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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Cover of Action Comics, June 1938, DC Comics.

It's high time for more English and history teachers to set aside their literary purism, and to embrace superhero comics as effective and legitimate teaching and learning tools.

Superman Stands in for Hamlet

In Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, an aging and embittered Superman, distraught over a hero-villain conflict that results in the irradiation of much of the Midwest, is coaxed out of retirement by Wonder Woman.

"Kal, please. Our generation takes its lead from you. We always have," she says, using the Man of Steel's Kryptonian birth name to add an extra sense of urgency. Even Superman has lost all hope in the wake of millions dead, and he urges the Amazon princess to go back to her island, where she's safe.

A much different Superman eventually returns, and it's not long before he and his reassembled team, the once-famous Justice League, also use intimidation, threats, incarceration, and even murder to ensure world peace by any means necessary.

Waid and Ross’ graphic novel does a brilliant job of deconstructing the traditional hero-villain archetype, and beautiful imagery elucidates strong themes of revenge, redemption and salvation. The writing is crisp, realistic and heartfelt, and any English teacher would be foolish to ignore this work as childish and irrelevant. In fact, I dare say Kingdom Come does just as good a job as Shakespeare's Hamlet -- if not better -- of not only teaching today's students about plot development and a host of other literary devices, but also about right and wrong, imperfection, and the human condition.

After all, if Superman has tragic flaws, we all have tragic flaws.

Man of Steel as Man of His Times

Seven years ago, as a rookie teacher at Brimmer and May, a terrific independent school in Massachusetts, I assigned Kingdom Come to two seniors working on an independent study titled "Superheroes: Understanding America and the Human Condition." I have never seen students so enthralled in their work, or as eager to discuss their observations with each other and me.

They soon grew interested in learning about the history of Superman and the character's creators. Dan, a Jewish student, stumbled upon Danny Fingeroth's marvelous book, Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero.

Dan gave me his copy, in which he placed stars next to a critically important passage. Fingeroth cites a famous 1975 press release from Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, himself a Jew and the son of Lithuanian immigrants.

What lead me into creating Superman in the early thirties?

Listening to President Roosevelt's "fireside chats" . . . being unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany . . . seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered from the downtrodden . . . I had the great urge to help . . . help the downtrodden masses, somehow.

How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.

I remember Dan coming up to me, saying that Siegel's father died of a heart attack -- likely brought on by the stress of an armed robbery. Whatever the exact details, Dan told me, Siegel's loss undoubtedly shaped the character who, in 1938, graced the cover of Action Comics #1. In that issue, Superman fights political corruption and wife-beaters, also saving a damsel in distress.

Superman represented a mythical hero that countless immigrants, victims and other downtrodden people clamored for during one of America's most trying times. I think we still clamor for it, especially as we eye our own uncertain future. But by studying Superman's early adventures, and treating comics as precious primary documents, readers ascertain a deeper, more relatable understanding of history. I have Dan to thank for reminding me of that fact.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

In my United States history class, I usually assign the first few issues of Uncanny X-Men, first published by Marvel Comics in 1963. Created by a legendary dream team, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, no storyline does a better job of highlighting and helping kids relate to and recognize discrimination and intolerance that plagued the era.

To get students excited about this unit, I also assign Tales of Suspense #39, from 1963, which features Iron Man's first appearance. In the story, a Communist leader in Vietnam captures famous American weapons manufacturer Tony Stark. Using his ingenuity, Stark creates highly advanced armor and turns himself into the Iron Man to escape. Iron Man is another Stan Lee creation, and this origin story encapsulates the innovative and enduring American spirit.

Taking the Sting Out of Plot Development

For a project, Dan and his partner, Neil, decided to create their own 40-page single-shot comic, When Scorpions Attack. At its core, this story spoofs the more serious superhero genre. Highly advanced, giant-sized scorpions attack earth, upset at how humanity mistreats their much smaller-sized counterparts. I watched Dan and Neil spend hours storyboarding their plot, as I helped them tweak dialogue to sync with their creative artwork. In gratitude, they even gave me my own cameo appearance, as I'm seen here saving their characters' lives.

David Cutler's cameo in When Scorpions Attack

Credit: Dan & Neil

When they had finished, two things were certain. One, they could write well. And two, they could tell one heck of a story.

Have you found educational uses for comics in your classroom? Please share your own thrilling adventures in the comments section below.

