The Graphic Novel in the Classroom
In recent years we have seen a great increase in the general acceptance of the graphic novel as a critically acclaimed medium. With books like Watchmen and V for Vendetta coming into the public eye, now is the time to examine the place of the graphic novel in the classroom. This research is focused mainly on in-depth readings of selected works to determine if graphic novels have the same potential for deeper reading as their classic cousin, the traditional novel.It also examines ways in which graphic novels can help reluctant readers gain a foothold on themes and ideas that would be intimidating if they were presented in a more traditional media. This paper is broken down by each work’s genre. Persepolis and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic fall under memoirs; Watchmen and V for Vendetta are alternate-history fiction; and Transmetropolitan and Sandman act as representatives of Science Fiction/Fantasy. These works were also chosen because they all deal with identity as a main theme. Each work is further broken down by a summary of the work, an analysis and discussion of the work, and possible applications in the classroom.
Persepolis is the story of Marjane Satrapi in war-torn Iran. Marjane’s family is upper middle class before the revolution happens. After the revolution, Marjane must come to terms with a world in which her gender is restricted from any sort of social independence. As Iran becomes more dangerous, Marjane is sent to live in Europe in the hope that she will be able to grow up in a world not marred by constant war. She finds Europe has its own obstacles in store for her, as the war has left a mark on who she is, and she consequently has trouble relating to the more liberal citizens of Europe. She also faces prejudice at every turn because of her nationality. In time, she returns to her family in Iran. She finds and loses love and attempts to be a force of social change. The story ends with Marjane leaving Iran again, seemingly for good.
Persepolis deals heavily with the idea of identity, both personal and cultural. Marjane is first confronted by a society that prevents her from being the intelligent and outgoing person her parents raised her to be. Marjane’s parents were upper middle class liberals before the war and revolution. They wanted Marjane to have a good education and exposed her to as much culture and as many new ideas as they could. After the revolution, Marjane is prevented from going to school and must cover herself at all times. She must remain silent outside the home and is never allowed to speak her mind. This is very difficult for her, as she is so used to being able to speak her mind and express her ideas. To have been so free to explore her entire life and then have that freedom ripped from her so suddenly causes Marjane to become confused and angry.
As the revolution changes and becomes a movement controlled by a religion, Marjane’s life becomes more dangerous, and she must hide her thoughts and beliefs even more. In spite of her family’s efforts to keep out of the public eye, her mother is still confronted by the police: “They insulted me. They said that women like me should be pushed up against a wall and fucked. And then thrown in the garbage...And that if I didn't want that to happen, I should wear the veil...”. (Satrapi 74)This constant fear of being harmed causes Marjane and her family to bury their beliefs under the guise of good citizens. In time, Marjane’s family decides that it is simply too dangerous for Marjane to stay in the country. They hope that by sending her to Europe she will be able to grow into the strong, independent woman her parents see in her without having to hide.
Upon leaving Iran, Marjane is confronted with more freedom than she has had in her entire life. This freedom causes her to realize that, despite being an extremely liberal Iranian, she is conservative by the standards of many of her European friends. She finds herself making many of the same judgments upon the people around her that the Iranian government imposed on her people. At first she is shocked, horrified, and ashamed that she has carried some of her country’s beliefs with her, because it makes her feel as though she has been brainwashed and/or conformist, where she previously believed herself to be an independent thinker. In time, however, she accepts that her beliefs are a part of who she is, and she remains proud of her country despite its flaws.
The art in Persepolis is simply done in black and white. The characters look flat, almost like paper cut-outs. It is interesting that a story dealing so heavily with the idea that very little in this world is black and white would chose this as the color scheme. It seems as if Satrapi is attempting to draw attention to the moral gray areas in the story by using a color palette of simply black and white. The vast majority of the story is drawn in a manner mostly true to life - people look like people, cars look like cars and the like. However, the art occasionally slips into the abstract to express deeper ideas and concepts. This artistic shift was far more common early in the story when Marjane is still quite young and has yet to develop a concrete understanding of complex ideas - such as why the revolution has become so violent and why her parents are Figure 1 (Persepolis 6)
fighting for it as well as her attempts to understand and/or develop her own identity and where she belongs (see Figure 1). The minimalist style Satrapi uses for the characters allows the reader to insert themselves into the characters’ lives and project their own experiences onto the character. This gives the reader a much deeper understanding of all the characters in general and Marjane in particular (McCloud 36).
