Children's Literature in Education

, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 64–84

Dual Pathways to Expression and Understanding: Canadian Coming-of-Age Graphic Novels


  • Janette Hughes
    • Faculty of EducationUniversity of Ontario Institute of Technology
    • Faculty of Criminology, Justice and Policy StudiesUniversity of Ontario Institute of Technology
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10583-009-9098-8

Cite this article as:
Hughes, J. & King, A.E. Child Lit Educ (2010) 41: 64. doi:10.1007/s10583-009-9098-8


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.


Canadian 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

Michel Rabagliati’s 2003 graphic novel, Paul Has a Summer Job, explores the themes of family, friendship, love, and human relationships, which is the stuff of all good stories; however, Rabagliati’s skillful coupling of print text and image is an important part of the appeal of the book. Paul Has a Summer Job takes place during the summer of 1979, the tail end of the hippy era, in Quebec. Written as a semi-autobiographical memoir, Paul reflects back on what he calls the most important 3 months of his life (p. 141). Although the book chronicles Paul’s summer story, Rabagliati is also commenting on the general experience of adolescence. Rabagliati explains his motivation:

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.

Paul Has a Summer Job is the first in a series of graphic novels about Paul’s adolescent and young adult experiences that has enjoyed success with critics and readers. Approximately 80,000 books in the series have been sold in French and another 15,000 in English—good numbers in the world of graphic novels for adults in the Quebec market. The most recent book in the series, Paul á Québec, has been nominated for a prize as the best graphic novel published in 2009 at the 2010 Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. Now translated into six languages, the Paul series has been used in classes at the secondary and college levels in Quebec and Ontario. In 2009, Rabagliati estimates that he has visited at least 15 classrooms. In addition, educational publishers such as McGraw-Hill, have used sections of the Paul books in what the author calls ‘serious’ textbooks (Rabagliati interview, 2008; email, 2009). Rabagliati expresses surprise at this and comments, “It is something which I had not anticipated (and which makes the ‘drop-out’ that I was smile!). I am happy that the comic strip is used less reluctantly by teachers, which opens gently with this expressive form that is so vast and interesting” (Interview, 2008). More surprising for the author is the attention the Paul books receive from adolescents.

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).

In Paul Has a Summer Job, Rabagliati uses a pattern of six to ten panels per page, with solid borders around panels containing hand-drawn black and white images and hand-lettered words. The few deviations from the hard borders occur when Paul is daydreaming (p. 59) or expressing shock (p. 74), when he or one of the other characters are letting go of his or her emotions (p. 55), and when Paul falls in love (p. 110). On occasion, Rabagliati uses fewer panels on the page so that a larger image can show, for example, the vast size of the mountain Paul and the children must climb (p. 44, p. 72) or a panoramic view of the lake (p. 89). While Rabagliati’s images are simple, they are also realistic without being detailed in the way of photographic realism. Rabagliati prefers black and white to colour, arguing that the lack of colour makes the reading of the graphic novel “similar to the reading of a novel and I like this idea. There is not the color and the special effects to distract us from the reading and that seems to me more restful and more personal” (Interview, 2008). Rabagliati reminisces about the summer of 1979, using his alter ego, Paul, and combines those memories (written in the present tense) with his comments and explanations from his perspective as the author. Speech balloons and thought bubbles are used when Paul and his cronies are in the present of 1979, while text boxes indicate when Rabagliati, as the author, is commenting on and explaining the events in retrospect. Some sequences, however, use only text boxes and images. For example, when Paul is falling in love with Annie, Rabagliati uses wordless panels with a few text boxes to explain: “That was the moment when I really fell in love with Annie. And the way she looked at me, there was no doubt about her feelings. She was in love too” (p. 110). The first two images, which include the text quoted above, show long views of the camp bus driving across a bridge and down a road. These are followed by a wordless panel showing Paul’s hand on Annie’s knee, while she sits on his knee followed by a panel showing Annie’s hand resting on Paul’s with the text box stating “We stayed that way, her hand on mine, till we got there, not looking at each other and without anyone noticing” (p. 110). The next panel shows Paul and Annie’s smiling faces looking straight ahead, with the comment “It was romantic as hell” (p. 110). The final panel breaks away from the traditional rectangular borders to a heart shaped border around a close-up of both their hands on Annie’s lap (p. 110). This sequence (see Fig. 1) illustrates the ability of images to evoke a feeling of intimacy and romance using few words. Through these simple techniques, the reader gets a strong sense of the growing love that Paul and Annie are sharing.
Fig. 1

