics. Flowers reads this as an assumption of whiteness, and the chapter advocates for more critical approaches to comics. Flowers hopes to “engage in a conversation among multiple readers to collaboratively develop an understanding of comics from multiple perspectives that serves to decenter the assumed ‘default’ body” (p. 221). It’s not clear how this dialogue might happen, and while other chapters speak to representation, none offer teaching strategies for critically examining historical or contemporary comics depictions of women or BIPOC individuals.

In their chapter “In the Cards: Collaboration and Comics-Making in the Traditional English Classroom,” Frederick Byrn Køhlert and Nick Sousanis celebrate collaborative teaching and learning. Using small notecard assignments, they require students to contend with words and images together, avoiding tendencies “to think of text as information to be retained, and images as mere illustration” (p. 235).

Jenny Blenk’s “Educated Bitches: An Interview with Kelly Sue DeConnick” discusses fans, collaboration, and comics authorship. DeConnick’s fame as a Marvel comics artist and feminist is reflected in her discussion of the community around comics and the power (and sometimes abuse) of social media. Commenting on education and why context matters so much to a work’s reception, DeConnick offers that “the popularity of superhero movies doesn’t negate the art form” (p. 243).

The editors conclude with “The Great Responsibility of a Comics Pedagogy,” arguing that in a literacy classroom what counts as reading (and writing) must continue to evolve. They repeat their advocacy for comics in classrooms because “comics reveal and allow learners to question the world around them” (p. 245). Teachers should feel invited into discourse communities around comics production and consumption as “experts, designers, and innovators” (p. 246). Hands-on comics study of words and images together means students express what they know—in ways students want to show it.


McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art. Harper Collins.

Sacco, Joe. (2022, April 18). Collective shame [graphic column]. The New Yorker.

*Well before the Ukraine invasion, Viv Groskop in The Guardian described Lomasko as an accomplished artist who “no gallery in Russia will touch” due to her graphic reportage. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/mar/02/victoria-lomasko-brutally-funny-artist-russia-on-the-eve-putin-election

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24060, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:37:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Laura B. Turchi
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    LAURA B. TURCHI, Ph.D., is a teacher educator specializing in English Language Arts. She co-authored Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student-Centered Approach (Bloomsbury/Arden) with Ayanna Thompson. She is Clinical Professor in English at Arizona State University, serving as curriculum director for “RaceB4Race: Sustaining, Building, Innovating” at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
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