Archive for December, 2017

Indistinguishable From Magic:

Challenging the Misunderstood Pedagogic Value of Comic Adaptation


     As secondary school teachers wrestle with the demands of modern multimodal literacy, comic books are finding an ever more prominent position within the curriculum. In classrooms desperately vying for the attention of a student body beset by endlessly multiplying media sources, teachers, in many cases rightly so, see comics as possessing what Gretchen Schwarz calls the medium’s ability to “drive current traditional curriculum goals, teach new literacies, offer new topics with which teachers and students can engage, and enable new ways of learning” (Schwarz 53). However, in addition to, or tragically in lieu of, the roles stated above, the expectations of comic adaptations, specifically those of classic literature, are decidedly more complex and are often inextricably linked with the notion that they are expected to generate interest in a resistant audience, provide gateway engagement with materials considered to be culturally relevant but intellectually dense, and through it all remain neutral with regard to interpretation so as not to taint student’s succeeding interactions with the adaptation’s source. With the exception of the last of these, the impossibility of which colors the attempt in hubris, comics are largely capable of completing these tasks. Unfortunately, harkening back to the mantra of the handyman emphasizing the choice of appropriate tool for a given task, this is in many ways akin to using a katana to slice snacktime apples; it will serve, but it will eventually dull the blade to the point where it is fit for no other task.

     This is not to suggest that teachers are callously pawning a medium in which they have little actual investment onto disinterested students as a result of frustrations caused by the seeming inability of classic literature to compete for the motivated attention of young learners. However, the values of the genre, in many cases, ultimately become subservient to its more apparent functionality. In one representative anecdote, Adam Martin, a high school english teacher, lauds the success of Stefan Petrucha and Kody Chamberlain’s Beowulf in adapting a work of “classic literature into a medium more “user friendly” to our increasingly visual student population” and even goes so far as to say that “their work stays true to the original epic” so that a student could “read the epic (proper literary elements included) and have visual cues to follow the story line” (Martin 30). In a way there is a danger to the prolific attribution of Martin’s “user friendly” and “true to the original” to the value of comic adaptation. Hardly a lonely voice in this estimation, his sentiments are echoed by educators like Jesse Karp who reinforces the concept of comics as literary bait when he points out that graphic novels have a “knack for attracting reluctant readers”(Karp 34), or by Dr. Kate Monnin of the University of North Florida when she praises the Manga Classics adaptation of Great Expectations and its ability to allow the text to become “more approachable” or Jane Eyre’s  to exemplify “the most effective attention to canonical detail” and preserve “Austen’s purposefully subtle nuances in regards to her character’s emotions” (Monnin). While this is perhaps an oversimplified representation, each of these educators expresses a more comprehensive understanding of the pedagogical value of comics in general, nevertheless with regard to specifically the genre of comics as adaptation Martin’s two pragmatic qualifiers are the primary motivators of functionality in the classroom. The problem with this is that it creates a reductive attitude towards the genre itself, or as high school freshman Chris Fallis simplifies in his contribution to Young Adult Library Services, “Graphic novels have long since provided a center of education in a more visual and comprehensible format…that the modern teen is more oriented to…graphic novels have created a learning environment that is both simple and fun”(Fallis 16). 