Paul and Annie falling in love. © Michel Rabagliati, 2003

As suggested above, emotions are effectively conveyed throughout the story using both words and pictures. At the beginning of the book, when Paul is asked to go and see the school principal, he arrives at the door and speaks hesitantly, revealing his nervousness: “Uh…Hello, Sir…You wanted to see me?” The second panel on the page in Fig. 2 is drawn using a “top-of-the-hat” shot and mirroring Paul’s feelings of being overwhelmed. What follows is a sequence of close-ups, of the principal with his pasted-on smile and Madame LaRue, the student affairs assistant, who is portrayed as a crotchety old woman through images alone (she wears a sneer and looks like she is growling in one panel). Each of these panels uses a brick wall background, suggesting the inflexibility of the Principal’s decision not to let Paul participate in an after-school project for which Paul has received a grant. Then, in the central image in the bottom set of panels, the background and the speech bubble itself disappear, requiring the reader to focus entirely on Paul’s utter shock and horror at being told he will not be allowed to participate in the school project that he initiated. Rabagliati explains, “I try to find the best coupling of text/image to render comprehensible an emotion, a joke, a dramatic situation or an idea for my reader. I do not seek so much to manufacture pretty images, but rather fair and effective compositions” (Interview, 2008). Versaci (2007) indicates that artistic style is important to comics because it allows the author to represent the first-person narration in ways that can only be done in comics. The images represent the author’s perspective in the third-person; at the same time and on the same page, the words usually provide a first-person point of view. In this way, the images present the exterior, what we see on the outside, while the words provide the interior, what the characters are thinking and feeling on the inside. The hand-drawn images and letters evoke a personal sense of the author’s worldview (p. 44). Wolk (2007) argues that comic artists must have their own vision and style, but what style means in comics can include items such as unique forms of illustration related to genre, as well as technique in drawing, storytelling, and linguistics (p. 49). In Wolk’s view, style is not necessarily related to beauty. Using Immanuel Kant’s distinctions between the “agreeable,” the “good,” the “beautiful,” and the “sublime” in art outlined in Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Wolk demonstrates that the standard art style of mainstream comics is as “agreeable” as possible by appealing to readers on a physical level, such as by drawing sexy or exciting figures (p. 55). Rabagliati’s style, however, fits into the “good” category; it is a style that is heartwarming, comfortable, recognizable, and appealing to most people. His style appeals on more levels than the surface qualities of the art.
Fig. 2

Paul in the principal’s office. © Michel Rabagliati, 2003

Like Rabagliati’s art, the story of Paul is one that, although not always completely comfortable, is recognizable. The anger and frustration frequently experienced by teenagers appear in each of these coming-of-age graphic novels and are movingly portrayed through the integration of text and image. Early in Rabagliati’s story, Paul is introduced working as an apprentice in a pre-computer era print shop, and it quickly becomes clear that he is stuck in a dead-end job. The monotony of Paul’s daily existence as a “working stiff” is conveyed through Rabagliati’s drawn out sequences of Paul’s commute home. The commute is depicted for sixteen panels, six of which are shown in Fig. 3. This stands in sharp contrast to the very busy and violent panel that directly precedes the commuting series, in which Paul imagines all of the “new and original ways” he can torture the Principal and “his henchmaid, Madame LaRue” (p. 10). This juxtaposition illustrates how Rabagliati plays with the temporal component of his graphic novel through the transitions between panels and by packing four events into one panel and then drawing out another event across sixteen panels, giving us images and text that evoke the feeling of monotony that Paul experiences in the working world. To make meaning, the reader is required to read the images, the text, and the spaces between the two, usually found in the “gutters.” Scott McCloud (1993) in his ground-breaking book, Understanding Comics, theorizes that much of the act of reader participation happens in the gutter, the empty spaces between the panels (p. 67). He proposes that the reader or “the silent accomplice” (p. 68) must make decisions and fill in the blanks between panels.
Fig. 3

