Dual Pathways to Expression and Understanding: Canadian Coming-of-Age Graphic Novels
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- Hughes, J. & King, A.E. Child Lit Educ (2010) 41: 64. doi:10.1007/s10583-009-9098-8
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In this article, the authors examine three Canadian coming-of-age stories, written as graphic novels, and pay particular attention to how the images and print text come together in the telling of the narrative. This approach reinforces the notion that form and content cannot be separated in this medium. Drawing on examples from each of the graphic novels and the interviews with the graphic novelists who wrote them, the article explores the complexity of the coming-of-age theme in each graphic novel, as well as how print text and image converge to make meaning.
KeywordsCanadian graphic novelsComing-of-ageText and imageMultiliteraciesMulti-modal
Today, book-length comics, better known as graphic novels, have evolved as a popular medium for children and adolescents. There is a growing North American market for import books like Japanese Manga, and traditional bookstores and libraries are devoting multiple shelves and, in some cases, entire walls to their graphic novel collections. There has been an explosion of graphic novels that retell classic stories, like Dracula, Beowulf, and the majority of Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. In turn, graphic novels and comics, such as 300, Ghost World, Superman, and Batman, are being made into popular, mainstream films. Given the appeal of graphic novels to a generation of children and adolescents who have grown up in a more visual society, we are interested in examining the multiliteracies learned and used by readers of graphic novels.
The inclusion of graphic novels in English language arts classes has been touted as a wonderful new way to engage reluctant readers, especially boys, as well as English language learners and, most recently, deaf students (Carter, 2007; Cary, 2004; Christensen, 2006; Fisher and Frey, 2007; Frey and Fisher, 2004; Gallo and Weiner, 2004; Schwarz, 2002, 2006; Smetana et al., 2009; Smith and Wilhelm, 2002). Contrary to a trend to promote graphic novels as “simpler” texts for struggling readers, we argue that graphic novels require different and possibly even more complex reading skills than traditional print texts. While the inclusion of pictures, for example, provides the reader with visual clues to help understand what is happening in the text, those clues must be interpreted. Readers of graphic novels need to understand not only print text and visual images (facial expression and gestures, for example), but also the role of the gutter in representing the passage of time and how certain media techniques are employed for different effects. For example, why is a close-up used in a floating panel or how is a panoramic image used to convey a certain effect? As Peter Gutierrez (2008) points out, “[b]y their nature [graphic novels] force readers to get information from the art within a panel, from the progression of images from panel to panel, from the printed text of speech balloons and captions, and often from the in-art ‘audio’ text of sound effects—all at the same time. You must synthesize as you go” (para. 3). Michael Bitz (2009) argues that during his Comic Book Project undertaken in New York City “students used written words and visual imagery as a dual pathway to personal enjoyment and the expression of values” (p. 44). This visual grammar has been evolving at a faster rate than are efforts to analyse and understand its pedagogical implications (Heiligmann and Shields, 2005, pp. 41–42), an important issue since readers create meaning as much through visual elements—pictures, panels, sound effects (in print), and so on—as through print text. Although comics have been around for decades, the increasing availability of graphic novels provides adolescent readers with opportunities to engage with a medium that complements the literacies required by the kinds of multimedia platforms many of them are immersed in daily, such as MSN, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. MSN and Twitter require truncated words creating signs and symbols in place of standard English; YouTube uses visual images in the form of videos; and FaceBook allows users to mesh images, videos, words, signs, and links to external sites. These sites blur the edges between real life and virtual life with conversations begun in real life continuing in the virtual world of social networks and vice versa. Multimodal texts that incorporate visual, audio, spatial, gestural, and linguistic modes are exploding and are beginning to be taken for granted. Yet these texts have expanded the ways in which texts are read and received, as well as the ways in which communication occurs (Alvermann, 2004; Cope and Kalantzis, 2000; Jewitt and Kress, 2003; Jewitt, 2008; Kress, 2003; Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001; Lankshear and Knobel, 2003).
