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Friday 2 July 2021

Graphic Novels: Not ‘just’ comics

Felicity Sly considers the value of graphic novels to support content based learning with some excellent examples that present scientific and historical information and language in a graphic format. 

Hosler, J. (2008).
Optical allusions
Available as free PDF

Caitlyn Forster, a Science PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney and retail sales assistant in a comic bookstore, wrote in The Conversation (April 19, 2021) that many characters in graphic novels are inspired by biology: Ant-Man, Spider-Man and Poison Ivy. When not being superheroes, Poison Ivy is a botanist and The Unstoppable Wasp is a teenage scientist. Animals have also been named after superheroes: a robber fly named Deadpool, and a fish named Wakanda after a fictional country in Black Panther. Optical Allusions by Jay Hosler, is just one of a number of graphic novels and comics that are created by scientists. 

So why offer a comic or graphic novel instead of a textbook? 

Whitley, J. (2017).
The Unstoppable Wasp

Forster writes that graphic novels and comics are engaging. Difficult concepts are developed through the course of the story, and whilst student’s knowledge acquisition was similar between reading a textbook and a graphic novel, the students who read the graphic novel showed greater interest in the course. Knowledge is ‘sprinkled’ as the story progresses, and readers can revisit panels, learning at their own pace. Hard to visualise and dangerous worlds can be explored in safety; such as plagues, cells and life cycles of plants and animals. At the end of each issue of The Unstoppable Wasp, Marvel comics include interviews with female scientists.

Spieglelman, A. Maus.

The website of common sense media lists some graphic novels that teach history. These include Maus (holocaust history), Slaughterhouse-Five (anti-war science fiction) and titles exploring the history of conflict in Poland, Syria and the USA. George Takei’s (Sulu in Star Trek) memoir, They Called us Enemy, recalls his internment in Japanese prisoner of war camps in World War II.

Tan, S. Los conejos
Find out more

CBCA 2021 Book of the Year artist, Shaun Tan, explores the problems faced by migrants in The Arrival. This book looks at the universal issues of being ‘other’ when all is unfamiliar and previous skills and status have no value. In The Rabbits colonisation is viewed from the perspective of those colonised. The Rabbits has been translated into Spanish; Los Conejos was donated by the Mexican government to schools, to help understand the concepts of colonisation and its effect on indigenous culture.

Greek, Roman and Norse Mythology, One Thousand and One Nights, Shakespeare and true crime have all found new readers in graphic novels. There are also a number of popular novels appearing as graphic novels: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series.


Common Sense Media (n.d.) Graphic novels that teach history. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/graphic-novels-that-teach-history

Forster, C. (2021, April 19). Heroes, villains … biology: 3 reasons comic books are great science teachers. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/heroes-villains-biology-3-reasons-comic-books-are-great-science-teachers-143251

Felicity Sly

Teacher Librarian at Don College in Devonport and CBCA Committee Member.

Editor’s note: A reminder to readers that graphic novels can be 'graphic' and may be written for a mature audience. Sites such as The Common Sense Media provide useful guidance.
If you know of other titles that support content learning please share in a comment.

FYI: Oakley provides an informative scientific review of Optical Allusions.

1 comment:

  1. The Invisible War written by Ailsa Wild, illustrated by Ben Hutchings with support from Briony Barr and Dr Gregory Crocetti is set France in 1916 when a nurse in the war encoutners ad lethal bacteria. Educators can access a free PDF download.