Attack of the Supersized Comic Book


The multi-paged comics called ‘graphic novels’ have escaped the dime store, and they’re headed for your bookstore, your living room, and KA-BOOM! Even your classroom! Comics are hot right now. Superheroes have been dominating the summer movie box office. Your bookstore’s comics section probably towers over the once-mighty stacks of summer beach reads. And your kids may be stocking their own comics section at home.

Once dismissed as child’s play, comic books have grown up and gone to work. Retailers are integrating comic adventures into their marketing campaigns. Corporate managers use comic books to motivate and train their employees.

Comic books are more than just good business—they are now serious business. They’ve recently become culturally and academically relevant, and teachers are embracing them as a learning tool. Universities offer courses on the history and social significance of comics (academics prefer to call them “sequential art”). According to Allyson Lyga, author of “Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide”, library specialists are now shelving them alongside more traditional prose, poetry, and reference works, and teachers are employing them to build reading and comprehension skills and encourage reluctant readers. And long-form books, known broadly as ‘graphic novels,’ have found their way onto summer reading lists and into curricula for literature, social studies, and even journalism classes.

It’s beginning to look like comic books might just be good and good for your child. Who knew?

The Graphic Novel

 Many experts tend to disagree with traditional labeling of ‘comic books.’ Douglas Wolk, author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work
and What They Mean”, argues that  many people see comics as a genre, a style within the story, as in Westerns or romances. But Wolk prefers to call comic art a medium, a way of telling a story — any story.

The debate on such terms rages on in comics stores, chat rooms and academic journals. But for now, retail bookstores and schools usually call the longer comic books ‘graphic novels.’ Most graphic novels aren’t really novels, of course. Many are bound collections of previously published comic books.

But there’s so much more out there. Sharing the shelves with All-Star Superman Vol. 1, you’ll find short fiction, autobiographies, travel diaries and journalist’s profiles. There are graphic ‘adaptations’ of song lyrics and of famous novels by Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Pynchon. There’s even a comic book version of the 9/11 Commission report.

Wolk calls this comic mania the ‘Golden Age’ of comics, due to so many releases in the last three years. Graphic novels are experiencing a renaissance, much more than their predecessors “Batman” and “Superman” 60 years ago.  Your kids may have already discovered them and perhaps, so have their teachers.

Comics and the Classroom

 Dr. Robert McCarthy, a humanities teacher at The Key School in Annapolis, has put graphic novels to work in his 10th grade European Civilization course. While he is not a fan of comics himself, McCarthy nonetheless saw an opportunity to appeal to students while addressing historical themes and literary features.

McCarthy uses the award-winning graphic novel “Watchmen” to address European history and culture. A dark tale of vigilante superheroes, the book takes place in America, but was created by author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, both British.

Released in the mid-1980s, Watchmen depicts some of the harsh cultural and political realities of that era: materialism, government corruption and nuclear paranoia. McCarthy includes it at the end of his course, as a kind of European critique of Cold War America.

“Watchmen” is very tightly structured,” said McCarthy. “We use it to look at the mechanics of literature.”

The illustrations help students ‘see’ literary elements like metaphor and theme. “When you see the same picture over and over again, you ask, ‘What does that mean?’” he explains. “Which is where literature becomes really interesting. That is where it becomes fun.”

McCarthy believes graphic novels are a great classroom aide, especially since his students think they’re fun. “They think they’re getting a break, but it’s one of our heaviest homework periods,” he said.

McCarthy also thinks by adding a graphic novel at the end of the school year gears his students up for summer reading. “I think it pays off in terms of them reading other literature,” he said. “They go back to other books and they start thinking, ‘Oh look, I can see how this mirrors what I saw in the graphic novel.’ ”

Moving Mainstream

John Gallagher, a comic artist and father of three, agrees. He calls graphic novels “the gateway drug to more complex literature.” Gallagher is part of a nonprofit organization called Kids Love Comics, formed by artists, publishers, and educators. “We focus on literacy,” Gallagher said. “We provide guidance to schools and libraries and also help teachers with lesson plans.”

The website,, has a comics store locator, reading lists and reviews of kid-friendly comics and graphic novels. Gallagher hopes the website will safely introduce kids to comics, and better connect the comics industry to kids and parents.

“There’s a ‘perfect storm’ going on in comics now,” said Gallagher, reflecting on how comics are becoming part of mainstream culture. “The days of comic book junk are over.”

By Jared Peterson

Comic Book Recommended Reading

After facing Trigon you’d think Raven could face any threat, but nothing has prepared her for high school cliques and bowling! Plus: The power of the Medusa mask begins causing even deadlier teenage angst.
Series of five; $2.99/each

Super Friends
Starring Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Wonder Twins, and others. Series of four; $2.25/each

Tiny Titans
Super Heroes, miniature style, in the classroom, dealing with issues at the playground and in other school settings. Series of five; $2.25/each

Justice League
As seen on the Cartoon Network. Series of 8; price not listed.

Check the library or you may purchase these comic books at, Barnes and Noble, or