Reading the World as Shown
This influx of new media requires us to reconsider our notions of literacy and our teaching practice. Seglem and Witte (2009) argue for the inclusion of visual literacy in the classroom and point out, “if educators want students to perform well in both the world and on new assessments, students need a critical understanding of print and nonprint texts in relationship to themselves as readers and viewers with different social, cultural, and historical contexts” (pp. 216–217). The shift from the traditional “reading path of the text,” the linear path of “reading the world as told,” to the more interactive path of “reading the world as shown” (Kress, 2003, p. 50) can be seen in graphic novels, comics, and sequential art. The new media used by adolescents and young adults allows for more interaction because both the creators and the readers can participate in creating meaning. The technology of social media allows images and words to be more easily integrated into communications and means that images may be more easily available for both communication and representation. With this perspective, “the reading path of the multimodally constructed text” is one that can be constructed by the reader; reading, in other words, imposes order and salience on the text (Kress, 2003, p. 50). Extending this idea, comics and graphic novels are read in non-traditional ways—the layout of the page with panels and gutters requires readers to be open to new representations, but also allows the reader more control over how such representations can be understood—and, therefore require the use of the same multiliteracies skills needed for interactions with new media.
The multimodal nature of graphic novels has posed a challenge to the acceptance of such texts into the more traditional parameters of what constitutes literature and how literature should be understood (Botzakis, 2009; Wright, 2001). While graphic novels have become pervasive in libraries, schools, and mainstream bookstores, they do not easily fit into established categories because of the integrated nature of text and image. For instance, Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim (2008), one of the graphic novels we focus on in this paper, was nominated for a 2008 Governor General’s Literacy Award. While this was the first time a graphic novel has been nominated in any category, the nomination of only one of the book’s creators, Mariko Tamaki, sparked quite a controversy because the artist, Jillian Tamaki, was not included. Both creators have repeatedly asserted that the book was very much a joint effort and that the story cannot be separated from the artwork. Other graphic novelists spoke out on the issue and wrote an open letter, which was published in the National Post, to the Governor General's Literary Award. In it, Canadian graphic novelists Chester Brown, author of the highly acclaimed Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, and Seth (pen name of Gregory Gallant), best known for comics such as Palookaville, wrote that graphic novels are misunderstood. Unlike illustrated novels in which “the words carry the burden of telling the story, and the illustrations serve as a form of visual reinforcement,” graphic novels rely equally on the words and the images (2008, para. 2). In this paper, we examine three Canadian graphic novels, paying particular attention to how the images and print text come together in the telling of these coming-of-age narratives. Our analyses of these graphic novels reinforce the notion that form and content cannot be separated in this medium. In addition to conducting a critical analysis of the texts, we interviewed each of the authors and engaged them in conversations about the graphic novel medium and how they employed features of this medium to tell their stories. Drawing on examples from each of the graphic novels and interviews with the authors, we explore how the complexities of coming-of-age are portrayed in each graphic novel through the convergence of print text and image in making meaning.
All three graphic novels discussed here tackle many of the issues teens face. In Michel Rabagliati’s (2003) semi-autobiographical graphic novel Paul has a Summer Job, the main character, Paul, gets his first summer job as a counsellor for inner-city children at an overnight wilderness camp. Although the story is set in the late 1970s, the camp experience is a familiar one for many teens and young adults. Paul comes to the camp experience as a frustrated high school drop-out who has not fit into the cookie-cutter confines of his Montreal high school. Similarly, Mariko Tamaki’s Skim (2008), set in the 1990s, revolves around the emotional growth of a young woman exploring her outsider identity as a lesbian and Goth in a Toronto private high school, a location stereotypically not tolerant of outsiders. Toronto author, Jim Zubkavich (2006), approaches teen experiences in a more fantastical situation. In TheMakeshift Miracle, Zubkavich’s main character is placed in a dream-like sequence of events that takes him outside of his ‘normal life’ allowing for a complex exploration of identity and the pursuit of one’s desires. Each of these graphic novels explores topics and emotions relevant to the lives of teenagers—sexuality, love, dreams, anger, and frustration—but does so in quite different ways.
