Comic strips hold more value than just a laugh on a Sunday morning -- they offer glimpses into life situations, show brief scenarios and even have moral value or a lesson to learn. Comics also serve as an ideal teaching device for teenagers because they're an art and literary medium that appeal to many students of high school age more than simply reading a text. Comic strips can easily fit into a high school literature, writing or art class.
Teaching Literary Devices
Comic strips -- whether the short tidbits in the Sunday paper or full graphic novels -- employ literary devices such as character, setting and plot. Since comics tend to be condensed into more pictures than dialogue, they must get to the point or show these literary devices in a targeted way. Show a variety of comic strips to your students and ask them if they can identify literary devices. Ask students if the way comics convey these elements is different than a short story or novel, and which method they think is more effective. Select a few strips to analyze more deeply -- how does the comic use pictures, captions or dialogue to tell a story? Many comics also rely on allusion, satire, irony and parody -- teach what these devices mean and see if students can identify them in a comic strip.
Since students rely on little text and a few pictures to understand the story in comics, they learn how to make inferences, which is a complex reading skill -- if high school students can make inferences with a comic strip, they can use this same technique when reading other texts. Make this lesson a conversation, as some students might make a conclusion about a story in a comic that other students disagree with. Since comic strips are both visual and written, every part of each frame has importance to the plot, characters or interpretation of the text. To practice making inferences, show select comic strips and ask students to explain in a basic way what's happening in the story; now have them look at the pictures and ask if there's something in the background or a character's facial expression that might change the meaning of the text. Ask students what they think the characters feel or what might happen next if the comic strip continued.
Comic strips, and perhaps even more so graphic novels, teach the art of writing. The stories in comics often have a clear beginning, middle and end, so they teach the arc of a story. Since comics are visual, high school students who have difficulty visualizing as they read might gain the ability to understand through graphics as well as text. You can compare a panel of a comic to a paragraph -- the captions serve as topic sentences or the main idea of the paragraph. The details of the paragraph can be found in the picture and dialogue. Ask students to practice writing a paragraph based on one panel of a comic strip. Investigate the importance of dialogue by taking out the text in words bubbles in a comic strip -- ask your students to infer what is going on and to write their own dialogue to fit the comic.
Deeper Meaning in Comics
Some people might think of comics as kids' stuff, but many strips have a high level of sophistication. While at a literal level in a comic strip the characters look at the stars, their dialogue makes an existentialist point. For example, in a famous “Calvin and Hobbes” strip, the child Calvin asks his tiger friend Hobbes, “Why do you suppose we’re here?” Hobbes responds with very logical answers like, “because we walked here” or “because we were born.” The frustrated looks on both character’s faces at the end of the strip is amusing, but on a deeper level, this strip points to thoughts about the meaning of life.
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