Comics in the Classroom

Building reading comprehension and literary analysis — with help from the X-Men

December 5, 2017
Comic book illustration of different speech bubbles

My mother was a master of deception. Committed to the long con of getting me, her pickiest son, to eat something more than macaroni and cheese, my mother tricked me into eating healthy food. On homemade pizza night, she snuck baby spinach under the mozzarella with the stealth of bootleggers during prohibition. I still remember her dastardly grin as I chugged glasses of what I now know to be protein powder-infused Nestle Quik.

A few decades older, and a few broccoli florets healthier, I use my mother’s clandestine cunning to ensure that my students get a different kind of nutrition. Just as she hid the vegetables in her cake batter, I teach literary analysis through superhero comic books.

Comics can be an invaluable teaching tool, but aside from the occasional non-serial graphic novel, they are underused. For every Maus, Fun Home, and American Born Chinese, countless superhero comics are disregarded as too superficial for the level of analysis afforded “real” works of literature. But comics can serve three primary roles in the classroom:

  • They can facilitate a better understanding of complex required texts by serving as a preliminary reading activity;
  • They can extend the analysis of a classic work of literature, either by providing examples of derivative fiction or by making strong allusions to the classics;
  • They can replace less-accessible works from the literary canon while still conveying the same messages and using the same literary and rhetorical conventions.

Motivating students with texts that resonate with their personal interests and identities will increase their investment, leading to greater exposure to words, greater vocabulary acquisition, and more frequent use of reading strategies — three cornerstones of comprehension.

Consider Lord of the Flies, a staple of reading lists in middle and high school. After skimming the back cover, students find the novel dated, boring, and unrelated to who they are or what they like. Students wrestle with a plot that has a group of stranded British school boys turning their prep uniforms into loincloths. Unfamiliar with symbolism-laden allegory, and without knowing how allegories function as social critiques, most students manage only a surface-level comprehension of the text, missing the opportunity to explore the larger ideas of human capability and culpability.

Research from literacy expert Catherine Snow and other colleagues shows that student motivation is essential for reading comprehension. Motivating students with texts that resonate with their personal interests and identities will increase their investment, leading to greater exposure to words, greater vocabulary acquisition, and more frequent use of reading strategies — three cornerstones of comprehension.

So to build my students’ comprehension and sharpen their analytical skills, I developed a unit where I introduce them to an allegory derived from popular culture, using story arcs from the X-Men franchise. Working with Chris Claremont’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, or Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, I begin by asking, What is a mutant?

Students usually characterize mutants as individuals whose abilities and appearances often lead to their persecution. They’ll note that mutants often realize they are different during puberty or adolescence; some mutants have an appearance that allows them to pass as “normal” people, while others must go to great lengths to hide their true selves.

After these simple inquiries, students begin to see how X-Men is an allegory for the experiences of marginalized people — non-white, non-male, non-Christian, non-heteronormative — in an oppressive society.

With that definition in hand, it doesn’t take them long to answer my second question: Who in our society would be considered a mutant?

After these simple inquiries, students begin to see how X-Men is an allegory for the experiences of marginalized people — non-white, non-male, non-Christian, non-heteronormative — in an oppressive society. Digging into the characters and plots of their X-Men comics, they soon find contemporary and historic parallels.

They find the sociopolitical ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X in the characters Charles Xavier and Magneto. They recognize the connection between stop-and-frisk policies and the “anti-mutant” initiatives in the comics. They come to see that there is nothing coincidental about the irascible Quicksilver having a mercurial temper, or the naïve hero Cyclops having trouble seeing the depths of a given situation. At the end of the unit, I ask students to write an essay connecting King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” speech with quotes from Professor X and Magneto.

After an immersion into the allegorical X-Men universe, students read Golding’s Lord of the Flies with far greater confidence and efficiency, able to make light work of complex analysis. The X-Men unit serves as an elaborate warm-up — a chance to learn and practice the character and symbol analysis they’ll need for deeper reading. That pre-work could have taken a more traditional form, to be sure, but I’ve found that students are more willing to engage with an activity they find to be familiar, interesting, or integral to their sense of self.

Comic books can offer just that kind of identity-validating conduit. To take a cue from my mother, they can be the cake that hides the vegetables, connecting students to other works of literature, to complex literary analysis, and to the skills they need for deeper comprehension.

About the Author

Jabari Sellars
Jabari Sellars is a current master’s student in the Language and Literacy Program at HGSE.
See More From This Author
See More In
K-12 Language and Literacy Learning and Teaching

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.