In The Classroom
Of all the works discussed in this paper Persepolis is the most likely to make it into a high school classroom. Persepolis has a direct unarguable connection to historic events that would give students a better understanding of not only our past, but our present as well. Persepolis helps clear up many misconceptions that Americans, particularly young Americans, have about Iran and Iranians (Costantino 438). The knowledge of the area’s past that is offered by Persepolis would greatly assist many students in understanding the nature of conflicts in the Middle East today.
While Persepolis handles very mature events and subject matter, it does so in such a way as to remain appropriate for high school level students. More importantly, it does so without diluting its message and without weakening its statements about oppression and suffering. The violence is more often alluded to or shown symbolically. When it is shown, it is done without sterilizing it, but without being overly graphic or gratuitous. In the classroom, Persepolis could serve as a launching point for discussions about personal identity in a repressive culture, private identity versus who we are in private identity , and the prejudices immigrants suffer. In a college-level course it would be possible to examine deeper reasons for Marjane’s drug use and sexuality, as well as to take a more detailed look at the history of the Iranian people. These issues may be too mature and in-depth for a high school or lower level classroom.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is the story of Alison Bechdel in small-town Pennsylvania. Alison’s home life was severely strained by a tension that emanated from her mother and father. The story explores psychological issues Alison had as a child and the discovery of her homosexuality, which led to her learning of her father’s sordid history of having affairs with young men. It focuses primarily on Alison and her reaction (or lack thereof) to the issues in her family’s life, including the possible suicide of her father.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a story in which the past and future are presented concurrently in an attempt to emphasize the repeating patterns of Alison’s life. Alison’s story is a nonlinear affair following a string of ideas rather than viewing events chronologically. It is not uncommon to see Alison in her college dorm room with her girlfriend, then writing in her diary as a child, and then after her fathers funeral. Alison uses these time jumps to draw parallels between events and to show how interconnected these seemingly unrelated events truly are. At one point she shows us that, as a child, she began to develop an obsession with uncertainty, so much so that she became unable to write anything other than a symbol she created to represent uncertainty. This transitions into her discomfort with her sexaulity. In time she is able to heal from her breakdown and is able to see the world in certain terms again. Likewise, she comes to terms with her sexuality and is no longer embarrassed by it. These events take place many years apart, but are presented in a manner as to show patterns in her life and how she grows from these experiences.
On a larger scale, the entire book attempts to draw parallels between Alison’s homosexuality and her father’s. Alison’s father had to constantly hide his sexuality and deny it. We are never given an exact reason for this, but it can be assumed it is due social pressure and fear of being ostracized (see Figure 2). Alison, in turn, feels these pressures but, living in a more progressive time and being in college, she is able to come out and break free of the pain that she has unknowingly seen her father suffer. One of the few moments when we see Alison’s father display emotion is on a drive with his daughter, when he seems almost excited to discuss her coming out, but the moment passes and is gone forever.
Figure 2. (Bechdel 17)
This all feeds into an even larger parallel between life and death. The family owns and operates a funeral home which leads to an event where she must observe a nude, dead older man possibly laying a foundation for her homosexuality. Alison is able to come out about her sexuality and gets help with her emotional issues. Her father, on the other hand, must repress and hide much of himself as well as anything else that could be seen as a weakness. All of this repression and self denial seems to depress him, and causes him to lash out and be emotionally distant. In the end, her father dies, possibly suicide or a simple accident. Either way, because Alison was able to express who she truly is, she is able to move on with her life and live for herself.
Fun Home uses a color palette of white, black and a greyish blue. These dark, muted colors lend themselves to the rather forlorn and depressing nature of the story. The story and art both have a very monotonous nature - events feel lacking in emphasis. The reason for this is a rather uniformness to each page. The panels are all small and cramped with text, with very few half-page panels and even fewer full-page spreads. These small panels filled with text instill a somewhat claustrophobic sense in the reader, imparting a feeling not unlike that which the main character feels, being trapped by her sexuality and her family dynamic. The cramped nature of the panels also contributes to the flow of the story, going beat for beat without emphasizing or dwelling on any scenes, adding to the sense that the narrator is somewhat detached and aloof.
