Better Research Through Comics
By Caitlin Plovnick

UnflatteningWhen it comes to the benefits of comic books and graphic novels in schools and libraries, most of the discussion involves literacy and reading. One area that has not been explored as thoroughly is research. As it turns out, there are many ways that comics can benefit research instruction, and vice versa.

I should point out right now that this is not an article about scholarly graphic novels. It's true that there has been an increase in scholarly research involving comics, and even dissertations published in graphic novel form, such as Nick Sousanis' Unflattening, and there is a lot of wonderful scholarly work to pursue for anyone interested in comics and academic research. However, what I’m interested in describing here is more of a basic connection between comics and research as avenues for wonder and discovery.

As a research and instruction librarian, I spend a lot of time teaching college freshman about information literacy and helping them begin to navigate introductory research assignments. One of the areas they struggle with is context; both understanding the context of the sources they want to work with, and also putting their own work into context for an audience. The skills needed to achieve this are not unique to scholarly research and can be applied to K-12 education as well; it is simply a matter of understanding the relationship between different pieces of information. Comics, which synthesize many elements into one appealing package, can be a terrific, accessible way to explore contexts of information and develop research skills.

Thinking of comics as products of research is particularly easy if you look at, say, nonfiction history comics, which often include a bibliography and some author's notes about where their information came from. But this is only part of what informs a comic. Artists and writers make many choices about how to depict people, places and events. They may use primary sources such as photographs, maps, newspapers and eyewitness accounts to depict everything from characters' clothing and hairstyles to dialogue and tone. This adds a depth to the story that can be far richer than a textbook account, very nearly bringing events to life. This could be explored in a classroom by reading a historical graphic novel alongside sources from the time depicted, and examining connections between them. Alternatively, students could be presented with primary sources and tasked with using them to help guide them in making a short comic.

While nonfiction, educational comics have an obvious connection to research, many other types of comics can be used for the same purpose. For example, many Marvel comics are set in and around New York City. A research exercise might involve digging through some of these comics and identifying how they depict a recognizable New York. Are there visual landmarks? Dialects? Specific cultural references?

Thermae Romae Vol. 1Another great way to look at comics as products of research is to look at any manga series that focuses on something very specific. I recently read the first volume of Mari Yamazaki's Thermae Romae, picking up more details about ancient Roman and modern Japanese bathing culture than I ever could have imagined. This manga was written to be entertaining rather than educational, but it is still clearly the product of extensive research.

In addition to being great examples of research products, comics can also be excellent research sources. Comics can reveal volumes about the time and culture in which they were published, although not always in a straightforward way. Once again you can look to the depiction of outfits, cars and other visual details, as well as to the use of language and attitudes of characters. But it can also be informative to look at the design and technical details of the book. How was it produced, and what does this say about methods of communication at the time?

When looking at comic books as artifacts, it is very important to think about intended audience. This can become clear when looking at currently published comic books. If you are familiar with your own time and culture, it will be easy to see that different comics don't always represent it well. This is of course also true for comics published in the past. Comparing the two can be a great way to introduce critical thinking about sources, context, and audience. Who was this published for? How might that have affected the final outcome? Noticeable lack of representation can be just as informative, if not more, than the details that are represented. This is already a frequent topic in discussions of comics, where what isn’t depicted is often just as crucial to the storytelling as what is.

While graphic novels are usually the form of comics that comes up in libraries and classrooms, comic books and newspaper comic strips should also be considered, as they make excellent artifacts for discovery. In fact, comparing different comic formats can add an extra dimension to an exploration of comics as artifacts.

I should not neglect to mention one very important way that comics have been used as sources, particularly recently, which is comics as source material for movies. Blockbuster superhero movies have become increasingly common, and they provide an intriguing avenue for looking at comics as sources. Some may involve direct adaptations, in which case it is interesting to see how visuals are recreated and referenced in live action scenes. Other comics may contribute to related movies in a more general way, by informing the style or "feel" of the movie. This kind of indirect source can make for a great discussion point: what are the unconscious influences behind original research and creative projects? How does our work clearly build on that of others', and when is it more subtle?

This is just a brief exploration of the many ways that comics, with their endless variety of content and multiple access points for all different types of readers, can be used to investigate sophisticated and sometimes difficult-to-grasp research concepts in a relatively easy way. I hope you will take inspiration from these ideas and launch your own investigations! You may discover whole new ways to revisit your favorite comics, which may in turn give you new perspectives on the world. This sense of wonder and discovery is what many people seek when they read comics, and should be the driving force behind any good research question. Why not combine the two, and see what emerges?

Caitlin Plovnick is an Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, and was a previous editor of Diamond BookShelf.