     Simple and fun, no two words could more definitively toll the death knell of critical thought. There is a not-so-subtle genius behind presenting difficult works, such as Shakespeare, in a less visually daunting aesthetic form as it instantly mitigates a student’s predisposition to believe the work simply beyond their ability to comprehend, or as Rocco Versuci points out, “Too often, students perceive such [traditional] works as occupying a space above their level of thought” (Versaci 66) but, intentionally or not, this also instills the idea that these works in fact need translation to be understood or, worse yet, that they must be “dumbed down” to be approachable. Herein lies the great disparity between what comic book adaptations are doing and what they are capable of doing. If comics are functionally responsible for driving an interest in reading, they are succeeding. Alison Ching, a high school librarian explains that comics represent nearly eighteen percent of her library’s circulation coming in markedly ahead of the next three categories (Ching 19). If they are responsible providing a bridge to presumably inscrutable texts they appear to be accomplishing this goal as well, shown admirably in Shari Shabeti’s exploration of the collaborative efforts of publishers, artists, and educators in the production of comic adaptations, and these creators viewing their work as having a decidedly pedagogic emphasis (Shabeti 337). The goal of this argument is not to suggest that comic adaptations are misappropriated in fulfilling these rolls, but rather that by relegating the genre to this functionality it has hamstrung a creative form that is capable of much more. There is a reason that when lauding the merits of the comic medium names like Maus, Persepolis, Sandman, Watchmen, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth have appeared and led critics like Andrew D. Arnold to boldly claim “The debate over comics’ qualification as art has been crushed, like an icky spider under a pile of masterful books” (Arnold 12). However, it is just as telling that none of the works considered pinnacles of the form are adaptations of classic literature though they have been continuously produced since before the 1940s. To put this into context, four of the American Film Institute’s top one hundred movies of all time are adaptations of novels(AFI’s 100 Years). Have comics, in jealously clutching their hard won critical acceptance, attempted to distance themselves from elements of the medium that have, in their own estimation, questionable or artistically cheapening creative motivations? Or, have begrudging cultural critics been at long last forced to admit, under the sheer weight of evidence, to amend their long standing objections to the medium, but refusing to do so without qualification?

     The answers to these questions are not easily unpacked, but both lead the questioner in the direction of the source of pedagogic underutilization of these comics and go a long way to explaining the overall atrophy of the genre. Doing so unfortunately does not allow for a direct dive into the current state of the genre and its uses within the classroom as any analysis of this sort must first grapple with the complicated idea of what comics are and how they work. From there, the natural next step will be to analyze the process of comic adaptation from the production through to its implementation along with reviewing the stated pedagogic expectations of educators. Finally, and most dauntingly, the goal will be to show how comic book adaptations can be mined more thoroughly to meet those expectations. Should some creative talent stumble across this humble exploration and subsequently realize that “user friendly” and “true to the original” need not be the only benchmarks to which their adaptation need aspire and feel inspired to produce something that successfully garners recognition for the genre as a more legitimate form of adaptation, so much the better.


  1. What comics are


     One of the biggest hurdles to maximizing the pedagogic value of comic adaptations as a genre is the wide variety of definitions and interpretations of what constitutes an inclusive member of comics as a medium. In fact the discussion of the art form has risen to such a level that Thierry Groensteen, in his landmark work The System of Comics, goes so far as to describe comics as a language and “an original ensemble of productive mechanisms of meaning”(Groensteen Loc 61), yet the image conjured by the word is still largely disposable episodic serials designed as distractions for children. I will not go so far as to say there is no place for a study of comics so nuanced as to suggest that it would require a prerequisite of its own linguistics course, but for the purposes of pedagogy, particularly in the secondary school setting, a more practical definition would be that presented by Scott McCloud in his graphic exploration of the medium, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. As he puts it, comics are “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 9). Using this definition as a baseline, the factors that will be discussed here, and hereafter referred to as the virtues of the medium, are comics’ ability to unite received and perceived information, incite reader interaction through closure, and show how texts introduce time to an apparently static image.

      The prevailing perception of comics as a medium is that it is a hybrid form consisting of writing and illustration. As such, and owing to the believed concessions made by both in order to successfully coexist in one space, it is seen as representing a form not literary enough to be literature and not artistic enough to be art. This is particularly true of comic adaptations as it is difficult not to see their production as images added to an existing text rather than indivisible parts of a new text. The patchwork appearance of the medium and assumptions that comics create with a borrowed rather than intrinsic vocabulary, explain in part why they appear to “limp along as the ‘Bastard Child’ of words and pictures”(47).  However, realizing that the unifying point of received information(images) and perceived information(reading) is a unique piece of the comics vocabulary, and one that contributes most heavily to the apparent educational value of the form, which allows for a wholly unique method of meaning making.  For example, in David Hontiveros and Carlo Vergara’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, they do more than merely illustrate the words they are paired with.

