By Dr. William Flynn (conceptual visualization of Graphic Novel project)

The popularity of graphic novels has mushroomed in the past two decades. More and more individuals have been using graphic and comic media in increasingly diverse and interesting ways, and in ways that have diverged considerably from the more typical usage of telling either fictional or (auto) biographical stories and memoirs. Although by no means an exhaustive selection, the following brief description of graphic novels help to illustrate how graphic novels have been utilized for pedagogical purposes across a range of subject materials and topics.

Graphic novels are increasingly used in the classroom as teaching tools (Syma and Weiner 2013) and have the potential to reach large and diverse audiences and disseminate knowledge about historical, social, and political issues, as this is made apparent in the following brief overview.

In the 1990s there was a slue of ‘For Beginners’ type of graphic essays that sought to explain the central ideas of influential thinkers such as Marx, Foucault, Hegel etc. Their aim was simply to make more accessible and comprehensible the ideas of famous thinkers to a wider, non-academic audience, as well as to act as beginner guides for students reading the original texts.

In 2005 Will Eisner wrote The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, exploring the history of a notorious anti Semitic forgery: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Eisner’s choice of combining a compelling story in graphic form, combined with historical references and citations was a serious historical essay (in graphic form) on the historical origins and political uses of The Protocols.

In 2004 the 9/11 Commission published a hefty 600 page report: the 911 Commission Report which detailed and explored the many causes of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the USA.  The following year Sid Jacobsen and Ernie Colon published The 911 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. Journalist Bravetta Hasell succinctly summarizes the pedagogical aims of the authors when she wrote in the Washington Post “The book condenses the nearly 600-page federal report released by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to fewer than 150 pages, and the creators say they hope their book will help attract young readers and others who might be overwhelmed by the original document”. By using a graphic format, the 911 Report: A Graphic Adaptation is perhaps the clearest example of how very large amounts of text and material can be re-presented in a way that can reach a larger audience and can narrate real events in a more visually compelling manner.

One of the most innovative uses of graphic media for educational purposes has been Joe Sacco’s graphic journalism. Footnotes in Gaza (2009), Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 (2000), are two of several serious investigative journalistic graphic novels produced by Sacco. More recently, Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges have published Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt which intertwines several journalistic ethnographies by Hedges with extended graphic vignettes by Sacco that visually narrate the experiences and stories of those involved.

In 2011 Chester Brown, a well known Canadian graphic novelist published Paying For It: A comic strip memoir about being a John, that details his experiences of buying sex which is also intertwined with learned arguments for legalizing sex work in Canada. His 2003 historical graphic novel Louis Riel explores the life and death of the Metis rebel leader Louis Riel and the historical role he played in several rebellions in pre-Confederation Canada.

In 2011 U.S. National Public Radio’s Brooke Gladstone wrote The Influencing Machine which is essentially a lecture on the mass media, exploring theories and ideas related to the mass media but in a graphic format.  Similarly, starting in 2010, George S. Rigakos published various volumes of the Communist Manifesto Illustrated, a visual interpretation of Marx’s and Engels’ masterpiece.

There are numerous examples not mentioned here but from the above selection, we can conclude that the use of graphic novels for educational purposes can be a worthwhile endeavor and more importantly can serve to disseminate and re-present forms of knowledge and thinking to a wider audience.  Howard Becker has produced a series of books on this very issue. In ‘Telling about Society’ (2007) Becker outlines the many ways in which ‘academic’ knowledge can be represented in a variety of forms. He argues that knowledge such as the results of a research project can be represented in different forms and that depending on the reader there are better and worse ways of representing knowledge ‘or telling about society’. The trick is to choose the media and form of representation that best suits one’s purpose and to recognize that whenever we choose one medium over another for representing knowledge there are both advantages and disadvantages to every medium chosen, a point emphasized by Scott McCloud in his seminal graphic book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), in which he focuses on how graphic comics can do certain things that others written media cannot achieved due to their focus on text only.

Anthropological knowledge, and ethnographies in particular, are especially well suited for graphic adaption. One of the main goals of any ethnographer is to provide the readers with a sense of the place itself as well as the stories that emerge in the interview and observation process. Sacco and Hedges’ Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt provides a useful model to think about the ways in which written ethnographic accounts can combined with a graphic retelling of the interviewees stories in a meaningful and illuminating manner. Furthermore, anthropologists often struggle to find ways to share their research findings with their participants. Graphic novels present the possibility to make use of the data gathered to produce more accessible forms of representing research – yet one that avoids the potential harm of other visual methods, allowing participants to remain anonymous.

Acknowledging that most of the subjects of ethnographies tend not to have graduate education in anthropology, a graphic version of an ethnographic research project can be one method through which knowledge and research findings are shared and made more widely available – a form of critical pedagogy with transformative potentials.