Comic Books in a Liberal Education

David Randall

A shorter, 1100-word version of this article appeared at the Claremont Review of Books on March 17, 2016, under the title "From Comic-Con to Columbia." Below is the 3500-word essay from which that article was composed.


Comic books are now part of the curriculum. Some of this change is deliberate; some of it has just growed like Topsy; but however it happened, comics are now taught at all levels of education. From Disney comics promoted by Maryland for use in its elementary schools to The Cartoon History of the United States in an AP U.S. History course, teachers use comic books—graphic novels, when they put on their Sunday best—as means of instruction in the classroom. Many university professors also take comic books as worthy of academic study: you can now take a graduate-level English course on “Graphic Novel, Comics, and Current Issues in Visual Narrative.” They appear with increasing frequency in college students’ common reading, either as summer reading before college or as components of introductory courses in the liberal arts.

These last assignments are the backbone of an education in the liberal arts, and works selected for such purposes must meet a high standard. Common readings provide an institutional imprimatur for what we believe to be the most important works of our heritage, give our students a basic cultural literacy in the works of enduring importance to our civilization, and provide them the materials that will inspire them to take part in a millennial conversation of writers and readers. Can comic books meet this standard? If they can, how should they be taught?

First Funnies

Comic books’ largest use is as a form of elementary instruction, to attract and inform young students who are less comfortable with words than with pictures. This prolongs the use of picture books for kindergarteners and very young elementary school students, and adapts for classroom use illustrated editions of adventure stories. Children nearly a century ago enjoyed N. C. Wyeth’s illustration of The Boy’s King Arthur; comics in the classroom are likewise intended to allure young readers to literacy and to literature. Nor is it unprecedented to use comics to instruct older readers: Will Eisner made his living for decades during World War II and after by writing cartoon instructions for the Armed Forces, on everything from rifle maintenance to engine repair. There is considerable precedent for the use of pictures in education.

Yet teachers banned comic books from the classroom until fairly recently. Parents and educators either took comic books as lurid threats to children’s morals (as David Hadju recounts in The Ten-Cent Plague) or as a juvenile medium that would distract students from serious literature. The use of comics for instruction within ever higher levels of the classroom is a recent development, which has gathered strength with startling speed. Comics now are used to instruct schoolchildren in elementary and middle school, teachers have a book informing them how to use comics in the classroom, and graphic adaptations of history and literature, as well as original comic books, are also part of the curriculum. (When Brooklyn and Queens middle schools received copies of a 50-page comic book version of the 400-page novel The Lightning Thief by mistake, it was a natural error: the publisher, after all, provides comic-book adaptations of novels to many schools.) The educational publisher Scholastic has a dedicated web page encouraging and justifying the purchase of such materials; and comic books and graphic novels are also entering the Common Core. The comic book curriculum has already become normal at the elementary level, and is nearing normality for high schools.

Some of these works are undeniably competent: Trinity, for example, provides a solid introduction to the history of the Manhattan Project. Yet it remains an introduction—and the trouble is that such comic books all too often act as substitutes rather than prologues. Now, such substitution and simplification itself has a venerable history: The Odyssey was once taught in Greek; then in English verse; then in English prose; and it is only another step in a long decline that it is now taught as an English comic book. Yet the switch to comic books does register a significant further decay in our expectations. Comic books may be quite competent at what they do, but what they do does not necessarily demand very much of students: they may interest students, but they do not necessarily educate them. I have not come across any studies that claim a link between adoption of the comic book curriculum and statistically verified improvements in literacy or numeracy; nor any claim that reading a comic book of The Odyssey has drawn appreciable numbers of students to the verse translations of Fitzgerald or Fagles, or to courses in Greek. Such studies would go some way to justify the use of comic books in the lower level; lacking them, we should be skeptical of their use. This skepticism also applies to the introduction of comic books into the college curriculum, since their use in college partly has been justified by their supposed effectiveness at the lower levels.