Paul’s commute. © Michel Rabagliati, 2003

Paul’s growing frustration with his lot in life is demonstrated in his interactions with his co-workers and his family. He is unable to even talk about his job with his parents without resorting to screams of frustration. When his mother encourages Paul to reconsider his decision to quit school, he explodes in anger. Visually, the scene in Fig. 4 conveys much more than the dialogue alone. Paul’s face is dark (representing the redness of anger) and the lines radiating from his head depict the passion of his movement; he has sprung forward (as indicated through the lines that emanate from his back), his chair is tipping backwards, about to clatter to the ground, and he is banging the table with enough force to send the cutlery and food airborne. His reaction surprises his parents as we can see through their facial expressions, their posture (leaning back, away from Paul) and the shorter lines above their heads. This panel is an interesting example of how time is subtly depicted in graphic novels. It also illustrates how the reading process is necessarily different than when engaging with print text alone. If we were to “read” the panel as we usually read print text, we would see Paul’s parents’ reaction, before we “read” Paul’s actions. Reading the image, however, requires us to take in many things at one time, including what Paul shouts, what is being conveyed visually and what is expressed through sound in print. The “BANG,” which has its own lines of motion, allows us to hear the “ambient sounds of the environment where the story unfolds” (Booth and Lundy, 2007, p. 28). Paul’s anger and frustration with his life is seen throughout the novel, but after some unsuccessful interactions with the children he supervises at the summer camp, coupled with his ability to overcome the challenges he faces throughout the story, he eventually learns to let go of most of this anger and the reader realizes why the summer of ‘79 was such a pivotal experience in his life.
Fig. 4

Paul’s anger and his parent’s surprise. © Michel Rabagliati, 2003


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.

Skim captures many of the absurdities of life through the eyes of a teen: a wiccan circle that doubles as an AA group, a Girls Celebrate Life Club that has a picture of a dead boy on the bulletin board and an advertisement for The Dead Poets’ Society. Skim is forced into counselling, although she did not know the boy who committed suicide, and she is asked to share her list of things that make her happy and unhappy after being told she only had to if she felt comfortable doing so. The narrative is told through Skim’s diary entries; much of the dialogue is sparse and many panels do not include any dialogue, so the reader must rely on the images to fully understand the narrative. In an interview, Mariko Tamaki (2008) commented on the challenges of co-creating her first graphic novel and the decision to use a diary format to convey Skim’s story:

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.

The creation of graphic novels requires the use of multiliteracies on the part of the author and artist, using intertwined words and images to evoke emotions, sounds, descriptions, and conversations. Tamaki observes that “graphic novels are a perfect example of showing not telling” and explains that it is an “amazing process to see how you can combine words and images” to tell the story. She goes on to say, “with theatre, you can put the text on paper but then you need to get somebody to embody the words” (Interview, 2008). Tamaki argues that graphic novels require participation from the reader:

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)

Because the graphic novelist does not have the luxury of telling her story through a lot of words, like a traditional prose author, Tamaki argues that the illustrator needs to be able to tell the story as well. She comments on the “back and forth” collaboration she had with her cousin and illustrator, Jillian Tamaki, and says, “it is amazing to have an illustrator take her cue from [the author], but to put her own twist on it” (Interview, 2008). For example, when Skim is walking alone at night, they tried to create a “sense of isolation.” This isolation is effectively conveyed without any dialogue at all (see Figs. 5, 6). Indeed, there are only four lines of text in the series of seventeen panels tracing Skim’s nocturnal journey to Ms. Archer’s house and back.
Fig. 5