In The Classroom
The subject matter, as well as the imagery used in Fun Home, would make it nigh impossible to bring into a high school classroom. Fun Home deeply examines homosexuality, ephebophilia, and mental illness. These subjects are unfortunately taboo for discussion in a high school classroom, compounded by the images of these acts, however vague they may be.
Where this story could find a home in high schools is in discussions in campus gay-straight alliances. Fun Home has the potential to speak to students in the homosexual community and give them a sense of belonging and knowledge that they are not alone in feeling these feelings and suffering from prejudice and abuse. Reading a book that relates to their life can help the reader tremendously by validating them and helping them understand that they are not alone (Halls 34). Homosexuals are not the only students that can gain a good amount of perspective from this text. Hetorosexual students are just as capable of reading Fun Home and understanding the stresses and strains that their fellow students must suffer when attempting to come to terms with their sexuality.
V For Vendetta
V For Vendetta, by Alan Moore, is the story of a masked revolutionary named “V” and a downtrodden woman named Evey as they attempt to bring down a totalitarian government in an alternate version of 1980s England. This government formed after a nuclear war decimated much of the previous British infrastructure, allowing a fascist hate group to assume complete control. After this group assumed power, internment camps were set up to house “undesirables”. It was in one of these camps that V becomes the revolutionary that he is in the story. He is tortured and experimented on until he finally escapes, leaving the camp a smoking crater in his wake. After his escape, he vows to bring down the government. This government has removed all free speech and unapproved media, and watches all citizens around the clock via a complex camera network. The story follows the pair as they assassinate key political figures, blow up government buildings, and disable the government's camera network. V teaches Evey the meaning of culture with music, literature, and films, to give her a sense of what she is fighting to bring back to the world. In the end, V deals a critical blow to the government, but he must leave the world to Evey and the people of England to take back their freedom.
V For Vendetta is another deep exploration of identity, however, unlike Persepolis, V For Vendetta deals more with the loss of identity and adoption of new ones. These newly adopted identities are created to serve a function that the original simply would have been unable to cope with. V is a madman who has abandoned (or, more accurately, sacrificed) most, if not all, of a true identity in favor of a persona that makes him a symbol of revolution. This new “V” has a single driving goal - to tear down the government. He has given up much of what it means to be human in his single-minded pursuit of revolution.
V is not the only character we see undergo an identity swap. Evey is torn down psychologically by V in hopes that she will return and finish what V cannot. V has adopted an identity entirely devoted to destruction. He is only capable of seeing a system as something to be torn down. We see this expressed in his character as a tendency to speak exclusively in quotes. He seems unable to create something new. Every action is a reference to something that he has seen or learned. This is why he must exit the stage and allow Evey to adopt the mask. Evey is to be the rebuilder - she will be the “V” that helps the world rise from the ashes left by the original V. Evey was only given a taste of the pain that V had, but by contrast, she only experienced a fraction of the history, the art, and the music V has. This leaves Evey with room to grow and create new ideas and form her own opinions, rather than the concrete notions that have kept V going for so long.
Insanity is also a heavily used trope in the story.V has a truly fractured mind from the years he was tortured and experimented on, and he is often able to hide this behind a jester’s guise. He has a sharp wit, but that does not mean he is sane. We see a sample of this madness peeking through when V mentions the fool slaying the harlot Justice for her wandering eye. This is ironic given that Justice is usually depicted as blind, but this Justice is bereft of a blindfold. V is acting out both roles and conducting himself as a gentleman towards the statue (taking off his hat and bowing). He is trying to bring down the government, but he still truly cares about justice, which is not the same thing as that which the government calls justice. But who is this scene for? V is alone on the roof, he has no reason to believe he is being observed. The claim could be made that this is simply meant for the reader to get a better understanding of V’s reasoning for his actions. But if that were the case then why have him actually speak the lines? For those new to the medium of comic book characters, they have distinct thought/speech bubbles so that one can tell if a character is speaking aloud or having an inner monologue. In this scene V is very clearly speaking aloud to himself, as well as taking on the role of justice and speaking her half of the conversation as well. Speaking to, and answering oneself is often noted as a classic example of insanity.
V For Vendetta utilizes a soft and warm color palette that is in sharp contrast to the dark and grim story. It also makes use of a shading technique similar to a charcoal painting, which gives the effect of a very “lived-in”, or even a sort of washed-out look, depending on one’s perspective. Silence is also an artistic trope that is used to great effect throughout the story (see Figure 3). It is used to give additional emphasis to characters’ emotions and reactions, as well as to heighten the impact of certain events and realizations.
