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Recommended Comics for Schools: Uncle Scrooge, Papyrus, The Loxleys/Crogan’s Loyalty, Hammer and Anvil

Some time has passed since I posted part one and part two of this series, so by way of reminder, we’re not just taking a look at recent graphic titles of merit and how they align with core curriculum but also with media literacy, visual literacy, and similar topics.

Uncle Scrooge: “Only a Poor Old Man”

There’s certainly no shortage of Carl Barks’s classic Uncle Scrooge comics out there, but these new collections from Fantagraphics, hardbound and handsomely designed, are perfect for libraries. The brilliant storytelling, easy-to-read lettering, and compelling themes hidden just under the breezy exteriors are just a few of the reasons why I wish every classroom library at elementary had a volume of Barks on hand. Also, there’s a reason why George Lucas wrote the intro to this volume, apart from his status as a fan—Barks’s work can be studied as providing exemplars of various “shots” commonly used not just in comics, but in moving image media.

Teaching Topics

Economics: This collection contains the all-time classic story, “Tralla La,” a tribute to James Hilton but also an unmatched parable of valuation systems. Can an economy run on bottle caps? Should it? By exploring such questions with intelligence and clarity, this parable shows why it deserves a place in a secondary social studies curriculum along with a comprehensive nonfiction text such as the recently published Economix (for which I wrote a Teaching Guide, by the way).

Backstory/Origin Tales: In the title story we are a given a brief glimpse of a young, nineteenth-century Uncle Scrooge before he made his millions. Ask: How do the incidents recounted enrich the meaning of the present-set narrative? How do they shed light on the development of the character’s personality, particularly in terms of his trademark greed and materialism? By making Uncle Scrooge slightly more sympathetic, what deeper point about human nature might Barks be making?

Papyrus: The Anger of the Great Sphinx

For the misguided souls who feel that enjoying comics doesn’t entail much actual “reading,” I invite them to pick up any of the several text-heavy, and often quite literate, European titles reprinted in English by Cinebook. And while De Gieter’s Papyrus series, with its bold artwork and often silent panels, is not really one of these, it’s still a comic that can be used with a wide range of students because of its mix of quiet sophistication with a moderate vocab level.

Teaching Topics

Story Structure/Pacing/Concision: One of the remarkable things about The Anger of the Great Sphinx is the sheer amount of story that fits within its 46 pages. Indeed, more takes place than often occurs in graphic novels two or three times its length, and yet the narrative never feels rushed and large panels are employed strategically throughout. To help students understand (and appreciate) how De Gieter achieved this, have them create and fill in a bookmap for the work; by noting the sequence of dramatic episodes and when major plot points occur, students can use the bookmap to analyze the structure of the narrative and the tempo of its chain-of-events.

Critical Media Literacy/Representation:  As an adventure set in ancient Egypt, The Anger of the Great Sphinx holds considerable interest apart from its engaging, quasi-mythological story. To prompt critical thinking, ask questions such as: What views of Egyptians might one hold if exposed only to such representations? What text or visual details indicate the amount and quality of research done prior to creating this book? Does that indicate something about the author’s attitude toward the culture—why or why not? How is the representation of the princess in the story similar to, or different than, other princesses you’ve encountered in pop culture?

The Loxleys and the War of 1812 / Crogan’s Loyalty

I’m breaking routine here a bit by grouping two related titles together. Both are top-notch in terms of quality and production values, although differing in terms of overall aesthetic. Claude St. Aubin’s art in The Loxleys is clean, and the colors by Lovern Kindzierski are pleasantly vivid while cartoonist Chris Schweizer continues the acclaimed Crogan series with his characteristic inky-black expressiveness. The writing in both books is solid—exceptionally well-researched and clear, and, in the case of The Loxleys, packing much more of a punch than you might expect from a first impression.

Teaching Topics

History: For any social studies curricula that cover the history of the Americas, both these titles would be near the top of my 2012 list for their content alone. But what really drives them through the roof are their unusually rich teaching resources—I wish more creators and publishers had this kind of commitment to the K-12 applications of their work. Writer Alan Grant’s passion for the subject matter of The Loxleys is reflected in a 50-page (!) historical summary of the War of 1812 by Mark Zuehlke. That’s not all, though: there’s a play developed especially for schools that’s free to educators who identify themselves and their institutions, as well as a dedicated website that features an interactive timeline and links galore.

The support materials for the American Revolution-set Crogan’s Loyalty also represent an embarrassment of riches: the free, 23-page (!) Teaching Guide has tons of fascinating information about the period and a lot of useful tips about teaching graphic novels generally—I suggest picking it up even if you’re unfamiliar with the book. (Full disclosure: I was one of a number of educators whom Schweizer consulted when he set out to make sure that his work maximized its value for classrooms.)

Critical Literacy/Point-of-view: A key part of critical literacy is determining whose story, or voice, is being left out in a given text. Well, if we consider curriculum itself as a text, it becomes apparent that the War of 1812 is rarely told from a Canadian perspective, at least not in U.S. schools, but that’s what Grant so masterfully (and memorably) accomplishes. As for Schweizer, he upends any tidy account of the American Revolution that paints everything with an exclusively pro-colonists brush—here the conflict is revealed to be much closer to the Civil War in spirit than we normally suppose. With both books, the resultant teaching opportunities are endless.

The Hammer and the Anvil

Simply put, everything gels here. Wayne Vansant’s thoughtful but decidedly non-flashy art style complements the sweeping yet personal text by Dwight Jon Zimmerman… and both fit the skillfully intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes these kinds of information-rich graphic histories can be a bit dry, as if the mere presence of sequential art would sufficiently enliven a textbook-like approach, but not here. Compact yet comprehensive, this book deserves to be included in any American History curriculum middle grades and up.

Teaching Topics

Primary sources: Verbatim quotes from original letters, speeches, newspaper editorials and the like are integrated effortlessly throughout Zimmerman’s script—one is tempted to say “seamlessly” because in terms of story-flow there’s no disruption. However, readers can detect these primary source excerpts because they’re called out by means of changes in lettering (or sometimes quotation marks). Encourage students to identify such passages and to evaluate their function and effectiveness. Ask: Why was a direct quote necessary here instead of a paraphrase? Which other sections of the book might have benefited from a primary source excerpt? Why?

Emphasis/Key Details: Speaking of lettering, part of the exceptional clarity of the expository and narrative text in The Hammer and The Anvil derives from the strategic use of boldface for emphasis. You can leverage this by having students read aloud passages expressively and thus support comprehension, or by encouraging students to use the bolded words and phrases as a study aide since they often call out important content-area terms and vocabulary. In either case, the use of emphasis (which of course in print text is accomplished through italics) can function as an exemplar for students’ own prose… or comics scripts.

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