Color illustrated clip from comic book cover featuring a nurse in white uniform holding the head of an injured man in her lap while a doctor looks on

Making A Case for Comic Books in the Classroom

By Ginny A. Roth ~

Comic books may look easy to judge by their covers; on the surface they often depict larger-than-life superheroes battling in evil, sci-fi scenarios, or melodramatic love stories: “I’m sorry Betsy… there is no hope!”

Soap Opera Romances comic book, 1982, issue #1. The cover story is about “Nurse Betsy Crane,” The last few pages are a separate story about nursing as a career.
National Library of Medicine #9918350480806676

Or is there? These stories may seem frivolous or simplistic to some adults, but to many children they are the stuff of fantasy and adventure; an escape from the real world or the opportunity to imagine themselves as the hero.

 

Color illustrated comic book cover of the Incredible Hulk battling the villain Speedfreek
The Incredible Hulk, 1991, issue #388. The story, “Thicker Than Water” focuses on Jim Wilson, the Hulk’s human partner, who works at an AIDS clinic and whose patients are being threatened by a “supervillain.” Jim calls on the Hulk to fight this villain and reveals that he himself has AIDS.
National Library of Medicine #9918401785306676

 

Comics have can have a lot going on under the surface.  The National Library of Medicine’s collection of comic books feature a wide range of characters entrenched in health-related escapades, some tell medically-themed adventures and others serve as educational tools. Aquaman, for instance, battles evil in a story about a stolen swine flu vaccine. Whereas a comic book featuring the Justice League, created by DC Comics in collaboration with DuPont Pharmaceuticals and the National Association of Retail Druggists, teaches children how to safely use medicine that is given to them by their doctor, pharmacist, or parent.

 

Color comic book cover featuring a picture of fictional doctor Ben Casey as played on the TV series by Vince Edwards
Ben Casey comic book, 1963, issue #4.
National Library of Medicine #9916679583406676

In contrast to the average school textbook, with cover-to-cover, full-margin paragraphs, few graphics, and topics written in tones that may be unfamiliar, boring, too advanced, or conceptually difficult for students to understand, comic books are appealing because of their exciting narratives, panels that are easy to follow, bright colors, brevity of text, easily understood language, and relatability. They can support student’s connections to difficult or unfamiliar subjects.  This Ben Casey comic book series is based on the fictional TV character of the same name. The story in this issue, “Terror at 59 West,” focuses on a young drug addict.

Teacher Jabari Sellars, in his article, “Comics in the Classroom,” cites a study, “Motivating Struggling Readers in Middle School Through an Engagement Model of Classroom Practice,” that demonstrates the success of motivating students with texts that resonate with their personal interests, and how such an approach leads students to greater exposure to words, vocabulary acquisition, and more frequent use of reading strategies. Sellars used this approach in his classroom:

“Consider Lord of the Flies, a staple of reading lists in middle and high school. After skimming the back cover, students find the novel dated, boring, and unrelated to who they are or what they like. Students wrestle with a plot that has a group of stranded British school boys turning their prep uniforms into loincloths. Unfamiliar with symbolism-laden allegory, and without knowing how allegories function as social critiques, most students manage only a surface-level comprehension of the text, missing the opportunity to explore the larger ideas of human capability and culpability.

So to build my students’ comprehension and sharpen their analytical skills, I developed a unit where I introduce them to an allegory derived from popular culture, using story arcs from the X-Men franchise. Working with Chris Claremont’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, or Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, I begin by asking, What is a mutant?

Students usually characterize mutants as individuals whose abilities and appearances often lead to their persecution. They’ll note that mutants often realize they are different during puberty or adolescence; some mutants have an appearance that allows them to pass as “normal” people, while others must go to great lengths to hide their true selves.

With that definition in hand, it doesn’t take them long to answer my second question: Who in our society would be considered a mutant?

After these simple inquiries, students begin to see how X-Men is an allegory for the experiences of marginalized people — non-white, non-male, non-Christian, non-heteronormative — in an oppressive society….

After an immersion into the allegorical X-Men universe, students read Golding’s Lord of the Flies with far greater confidence and efficiency, able to make light work of complex analysis. The X-Men unit serves as an elaborate warm-up — a chance to learn and practice the character and symbol analysis they’ll need for deeper reading. That pre-work could have taken a more traditional form, to be sure, but I’ve found that students are more willing to engage with an activity they find to be familiar, interesting, or integral to their sense of self.”

The use of comic books as an education tool is also a great motivator to keep students interested in reading, which supports their ability to understand and retain what they’ve read.  Comics are understood by health educators as a useful medium for conveying important health information. In “An Alternative Teaching Tool in Science Education: Educational Comics,” an article by Nur Akcanca, Professor of Science Education, she explains in part why educators use comics in the classroom:

“Many educators make use of comics to facilitate a better understanding of a certain subject by employing both linguistic and image systems… Comics both improve mental processes, which are the indispensable elements of the cognitive field, and develop aesthetic pleasure in students who are an important element of the emotional field…the inclusion of comics in the education process affects children positively in many related ways. The fact that comics improve the level of children both in terms of skills and cognition is considered to be important for the future lives of children as well as their current experiences.”

Akcana’s article includes a chart that shows some of the benefits of using comics in education and training including:

  • Make Learning Easier
  • Improving Academic Performance
  • Encouraging Class Participation
  • Having Fun While Learning
  • Imagination Development
  • Ensuring Permanence of What is Learned

In her article, Akcana also discusses limitations with the use of comic books in the classroom, which may include difficulty accessing educational comics and a comic’s use of small font sizes.

Comics, whether created to entertain or inform, have a place in the classroom. Comics can encourage the desire to read since they are a format children find exciting. They may engage young readers allowing them to practice complex analysis with familiar materials. Comics can also convey important health and safety information children may not obtain, or retain, through any other medium, with friendly and relatable characters combined with engaging visual storytelling. Dennis the Menace, for example, points out the dangers of poison in the household in this promotional comic book in which he learns about poisons and always to be sure of what is in a box or bottle before eating or drinking.

color illustrated comic book featuring the cartoon character Dennis the Menace
Dennis the Menace Takes a Poke at Poison comic book, 1961. NLM UID #9918383788006676

Comic books and graphic novels are not restricted to classrooms and many of the same features that make them enticing to young people are also effective for wider audiences. “Decision,” bilingual comic books (English and Spanish) featuring the couple Julio and Marisol, whose tribulations were featured in New York City subways in episodic panels during the 1990s and 2000s, struggle with issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, specifically using condoms to prevent HIV.

Color illustrated comic book cover of fictional characters Julio and Marisol. Julio is kissing Marisol's neck.
Decision comic book, 1995, a bilingual (English/Spanish) soap opera-like story about a couple, Julio and Marisol, and their friends dealing with HIV in the 1990s. NLM UID #9917193863406676

NLM is in the process of cataloging its collection of public health-related comic books to make our holdings accessible for use as education tools and to highlight the variety of comic books with medically-themed topics. In addition to the ones discussed in this post, many others will be completed this year including those covering topics on dental care, family planning, sex education, and the dangers of smoking.

NLM’s comic book holdings may be accessed through the library’s catalog and in the Images from the History of Medicine database through Digital Collections.

Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

5 comments

  1. My brother and his son have dyslexia and really struggled in school with reading assignments and other tasks. Comic books were the only reading materials that appealed to them and they read 1,000s over the years. My nephew took this a step further and wrote his own comics. I’m not sure if comic books are physically easier to read by dyslexics or if it’s the content that’s so engrossing. Enjoyed the article, thank you

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