Figure 3. Moore 163
In The Classroom
V For Vendetta would have a difficult path into the classroom, but a teacher dedicated to the idea could introduce it into the curriculum in time. While there is a good deal of violence in the story, it is played down to a great degree and could be made appropriate for most high school classrooms with few alterations. The effort would be well worth it. V For Vendetta is a story ripe with potential for discussion and deeper reading. The themes behind V For Vendetta speak directly to high school students, especially the idea of revolution and overbearing authority figures always watching and waiting to punish. These are sentiments that define a large part of what it means to be a teenager. In popular culture we have seen V’s mask - a cartoonish visage of Guy Fawkes - become a symbol of free speech and independence. A potent class discussion would be whether or not V is a hero worthy of praise and if his actions were justified. A simple but powerful tie in with V For Vendetta is a discussion on the parallels between Nazi Germany and the ruling party in the story. Students may also compare and contrast the functions and purpose of between our own government with that of the government in V For Vendetta.
Students should be able to discuss the significance of V’s torture of Evey and the morality of the action, as well as the reasons that she would agree to help him afterward and if it was the right choice. Evey herself is a character that should be given a great deal of attention in classroom discussion, because even if V steals the show, it is still every bit as much her story as his. The most obvious topic regarding Evey is what will she do now that V is dead and she has assumed his role and what kind of world she will help build?
Watchmen, by Alan Moore, is a story that takes place in an alternate United States in the 1980s. In this world, masked vigilantes were, for a time, allowed to fight crime and keep the peace. In time, the heroes are forced to retire due to public pressure, all except Dr. Manhattan, the only being alive with an actual superpower, which he gained after an accident with a particle accelerator. Someone begins killing the retired heroes, kicking off a series of events that will bring the world within a minute of Armageddon.
Watchmen, at its core, is a conversation about the greater good. How many lives can you sacrifice to save the world? The most obvious example of this is the character Ozymandias, who would put out hundreds of thousands of lives in an instant to prevent a war that could cost millions of lives. Ozymandias feels that his great knowledge and wisdom give him the right to play God with the lives of so many because it will save the lives of so many others. One thing that Ozymandias does not seem to account for is the difference between the deaths his monster caused and those of soldiers lost during wartime, that of knowledge and, to a lesser extent, consent. A soldier knows that he gambles with his life when he steps onto the battlefield. Be it for money, honor, or to protect his homeland, he makes that choice freely. Soldiers enter into battle willingly, and may leave whenever they choose (though doing so in certain circumstances carries the stain of dishonor). While it is not much of a choice, it is more of one than the people Ozymandias killed were given. It is certainly a thin line, but a distinct one.
On a smaller scale, we have Rorschach, by all rights a mass-murdering psychopath. Rorschach used to be one of the classic heroes who just locked up the bad guy and called it a day. But he looked into the eyes of one too many sick twisted monsters and something snapped. Rorschach believes that once you give up your humanity, it can never be regained and you have to be put down like a rabid dog for the safety of everyone around you. The difference between Rorschach and Ozymandias is that Rorschach’s killings are not indiscriminate. He knows who he is killing and he knows what they have done to deserve it (in his eyes). Rorschach also places himself in the thick of the fray. His “victims” have a chance to fight back and survive. Rorschach is the scalpel to Ozymandias’s A bomb.
Rorschach is also a reflection of society. The readers, as well as characters in the story, see in Rorschach’s mask what they will. Some will see him as “unclean, disturbing, and somewhat psychotic” where others will see him as a “powerful vigilante capable of doing great things”. It is easy to have this dichotomy because for every life that Rorschach is willing to take, he saves one. One’s view of Rorschach is entirely dependent on how you view this trade off (Hughes 552).
Watchmen’s art style is a very detailed affair with the background of each panel painstakingly filled with a living world. Background characters, buildings and advertisements are all given personality, making each location unique and distinct. The color palette uses many bright and vivid colors common to comics of the 70s and 80s, however, Watchmen also makes use of many dark reds and blacks to reflect the mature and violent nature of the story.
Figure 4. Watchmen 1
Watchmen also incorporates the transition technique, commonly used in film, of holding on an object/symbol of some significance and pulling back the viewers perspective to further develop the scene (see Figure 4).This technique is used to great effect throughout the book to set the stage for events that are about to transpire or to reinforce the impact of the preceding scene.