Graduate Graphics

Moving to the high end of the educational pyramid, comic books have become the object of academic study. The publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) and Maus II (1991)—Spiegelman’s account of how his parents survived the Holocaust in body but not entirely in soul—marks the watershed moment when mainstream intellectuals acknowledged that some comic books aspired to be and could become examples of mature literature and art. About the same time, other intellectuals rediscovered the comic book tradition embodied in half-forgotten works such as Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. The subsequent incorporation of comic books into academic study has been an inevitable corollary of the realization of the virtuosity of comic books in both the past and the present. The spread of cultural studies also has encouraged the study of comic books, although with an interest that is historical-sociological rather than aesthetic. Both these developments have contributed to the multiplication of courses on comic books. College students and graduate students may now choose courses such as “Comic Books and Graphic Novels: From Tintin to Maus and Beyond” (Colorado College), “The Graphic Novel and the Jewish Experience”  (Washington University in St. Louis), “Politics, Comics, and the Graphic Novel”  (Georgia College)—and there are dozens of such courses by now, if not more—while advanced English courses in high school also mimic this focus on comic book subject matter. The study of Tintin now has formal equality with the study of Homer. Comic books have not played a unique role in displacing the classics from advanced study—their introduction into the curriculum is symptom rather than cause. Yet professors who teach comic books at the upper levels have a natural desire to teach them in introductory classes as well. To make comic books the subject of research inevitably creates a faction that wants comics to be included in the curriculum of every class they teach.

Common-Reading Comics

Now comic books have started to become parts of the common or introductory readings that are assigned to college students. At Duke University and UC Santa Cruz’s Kresge College this year, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home was the recommended book for all incoming freshman to read over the summer. The University of South Florida has chosen Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis, Sierra Nevada College has selected Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgorodoff, James Ponsoldt, and Benjamin Percy; and Nassau Community College has assigned March, a graphic non-fiction account of the life of civil rights leader John Lewis. In actual classes, Spiegelman’s Maus is now part of Whitman College’s First Year Experience course, a First Year Seminar at the University of Oregon, and a first-year seminar at Loyola Marymount University; Satrapi’s Persepolis is taught in First-year Composition at the University of Georgia and in a First Year Seminar at Columbia College Chicago; Bechdel’s Fun Home is part of a First Year Seminar at Drake University; Loyola Marymount has an entire course on Graphic Stories as a First-Year Seminar; and New York University includes a similar course in its core curriculum. Columbia University’s Literary Humanities, one of the most venerable of the country’s core courses, may soon add Spiegelman’s Maus to its syllabus. The appearance of these works in numerous syllabi registers the general claim that comic books should be considered a core part of the Western tradition, that they are an effective means of introducing students to that tradition, and that they can educate them to take part in it.

Powerful Pictures

Are these claims persuasive? The great argument for the use of comic books is their capacity to dominate a student’s mind—the ability to compel interest from the otherwise uninterested.  This line of argument is usually phrased in terms of allure, but it adduces the general power of images, which makes a cartoon worth far more than a thousand words. The arguments for the use of comic books at the lower levels all rely, implicitly or explicitly, upon this claim—that comic books have the power to charm, that comic books can instill enduring images in the memory. The argument of the pedagogues for the use of comics is parallel to the arguments to provide positive African-American role models in movies, to ban tobacco advertisements, to censor pornography, to propagate a more relaxed attitude about body type, or to scrub any supposedly offensive image from the public’s field of vision—that visual images are far more powerful than the word, for good or for ill. Yet these arguments do not claim that comic books have the power to inspire students to think about them critically or imaginatively—and the liberal arts are supposed to be educative in the exact sense, to draw out the student and inspire him to think. A comic book, by this account, is peculiarly ill-fitted for an introduction to the liberal arts, precisely because its images are so catechistically powerful. If a comic book is to be used for such a purpose, it should be because its images inspire thought—because they educate rather than because they instruct. An argument for the use of comic books in a liberal education should not rely on the argument of pedagogic power—and should positively focus upon those comic books that eschew visual imagery’s manipulative power.