                                                                        Fig 1. (Hontiveros 8)

     Representing one of the more prevalent frame transitions in the western comics tradition, this series expertly features a “single subject in distinct ACTION-TO-ACTION progression” (McCloud 70). While it is true that a reader without the requisite reading level to comprehend the text on its own will be aided by the context of the image, these image/text combinations are doing far more. Not only are the text and image inseparable, in this instance the text very literally is part of the image. In all three frames the texts exists between the water and the prisoner despite the fact that it oscillates between the top and bottom of the image. The action of the falling piece of masonry, the sound of the splash and subsequent echo, and the thoughts of the narrator all exist in the same physical space. When viewed as distinct elements the text seeks to explore the scene, the image seeks to evoke a vertiginous sensation, but together the series brings the emptiness between the water and the edge of the pit into hyper-focus forcing the reader to contemplate that space in the same way that the narrator is.   

     This inevitable demand for reader participation is even more prevalent in comics’ insistence on closure, or “observing the parts perceiving the whole” (63). Closure itself is not unique to comics as it takes a real role in how people perceive the world around them every day, but is unique in comics as the “gutter”, or the space between frames, forces the reader to build the connective tissue in order to “mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (67). Two frames from Roy Thomas’ adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, though separated by a page break, is a prime example of how comics elicit this response in its readers.

Fig 2. (Roy Thomas Loc. 20-21)

     All of the time, however short, between the pull of the trigger and the impact of the bullet is contained in the empty space between the frames. Citing Gaudreault,  Groensteen refers to this as “extrinsic narrativity: narration” that “is born from the articulation of its contents, but it cannot be found inside each image”(Groensteen loc 1436). The reader does not need to see the injured Iroquois warrior to know that he has been struck by the well aimed shot of Hawkeye. More than Thomas, or even Cooper, here it is the reader who is responsible for constructing how the scene is playing out. Beyond forcing the reader to participate actively in the construction of the scene, the gutter also encourage the reader to retrace their steps and reevaluate the first frame in light of the second.  As Marion Perret points out, “the eye of the comic’s reader does not simply move across the page left to right, top to bottom, but takes in the whole page at a glance, nearly simultaneously, then shifts sequentially from one panel to another”(Perret 74), and the conversation between the two frames is constructed wholly by the imagination of the reader based on two temporally instantaneous images.

     Closure is an element closely connected with this manner of presenting time. Comics readers are not only required to create the illusion of time between panels, but also within them. While we are used to seeing any static image as a single instant in time, within a frame comics creators have the ability to use text to introduce a time element that would not exist without it.

Fig 3. (Loeb 176)                                    *From left to right: Clark, Lana, Martha, Jonathan

This panel, from Jeph Loeb’s Superman for all Seasons, has an even more complicated relationship with time than might be supposed upon first glance. Were all of the dialogue removed from the image, it could be argued that the image is a perceived moment of time much akin to what is seen in a photograph. However, the four dialogue bubbles force the reader to imagine a moving scene, and one that offers a surprising variety of readings. The most straightforward reading is from left to right. Lana is clearly not meant to be speaking over Clark’s response to Jonathan from the previous panel, and Jonathan is reacting to Martha. However, since Loeb chose not to break this frame into two panels it also lends itself to a reading of two simultaneous conversations which fundamentally alter how the image is read. In the left to right reading Martha’s “Hasn’t Lana turned into a fine young woman Jonathan?” is a reaction to Lana’s consideration and helpfulness expressed in what she has said. Alternatively, in a simultaneous reading she is instead reacting to the way Lana is looking at her son. The conversation between text and image here is a prime example of how this unique feature of comics entices the reader to construct new and intricate time relationships within and between frames.


  1.  What comics are expected to do and what they are doing


     Having made a valiant effort to define the qualities, virtues, and language of the medium it is important to turn to the practical use, or nonuse, of  those elements within the classroom and the ways in which teachers are currently employing comics to meet requirements of curriculum. In doing so, for the purposes of this argument, it will be necessary to distinguish between the pedagogic strategies employed in the use of the subgenre of comic adaptations and the broader comics medium. This is not to suggest that comic adaptations are lacking in any of the elements  I have used to craft my definition of the medium, though they are often encouraged to do so, but rather to demonstrate the disparate educational strategies that are employed for comics in general and those of  the specific genre of adaptation. It is likewise important to note that in order to properly contextualize the state these items are in when educators receive them, a slight diversion into the factors that influence the production of comic adaptations will be useful as they dramatically affect the way in which these creators view both the process and the product.

