Using Comics as a Teaching Tool (Ep. 093)

Whether you’re a huge fan of comics or don’t know a single thing about them, they can still be used in the classroom. They are a gateway to both artmaking and meaningful discussion. In this episode, Andrew talks to Dr. Richard Graham (author of the book “Goverment Issue: Comics for the People”) about how comics can help with engagement and student behavior (3:45), specific strategies for teaching with comics (10:00), and advice for using comics as a hook to get students more involved (14:45). Full episode transcript below.


Resources and Links:

Here is a list of (almost) all the comics Andrew and Dr. Graham discussed in the episode:





Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. If you’re like me, this year kind of feels like a whirlwind. You know you’re looking around, and you’re wondering what the heck happened to October, let alone November. Before you know it, secondary students are already going to start signing up for their schedules for next year. If you haven’t done so already, you’ve got to start planning and skimming for new classes. Flashy, cool things that might drive up student enrollment and more importantly, student interest and student learning.

It’s been feeling like to me it’s a bit of a perfect storm, an opportunity to possibly create new classes while tapping into some of the district’s initiatives that they’re always pushing. A big one I’ve been hearing about for some time is teaching collaboratively and across disciplines. Well, to me there’s no better format for art being used as a tool to teach across disciplines than using and teaching comic books both as an art form to create comics, but also as a literary and storytelling tool. That’s why I’m so happy that Tim hooked me up with Richard Graham, a really sharp guy from the fantastic University of Nebraska where he’s an associate professor and media service librarian.

I’m really excited to bring him on here and chat about the great perks of using comics in the art room and possibly how he and I can convince anyone out there who’s a little skeptical of bringing comics into what they’re already doing and just start adding that to your curriculum. There are so many things that you can add into your curriculum. It’s not just a question of whether you use comics or not use comics, but there’s digital, contemporary art, historical Blue Chip artists, art history, visual culture. For new teachers out there or veteran teachers who are making a switch and changing a district, it can be daunting, but fear not. AOE’s got you covered with their class Designing Your Art Curriculum.

The curriculum class is a great hands-on class. Like all AOE courses, they get you to learn alongside other great inquisitive art teachers as you design tools to implement a curriculum that best fits your teaching strengths and your student needs. Head on over to and check out this course and all the other great classes under the courses tab.

All right. Let’s bring on Richard here and get into some comic books. Hey, Richard. I got to start by giving some shout outs to our mutual friend Tim Bogatz for putting us in touch together. It sounds like you made a really big first good impression on Tim at the Nebraska Art Teachers Conference earlier this fall.

Richard: That’s great to hear. It was a big honor and privilege to talk to them. I’m always interested in what art teachers are doing. I happen to be a librarian here at the University of Nebraska where I’m the liaison to the art and art history department. I work with faculty in their research, but I also help students a lot who usually just show up on campus and need help doing art history research or looking for a muse for their creative stuff in the studio.

Andrew: Tim kind of put us in touch because I think you made a conference presentation on using comic books in art education. Would you say that that’s kind of your specialty in regards to art education then?

Richard: Yeah. It’s a big interest of mine. There’s a huge research quotient here to be faculty librarians. I have an additional master’s degree in instructional design. I like to look at comic books and how they can use to cause a change in behavior. I’ve published a book on how the government has used comic books in the past and I’ve had the privilege of judging comic books for the Eisner Awards.

Andrew: That’s really interesting to think about how comic books change behaviors. Are you telling me that as art teachers we could like design our own comic books and make our students like behave better and create better artwork?

Richard: What can’t comics do? To be honest with you, there’s a great deal of student interest in the genre. They’re inexpensive to obtain. The vocabulary is not difficult. They’re easy to read. I think in the art room comics can create opportunities for teachers to engage their students in meaningful discussions about visual perception, drawing, design, art history, all sorts of content on multiple levels. Yeah, comics can be all sorts of things for all your students.

Andrew: Is that what you would say is probably the biggest payoff in incorporating a comic book curriculum into our art education in that it’s like really flexible and students could kind of get whatever they needed out of it? Are there some other big payoffs that you see?

Richard: Well, students are really comfortable decoding the visual system of letters and words that they see in comics. When they pair visual images with words, it’s a real easy way to help students develop stronger visual literacy. I think comics offer an opportunity for students to scrutinize images and words to create their own stories. I mean comics are a multidiscipline and they therefore have just open-ended opportunities to be used to teach all sorts of concepts.

Andrew: I’m going to ask you if you’ve read this comic book and I’m sure you have and maybe our viewers or listeners out there haven’t read this. I said viewers because I’m thinking about reading and depicting comics. I think it’s Scott McCloud Understanding Comics.

Richard: Yeah, that’s a really important text I think for a lot of people to help sort of understand the mechanics or at least start the discussion because a lot of scholars like to hone in on specific details and argue points. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a great comic book to have in the art classroom because it looks at the comics medium. It deconstructs it. It gives lots of students opportunities to focus on aspects of storytelling such as paneling, using a stereotype or caricature. I think it’s a very important comic or a very important book to have.

