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Reviewed by:
  • Teaching the Graphic Novel
  • Michael A. Pemberton
Tabachnick, Stephen E., ed. 2009. Teaching the Graphic Novel. New York: Modern Language Association. $40.00 hc. $25.00 sc. viii + 353 pp.

Stephen E. Tabachnick’s edited collection Teaching the Graphic Novel makes a significant contribution to pedagogy and comes at an important moment of need for teachers and scholars who want to study such texts and incorporate them into their classes. Though graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen have achieved both popular and critical acclaim in recent years, their customary positioning outside the traditional literary canon—in form if not necessarily function or genre—can render them suspect as legitimate content in literature (or other) courses.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Tabachnick begins this collection with a carefully argued rationale for using graphic novels in the classroom, recounting their origins as a literary form and comparing them to the best examples of contemporary literature and high art. “In good sequential art,” he asserts, “the lyricism of poetic word choice is combined with the lyricism of striking visual images to create a stunning, hypnotic form of poetry” (4). For those readers who have, perhaps, a more prosaic view of the world, Tabachnick quotes N. Katherine Hayles, claiming that we are also now “in the midst of a cognitive shift [brought on by new technologies] and . . . reading today has become a hybrid textual-visual experience” (4). Graphic novels, he suggests, are well-suited to this new paradigm for reading and uniquely poised to take advantage of it.

Teaching the Graphic Novel is a collection of thirty-four essays arranged in five sections that discuss and reflect upon multiple aspects of the graphic novel form. The essays in Part I, “Thematic and Aesthetic Issues,” focus on the structural components of visual narrative, drawing heavily on Scott McCloud’s formalist schema in Understanding Comics (1993) and Will Eisner’s dissection of the medium in Comics & Sequential Art (1985). Contributors to this section provide readers with a helpful vocabulary for analyzing and critiquing graphic novels—layout, pacing, closure, paneling, transitions, etc—but they also (as in the chapters by Tucker and Rabkin) reflect upon the analytical approaches and methodological tools that are best suited to exploring the hybrid visual and textual space occupied by graphic narratives. [End Page 220] However, despite the focus on tools, definitions, and structure in this section, none of the contributors are seduced by the appealing simplicity of a reductive formalism. Charles Hatfield’s “Defining Comics in the Classroom,” for instance, takes pains to critique McCloud’s analytical framework, identifying several points of tension and fracture that become apparent when applying it to authentic texts.

The “Social Issues” addressed in Part II, though few in number, are common topoi for many graphic novels and equally common topics of discussion in classrooms: race (Chaney), gender (Thalheimer), culture (Horn), the Holocaust (Barr), and 9/11 (Carter). A strong cultural studies approach infuses each of these essays, though the authors all engage their topics from a diverse set of critical perspectives. These readings offer smart, deft analyses of contemporary graphic novels, interrogating them not just as reflections of the cultures in which they are embedded but, as Horn asserts, as powerful weapons of change that can often enable students “to revise their racial or cultural assumptions simultaneously and also sequentially” (97).

The longest section in the book is Part III, with twelve chapters devoted to “Individual Creators” and the pedagogical questions that arise when using their works as primary texts. There is a little something for everyone here, ranging from mainstream and alternative “commix” creators such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, and Lynda Barry, to more obscure graphic novelists like Ben Katchor and Marissa Marchetto. The authors discuss these creators and their literary corpora in detail, exploring, for example, the manners in which stereotyping and parody (both visual and textual) can be employed for narrative purposes (Brunner), what’s gained and lost when a classic work like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is adapted to a graphic novel in a contemporary setting (Finlayson), or how...


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pp. 220-223
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