     While the differences between comic adaptation and its parent medium cannot be reduced to a discussion of the varying economic forces exerting a gravitational influence on them, it is one of the first in the process of their creation to uniquely segregate adaptations from other comics. Namely, adaptators must often consider the reception of their work not only by the general public, but also by the educational apparatus when assessing the financial viability of their product. This burden, particularly weighty on comic adaptations, is a byproduct of the fact that these artifacts are not merely creative or commercial but must also be functional. As a result textual decisions are often intensively vetted with the educational requirements of a specific student audience in mind, or as Shari Sabeti explains of comic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, there are different “comic book adaptations currently on the market where different versions (full text, modernised, redacted and modernised) of each play for use with different ability groupings or ages are possible” (Sabeti 338), this practice is most evident in the works of Classical Comics, a British publisher of comic adaptations of classic literature with an emphasis on classroom utility.

                                                               Fig 4. (“Education”)

Each variation of the above text is designed for a different level of student readership. While this provides educators with skill level flexibility in presenting the adaptation it also shows that from an educational perspective, text within a comic adaptation exists not to serve the image as much as it does the reader. This also implies that comic text and comic images are divisible parts, echoing the notion that one or both of these parts can be exchanged at will as fits the needs of comprehension for the reader. However, the best way to accurately summarize the pre-production mentality of comic adaptations is to relate, in its entirety, the self described mission statement of a company, specifically Classical Comics, working in that field:

“Our main aim is to make classical literature appealing to all; needless to say, this starts with younger readers and in education. To aid in differentiation in classes of mixed abilities, our range provides multiple text versions of each title, with the range broken down into “Shakespeare” and “Classics”.

Shakespeare Range In order to be true to the Bard’s works, our Shakespeare titles feature the entire script, unabridged, in the original setting. That is our starting point – the “Original Text”.

Our research revealed how the complex Shakespeare language can deter many readers, especially those coming to a play for the first time. To cater for that, we publish a translation into plain English (from the entire script) that we call “Plain Text”.

We took this process a stage further to create our third reading level, “Quick Text”, that features reduced and simplified dialogue for younger and reluctant readers. This version is also ideal for students where English is not the first language, and also for a quick introduction to the play for even mature students”(“Education”).


In the entirety of this lengthy goal structure there is not a single mention of the medium or its unique contributions to the pedagogic framework as these qualities are not directly linked to fidelity and ease of consumption clearly seen as the genre’s particular value. Again, if comprehension and motivation are the extent of the educational expectations of comic adaptations there is evidence to suggest that, at least on these counts, they are encouragingly successful. In her comparative study of comprehension differences between comic adaptation and original text readers, Dr. Eileen Richardson of Cameron University,  found that “there was no difference in comprehension scores between those who read the traditional text and those who read the graphic novel” (Richardson 27). While Richardson’s study focuses on 5th and 6th grade students, a comparable study, described by Chandra Johnson in her April 2017 report for Desert News InDepth and conducted by Eric Kallenborn, generated similar results in that even with a text as complex as Beowulf there there was only a 3 point disparity between test scores of students utilizing the original and comic text.  Sadly, if comic adaptations are doing no better than their original text sources their value is reduced even further to that of a role that is purely motivational.

      This is in many ways different from the way in which non-adaptation comics are currently being treated in the classroom. While non-adaptation comics are free from fidelity criticism, the cost of that relief comes in being assigned the task of being a representative gesture on the part of the educational system to the increasingly important realm of multi-literacy or multiliteracy. Gretchen Schwarz points out that “Increasingly, scholars and teachers realize that in a media-dominated society, on traditional literacy- reading and writing of print- is no longer sufficient”, but even this concession does not especially qualify the medium, only acknowledge the importance of variety in literacy education. She goes on to explain that “young people also have to read films, TV shows, magazines, and Web sites” in order to “acquire the analytic tools necessary for critically ‘reading’ all kinds of media texts” (Schwarz 59). Yet still there is nothing in her description that makes comics a more fit educational vessel than the “TV shows” and “magazines” she lists. Bill Boerman-Cornell, an associate professor at Trinity Christian College, comes perhaps somewhat nearer an educational trait unique to comics when he claims they “offer additional ways to make intra- and inter-textual connections, allude to other works, establish characters, and develop themes”, but eventually falls back on on comic’s ability to “teach multiple media, including websites and movies”(Boerman-Cornell 76).