Andrew: I probably read that graphic novel, I don’t know, five, six years ago. It was kind of eye opening for me because I was a kid who grew up loving comic books. The people in spandex and capes and shooting lightning bolts out of their eyeballs. For me like comic books in the art classroom has always been a no brainer because it’s really how I learned how to draw and I think it helped me developed a sense of imagination. When I read Scott McCloud’s book, I was like oh, this stuff is like working on a whole nother level. It really made me think about, like you said, visual culture and how students kind of decipher things. I think we can take a lot for granted in how complex comic books actually are.

Richard: Yeah, absolutely. They’re what you would consider a hybrid text or a multimodal text. That’s a very prominent form of a communication whether we’re watching television or reading advertisements. These hybrids of words and images require a sort of certain decoding. One of the things that comes to mind is that famous Magritte painting “This Is Not A Pipe,” right, where you have that tension between those word and the symbol on the image that you’re confronted with. I think it’s an excellent example of how we sort of navigate this multimodal world that we’re in now.

Andrew: Thinking about kind of your job and how you’re a liaison to art education people and art history people, do you have some favorite strategies or success stories on how people are integrating comic book art or sequential art into what they’re doing? I ask this because I mean are we talking a whole brand new class or is it just ways to incorporate some drawing or some multidisciplinary type of stuff? What have you kind of seen out there for people who are doing some cool stuff with comic books?

Richard: Just like you can use comics to teach a whole host of different aspects, you can teach comics on a whole host of different ways because students can read them quickly. You can have a single day in the classroom where you may have students compare and contrast line styles and how it affects the story. If you’re in a learning community, you may have your English or History professor have your students read something like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Spiegelman’s Maus. While they debate the story and the historical context in art class, you could be using discussions of caricature or stereotype and you can look at Spiegelman’s line style and how the paneling works. I myself like to introduce students to different kinds of comics.

Everyone usually thinks of those superheroes nicely industry produced 32 page slick paper glossy and I like to use DIY or self-published memoirs and kind of pass those around to get students thinking outside the box. Lynda Barry who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and she’s an accomplished comics artist. She has a Tumblr and I know a lot of students are using Tumblrs’s on their cellphones or what not. At her Near-Sighted Monkey Tumblr, she posts her daily activities that she uses in the classrooms to get students working collaboratively or thinking about story or how to make things visually interesting for your readers.

Because comics and cartoons can provide a wealth of pedagogical opportunities, you can put comics in historical anesthetic context. You can use them to have your students build artistic skills, but most importantly and this is the biggest payoff of course is that you get big time student participation and involvement.

Andrew: I want to circle back to a comic you mentioned because I’ve really enjoyed it. I think it’s a good opportunity for people out there to think about kind of like comic books are a hook. When you tell kids, “Okay. We’re going to study some comic books,” they’re like, “Oh, this will be light and fun and easy,” but then you hit them with some like pretty big topics about identity and place and politics. Can you talk a little bit about the graphic novel Persepolis and how perhaps maybe someone could use that in their classroom?

Richard: Well, it’s a wonderful book. It’s a wonderful story. It’ll resonate with teenagers mostly. It’s an outsider story. Marjane left Iran right after the Iranian Revolution, so there’s a chance for some historical context there. She’s a teenager in the West, in Austria, and she’s not accepted there, but she’s still a teenager with a lot of the same interest that we all have at that age. As she struggles with being an outsider and finding herself, she thrusts through history and back again. She’s not accepted when she goes back to Iran either where she’s considered too Western. I think that makes it an excellent opportunity to critique both cultures and kind of look at it as an outsider. Her artwork is very accessible.

It’s very much similar to woodcuts. It’s abstract enough that the reader finds him or herself involved very easily. When we see a specific image, it’s easy for us as a consumer to say, “That doesn’t look like us,” or what not. When it’s a more abstract image, our brain sort of follows it along more easily in the story. Then therefore you have a much more involved reader. She hits all the notes in terms of having a very interesting story, an accessible and engaging art style, as well as a historical context that kind of provide students with some history.

Andrew: I think … Yeah.

Richard: Sorry. There’s also a movie too. You can also show that. There’s an animated film with one of my favorite actresses Catherine Deneuve. You can show that in film. You can show the animated film in class too. There’s a win-win.

Andrew: That’s awesome. I didn’t know that or I think I had maybe seen that pop up on like Amazon or something and then I’d kind of forgotten about it. I’m glad you mentioned her artistic style and also Lynda Barry. I feel like both those artists, they’re not too intimidating. What I mean by that, like if your students went and picked up like Avengers or Black Panther, like you said, they’re really slick. The anatomy is perfect. The foreshortening and the angles and the composition is just like … It’s a little intimidating for students to think like, “I could never draw that way.”

