Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Blog 3: Educational Graphic Novels and the
Beginnings of Graphic Textbooks

Pictorial narratives are found rendered on the cave walls of Chauvet and Lascaux, France, scribed onto structures in ancient Egypt, carved into Trajan’s Column, illuminated into The Book of Kells, woven into the The Bayeux Tapestry, inlaid into the stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, and painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Comic books, whether we wish to admit it or not, represent a natural progression of a visual storytelling tradition that has evolved over 40,000 years. The first printed short graphic narratives, ones that contain no more than a few dozen panels, appeared as early as the mid-Fifteenth Century in the form of religious propaganda. (Kunzle, 12-39) Other, short instructional graphic narratives described how a criminal was dismembered during an execution, or how to properly use instruments of torture in the Marshalsea Prison (Kunzle, 169, 194) Even though it is not sequentially illustrated, the Kama Sutra is really a visual instruction manual.

During World War II, Will Eisner utilized the sequential art concept for short graphic narratives in order to produced cartoons for Army Motors magazine. The cartoons were designed to educate soldiers on how to properly maintain their equipment and weapons. In 1951, The Department of the Army launched P*S, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly magazine. For twenty years Eisner acted as the artistic director for P*S, using sequential art as a teaching tool. P*S is still in publication, and celebrated its 700th issue in March of 2011. Considering that visual learners make up two-thirds of the population, it is baffling how few educational graphic novels and textbooks exist. Why is that, and why haven’t more publishers taken advantage of this untapped market?

From 19411962, Albert Lewis Kanter (18971973) published 167 issues in his highly popular Classics Illustrated line. Since then other companies have published illustrated versions of classic novels, but with minimal success. Except for a few authors like Stephen King (1947), Michael Chabon (1963), Ray Bradbury (1920–2012), and Stephenie Meyer (née Morgan, 1973) the majority of illustrated adaptations are for books in the public domain, so the authors do not have to be paid. Where are graphic adaptations of: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (19222007); Catch-22 (1961), by Joseph Heller (19231999); On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac (19221969); The Color Purple (1982), by Alice Walker (1944); Snow Crash (1992), by Neal Stephenson (1959); The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway (18991961); The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck (19021968); To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee (1926); Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), by Gabriel García Márquez (1927); The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J.D. Salinger (19192010); Midnight's Children (1981), by Salman Rushdie (1947); or The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald (18961940)? Granted the “Classic” novels of sixty years ago are still considered “Classic,” but how many different graphic novel adaptations of Dracula (1897) by Abraham "Bram" Stoker (18471912) do we really need? By limiting illustrated adaptations to only public domain authors, younger readers are not being exposed to some of literatures’ greatest books at an earlier age, and educational possibilities are being lost.

However, educational graphic novels need not be restricted to maintenance manuals and novel adaptations. One of the earliest educational graphic novels printed in the United States was a Japanese import. Japan Inc., An Introduction to Japanese Economics (1988), by Ishinomori Shōtarō (19381998), was a 313-page Manga comic book published by the University of California Press. Japan Inc. was originally published in 1986 by the Nihon keizai shimbun, the Japanese version of The Wall Street Journal. The book brought “complex issues, facts, and figures into focus by personalizing and dramatizing them.” While it is out of date, it does provide an entertaining and interesting historical look at Reagan-era politics and economics.

Two of the most accessible areas for developing educational graphic novels are in the categories of biographies and historic non-fiction. One of the earliest creators of historic graphic novels is Timothy Truman (1956). Truman’s first two graphic novels, Wilderness: Book 1: The Borderland (1989), and Wilderness: Book 2: Bloody Ground (1991) concentrated on the eighteenth century American “renegade” Simon Girty. Truman followed these with Allan W. Eckert’s Tecumseh (1992), an illustrated adaptation of Eckert’s outdoor drama. In 1995, the popular writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, Morgan Llywelyn (1937) co-wrote Ireland: A Graphic History with Michael Scott (1959). The book, which had limited distribution in the U.S., was illustrated by Eoin Coveney and contains a Foreword by Will Eisner.

Cartoonist Larry Gonick’s (1946) educational graphic narratives take a humorous approach to teaching, and they can be considered some of the first popular mass-market graphic textbooks. Gonick, a Harvard-trained mathematician, is a prolific creator of  books such as Cartoon History of the United States (1991), Cartoon History of the Universe (Three Volumes, 19922002), The Cartoon History of the Modern World (Two Volumes, 20062009), and The Cartoon Guide to Calculus (2011).7 Some other books that also follow this method are Action Philosophers (Three Volumes, 20062007) written by Fred Van Lente (1972) and drawn by Ryan Dunlavey; Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans (1997) by author Roland Laird and artist Elihu Bey; and The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (2009) by author Mark Schultz (1955) and illustrated by Zander Cannon (1972) and Kevin Cannon. Essentially, all of these books are primers, but they provide a fun introductory course for pre-college students.