The argument for the pedagogic power of visual imagery incidentally endorses the concerns of students, parents, and professors about graphic imagery presenting any possibly taboo subject—nudity and homosexuality in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, racial caricatures in Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo, and so on. Some of these concerns merely register a labeling problem: comic books originally were intended for children, and many Americans do not yet realize that the genre now aspires to the same profanity, explicit sexuality, and blasphemy that (as Tom Lehrer noted long ago) passes nowadays for literary sophistication. Yet this labeling problem is ultimately tangential to the issue at hand. If the visual imagery in comic books makes them unusually powerful for instructional purposes, then their power to present such taboo subjects must likewise be unusually powerful. This does not in itself speak to whether or to what extent a liberal arts curriculum should defer to the sensibilities of any portion of the community in its selection of core texts, but it does suggest that concerns about the taboo-breaking power of comics, as comics, are not misplaced.

Canonical Cartoons

While the argument of comic books’ pedagogic power works at cross purposes to the aims of liberal education, the arguments used to justify comic books as the subject matter for academic research or upper-level academic instruction do not justify the use of comic books as components of a liberal-arts education. We choose texts for a liberal education based not on their importance in popular culture alone, nor even on an acknowledgment that they possess literary merit, but rather because they possess that combination of high literary merit and integral importance among the tradition of Western civilization that warrants inclusion within the select few texts presented to all students so as to equip and allure them to take part in that civilization’s enduring conversation. Bechdel’s Fun Home has value as a graphic memoir—but as a study of the self, does it match an essay by that originator of revelatory introspection, Michel de Montaigne? Is it as ravishing a memoir as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s recollection of his 1934 walk across Europe in A Time of Gifts? Does it reveal a life of early brokenness and sadness more than Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain?—which not only tells the reader of the early death of Conway’s father and brother but also of her family’s exile from the drought-stricken Australian backlands. Does it participate in the Great Conversation as much as these other works? That is the case that has to be made for comic books. We are blessed with a superfluity of works that have some value; they cannot and should not all be taught. The choice of a comic book for a liberal arts curriculum requires that the precise goals of that curriculum be kept explicitly in mind, so that such a selection may be made with proper thought and discrimination.

Some comic books do have sufficient value to be included in a liberal arts curriculum—at any rate, as much value as any literary production of the last half century. Spiegelman’s Maus and Maus II are extraordinary works, worthy of comparison as Holocaust memoirs to Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Robert Crumb’s graphic adaptation of Robert Alter’s translation of The Book of Genesis is a work of real visual seriousness in service of a foundational text, and Ernest Briggs’ graphic memoir of the lives of his London parents, Ethel and Ernest, has cumulatively powerful emotional impact in its narration of two ordinary lives. Matt Phelan’s Around the World, which tells of the lives and adventurous travels of Thomas Stevens (bicyclist), Nellie Bly (circumnavigatrix), and Joshua Slocum (mariner), is a beautiful evocation of the ambitions and souls of three extraordinary Americans of the nineteenth century. A little farther afield, but much indebted to the conversations of the Western tradition, Naoki Urasawa’s Japanese manga Monster is a tale of a psychopath created as a weapon of war by late-Communist Czechoslovakia and East Germany; it makes as good a claim as any comic book to use the genre’s pulp materials toward humane effect. None of them should be chosen to replace (say) Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but a respectable argument can be made that one of them could substitute adequately for a modern novel of high quality such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004).

Holy Art History!

Yet that argument must account properly for the visual component of the comic book if it is to be persuasive. A comic book, after all, is not just a piece of text with illustration. It is an exercise combining two media, word and picture, and a proper study of a comic book should lead to an education in both these modes. Comic books actually provide an opportunity to broaden a liberal education so as to include the visual component of the Western tradition. Done properly, different liberal arts curricula keyed to comic books can introduce students to an extraordinary variety of works within and criticism upon the imagery of the West.