Richard: Right. Exactly.

Andrew: With Persepolis, it is pretty minimal, pretty low key. You could see students being like, “Oh, I could do this. I mean it’s a little stylized. I could make this happen,” and I think that’s another really good in if you wanted to incorporate some comic book curriculum into what we’re doing.

Richard: Absolutely. 100%. That’s actually another favorite comic book of mine is John Porcellino’s King-Cat, which is a DIY zine-like memoir, which is pretty much almost the equivalent of comic book poetry where he has these small meditations. His artwork is very simplistic, but yet very accessible and can convey emotion and all sorts of sentiment.

Andrew: Are you sort of a person who gets hung up on semantics and thinks that comic books and zines are like really different or to you are they all sort of sequential art and storytelling?

Richard: They can be, but that’s not my bailiwick. I’m not interested in necessarily defining comics or getting hung up on some of that vocabulary. In my research, I’m more interested in engaging a reader using these hybrid models and trying to affect some sort of change in their behavior. Because there’s zines and comics in this world, at this time they intersect so broadly that to me it’s not my interest right now.

Andrew: I’m kind of the same way. I mean to me it’s all just … It’s illustration. It’s sequential. It’s storytelling and it’s good. I think it asks our kids to kind of think and construct and create differently than sort of like one singular painting or one singular sculpture, which I think is kind of interesting.

Richard: Absolutely. You want to provide students that freedom or that democracy for them to venture forth with their creative outlet, not get hung up on will this fit in that box.

Andrew: Yeah. One of the things I like to do, there’s a lot of guests that we have on that I think are kind of an easy sell for me and I’m right there with you. I’m trying to imagine a listener out there, an art teacher, who kind of has a negative perception of comic books as you know what I said, spandex and capes and lightning bolts and unrealistic anatomy and all this. What would you say to someone like that to kind of convince them or convert them into thinking about ways to bring in comic books into what they’re doing?

Richard: Well, I would urge them to kind of break out of that notion. Certainly comic books are a big business and we’re inundated by the movies, but I think you would then see that as an opportunity, as a hook to get your students involved. Students can learn all sorts of traditional art concepts through the history and design of comic books. I mean even if you looked at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you have to talk about Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello. Batman fans could see Leonardo Da Vinci’s early sketchbook drawings. You can’t talk about Roy Lichtenstein without talking about Russ Heath and other comic book artists. I think at the very least you have to recognize them as a hook.

If you were to read something like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, you would then understand just how complex a medium it is and down the rabbit hole you go and I think you wouldn’t be able to apply all various methods through the comic book medium.

Andrew: Well put, man. Hey, before I let you get out of there though, I like to kind of see if you could offer up any suggestions or recommendations. I know you’ve already hit us with a couple with Persepolis and King-Cat, but you have anything out there that you either think teachers could use right away in their classroom or even just something that’s kind of fun and awesome to read?

Richard: Sure. Well, I’m a librarian, so that’s my bread and butter right there. Well, if you were to head down to your local comic book shop, I’m a fan of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which is a horror comic, which may not necessarily be suitable for every student, but I think it shows a very more mature and complex art style and storyline. I’m also a fan of Rich Tomasso’s Spy Seal, which is sort of like a Tintin, the Belgian-Franco comic by Hergé, sort of meets a funny animal. He has sort of this animal, this seal, who works for MI5 for Britain. Also, though if you happen to go to your Barnes & Noble or Amazon, I think Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which is a big graphic novel …

Andrew I just read that in the summer. That’s awesome.

Richard: Oh my goodness. It’s amazing. It is a blend of Harriet the Spy and Holocaust Memoir, about a young girl in Chicago who sees herself as a werewolf. When she goes with her brother to the Art Institute of Chicago, right, to see the art museum and when she replicates those works of art that they read, I don’t see how as an art teacher you could not be enamored by this graphic novel. Then also again some of these DIY memories. or, you can get things like John Porcellino’s King-Cat.

Andrew: Well, awesome, man. Richard, thanks so much for coming on. I really enjoyed this conversation. I’m going to go out check out some of those books now.

Richard: Right on. Thank you so much for having me. It was an honor to be here.

Andrew: Well, thanks to Richard for coming on and sharing some great ideas and using comics in all the ways that we can do that. Even if you’re not too nerdy and comics have never been your thing, I mean maybe you don’t know the difference between Manga and Anime, comics are more than just spandex, capes and fireballs, right? There are so many ways for comics to bleed into our work in what we’re doing across disciplines. It’s a great way to talk about heavier topics and it taps into creativity and storytelling like not too many other art forms out there. Give it a shot. There are tons of ways to do it, ways to start small or jump right into it. Your students are going to love it when you do it.

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Head on over to and you can start your one month free trial of PRO right now. We know you’re going to love it. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on All right. Thanks for listening.

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