In The Classroom
Watchmen, much like V for Vendetta, would be difficult to introduce into a classroom but not impossible. Watchmen would have a few more hurdles to jump than V for Vendetta due to Watchmen having more graphic depictions of sex and violence. These hurdles are still well worth the effort for the benefit of the teachable moments to be found in Watchmen.
A classroom discussion of Watchmen could cover the the merits and problems of vigilantism and why it is illegal. Another potent theme in the story that is ripe for discussion is the value of human life and at what point you can justify murder. This story is a wonderful way to introduce students into very deep and complex philosophical questions without the pomp and pretence normally associated with such discussions. That is the beauty of a good graphic novel - an illusion of simplicity that disguises a wealth of meaning and depth. The misconception of “comics” being simplistic can have a hidden benefit for students who lack the confidence to attempt deeper reading. When presented with a book about superheroes, they may be far more open to the ideas and concepts that Watchmen explores because they are not the intimidating walls of text that students have grown accustomed to.
Students could be asked to discuss the motivations that spurned Ozymandias’s actions as well as the morality of those actions. Students should also contemplate the real world ramifications of vigilantism. A discussion on Rorschach’s role in the story and comparing and contrasting his role and motivations to that of Ozymandias.
Transmetropolitan follows Spider Jerusalem, a journalist in a near future America, in a place only know as “The City”, which is an amalgamation of New York City and Los Angeles. Spider is reluctantly famous. He constantly fights his own adoring public and tries to bring their attention to the true problems of the world, and becomes upset when they become distracted with the next fad. This future has many of the same problems as modern day America, such as poverty and hunger despite having technologic advances like the “makers,” which can transform any matter into something useful. Spider become a central figure in the presidential race between the sitting president, known only as “The Beast”, and a newcomer, “The Smiler”. At first, Spider jumps at the opportunity to have someone, anyone, “slay the Beast”, however, the Smiler shows his true colors as a man who is simply hungry for power. Spider must fight against a newly elected president with a personal vendetta against him. In the end, truth rings out and saves the day, but at great personal cost to Spider.
The dangers of extremism is a major theme in Transmetropolitan. Spider is himself a rabid extremist and is utterly uncompromising about his beliefs. Spider will brutally maim and even murder those who fall short of the ideal that he so desperately wants to impose on the world. Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This perfectly encapsulates Spider Jerusalem and his motivations. Spider seeks justice at all times and anyone who would stand in the way of his perceived version of justice will be dealt with swiftly. He holds an equal disdain in his heart for those that do nothing in the face of injustice. This sets up Spider’s relationship with “The Beast”, the figure on whom Spider has (perhaps unfairly) placed the blame for all of the City’s injustices. Spider cannot stand the idea that some of the unfairness of the world is inevitable. When he confronts the Beast and learns that he is not the slobbering monster that he had painted him as, but in fact has beliefs and convictions that he holds as fervently as Spider, this causes Spider to reevaluate his stance on the election.
BEAST: What is it that makes you hate me so much, Jerusalem?
SPIDER: You represent the worst in people. You're not interested in anything other
than having the presidency, but you're also not interested in actually being a president. You don't believe in anything.
BEAST: Bullshit. I said before: Just because you don't like what I believe in doesn't mean I have no beliefs.
SPIDER: Don't give me that. You don't-
BEAST (interrupting): Shut up. You call me a liar to my face again, I'll fucking glass you. You know what I believe in? I believe in getting through the day. I believe in knowing your station. I believe in living somewhere quiet. (Transmetropolitan #21 17-18)
After this conversation Spider must acknowledge that maybe he doesn’t understand the Beast as well as he was convinced that he did. Spider’s world view is that people are blind and stupid and that he needs to open their eyes to the pain and suffering that they are causing by doing nothing. The secret behind Spider’s one-man crusade for justice is that he truly hates himself. He hates that he can never live up to the standards he has set for himself and the world. He hates that he can’t make the world see the problems that he sees. Most of all he hates that he can’t just abandon these people and live his life in peace. This is why Spider punishes himself. He has new drugs invented for him to inject into himself that slowly kill him. He puts himself into the thick of danger with the constant threat of death because he can not stand the thought of not doing everything in his power to make his impossible world possible.
