University English Professor Discusses Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Comics have become a household staple in homes across the world, and their use in the classroom has increasingly become more popular in recent years. According to an interview with Global NewsRyerson University English Department chair Andrew O’Malley says, "there is a history of comics and literacy that dates back at least 180 years."

In the 1830s, Rodolphe Topffer was a Swiss educator and headmaster who produced a number of books from satirical comic strips that he used in the school to help with literacy. Now, O'Malley says "most schools in Canada are now using comics to help teach kids about subjects like Canadian history" with texts such as Louis Reil: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown. 

“It was really in the 90’s with the boom of the graphic novel that there was a kind of widespread popular recognition that there was a literary and artistic quality to these materials," O'Malley continued. "Really the watershed moment was Art Spiegelman’s Maus that went on to win the Pulitzer, and since then, they have gained greater and greater legitimacy … Their increasingly being used at schools now."

Despite some pushback against the graphic nature of comics, graphic novels have become a stepping stone to literacy as well as an entertainment product to the development of children. From superheroes to historical fiction to memoirs, comics span across every genre of literature and have built a foundation for educators to bridge literacy gaps and learning abilities in their classroom.

Due to the duality of the format, graphic novels have moved beyond being a simple children's entertainment vehicle into a sophisticated form of literature. O'Malley explains that the pictures and text do not always match perfectly, forcing readers to interpret both as separate and married components in interpreting the material. “There is actually a very sophisticated kind of interaction going on. So comics reading requires pretty advanced decoding,” O’Malley says.

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