Joe Sacco has carved a very impressive niche for himself as a graphic journalist with his work on Palestine (2001) and Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 199295 (2002). Sacco does what every good journalist is supposed to do – he puts a face on the story. In terms of reportage, Fax From Sarajevo by Joe Kubert (1926), and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (2006), by Sid Jacobson (1929) and Ernie Colón (1931), are also of importance to the educator.

The historically-based graphic novel From Hell (1999), by writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell (1955) is of special interest because of the amount of research that went into its production. It is a massive 572-page volume that contains a 42-page appendix annotating all of Moore’s research. Mixing fact, conspiracy theory, and educated speculation, From Hell is an examination of the Jack the Ripper murders, and a critical commentary on Victorian England. Though not strictly factual, Moore shows us that it is possible to teach and entertain at the same time.

Astonishingly, there are very few graphic novels/textbooks about art or art history. Aside from Will Eisner’s and Scott McCloud’s books on sequential art, and a few publications about the lives of cartoonists, the rest of the art world is left fallow. For example, why are there no graphic novels/textbooks about the history of fashion? Think of how visually stunning that could be! The single most surprising publisher of the best art-related graphic novels is the Office of Cultural Development, Musée du Louvre – The Louvre Museum in Paris. To date, there are four books translated into English: Glacial Period (2007), by Nicolas de Crécy; The Museum Vaults: Excerpts From the Journal of an Expert (2007), by Marc-Antoine Mathieu; and On The Odd Hours (2010), by Eric Liberge (1965). Each of the books explores the museum from a different, sometimes fanciful aspect.

The Louvre’s fourth book, The Sky Over the Louvre (2009 in French & 2011 in English), written by Jean-Claude Carriere (1931) and illustrated by Bernard Yslaire, is an important work. Set in the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, The Sky Over the Louvre is the story of the beginnings of the Museum told through the lives of political theorists Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (17581794), Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793), and painter Jacques-Louis David (17481825). What is distinctive about this book is that the author, Carriere, is the former president of La Fémis, the French state film school, and is the screenwriter of many incredible movies including: Danton (1983), The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and Valmont (1989). With educational graphic novels and textbooks there is a dearth of product and a wealth of opportunity.

Educational Graphic Textbooks for Undergraduates

            In the past decade, the graphic novel format has grown in acceptance among college and university academicians as an educational medium (Goggin and Hassler-Forest, 2012, p. 3). Since the 1970s, the prevailing trend has been to utilize pre-existing graphic novels as literature, rather than develop new ones aimed specifically for use in the classroom. This trend is slowly changing, predominately in the area of the sciences, with the publication of sequential art textbooks such as Optical Allusions (2008) by Jay Hosler; Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation (2009) by Michael Keller and Nicole Rager Fuller; and Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth (2011) by Jay Hosler, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon. Admittedly, the research for new graphic textbooks is time consuming, so one has to wonder why certain books, such as A Brief(er) History of Time (1998, 2008) by Stephen William Hawking (1942–), has not yet been adapted into a sequential art format.
            The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True (2011) written by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (1941–), and illustrated by noted film director, graphic novelist, and cover artist for the popular Sandman comic book series, Dave McKean (1963–), while not sequentially illustrated, is impressive because of how it visually engages the reader. Due predominantly to Dawkins’ popularity this book has not gone unnoticed by book reviewers (as is the case, unfortunately, with most graphic textbooks).  The September 23, 2011, issue of The Chronicle Review cites Dawkins as one of “a growing band of scientists and science writers who are making use of the comic-book format—one that can ‘give accurate information and make it exciting.’” While this statement is true for The Magic of Reality, it also reflects why graphic textbooks work so well as a teaching tool—because they captivate students by making the mundane stimulating!

Topics for Discussion

Your comments are important to me (!), and will help me understand ways of developing multi-departmental graphic textbooks. Please click on the Comment button below, and share your thoughts! If you do not have a Google, LiveJournal, WordPress, TypePad, AIM, or OpenID account you may email me at kane.112@osu.edu, and I will post your comment(s) for you either anonymously, or with your name (whichever you prefer).
1) Why these illustrated texts gaining so much credibility as a teaching tool in the more structured, quantitative fields of math and the sciences, and why are they not evolving as quickly in other disciplines?

2) How can an understanding of how students learn and retain information from math and scientific graphic textbooks aid in the conceptualization and creation of other undergraduate-level educational graphic textbooks in other disciplines?

NEXT BLOG: Graphic eTextbooks and the “Infinite Canvas”

1 comment:

  1. Always thought well made comic books would have a longer lasting imprint on a young mind than a dry text book. Neal Adams illustrations of Antman's journey thru the Vision's anatomy in the Avengers is vivid in my mind 35 yrs later, yet I can barely remember my senior year English teacher, much less what was in my texts.
    On top of much more dynamic design, comics use of sequence can break down complex concepts in an easy to digest format.
    But the internet is taking that and moving forward with it, the sequential form of educating, and incorporating animation and FX, and with the advent of tablets, printed comic books, as a learning tool, may have seen their time come and go.