Skim’s isolation and loneliness. © Groundwood Books, 2008
Fig. 6

Skim approaching Ms. Archer’s home. © Groundwood Books, 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 kiss shakes Kim’s world, and she wonders how no one else can hear her heart beating so loudly. Skim writes, “it feels like there’s a broken washing machine inside my chest” (p. 44). She finds it difficult to reconcile the intensity of the emotion with the daily events of her life. Faced with the challenge of how to depict this conflict, Jillian Tamaki juxtaposes panels of Skim’s day-to-day existence with heavy, rhythmic lines which represent her beating heart (see Fig. 7). When Ms. Archer distances herself emotionally and physically from Skim without an explanation, Skim feels isolated and lonely. She spends hours in her bed but cannot sleep through the night, as she watches time pass on her alarm clock. Skim’s feelings are expressed through striking verbal and visual images. She observes that everyone is watching her and writes in her diary, “All day today I was rubber. My eyes felt like bathtub plugs,” and “I tried to take up as little space as possible” (p. 105). Visually, her emotions are depicted through a series of long distance shots; for example, Skim walking alone through an empty parking lot and walking hunched over through the snow as a very small silhouetted figure (see Fig. 8). These long shots are juxtaposed against the extreme close-ups in the panels on the next page of time passing throughout the night (see Fig. 9). The turmoil in Skim’s life culminates with her realization that she has “no idea what is going on in any of [her] classes” (p. 115). The full-page spread or “splash panel” (see Fig. 10) is a collage of images, and because they are not contained in separate panels, the reader experiences some of the chaos Skim is feeling about her life at the moment. The absence of gutters, in this case, prompts the reader to view these as connected or even simultaneous experiences. Skim decides she needs to focus, and she moves all her old spells, Ms. Archer’s phone number, and other things under her bed. Skim and Katie become closer friends, as Skim’s former best friend, Lisa, moves on to another stage of her teenaged life with a new boyfriend. The story ends optimistically, and, notably, it is a visual image that concludes the graphic novel (see Fig. 11). There is not a definitive ending, only a hint (Katie in her white tam sitting in the ravine) that Katie and Skim will become even closer and that they find support through each other’s friendship.
Fig. 7

Skim’s heart, beating loudly. © Groundwood Books, 2008
Fig. 8

Skim’s silhouette in the snow. © Groundwood Books, 2008
Fig. 9

Time passing throughout the night. © Groundwood Books, 2008
Fig. 10

Collage of images showing the sense of chaos Skim feels about her life. © Groundwood Books, 2008
Fig. 11

Katie in the ravine. © Groundwood Books, 2008

The Makeshift Miracle

While Skim is focused on the day-to-day activities and experiences of a teenaged girl, TheMakeshift Miracle takes a different approach both in the story and in the use of images and colour. Zubkavich (2006) takes the reader into a realm where dreams, for a price and with consequences, come true. Written as a journal of sorts, the main character, Colby Reynolds, describes his journey into this world. Colby is first portrayed as a young man who is feeling lost and unhappy: “I was in one of those really bad moods where you just hate every one and every thing. I thought about how the world tells you that working hard and being a good person is all you need. But it’s all crap. The world doesn’t care if you’re smart or nice. They want more average, selfish people” (p. 9). Although this story is also about teens and their emotions, the emphasis is shifted to dreams: how do we achieve our dreams and what do we sacrifice for them? Zubkavich’s images themselves have a dream-like quality to them. Unlike the other graphic novels, this one uses colour, but it is mainly two- or three-toned, not full colour. The shades—primarily blues, greens and browns—have a sepia quality to them, evoking a mystical air. Zubkavich not only plays with the colours of the panels, but also the spacing and size of the panels. In the opening scene, he creates a checkerboard effect with Colby’s face drawn using black lines on a white background side-by-side with white text on a black background (Fig. 12). On the following page, as Colby continues to think, the reader views extreme close-ups of a pop can, a fly and its eye, and Colby’s eye (Fig. 13). Although Zubkavich (2008) likes to play with the space and the visuals, he recognizes that he is not the only one to control the flow of the story; the reader does too. He comments,
Fig. 12

Checkerboard layout showing Colby thinking. © Jim Zubkavich, 2006
Fig. 13

Extreme close-ups. © Jim Zubkavich, 2006

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)

