Education Matters: Beyond the Comic-Con spectacle

Behind the craziness of Comic-Con is a hidden world of education panels that offers tips and insights into trends in teaching tools, strategies for improved classroom learning, and support for victims of bullying.

The panel titled “Capturing the Imagination of Middle-Grade Readers” featured panelists who discussed ways to inspire even the most reluctant readers. Middle-grade readers were defined by panelists as children ages 8 to 12.

“Women in Science,” authored and beautifully illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky, “highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from the ancient to the modern world.”

Inspired by history and science, Ignotofsky said she grew up on a “healthy diet of cartoons and pudding” and was herself a reluctant reader as a child. But cartoons “got me past that hump,” she said.

Driven by her passion to take dense information and make it accessible to young readers, she said it’s important for students to see strong female role models who have made significant accomplishments in all scientific fields.

Other panelists included Shannon Messenger, author of the middle-grade series “Keeper of the Lost Cities” and the “Sky Fall” series for young adults.

Cece Bell is the author of the autobiographical “El Deafo,” a graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing and is alienated by her peers. Coping with depression and frustration, she begins to view her hearing aid as a superpower.

“Kids respond to honest writing,” said Bell, who believes authors can pull young readers into books with characters with whom they can empathize. Because the middle-grade years can be rife with self-doubt and feelings of alienation, many children can identify with characters who struggle with differences of all kinds, she said.

Panelist Tania del Rio is a cartoonist who specializes in manga and has a number of books, comics and credits to her name, including the graphic novel “Diary of a Girl Next Door: Betty,” published by Archie Comics.

Tahereh Mafi, author of the “Shatter Me” series of books for young adults, has released a new book for middle-grade readers titled “Furthermore,” about “a colorless girl living in a colorful world,” as Mafi described it.

The sixth panelist, Ned Rust, is the author of numerous children’s books, the latest of which – “Patrick Griffin’s Last Breakfast on Earth” – tells the story of “an average kid ending up in an alternate world,” said Rust. It’s full of humor, he said, but “there’s some dark stuff in there.”

All agreed with the moderator who said that children with a good imagination are more likely to grow up well-adjusted.

An odd mix

The three “Historical Comics” panelists presented wildly varied graphic novel subjects.

From a biography of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (by John “Derf” Backderf), to history-inspired comics author Kate Beaton (“Hark! A Vagrant” comic strips), to Chester Brown’s Bible-themed graphic novels (“Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus”), all three panelists were at once controversial, hilarious, serious, charming and endearingly weird.

It was an odd mix, to be sure.

Beaton said the medium of comics for learning is “an amazing weapon to wield,” calling her books “historically-based humor.” She said she tries to find little-known facts in history and identify what’s funny or quirky.

Labeling his books “informed historical fiction,” Backderf described a diverse career that included being a cartoonist, a garbage man (a disgusting job, he said, that often involved exploding diapers and cans full of maggots), and a journalist (which he said used to be a real job).

“We live in a post-factual world,” he joked.

As a high school classmate of Dahmer’s, Backderf decided to write in graphic novel form a biography of Dahmer, a project that began in 1994 after the serial killer was murdered in prison.

Because he couldn’t find a publisher for the book, he self-published a shortened version. The book took off and is now in its 16th printing.

Brown said his books present “another wacky interpretation” of the Bible and posited that Jesus “had a very positive take on prostitution,” which he said is one of the main points of his most recent book.

The times were patriarchal, and it was very difficult for unmarried women, Brown said, noting that prostitution was one of the few ways women could earn money.

One audience member asked Beaton and Brown, both Canadians, how their culture may affect their work in unique ways.

“One difference is that we are familiar with the history of the United States …,” Brown began.

“Whereas we are not,” interrupted Backderf, offering the American view.

“I was going to say that Americans are not as familiar with Canadian history,” Brown laughed.

Although Backderf was joking, the sad truth is that, for many children, he may be right.

Comics as high-brow literature

The “Teaching Humanities through Comics” panel featured three college professors whose courses study the evolution and influence of comics and graphic novels on society and how the themes reflect society’s changing values.

Adam Golub, associate professor of American Studies at Cal State Fullerton, talked about his course, “Teaching Comics as Literature.” In the class, he discusses the benefits of using comics in the classroom and how comics have eventually come to be seen as high-brow.

Using the award-winning graphic novel “Watchmen,” which is set in a 1980s alternate reality where Richard Nixon remains president and superheroes are outlawed, students were challenged to review the book in the context of the broader history and culture of the times.

“Watchmen,” published in 1986 and 1987, won a Hugo Award in 1988 and is considered a serious work of literature, Golub said.