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Henry Firth's picture

Great article! If you're interested, we have a free webinar on a similar theme coming up later this year:
Using comics and superheroes in the classroom - Brian Boyd
Wednesday, 5 November 2014 from 15:00 to 16:00 (GMT). Register here: http://ow.ly/sDKHI

MrsDinh's picture
MrsDinh
3rd/4th/5th grade Learning Specialist from TX

I have used comic books and superheroes in a variety of ways in my classroom. It always helps engage students, both younger students and upper elementary students. I introduce superheroes at the beginning of the year to illustrate strengths and weaknesses. Our school's population consists of students with a variety of learning differences, many of which the students themselves do not yet fully understand. Talking about superheroes and how they all have weaknesses, many of which are really silly and debilitating (the color yellow is a weakness. Another one is natural elements...etc), help students realize they are not alone and their "weaknesses" or needs do not define them. Superheroes focus and build their strengths, like practicing how to fling webs correctly, and find ways to address their weaknesses, like building a kyptonite proof suit, and find strategies to work around their areas of need and support systems, like creating league of friends to help you.

Professor Marilyn Buono's picture
Professor Marilyn Buono
University Composition Teacher

Dear David,
I am grateful to you for sharing this piece on using comics in the classroom. Generally, I teach freshman composition and I have used comics to reinforce themes such as "The Hero's Journey" with great success.
I would like to access the comic books that you mention in your blog. Would you mind sharing the way(s) in which you obtained them.

Thanks again,
Marilyn

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston
Blogger

Several people have asked where I've obtained such comics. I have a few responses...

1) Buying reprints is extremely affordable. I post portions of various comics online as PDF's. I would be happy to share these with whomever. Reprints are also extremely affordable, and you could ask students to buy several volumes before school starts.

2) When I want to share a comic in class, I use my Comixology account. This is basically Kindle for superhero comics (or comics of all kinds). I encourage students to create an account and buy whole comics from this site, which they can read online. The user-interface is especially friendly. Believe it or not, some students have trouble following panels, and which order they appear in. I usually spend 20 or so minutes explaining panels before assigning anything. I like how Comixology helps with this though, mostly by zooming-in on one panel at a time.

I hope this helps!

Best,

David Cutler

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston
Blogger

Thank you so much for forwarding me this excellent TEDx talk! I would be thrilled to speak with Mr. Elder, especially as he also talks about how comics help with language acquisition. I'm currently writing a follow-up piece on this topic. Would it be possible to put me in touch with Mr. Edler? I would be hugely grateful. I can be reached at (davidericcutler@gmail.com).

johnbuzzard's picture

I have used comics before in the classrooom and created curriculum around comics and superheroes. I have one unit on V for Vendetta (Alan Moore and David Lloyd) that parallels with a reading of 1984, and another that uses the book "The Physics of Superheroes" by James Kakilios

Melissa Perez's picture
Melissa Perez
High school Spanish teacher in Athens, GA

I have used comics in my Spanish class in two ways. I use them as a way to introduce authentic texts (when I can find them in Spanish!) and also student created ones. I find the student created ones to be especially powerful since I teach at an urban school where the majority of students are African-American and finding images and characters that reflect them is not always easy. Thanks for opening the discussion on this topic!

UP's picture

Mr. Wright, I am curious what is the focus of your subject matter -- history, culture, current affairs? I have done some research on Africa with emphasis on poverty issues.

Crystal Green's picture

I enjoyed reading this post a great deal, as it seems to have taken the stuffiness of learning some of the great and most important elements of both literature and history. Anytime a teacher can go modern with a lesson and relate the theme to both modern and historical times, I believe it is the ultimate feat of teaching. Using something as complex and simple as comic books allows students to get out of their comfort zones and get creative and the same is said about the creative being that is not often allowed to express their creativity in a formal school setting. This idea should be shared in a learning community where open and tolerable teachers can share the takes on how they each used comic books in their lessons.
Again, a very interesting post that I enjoyed to the fullest and that I will be applying once I get my own classroom.

RussReid's picture

Great post. I have recently, rediscovered the use of comic books and graphic novels in my history class. As a kid I loved the WWII, superhero comic books - let's be honest for years a kid I loved any comic book. This past year my grade 10 Social Studies class read the graphic novels Escape to Gold Mountain and Louis Riel - a comic strip biography (I am a teacher in British Columbia). The content was excellent, accessible and easy to relate to for my students. Providing the students with a visual and a captivating plot line elevated their understanding of the content, connection to the past and a broader understanding of historical perspective. I agree with you how the visuals and story line make content accessible for students. They seemed much more competent as learners with these graphic novels compared to the textbook.

These two units were very well received by my students. I think because they quickly grasped the content we were able to do different activities and have much longer class discussions. In addition, as an educator I was excited about the lessons, activities and student engagement. It was such a treat for the class as a whole.

Thanks for the post. Great ideas.

Russ Reid

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