Home » Education and Reference

Comics For Extra Credit - Part 2

Jun 16, 2008
My first post about comics as an educational aid generated an interesting response -- from the managing director of Classical Comics, a comic book company in the United Kingdom. Not to be confused with Classic Comics, often teasingly referred to as a study guide for college literature classes here in the State, Classical Comics turns classical literature into high-quality visual graphic novels.

Founded two and a half years ago, Classical Comics first title was Henry the V in November, 2007, followed by the launch of a Macbeth graphic novel in February, 2008. The Macbeth title received the endorsement of Shakespearean actor, and former Star Trek, The Next Generationstar Patrick Stewart. Upcoming titles for the remainder of 2008 include: Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, and a Christmas Carol. Seven new titles are planned for 2009.

Unlike prior educational efforts, Classical Comics' titles come in four text options: the original text of the play or novel, plain text translation, a quick text for younger readers, and, a blank text where readers may fill in the captions and bubbles. The first titles are also accompanied by detailed study guides, aimed at the British equivalent of grades kindergarten through middle school. While the titles are too new for the company to have collected readership data, the original version would be likely targeted at ninth and tenth graders with the translations to be more popular with younger readers. I will know better shortly, as the company has shipped me a box of the titles. I have been warned that it will be a very heavy box!

Classical Comics' managing director Karen Wenborn, a marketer and self-professed avid reader said that the first titles have been well-received because of their high visual quality, substantial feel (gloss paper, much like hardbound graphic novels) and efforts to be true to the period of the story. From viewing covers for the titles at Classical Comics' website, artwork and action are quite similar to the modern superhero genre. Wenborn pointed out that past efforts to represent classical literature in comics have faltered because the artwork had not been kept up to date; she added that while those titles are being reprinted in the original art, their largest market in the U.K is nostalgia buffs, as opposed to students and educators.

I agree with Karen that visual quality is essential for the success of these titles. Super heroes are actually "old" characters in the United States, for instance, Batman and Superman characters from the 1940's. Spiderman, Hulk and Ironman are creations from the early 1960's. Yet these titles succeed, not because they have been made into cartoons and movies, but because their look has been considerably freshened up to appeal to adults (who bought the titles as kids) as well as children. Characters from the 1940's and 1960's have had to keep up with the times, as well as technology.

A graphic novel of a classic book, by comparison, does not need to be "updated," but artistic techniques, combined with historical research, make the story truer to the time it took place. The reader will be comparing their first exposure to these stories with movies that use computer-generated images. A plain text book with no illustrations or one of the original comics will appear dull compared to the visual representations kids see today in comics, video games and movies.

However, Karen explained that Classical Comics are more expensive to produce than similar graphic novels because of the research required for powerful visual effects as well as translations. I see only two obstacles to success: cost to schools versus a more traditional book (which is serious in times of tight budgets in U.S. public schools) and past beliefs about comics among individual educators. I have to ask if librarians might be a stronger market for U.S. expansion; they are more likely to promote the entertainment value of reading than teachers. However, if I were a teacher, and especially if I were the head of a high school English department, I would be trying to negotiate a fair price on original and basic text versions of these books. I know they would entice students to read other titles on their own.

Karen told me that the titles have been very well received in the U.K; they have received the endorsement of Shakespeare for Kidz, an international non-profit organization that provides Shakespeare education to children through a variety of media, and the National Association for the Teaching of English.

I look forward to seeing these titles and reviewing them for you.
About the Author
Contact Stuart Nachbar at Educated Quest, a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at Sex Ed Chronicles.
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