Watchmen screenOllie Bray on the allure of graphic novels and Manga culture

More teachers are seeing the merits of using graphic novels to enhance teaching and learning. Unlike conventional texts, graphic novels are more accessible as they allow children to see the emotions on the characters’ faces. They are colourful, exciting and captivating. And now they can now be used on computers and online.

There are lots of types of graphic novels on the market but two series could quickly find a place on any English teacher’s bookshelves - Manga Shakespeare and Classical Comics. And software programs like Comic Life can be used for students to personalise the images for their own stories.

Manga Shakespeare

Manga Shakespeare is published by Self Made Hero and is a series of graphic novel adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is set in modern-day Tokyo, and Hamlet is set in a cyberworld. These interesting settings, combined with the black-and-white cinematic approach of Manga, help make Shakespeare more accessible to today's young readers.

Manga Shakespeare has also teamed up with Promethean Planet to create some interesting Promethean Flipcharts. The Flipcharts contain artwork from the books and are designed to support the classroom teacher and encourage class discussion.

Classical Comics

classical comicsModern-day Romeo and Juliet

Classical Comics provide a completely different dimension to graphic novels. Their texts are brightly coloured with stunning and well thought out artwork. A number of classic titles are available including Macbeth, Henry V, A Christmas Carol and Frankenstein. The clever thing about Classical Comics is that they produce three different types of text centred around the same artwork: the original text (all the original words): plain text (the same word count, but it modern day English); quick text (smaller word count in simple modern English, but very well written so you can still understand the story).

An example of the impact of the different types of text is shown in the picture below.

classical comics 2Different types of texts

As well being available as paperback editions, the titles are also available in a new electronic format from RM. A single user licence is £99 and is a really useful resource to complement a class set of the text books. Alternatively, the electronic version of the book can beamed through a digital projector to the big screen as a powerful standalone resource.

The other innovation is the availability of the Classical Comics artwork without any of the original, plain or quick text. When this is combined with software like Comic Life, children are able to use the stimulus of the artwork to create their own comics and develop creative writing skills. In essence they become the authors as they re-write Shakespeare’s classic stories in their own modern language. A site licence for the artwork for either Macbeth or Henry V is £50.

Comic Life is incredibly intuitive piece of software and is very easy to use. The example below, using Comic Life, shows the opening scene from Macbeth but the text has been added in Comic Life and turned into modern ‘text speak’.

The real learning, of course, comes from the fact that the children have had to read and analyse the original script before being able to do the translation and then use the computer software to re-write the original verses as ‘text speak’ (below).

Free alternatives to Comic Life

free alternatives to comic lifeStudent-produced texts

Comic Brush is a good free alternative to Comic Life. As part of the Comic Brush experience, the website regularly releases premium art packs commissioned by Tim Demeter. These art packs contain works done by professional artists, and include images and characters from 2000AD.

The art pack costs are displayed in points, with each pack costing about 600 points. New users start off with 1,000 points, so premium content is available for free right away when you sign up. In addition to that, users can purchase points at around £2.50 for a 2,500-point pack.

They eventual plan to allow users to suggest art packs that will include items or people they want to use in their stories.

Common reservations about graphic novels

common reservationsInspiration via Judge Dredd

Initially, some graphic novels being used in education were given a hard time by the Press. For example, just before the Classical Comics version of Henry V was released the Queen's English Society warned that "dumbed down" versions could backfire by allowing pupils to avoid tackling the language and themes of the originals.

Of course they were missing the point. The original text version of Henry V contains exactly the same words as the original and the plain and quick text versions are really designed to complement the original text and help children compare language. Shakespeare was a fantastic story teller and the original and plain text versions can also be used to make his stories accessible for all.

It is perhaps Patrick Stewart the famous Shakespearian (and Star Trek) actor who sums up the Classical Comics approach the best" "I'm fascinated by your approach to the play and its language. I find them gripping, dramatic and, although for me the original Shakespeare is always my reason for turning to these plays, I think that what you are doing in illuminating and making perhaps more lucid, especially for young people, is clever and meaningful."

Some more traditional English teachers have also been critical of graphic novels and comics in the classroom and have again used phrases such as "dumbing down". It is of course interesting that these traditional English teachers are normally more than happy to show the film adaptation of a text like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet to their class. However, the big advantage that a graphic novel has over a film is that you can flick back through the pages to re-cap the story to re-visit the emotion on the characters’ faces. It’s a lot more difficult to keep rewinding a film.

Computer games as graphic novels

The next logical step in the evolution of using graphic novels in the classroom is to consider some of the computer games that are highly narrative-driven. There are a number of examples that are available for the Nintendo DS, including Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney. Here you have to solve a number of crimes by gathering evidence. But most important, you have to read the story as you go in order to gather the evidence, interview the other characters and then defend your client in the courtroom. The total word count for Phoenix Wright, if you play the game from the beginning to the end, is 204,107. It is interesting to note that the word count for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is 190,637.

The problem with some computer games-based graphic novels is that the narrative isn’t always of the best quality. The main exception to this is Hotel Dusk Room 215. Hotel Dusk (screen below) is basically a detective story or modern-day adventure book, where you have to make real decisions and solve problems to unlock the story. As with any graphic novel, as well as improving literacy there is a huge amount of scope for character studies and other cross-curricular work. The total word count for Hotel Dusk is 185,404.

Graphic novels and film

graphic novels and filmHotel Dusk: big word count

Superhero and comic book films are undergoing a comeback at the cinema. Recent movies have included Batman: The Dark Knight, The Hulk and Iron Man.

However, perhaps one of the most exciting graphic novel film releases coming to the cinema screens in March 2009 is The Watchmen. This is set in an alternate reality similar the contemporary world of the 1980s. One of the big differences is the presence of superheroes who have fallen out of favour with the American public and as a result have been outlawed.

The Watchmen is a special text as it is one of the only graphic novels to date to win a Hugo Award, and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels".

Some of the most innovative teachers are already using film adaptations of graphic novels to introduce this type of text into their classrooms.

Where to get started with graphic novels in the classroom

Learning and Teaching Scotland has developed a good resource for starting to use graphic novels in the classroom. It is split into a number of sections including Graphic Novels in the Curriculum, Reading and Making Comics, Comic Creators, Recommendations and Practical Ideas.

Classical Comics has also produced a good set of free education resources to support their texts within the key stage 2 curriculum.

Education supplier RM sells a range of publications and site licences for their digital versions too
Tel 0845 0700 300

RM BETT stands D60, C60

TAG Learning supplies Comic Life
TAG BETT stands B56, A56

Web links

Ollie Bray’s Learning Log

Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Graphic Novel Resource

Classical Comics

Manga Shakespeare

Comic Life

Comic Brush

Promethean Planet

The Watchman (Official Movie Site)

Hotel Dusk Room 215

Ollie Bray is deputy head teacher at Musselburgh Grammar School in East Lothian, Scotland