Using comic books and superheroes in the classroom can be a rewarding experience for students and teachers alike. With a few creative lesson plans, young learners will enjoy a values-based education with opportunities for skill development and critical thinking. Comics are an accessible and affordable resource that can benefit students of all ages across a wide range of learning areas, and they offer progressive teachers the chance to present information and ideas in new and exciting ways.
Most students are familiar with comic books and superheroes, and even those who might condemn them as being ‘nerdy’ are likely to enjoy reading them as part of their schoolwork. Those who don’t want to read about superheroes will discover that there is a wealth of other graphic storytelling options. For teachers who are concerned about their value as ‘literature’, the news is equally good. Comic books have come a long way in the past ten years, and the best of them are beautifully written and illustrated, with complex stories and themes.
Here, then, are more than a dozen ideas for lesson plans involving comic books that students are likely to find interesting, challenging, and fun. Let’s begin with the basics:
One of the strengths of comic books is that they can encourage reading in students with poor literacy. They function in the same way that children’s picture books do, with the images supporting the text and vice versa. Because they often feature serialised stories that end on a cliffhanger, the student may want to read several issues to ‘find out what happens next’.
As the medium grows in stature, an increasing number of classic novels and plays are being released in comic book form. Many students are visual learners, and find a graphic version of “Macbeth” or “Jane Eyre” easier to understand. In the past, some teachers have turned to movies when presenting serious texts, but graphic novels are a better option as the student is compelled to create the story through reading.
The important thing is to treat all comics as real texts. Students should be directed towards thinking about the story and characters, whether they’re reading about Archie and Jughead, Spider-Man, or “The Walking Dead”.
Most comic publishers now offer digital downloads of their books, and this may be a more cost effective way of providing the resource than through purchasing individual copies. It is a good idea, however, to have a box of actual comics on hand for some activities and as a reward for early finishers.
To help students develop their storytelling skills, select a couple of comic book pages that have several panels and word balloons. Photocopy these and cover the dialogue with correction fluid. The students then have to fill the now blank speech bubbles with meaningful dialogue of their own, using the pictures as a guide. It is also possible to use online sites like stripcreator and comic-creator to ‘write’ short strips or pages of a comic book story.
Alternatively, select a page or two of story that leaves the protagonist in some kind of trouble or danger. Then ask the students to problem solve and write a way out of the predicament. This can be done as a story, a script, or as an illustrated comic book page.
Further creative writing can be generated by posing a ‘what if’ question, such as “what if you could fly, or read minds, or were super strong?” Students may want to create their own hero, complete with an origin story and an arch-enemy. (They can design the look of their character on heromachine.)
Depending on the text being used, older students should be encouraged to write character analyses or reviews. Take a look at Comic Vine or Comic Book Resources for examples.
Here’s a fun problem solving activity. Present groups of students with a life or death situation (a runaway train, hostage drama or poison gas leak, for instance), then have each member draw a random super power from a hat. As the classroom’s very own Action Squad or “Avengers”, they have to work together to figure out how to solve the crisis.
A very simple strategy to teach students about the mechanics of story writing is to select some three panel newspaper strips (like ‘Garfield’ or ‘Wizard of Id’) and cut them up into individual panels. By arranging the panels into a meaningful order and discussing the purpose of each one, students can develop an understanding of the orientation-conflict-resolution structure of narrative.
Morals and values
Superhero comic books are a wonderful resource for thinking and learning about important values. What is it that makes Spider-Man a hero, and the Green Goblin a villain? What is meant by the famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility”? By keeping their identities secret, even from loved ones, are superheroes saying that it is sometimes OK to lie? Are superheroes like Batman being bullies when they beat up crooks?
In Classical Greece and Rome, great heroes like Hercules, Achilles and Aeneas were often used as archetypes of good and moral behaviour. Their rewards and punishments as meted out by the gods were taken as lessons about the right way to act. In several ways, comic book heroes are their modern equivalent. Teachers may want to use superheroes as a springboard for learning about Greek myths, or as an introduction to the My Hero Project.
These days, film study has become a key part of English and Media courses as young people are increasingly expected to be visual learners. Comic book artists typically observe the rules of cinema, and a close study of their work can teach students about such things as camera angles and shot lengths. Media savvy teachers may also want to allow students to film comic book sequences; a process known as storyboarding.
There seems to be a crisis in science education, if recent reports are anything to go by. While the causes of this are complex, there are several ways that teachers can use comics to add enthusiasm and relevance to their lessons. Students may want to consider why so many superheroes are also scientists: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and Batman (to name a few) use science and invention regularly in their adventures. Why is science so important to these characters?
How might Spidey’s web shooters work? Can the students design or create something that might allow them to do something ‘super’? What might superhero origin stories teach about genetics and mutations?
Students may also enjoy creating their own hero based on a chemical element. What powers might “Cobalt Man” or Captain Mercury” have?
Arts and crafts
It can be fun to draw a comic strip, but the conventions of the form should also be studied. Many contemporary comic book artists are highly skilled at layout and composition: take a look at the work of Neal Adams, Frank Miller or Dave Gibbons, for instance, or at a website like this one.
Younger students may enjoy a dress up day in costumes they have made themselves. A simple mask or embroidered cape are manageable sewing projects for most students.
A few recommendations
There are so many good comic books available these days (and quite a few not-so-good ones) that it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are a few personal recommendations:
For younger readers, try Boom! Studios wonderful “Snarked”, or some of the Marvel Adventures books based on popular TV cartoons. Archie comics often deal with real issues faced by young people in a humorous way.
For older students, graphic novels such as “Pride of Baghdad”, “Incognegro” or Will Eisner’s seminal ‘Tenement’ books (“A Contract with God” or “Dropsie Avenue”, for example) are highly recommended.
Vertigo Comics offers free downloads of many of its first issues. These are non-superhero comics that are intended for a more mature and sophisticated audience. Try the free samples of “Y: the Last Man”, “Fables” or “DMZ”, and then rush out and buy the trade paperbacks of these remarkable works.
For further information, don’t forget to check out Comic Vine or Comic Book Resources. They may provide the inspiration for even more creative and provocative ways to use comic books in the classroom.