Michelle Lewis, associate professor of history at Los Angeles Valley College, discussed her use of the graphic novel “Mendoza the Jew” in her classes.

The book, she said, was created by a historian and portrays a real-life boxer named Daniel Mendoza who rose to fame in Britain in 1789 as a world champion and boxing celebrity at a time when boxing was becoming immensely popular.

Boxing, Lewis said, was seen “as a more civilized way to solve problems.”

This was during the expansion of the British Empire, so Mendoza’s name became famous throughout the colonies as well as in Great Britain.

Showing history through the eyes of real people can be very effective in connecting students with history in ways dry textbooks can’t, she said.

The book discusses issues of assimilation, religious freedom and tolerance, ethnic and religious identity, nationalism and notions of masculinity.

Lewis said the book increased student interest in historical events of that particular period of time and taught students how to be historians.

“Overwhelmingly, they said it sparked an interest in history,” she said.

Deanna Heikkinen, assistant professor of humanities at Los Angeles Valley College, teaches a course titled “Twentieth Century America through Comics.”

The course objectives are to define comics, identify what it means to be a superhero, examine 20th-century America by decade, and learn how comics change over time.

Heikkinen said the point of studying comics is to appreciate the art form, understand the historical significance, and learn to appreciate the potential of the medium.

She asks students to consider if cave art or Egyptian hieroglyphics were early comics.

In a discussion of what makes a superhero, Heikkinen said superheroes have evolved in the 20th century.

Captain America during World War II was a huge success. But in the 1950s when life was relatively good, there were fewer superheroes.

Superheroes in comics came back strong in the 1960s during the decade of intense social upheaval.

In the 1980s, satire took over, she said. In later decades, comics and comic book characters were impacted by the two gulf wars, 9/11, political correctness and politics.

The post-modern world offered more diversity but also took a dark turn, Heikkinen said.

Superheroes, she said, tend to be prevalent during war years.

She said DC Comics tends to create superheroes who are god-like beings living in imaginary places, while Marvel Comics prefers to present real-world monsters.

Heikkinen said she “will work to incorporate [comics and graphic novels] more fully into the curriculum.”

How to read a graphic novel

All three professors said they had to help students learn how to read a graphic novel effectively, because for most it was an unfamiliar medium.

Golub said many students reported feeling disoriented reading graphic novels as literature. Combining the words and pictures was found to be challenging.

“It’s disruptive in a good way,” Golub said. “It challenges assumptions of what is worthy of serious study and challenges bias of low-brow versus high-brow.”

Heikkinen said she has to teach students how to “get their minds to adjust to combining the words and pictures.”

Lewis said many of her students found the format disorienting, and at first thought the graphic novel would be used as a supplemental textbook.

All three speakers said the majority of their students said they had not read comics or graphic novels and thought the class would be easy, not realizing this was serious study.

Also, many students reported at first feeling embarrassed that they were reading comic books for a college course, a feeling that quickly dissipated as the courses progressed.

Real life superhero

Those lucky enough to attend the panel featuring real-life superhero U.S. Representative John Lewis saw and heard a living legend. Lewis spoke about the campaign for the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s and introduced the third and final book in his graphic novel series, “March.”

A panel on banned books implored schools and communities not to reject books that challenge traditional roles and beliefs.

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel “Persepolis” – an autobiographical story about a girl from a secular family growing up in Iran during and after the Iranian revolution – enjoyed wide acclaim when it was released in 2003.

Then, in 2013, the book was banned by Chicago Public Schools and remains banned today for all CPS classrooms below grade 8.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund ( fights to oppose book banning and protect the First Amendment rights of “readers, creators, retailers, publishers and librarians of comics, manga, and graphic novels,” according to its website.

Many panels for kids and education were located off-site from the Convention Center, making it difficult to attend. Some of these at the San Diego Central Library included:

“Comics Are Literacy Too” (aiding adult literacy and English learners)

“Censorship of Kids’ Comics”

“Trends in Kids’ Graphic Novels”

“Teaching Fables, Fairy Tales, and Myths with Comics and Graphic Novels”

“Teaching History with Graphic Novels”

“Teaching STEM with Comics”

“Teaching Math through Comics”

“The Nerd in the Classroom: Comics as an Educational Tool”

“College and Geekdom: Finding Your Community”

There’s so much more to Comic-Con besides seeing the occasional TV or movie star and immersing oneself on the exhibit floor in a chaotic assault on the senses (how do all those babies and toddlers cope?).

Certainly the exhibit hall is a spectacle not to be missed, but behind the scenes Comic-Con offers teachers, parents and children impressive educational value.

Senior Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at