Between the Panels: The Educating Graphic Novel By Lance Victor Eaton (March 2007)
Beyond their potential literary and entertainment value, graphic novels can also be a great medium for learning and educating. Scott McCloud exemplifies this in his classic graphic novels Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics as he gracefully interweaves art and education to the benefit of readers everywhere. The line between educating and entertaining is a tenuous one in which sometimes education is forsaken for entertainment. Just look to the many television documentaries with numerous dramatic re-enactments and props that can sometimes sweep viewers away into less-than-accurate events. Graphic novels must balance their urge to excite readers with a need to be accurate and trustworthy.
The fact that using comic art in an educational setting has only recently become an acceptable idea, only makes The Illustrated History of the Union County more impressive. Over several years beginning in 1950, Frank Thorne researched, wrote, and drew over one hundred and seventy three comic strips for the New Jersey Elizabeth Daily Journal, providing a fairly detailed history of Union County dating all the way back to 1609. Each entry was a mere page with several panels. Some were serialized, following right from the previous entry, while others simply added new tidbits of information into the historical narrative. Thorne addresses a range of history, making the collection not a self-congratulatory account of European settlement but rather a history filled with colorful characters and both proud and ugly moments. Thorne's talent for blending history and art cannot be understated, particularly considering the material is over fifty years old.
On the other hand, Osprey Publishing has jumped head first into melding sequential art and history to provide educational tools for the classroom that will hopefully stick better than the ten-pound unread history book every student is doomed to be assigned. Their first publications deal mainly with battles - very action-based stories that will inevitably help students visualize how some of the most memorable wars were won.
Osprey Publishing's strongest asset is consistency. Every graphic novel has the same layout and artistic style, which provides a certain amount familiarity to students as they become accustomed to this way of learning. Each graphic novel covers a particular battle. In the first few pages, students are given a brief Who's Who explanation of the particular war and the battle, before launching into it, often through the eyes of the leaders. The end of the book provides readers with an Aftermath, glossary, For More Information references, and an index.
While the art isn't spectacular, it is clear and consistent. Despite different artists for each graphic novel, the art remains similar throughout each war. So when students read about the US Civil War through titles such as Surprise Attack!: Battle of Shiloh, The Bloodiest Day: Battle of Antietam, and Gamble for Victory: Battle of Gettysburg, the art serves as an anchor for readers to become familiar with the unfolding battle. The only one that strays from this format is Gamble for Victory, which uses rectangular speech balloons. Though this may seem a minute issue, the rectangle (speech balloon) on rectangle (panel) on rectangle (page) does sometimes draw away from the art. Besides consistency, the art is simple and easy to follow. The artists don't strive to make these battles into illustrative masterpieces, but rather something that younger readers can easily follow.
More and more teachers are using graphic novels in the classroom, from elementary school through college. They can serve as supplemental or central sources of information to help students gain a better appreciation of both reading and art. In a world, where youth is blasted with millions of visuals even before reaching kindergarten, graphic novels serve as a great balance between the screen and the book.
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