The art in Transmetropolitan shifts greatly from issue to issue, page to page and even panel to panel. This style reflects the world that Spider lives in - a world that values the newest thing and is constantly looking for the newest sensation. Panels are packed to the brim with colorful ads and strange background characters. The reader is given a taste of this strange world that Spider lives in with its loud noises and a constant crush of people. No two characters look alike. Everyone in this future makes a statement about themselves, not simply with clothing but by modifying their body and even their own genetic code. This inundation of people and images is often broken up with full page splashes of a single moment captured from the city (See figure 5), often with no text. Figure 5 (Transmetropolitan Cover)
These single images are meant to give the reader a taste of the more intimate and personal moments of the city. This is known as an aspect-to-aspect transition, which is used to impart different aspects of an idea or location. (McCloud 72) Be it horrific, like the all-too-common child prostitutes, or beautiful, like the foglet creating roses from thin air in celebration of its creation, the city has a sublime quality.
In The Classroom
Due to the graphic and explicit content presented in the story, Transmetropolitan would never make it’s way into a high school classroom. However, in college level classroom Transmetropolitan has the potential to provoke some very in depth conversations about the nature of humanity.
A very potent concept discussed in Transmetropolitan that is worthy of discussion is at what point you cease to be human. In the story a human can have their mind uploaded into a cloud of nanomachines. These “Foglets” are capable of feats that are nearly magical to the perspective of the average human, such as creating objects simply by rearranging molecules. Can a being with no true physical body and lacking the limitations inherent in the human form still be considered human?
Transmetropolitan shows us a world with machines that are capable of converting any kind of matter into another form. These maker machines are so cheap they that have created pocket sized ones that college students routinely carry. Yet despite this ability to convert rocks, sand and even trash into food, clothing and medicine we find that there is still a vast gulf between the rich and the poor. The poor must still buy food and clothing, where these are nearly free luxuries for the middle class and the rich. Students may discuss the impact of the real world impact of “makers” machines. Does the story present a realistic representation of a society that has the ability to eliminate the concept of scarcity? Students should draw parallels between the poor having to purchase all of their consumables at a much higher price than the middle class with maker machines, to the state of real world inner city poor who lack access to cheap, fresh and healthy food.
The Sandman is the story of a race of beings known as the Endless. The Endless are personifications of particular elements of nature (Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, Delirium). The story centers around Dream after escaping a 70-year imprisonment at the hands of men who accidentally summoned him while attempting to capture Death, so that Death would cease. When the bid at universal immortality fails, the world falls into shambles as Dream is unable to curate the land of dreams. After he escapes, the story truly begins.
There are two driving forces in this story. Dream is attempting to repair the damage to both the land of dreams and the real world that resulted from his absence. He also must come to terms with the things he has done in his long life. Dream is not the nice personification of the dreamworld that one normally pictures. He has done things that, looking back, he is now ashamed of. He has killed, condemned, and tortured for even minor slights. Even worse, he has allowed horrific things to transpire simply by not acting. His perspective is shifted after his imprisonment and he seeks to understand himself better and possibly seek atonement. But can a being that was never human find his humanity?
Sandman is a sprawling epic that traverses time, space, and reality. Concepts of identity, the meaning of life, futility, human nature, power, madness, and countless others are explored deeply and with great relish. Historic, literary, and mythological references litter both the text as well as the art of Sandman to create a deep and rich backdrop for the story. These elements are woven seamlessly into the story and interconnected with one another. For example, Shakespeare makes multiple appearances in the story, as do characters from Shakespeare's plays, but this is an integral part of exploring both Dream as a character and exploring the world of Sandman. This sequence takes place before Dream is imprisoned, and yet he is not the cold and heartless Dream we often see in flashback stories. Dream has a love of art and takes great pride in the gift he is giving to Oberon and Titania. However, he is still far from relatable and human. Dream offers Shakespeare a deal that he knows Shakespeare will be unable to resist. In exchange for the gift of inspiration, Shakespeare will simply have to write some plays for Dream. But Dream allows this to take Shakespeare’s son from him, despite being fully able to prevent it. Sandman gives us examples of the dark side of dreams - they are not things that come wholly formed from nothing. Dreams will exact their cost no matter how pure and innocent it may appear. “[Sandman] uses Shakespeare's life to meditate not only on the power of dreams, but also on the responsibilities, regret, and loss which come from achieving a dream” (Clabio 98). Dreams are created from blood, sweat, pain and sacrifice. Oftentimes we find that characters from the story regret seeking their dreams because of what it costs them in the end. This idea of the power of dreams is a clear and ever present theme in the story, often subtly, but occasionally it is blatantly and plainly stated. Shakespeare’s deal with Dream to write plays is far from a Faustian bargain, but it does still cost Shakespeare far more than he realized.