     With all of that said, the wide consensus among educators when it comes to implementing comics into the curriculum value appears to focus on three major functions which are concisely presented in Karen Gavigan’s article Sequentially SmART- Using Graphic Novels across the K-12 Curriculum where she lists “Multiple Literacies”, “Reading Comprehension”, and “Reading Motivation” as among the core virtues not involving english language learners or special needs students (Gavigan 20). To these, in regard to the specific genre of adaptation is added the encumbrances of fidelity.  These are important goals to be sure, but there’s little discussion of why comics are better suited than film, television, websites, and video games, which are so frequently mentioned in the same pedagogical breath, at achieving them or even what unique educational goals can be met by having students interact with sequential art.


  1. What are comic adaptations capable of?


     This is the million dollar question. If it is admitted that fidelity, motivation, and multiliteracy is the pinnacle of what the genre is capable, then it needs be also admitted that they have acquitted themselves admirably and should resign themselves to their yeoman’s work. We must concede that no adaptation will ever be considered a truly important example of the medium, that more complex pedagogic goals must satisfy their thirst at some other well, and that we must be grateful that our students are reading at all. Luckily, nothing could be further from the truth, and a wealth of new educational opportunities lie in wait without the suggestion that adaptations need to wholly sacrifice the tasks they have so admirably completed to this point. Plainly speaking, and not by any means claiming to be a comprehensive list, comic book adaptations are uniquely capable of engaging students with: concepts of how meaning is constructed when interacting with a text, the empathetic connection between adaptation and source, visual representations of abstract concepts and amplifying thematic ideas present in their source text, how their perceptions of the world around them are necessarily fragmented, and the creative power the reader has in interacting with the text.

     The first task of realizing the educational value of comic adaptations is to disabuse students, and teachers, of the idea that these adaptations are simply illustrations added to existing texts. This would be easier to do if so many comic adaptations weren’t so set on appearing to possess this very fault. This perception, while allowing students to trust they are still interacting with the “real” text, is misleading at best and at worst damaging to both the adaptation and its source. It would never be suggested that having seen The Godfather film was analogous to having read the novel, yet comic adaptations, as seen in the previously cited studies, are often being presented as an alternative to the source text, and the merits of this process being hinged entirely on the apparent equality of comprehension.

                                                                     Fig 5. (Russell 29)

     On the surface, Russell’s adaptation seems very “faithful” to Gaiman’s original text, but the differences are striking. Most apparently is the dramatic shift in perspective. In the original the reader inhabits Coraline’s perspective with the focus being on the mysterious features in front of her. However, for Russell the focus is on Coraline and her reaction. While the comic conveys the same general information, surely enough to answer any multiple choice question presented on the scene contained therein, there is also an invaluable opportunity to explore the empathetic nature of constructed meaning. The reader is being shown what Russell sees when he interacts with the original text, and what Russell privileges in that content. It can be difficult for students to realize the extent to which reading any text is a creative process. Comic adaptations a perfect tools to demonstrate that these source texts create images in the minds of their readers and that by exploring Russell’s adaptation they are not only learning about Gaiman’s work, but Russell himself. Being able to see how others create meaning from information, and to understand it in its own context, is a skill of immeasurable value. It is also a skill comic adaptations are uniquely qualified to introduce to students.                                                                                             

     A further oft untapped pedagogic value of the genre is its ability to visually represent abstractions and focus thematic meaning from a source text. Presenting abstract concepts in a visual format is not unique to the comics medium. Film, art, ballet, theater, opera, and other creative forms with visual components wrestle with this concept each in its own unique way, and in the framework of conventions that are particular themselves. What comics can do is put student readers into direct, multilayered interaction with the major theme in a way that allows the reader to hover on the image, react, re-react, and engage. One example of this thematic saturation is Thomas’ The Last of the Mohicans. The last chapter of Cooper’s masterwork is iconic in the heartbreak it leaves its readers with, and the task of capturing that sense of loss is an unbelievably difficult challenge. While Thomas’ work is a much more successful adaptation than it is comic book, owing largely to a uniform gutter and frame throughout the entire work so as not to interfere with the narrative or accidentally introduce any ambiguity to the scenes, one moment where his dialogue is put into harmonious conversation with the source is this very moment, when Old Tanemund sends up his lament for the fate of the Mohican people.

