When I was younger, I passed many hours reading comic books, such as "Archie" and "Richie Rich" -- remember those? These comics weren't considered "real" reading, however, and our collection of them was relegated to a box in the basement. Bookshelves were reserved for "real" books, or for my dad's impressive collection of National Geographic magazine.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I started working at a public library and discovered an entire rack of our young adult department shelving devoted to graphic novels -- what I mistakenly first called "comic books."
Though I'd worked with teens and literature for most of my adult life, I'd never thought of these illustrated stories as anything more than light reading, impulse buys in the grocery store checkout line.
To be more clear, there is a difference between "comic books" -- such as the traditional Archie and Jughead titles -- and "graphic novels." Comic books tend to be short, sometimes interconnected stories about a certain cast of characters. Graphic novels are longer, more involved works with recognizable plot developments, thus earning the title of "novel." Although some of the more familiar characters may have originated in a traditional comic book series, they are presented with much more complexity in graphic novels. Nonetheless, I was skeptical when I first began working in the public library, and have rarely picked up a graphic novel to review.
Recently, however, a trend in the graphic novel publishing industry has me intrigued about the possibilities of this genre for parents and educators. Certainly there are still ample titles featuring Superman, Batman, the Marvel characters, etcetera. In addition to these, though, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of "classic" works of literature being re-published in graphic novel form. Titles like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and multiple plays by William Shakespeare can now be read in pane-by-pane illustrations, complete with speech bubbles.
Scoff if you must, but consider that many of these "classics" pose an almost insurmountable obstacle for reluctant or struggling readers. Have you ever opened a copy of Dracula and looked at the tiny print? Now try to understand the nineteenth-century English usage. And Shakespeare's plays, with their Old English vocabulary and turns of phrase, have turned off more students than potentially any other works of literature. Consider that an illustrated version of these great stories may present an entry point for readers who simply cannot understand them any other way.
Today, I had an opportunity to review a graphic novel version of Homer's Odyssey. In my years as an English teacher, the Odyssey was a core work for my Fantasy and Mythology class, and I struggled with ways to help my students understand it. Usually, I would end up reading through the ancient poem aloud, stopping each little way to explain to my class exactly what was happening in the story. Without my help, very few of my students grasped the central concepts or plot line of the epic.
How different that experience might have been if I had been able to use Gareth Hind's illustrated version of the classic. Of course I would still have expected my students to read a recognized translation; Hind's abridged version leaves out some of the story, and his modernized language does lose some of the poeticism of the original. However, to see the illustrated events of each Book of the Odyssey before reading, or to get the "gist" of the story in more modern usage before delving into the archaic language of older translations would have made such a difference in both my students' comprehension, and their engagement with the literature.
Graphic novel versions of classic literature are not a substitute for the actual works, and I don't present them here as such. Instead, they are useful pre-reading or companion reading tools: they engage those students who exhibit visual intelligence, and they offer a framework for longer, more complex stories by condensing the plot and simplifying the language. If you are a parent who has a child struggling to read a "classic" -- you'll find an abundance of them on high school required reading lists -- consider visiting your library to see if the title has been published in an illustrated form. If you are a teacher using the classics in your class, perhaps presenting a graphic novel version as a help, not a substitute, will ensure more success with your lessons.
When it comes to literacy, and to reaching reluctant or struggling readers, we really can't afford to scoff at any potential reading tool.