In The Classroom
Sandman would have a hard time making it into a high school classroom. I do believe that it would be possible, and well worth the effort and the few concessions it would take. Getting Sandman in the classroom faces a few challenges, the first being nudity/violence in the art. The subject matter itself (rape, murder, heresy), not to mention its sheer size, would have to be addressed. The nudity and violence could be censored for a classroom rather effectively without greatly impacting the story, so that problem is not insurmountable. Subject matter, on the other hand, is a much larger obstacle. While I believe that a high school student is more than capable of taking these ideas and understanding that they have a deeper meaning, parents and administration, on the other hand, would be tougher nuts to crack. I am not entirely sure how one would go about getting a comic like Sandman into the classroom, but it would require an open-minded discussion and careful negotiations with the administration.
I feel that the effort could very well be worth it. The sheer scope of content covered in Sandman and the number of themes that it touches upon would make it difficult for students not to find something to grab on to. I know that personally this book has shaped much of how I read and even how I view the world. While it would be unfair to say that it sparked my love of reading (that honor falls to H.P. Lovecraft), it certainly gave me a whole new level of appreciation for it.
Teaching Sandman would be an exercise in classroom flexibility; you would have to give some background and context to some historic/literary references but on the whole, you would need to follow the flow of classroom discussion and allow the students to direct the topics. The reason that it would be important to allow students to direct the conversation with a graphic novel is because “graphic novels, like a compelling work of art, or a well-crafted piece of writing, have the potential to generate a sense of empathy and human connectedness among students” (Williams 15). You need the students to grab onto the piece of the story that they empathize with and connect with. From there we can build to new ideas and interpretations. If I were to spend the whole class talking about the significance of Shakespeare in the story, while they wanted to talk about the purpose of the violence in the dinner scene, then all I am doing is missing out on an opportunity for the students to grow as readers. Once they find some things to like about a story they will be more willing to “trust” it and allow you to guide the conversation to things they are less sure of. Due to the vast interconnectedness of most of the storylines in Sandman, it is an ideal means of helping students branch out into new territory.
More than any media, graphic novels are primarily written for a student-aged audience. This is not to say that it is written at a lower level, but that graphic novels discuss issues that deeply affect those of elementary to college-age. A man in a mask must hide who he is for fear of what would happen if the world knew who he really was. This speaks to a child still learning what face he or she wants to show to the world. Often in graphic novels we see individuals with great power still fail in spite of it. What teenager doesn’t feel this as they gain new rights and responsibilities but are still not fully an adult? Students can relate to these problems because if you look past the superficial differences, such as the superpowers and flashy costumes, they are the same problems that students face. Reading a book that relates to the life of the reader can help the reader tremendously by validating them and helping them understand that they are not alone (Halls 34) . Cates give us a great example using Peter Parker (Spiderman) and how, in spite of the decades of complication and elaboration of Peter’s backstory, he will always be a scrawny, socially-awkward teenager who was granted great power and is still haunted by his failure to use it responsibly (Cates 832).
It should be the goal of every educator to assist students in gaining a love of learning and the most effective way to this goal is cultivating a love of reading. Graphic novels are the stepping tone that many reluctant readers require to overcome some of their bias of what a book is. If students can be shown that reading is an enjoyable activity they will be open to new experiences with other books in the future. The key is to remember that simply because graphic novels may fill this role as a stepping stone to bring a reader into the realm of deeper reading does not mean that they should be pigeonholed to that position. A graphic novel has the same potential to be a great work that a novel does, an author with passion and skill crafting a story worthy of being told. The only thing that separates the novel from the graphic novel is supplementation of descriptive text with art. This allows students to pick their level of commitment to the text without becoming overly bogged down with information that they are not yet skilled enough to process. The idea behind this is to lower the difficulty of entering the literary world without providing a shallow experience. An artist does not paint exclusively with primary colors, it is variety and nuance that creates a true masterpiece. For this same reason educators should make use of every tool available to them to shape and create beautiful minds.
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