                                                                      Fig 7. (Thomas)

These two frames are centered on the final page and repeat verbatim the words of Cooper’s finale. But the comic, even in so small a space, expands, develops, and yet focuses the awful implications one of the novel’s main themes. Tanemund, his face hidden in shadow by the setting sun, does not guide his people away from the burial mound of Uncas, but rather is guided by the men of his tribe. Even more hauntingly, Steve Kurth’s illustration shows the Delaware fading into the treeline beyond, a foreshadowing of a fate that would not be unique to the Mohicans and make Tanemund’s, “the anger of the Manitou is not done” even more biting. This is an opportunity for teachers to explore how the thematic heartbeat of this scene has changed in the almost two hundred years since the writing of the source. Cooper’s scene focuses specifically of Chingachgook’s loss, Hawkeye’s support, and the lament for the extinction of the Mohican people whereas Thomas’ has the added weight of presenting the fact that the fate of the Mohicans was not to be an isolated incident. For students struggling to find this theme within a sources dense language, comics pull the words away from the obscuring realm of received information towards the more readily apparent one of perceived information, but more than that they open areas of discussion that include historical context, the evolution of audience relationship to a particular theme, and, as already stated, the empathetic conversation that exists between adaptor and adapted.

     Having introduced students to empathizing with the worldview of another, and extrapolating abstract thematic ideas from complex visuals, one of the most important educational values of comic adaptations comes in the form of teaching students to realize that much of what they see and experience is not the objective whole, but the largely imagined whole constructed through closure. Take these two pairs of images.

                  Fig 8. (More 23) Lft. Comedian Rt. Rorschach      Fig. 9 (Hakimata, Legrand)

     In the first pair, from Alan Moore’s masterwork Watchmen,  the comic is daring the reader to superimpose the image of the Comedian onto Rorschach, to make connections based on more than the actions of each to that point in the comic. The two panels take place at different times and under different circumstances, but the reader is subtly forced to compare the actions of the Comedian and Rorschach. Without carefully scrutinizing this sequence, the narrative beneath the narrative would be exerting its influence unobserved. The power of comics in this instance is to teach students that all sequential imagery is narrative. The second pairing, of Presidents Trump and Putin, is even more susceptible to this unintentional closure. In the current political climate there is little chance that a viewer will come to this pairing of images free of preconceptions, but students who have been taught to thoughtfully consider the functions of these “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 9), will be better prepared to “read through” agenda driven visual messaging so prominent in modern culture. They will be able to see how their own experience is unconsciously providing closure for the image narrative and more effectively receive and objectively assess the ceaseless waves of information washing over them every day.   

     Comics are a mature and vibrant art with a history that stretches back before the invention of the written word, and comic adaptations are a natural means by which modern audiences can be introduced to culturally relevant, aesthetically beautiful, and historically significant texts. But more than this, comic adaptations can help students to empathize with the experiences of others and they can demonstrate that perception is always partly a creative act and being aware of that fact is vital in the light of modern media’s increased reliance on perceived information. Motivating students to read, preserving the the texts society has deemed important enough to be considered part of every generations cultural inheritance, and meeting students on their own turf by presenting them as artifacts that create using multiple literacies are all laudable goals. However, even these are far from what comic adaptations are capable of and assumptions that they are the limits of the form forfeits an opportunity to shape more critically minded and discerning students. The genre of comic adaptation has the capacity to create its own masterworks to stand beside the titans of the medium if the restrictions of prejudice and low expectations can finally be removed. Ultimately, of the form as well as from the students who encounter these works within the classroom, more is needed, so more needs be asked


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