The graphic novels examined here use text and visuals as interdependent parts of the whole (McCloud, 1993, p. 155). The words and images work together to create representations of realities—realities that are artificial in that they are drawn—and that allow the reader to fill in the details in the spaces between the words and images (Versaci, 2007, pp. 13–14). The words and images are very different in each book, but they are used in similar ways. In all three, the visuals build the emotional and physical context in a way that words alone cannot. In some cases, the visuals amplify and elaborate on the meanings conveyed by the words; at other times, the reverse happens. All of the novels use wordless panels, but there are significant variations in style that make each one unique. Douglas Wolk (2007) identifies two main schools among comics: mainstream comics, such as Wolverine orSuperman, that are genre-based and usually created by teams of artists and writers, and art comics such as, Ghost World, Maus, or Palookaville, that are not genre-based and are usually written and drawn by a single artist/writer with a distinct style of his or her own (pp. 27–28). Rabagliati uses a more mainstream and traditional style of six to ten panels per page, with the borders and gutters containing the pieces of the story. While Skim and TheMakeshift Miracle also incorporate traditional six to ten panels per page, the use of splash pages and full and double page images give them a non-standard appearance in the style of art comics. Only one, Zubkavich’s The Makeshift Miracle, uses colour; the rest use black-and-white line drawings. A comparison of the three novels illustrates the wide variety of styles and techniques that are used to convey these very different coming-of-age stories while still evoking emotions and feelings that are common to many teens.
Paul Has a Summer Job
These are the years that our universe of the child spills over into that of the adults. They are finished playing and daydreaming. Real life is there with all its dullnesses and its difficulties: choosing a field of studies for our future, enduring first sorrows of love, measuring our strengths or our weaknesses faced with others, confronting our failures, feeling rejected or accepted by certain groups. These things are present in Paul Has a Summer Job. I wanted to speak about it, to share with other people who lived through adolescence. (Interview, 2008)
Rabagliati uses memory flashbacks to effectively illustrate Paul’s three months at camp, from the events leading up to his arrival at a sleep-over camp for disadvantaged children from Montreal through learning how to rock climb, teaching children how to rock climb, learning to communicate with children of all ages, to his final departure from the camp with a new understanding of himself; all experiences that have a profound impact on his life.
I did not expect at all that young people would read my stories and even less that they are interested in it. Firstly my pages are in black and white, therefore for me it seemed impossible that a young person could place their eyes on it without being immediately disgusted! But I was mistaken; I noticed that the idea that the young people of today are interested only in what is sweetened, coloured and 3D is false. Like everyone, they appreciate the stories which are pleasant to read and which speak to them, more important than [fancy] graphics. (Interview, 2008)
Rabagliati purposely uses this style that evokes a sense of nostalgia and recalls the mainstream comics that have traditionally used a standard nine-panel per page format (Versaci, 2007, p. 16).
Set 20 years later, Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (2008), is a complex and beautifully presented coming-of-age tale told through minimal dialogue and evocative images. Like Paul, Skim is grounded in the day-to-day realities and emotions of a high school student. In this book, however, a grade ten girl is dealing with issues of first love, sexuality, friendships, and depression. The story captures about 4 months in the life of Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim). Set in a girls’ private school in 1993, Skim is clearly an outsider. Trying on different identities, Skim and her best friend, Lisa, dress as Goths and dabble in Wicca. She and Lisa consider themselves to be witches-in-training and scoff at the rest of the girls in the school, especially the cliquey girls who form the club Girls Celebrate Life. The club is formed after the ex-boyfriend of another one of their classmates (Katie) commits suicide.
In a graphic novel you are limited to the space you have. Normally you could write three paragraphs, but for a graphic novel you can only write three lines. How can you take this minimalist dialogue and make it work? I was used to a traditional approach to novel writing.…I remember a period as a teenager when my diary entries got really, really brief. Because if you are not really sure what is happening, you don’t really want to commit anything to paper so I thought it would be a nice approach. I knew Skim was going to be a really quiet character, so I thought I’d give her another voice, but even that voice can be truncated.…So she would cross stuff out. Like an interior monologue that was as shy as exterior monologue. Like a Wonder Years thing. At least with a diary she is kind of talking to herself…(Interview, 2008)
Tamaki, who is a playwright and non-fiction author, took on the challenge of writing the text for a graphic novel despite her inexperience with the medium because she was “interested in doing something really different.” She wrote Skim the way she would write a play, providing very basic suggestions in terms of settings. Since the publication of Skim, Tamaki has begun to work in the “traditional comic format” (Interview, 2008). She explains that graphic novels are usually “written like movies, panel by panel, shot by shot and you use language like close-up, extreme close up,” which needs to be written out in great detail.