Although graphic novels and film share some common features, such as terminology around camera angles and shots, as Zubkavich points out, one of the key differences is that “film is time-based and continuous, while in comics, still images appear in a sequence and the reader sets the pace of the story” (Abel and Madden, 2008, p. 154). Zubkavich uses spacing and panel size effectively to guide his reader through the story. When Iris—Colby’s alter-ego—literally falls from the sky, the event is portrayed on a full page, allowing the scene to explode for the reader (Fig. 14).
Fig. 14

Iris falling from the sky. © Jim Zubkavich, 2006

It is not until the end of the book that the reader realises the connection between Iris and Colby, although the images provide effective hints. For example, the two characters resemble each other, with jagged haircuts and similar features; later, Iris articulates a thought that Colby had (pp. 134–135). Colby is Iris. Iris was lured to the dream world where wishes (with a twist) are granted. Colby is the spark of energy that lured Iris to the dream world. These sparks twist the wishes and gather souls for the realm. Colby-the-spark took away Iris’s pain and then stole her memories so he could take her place in the real world. When Colby is created as a person, a burst of energy replaced other people’s memories of Iris; when her memories are returned, so are those of the people in Iris’s life, all without any of them being any the wiser. Iris, though, retains both sets of memories, allowing her to gain insight and wisdom into her life course. The twist in the wishes that are granted is that they are never simple. Drawing on his childhood experience playing Dungeons and Dragons, Zubkavich demonstrates that even seemingly straightforward wishes can result in more complicated outcomes than we first realize. In his annotations at the back of the novel, Zubkavich comments, “Playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons with my brother when I was younger, I was fascinated by the idea of the Wish Spell and the Dungeon Master twisting the outcome based on how the player worded their specific wish” (Zubkavich, 2006, p. 187). Colby steals Iris’s soul in order to escape the realm of dreams, but in doing so inherits Iris’s pain and grows depressed, thus placing himself within the grasp of the realm once again. Colby resists the knowledge that he stole Iris’s life, arguing that he loves her. As he kisses her, they fade into each other, and only Iris is left, along with both her original memories and Colby’s new ones. With this knowledge, Iris is able to resist the attraction of the dream world and return to her flawed life with a greater acceptance and love for herself. Interestingly, Iris’s utterance, as she realizes that Colby is her, is cut-off, allowing the visual image to complete her sentence (Fig. 15).
Fig. 15

Colby returning Iris’ memories and disappearing. © Jim Zubkavich, 2006

TheMakeshift Miracle’s theme of journeying to self-discovery is depicted through the nuances of the images. At the beginning of the story, Colby is shown travelling through the city on the subway. While Colby reflects on his realization that he was being “lured to something out of control” (p. 11), in the background a subway is speeding past (Fig. 16). This visual metaphor recurs at the end of the book, on the last four pages, which show Iris riding the subway thinking: “If life is a journey, I’m still looking at the road ahead” (p. 181). The image symbolizes Iris’s journey to self-acceptance and her conclusion that “[l]ife isn’t delivered to you on a silver platter. The miracles you find are the ones you make for yourself” (p. 184).
Fig. 16

Colby senses being lured to something out of control. © Jim Zubkavich, 2006

Iris’s desire for roots in her life is symbolized by the trees that sprout wherever she rests: in Colby’s living room and on the dining room table. In these sequences, Zubkavich lets the images speak for themselves; they do not need captions or dialogue to explain their purpose (Fig. 17). The largest tree, growing in Colby’s living room, also provides a passage to the dream world. The two worlds are connected by the trunk of a tree with roots in both worlds. When Colby decides to take control over his life by climbing into the tree, Iris disappears from the real world and reappears in the dream world, providing another clue to the connection between her and Colby. Much of the story relies on sequences of images with few or no words. TheMakeshift Miracle requires much more effort on the part of the reader to interpret the images and make inferences across panels. Like Tamaki and Tamaki and Rabagliatti, Zubkavich relies as heavily on the images as on the text to tell his story. As such, graphic novels open up a double world of possibility; the stories are understood by way of the integrated images and words, but also in the transitions between panels.
Fig. 17

Tree symbolizing Iris’ desire for roots in her life. © Jim Zubkavich, 2006

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.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010