Teaching materials based on the graphic novels’ language

Graphic novels can be viewed as stories told through pictures, that is to say, stories written and illustrated in the manner of a comic strip. Although they are comparatively recent, this kind of literary and pictorial narrative has been used in various forms for centuries, such as pictures on the walls of caves, Egyptian hieroglyphs or medieval tapestries e.g. the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

The term “graphic novel” was first used by Richard Kyle in his essay published in the comic book edition “Capa-Alpha” on November 1964, but the term became rooted only by the end of the seventies. Since 2001 the term “graphic novel” has been used as a standard category in the publishing business terminology.

“The Adventure of Obadiah Oldbuck” created by a Swiss caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffer published way back in 1828 is considered by many to be the first graphic novel. Comic books became very popular during the twenties and the thirties of the last century, but the real boom of popularity was caused by the first edition of “Superman” which appeared in 1938. A wider audience of readers is less aware of the fact that the Superman was created by two Jewish American students in a response to the Nazi concept of the Arian German “superman” (Übermensch). That is why the Superman created by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel represents an invincible hero who loves all people regardless of their nationality and religion dedicating his life to defending justice and democracy. Thus this comic book had also a social and political dimension, playing a certain educational role in raising awareness about the imminent evil of Nazism.

Although a graphic novel has been recognized as a form of artistic expression for a long time (comic book is called “the ninth art”), some parents, teachers and educational experts consider graphic novels inappropriate for the young people because of its content. But, as it is with other modern forms of narration, such as cartoons and film, there are some high quality graphic novels bearing real artistic value, and then again, there are some mass produced edition of them of no or very law quality. Rejecting graphic novels as inappropriate only because of their form – a narrative language based on illustrations – in fact, represents an opinion based on prejudices.

Aleksandar Todosijevic
history teacher

1. How Do Graphic Novels Promote Literacy?


Children are very attracted to graphic novels which motivate them to read. School librarians and educators have recorded a tremendous success in the use of graphic novels for teaching children. This is especially true for those “unwilling” readers, which are traditionally hard to be motivated to become fond of literature, however, graphic novels are rather popular in that group of students. Simultaneously, graphic novels with a complex plot and narrative structure can satisfy even more advanced readers. Implementation of graphic novels in a teaching process represents one of the methods to reach the students which constitute the group of slow or “unwilling readers”, that is to say, those students who deal with a traditional text with great difficulties. Graphic novels can play a significant role in teaching children with special needs enabling them to enrich their vocabulary and learn to read through a combination of a short text and a pictorial content.

2. Are Graphic Novels “Real Books”?

Do Graphic Novels Belong to “Literature”? Can Reading Graphic Novels Be Considered “Real Reading”?

Overcoming Prejudices

Earlier we mentioned that some parents and teachers didn’t consider graphic novels to be a type of literature suitable for reading, which could help the young to grow into readers and develop their culture of expression. It is a fixed belief that comic books have a bad influence to the young, undermining their culture of expression. However, librarians and educators tend to recognize that use of quality graphic novels for teaching the young represents a legitimate method of “telling stories” which is aimed to motivate children who do not like to spend their time with books to become readers. Thus graphic novels encourage reading habits of the young.

The idea that graphic novels are just oversimplified stories is obsolete nowadays. The quality graphic novels available to today readers represent such a demanding material, which requires reading skills for understanding of its contents, to the same extent as for traditional fiction. Readers are required to be actively involved into decoding contents and to understand the narrative structure, metaphors and symbolism. By using visual contents through narration, that is to say, intertextuality, reading graphic novels can help students to develop their reading skills necessary for understanding even some challenging works, including literary classics, too.

3. Do Graphic Novels Deserve Their Place in The History Curriculum?

Many teachers and educationalist have recorded a great progress in achievements of children, after integrating graphic novels into the teaching process, especially in the fields of the English language, the Serbian language and arts. They have discovered that graphic novels can be very useful teaching tools which help students to analyse critically the particular aspects of language, literature and arts. Graphic novels combine a written narration with illustrations in a unique fashion, that is to say, they can tell a story through a dialogue or provide information and explain a term, or provoke emotions by the sequence of illustrations.

Graphic novels are about to find their place in school curriculum. Historical graphic novels have a great potential to bring the past closer to students thus modernizing the traditional process of teaching history. The richness of a narrative structure and layers of contents provide a way to help students understand the complexity of individual phenomena and processes in history. By using graphic novels for teaching, teachers enable students to understand some of the greatest challenges of historiography, especially such delicate and controversial issues as: crimes of genocide, the Holocaust, terrorism and like. By analysing graphic novels we deepen students’ understanding of individual complex historical processes in much greater extent compared to the traditional teaching process based on mere interpretation of the contents. Nowadays use of game (gamification) in teaching process represents one of the greatest educational challenges.

Teachers are offered a wide spectrum of methods of using graphic novels in teaching process:

  1. as a source of illustrations – analysis of the visual sources of knowledge;
  2. providing a source of information – a way of learning new knowledge;
  3. used for initiating a conversation and discussion with students;
  4. the individual creations of comic books – students create their own visual stories

3. Some of the Best Graphic Novels Suitable to Be Used in Teaching History


„Maus“ written by Аrt Spiegelman represents a story about the life of his parents, Jews living in occupied Poland during the World War II. This graphic novel is an allegory, which sheds light on delicate questions about the Holocaust, where Jews are represented as mice, and Nazis as cats. It treats all important problems of the Holocaust: ranging from antisemitism to the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz. “Maus” is the only comic book which won a Pulitzer Prize.


“Persepolis” is a graphic novel written by Marjane Satrapi which describes the Islamic Revolution in Iran seen through eyes of a child. This is, in fact, an autobiographical story about growing up in Iran, permeated with the revolutionary and political themes. “Persepolis” became a bestseller in the USA, and an animated version was nominated for Oscar and won Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.