I think some people find them intimidating. I think people who are into more traditional literature get turned off by the idea of having to read text and pictures. Some people find it visually overwhelming. There are some graphic novelists that I really like but it is exhausting reading their work absorbing the whole visual plane. (Interview, 2008)
Although the focus of the story is on Skim’s feelings and perceptions, the relationship between Skim and Ms. Archer, her drama and English teacher, lies at the centre of the book—both in terms of the story and the layout. As a young and flamboyant teacher, Ms. Archer is an object of admiration, and Skim develops a crush on her. While such crushes on teachers are not unusual, especially in single-sex schools, few develop into physical relationships (Pierson, 1986). With increasing regularity, Skim and Ms. Archer sit in the ravine behind the school, smoking and talking about Romeo and Juliet. Skim cannot fathom why generations of students study the play: “it’s like, why is it so important, that a boy falls in love with a girl? You know, I understand that it’s a masterpiece and everything, but there’s a part of me that’s all like, so what?” (p. 27). Skim’s reflections illustrate her emotional place at that moment: resistant to the heteronormative relationships the other girls in the story are experiencing. Tamaki comments that she “wanted to create an alternative approach to adolescent tragedy…that wasn’t all roses and thorns, a more realistic approach to looking at those issues” (Interview, 2008). Skim is a queer love story, and the importance of the kiss Skim shares with Ms. Archer is demonstrated in one of the rare two-page spreads at the centre of the novel. Tamaki comments that she was surprised by the lack of attention reviewers have paid to the kiss scene—she expected that readers would be more shocked, either by the depiction of lesbian sexuality or by the power differential represented in the relationship between a teacher and student.
The Makeshift Miracle
Graphic novels allow you to play with space as well as play with visuals. I can do a close up, but I can also do an even more close-up that is more claustrophobic. Or I can do a full-page panel to create a sense of scope, things that are even more difficult to do in film. I can control the flow of the story, but you are also controlling the flow as the reader, if you want to linger on a panel and focus on the details, things you can’t do with film. (Interview, 2008)
Graphic Novels in the Classroom
According to Gunther Kress (2003), the image is overtaking writing as a central mode of communication. While Kress also argues that the screen is taking over the book, graphic texts stand out from other books because they mimic the screen with its panels and gutters. Given the evolution of new media and the prevalence of visual modes of communication, it is a mistake to view graphic novels as simplified versions of prose text or some kind of hybrid between the graphic arts and prose (McCloud, 1993, p. 92). If graphic novels are instead seen as a medium completely different than prose, a richer and deeper understanding of them can develop. Canadian graphic novelist, Svetlana Chmakova (2008) views comics as the “perfect illustration of the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ principle” (Interview). She argues that comics are actually better than print text alone, for example, “when an author needs to render a charged silent moment that speaks volumes about the character’s inner state just through their movements. If done right, a scene like that can hit home deeper than a text paragraph ever could” (Interview, 2008). Graphic novels offer new ways to engage with texts and can be exciting vehicles for critically exploring relevant social issues with students of all abilities.
In this article we have examined three Canadian graphic novels thematically linked by their focus on adolescent coming-of-age experiences. Our aim has been to explicate how image, text, and sound (in print) converge as the reader makes meaning through the panels and gutters of a graphic novel. In addition to the more traditional literacy skills that can be taught through graphic novels—literary terms, sequencing, summarizing, predicting, inferring, connecting—they also “offer value, variety, and a new medium for literacy that acknowledges the impact of visuals” (Schwarz, 2002, p. 1; see also, Bitz, 2009). The flood of graphic novels now available on the bookstore and library shelves offers educators the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this popular genre in the classroom. As researchers, we need to continue to add to the body of literature that currently supports the use of graphic novels in the classroom context.