One curriculum, for example, could study the techniques of Western art that have found late expression in the comic book. Going backward in time from the twentieth to the eighteenth centuries, the syllabus of this curriculum might include the narrative art of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series, the vivid political caricature of Honoré Daumier and George Cruikshank, and the moralizing tales conveyed in the prints of William Hogarth. Another such curriculum, focused rather on the Baroque and Renaissance Old Masters’ ability to convey whole stories in a single image, could touch upon the visual picaresque of Georges de la Tour, the sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini simultaneously expressive of ecstasy and faith, the Biblical storytelling of Leonardo da Vinci, and the hellish panoramas of Hieronymous Bosch. A third curriculum might focus upon the reserved expression of emotion pictorially articulated in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (much parodied in modern comics) or Johannes Vermeer’s A Lady Writing. Each of these curricula could illuminate the relationship of modern comic art to a different component of the Western visual tradition.

Another sort of curriculum could integrate comic books with the history of art criticism. Such a syllabus might proceed by way of Scott McCloud’s analysis of the formal vocabulary of comic art in Understanding Comics to Erwin Panosky’s analysis of Renaissance iconography Studies in Iconology, and on to Leo Steinberg’s study of the theological content of Christ’s anatomy in Renaissance painting. A syllabus exploring antecedents to comic books’ mixture of image and word might instead lead to a study of ekphrasis, the verbal description of a work of art, with particular reference to the description of the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. The same syllabus might also include a discussion of the often-rivalrous relationship of poetry and painting organized around the tradition of ut pictura poesis (“as is painting so is poetry”), citing Andrew Marvell’s bravura description of Restoration England in “Last Instructions to a Painter.” A last curriculum (as in this syllabus) would lead toward a course in drawing, the equivalent of the practice in writing that an introductory course in the liberal arts is supposed to include. Here the student would learn how to draw, perhaps to create his own first attempt at a graphic memoir. The word is central to the Western tradition, and mastery of the word central to a liberal education—but the picture has no small place in our civilization, and the ability to draw has long been considered an accomplishment of a properly educated lady or gentleman. A student should have both word and picture at his command.

Such a command can only be achieved if the visual component of comic books becomes the object of student discussion, and is not used simply as powerful reinforcement of their words. A student in such a course should be prepared to answer an essay question along these lines: “Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta supports the establishment of a Fascist state. Argue for or against this proposition solely with reference to the imagery of the comic.” Or perhaps: “Discuss how Robert Crumb’s pictures support or work against a feminist interpretation of the Book of Genesis.” Or: “What is Art Spiegelman’s iconography in Maus? What are some visual sources for the iconography? Please give examples of how he uses shading, line, and composition to forward the story’s narrative.” If comic books are to be included in liberal arts study, students should be able to think and argue intelligently about the art of a comic book, as art.

If they cannot, then it is a waste of time to include comic books in a core curriculum. Some parallels will illustrate how useless it is to teach a comic book without studying either how art makes its arguments or the genre conversations in which art participates. Consider a liberal arts course that included a performance of Don Giovanni, but discussed Mozart’s music as an illustration of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and made no attempt to place the work within the history of opera. Imagine a class on Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which talked of the film as an expression of Soviet ideology but did not discuss the history of montage in cinema. Any such class would be a disservice to the work, as it flattened it into textual analysis. It would also be a disservice to the students, as it failed to provide them the tools with which to approach such a work. Finally, while such an opera, such a movie, such a comic book might still move the students’ passions, they would not be educated to enter into thoughtful conversation with the work without a knowledge of its medium—and this would be the betrayal of a liberal education.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

A comic book can be a component of a liberal education—but only a liberal education of an unusually demanding variety, which requires that students embrace both the word and the picture of the Western tradition. A comic book should not be chosen because it will make education easier for a student, but because it will make it harder, as it forces him to think and argue about both the word and the picture. Neither should a comic book be chosen as a way to depart from the classic texts of Western civilization, but rather as a way to integrate the study of those texts with Western civilization’s classic images. If a college approaches comic books in this spirit, as an intensification of the traditional modes of education rather than as a renunciation of them, then there would actually be a positive imperative for it to include the genre in its core curriculum. If a college does not approach comic books in that fashion, or gives the pedagogy outlined here mere lip service, then to include comics in a core curriculum will only add to the ways in which that college will fail its students.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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