Class on Graphic Novels

Class on Graphic Novels
Illustration / Brian Rhodes


Southeast’s University Press does not currently hold any graphic novels, but it is something publisher Susan Swartwout says is a hot ticket. So much so, that the Department of English is now in its second year of a graphic novels course. What began as an independent study with one student has grown into a special topics course with plans to add to the regular rotation of course offerings.

Dr. Missy Nieveen-Phegley, associate professor of English, says this up-and-coming genre has been getting increasingly popular in the last 20-30 years. What may have been considered a comic book for entertainment once upon a time now offers significant impact on culture and society.

“There is a level of complexity in graphic novels that requires both textual literacy and visual literacy,” says Nieveen-Phegley. “At the same time, graphic novels can tackle complex issues that lead to rich discussions in the classroom.”

Those discussions have been one of the most interesting components of teaching the class for Nieveen-Phegley. She describes them as “phenomenal” and says her students agree.

“Several students have commented how impressed they are with their peers for their insightful observations and in-depth analyses of the texts.

“Student response has been very positive and the interest is not just limited to English majors. Currently, ten of my 27 students are non-majors, which means that, while they may be taking the course for elective credit, it does not meet any major requirements. To me, that says there is significant interest in a course like this.”

Nieveen-Phegley says the works are definitely being recognized in the industry for their value to literature with inclusion in literature anthologies.

For those new to the genre, the subject matter is much more advanced than what you’d expect from a standard comic of the past. This semester, her class is reading graphic novels that include the life of John Lewis, one of the youngest leaders of the civil rights movement at the time and his journey from segregated schoolhouse to U.S. congress; a son’s interview with his father, a Holocaust survivor; and a girl’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

Somewhat more expected fare includes one graphic novel with Superman as its main character. While that may sound more like the graphic novels you’re familiar with, Superman: Red Son details what might have been had baby Superman crashed on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and grown up to become Stalin’s righthand man. It’s easy to see how class discussions can take on a surprising weight as students share observations and analyses of the text and art.

As for the future of graphic novels, more schools are adding entries to their reading lists and curriculum. The visual component can certainly appeal to reluctant readers. Nieveen-Phegley says some former students have continued in the field beyond their graduation.

“Brian Rhodes has created a series called Mike and the Ninja,” says Nieveen-Phegley. Rhodes graduated in 2006 with a degree in English with emphasis in writing.

“I like to make graphic novels because they blend two of my favorite past times: writing and drawing,” he says. “It’s challenging because it’s not as simple as putting words and pictures together—sequential art is about telling a story with only the most essential details, and presenting them to readers with a flow and brevity that captures their attention and makes them want more. Every panel of a graphic novel is a moment in time, and sharing the right moments is essential to telling a compelling story.”

Nieveen-Phegley says this trend is just one way the department is revising its literature curriculum with an eye toward being “more diverse and inclusive” of what’s new in both the field of study and the marketplace. They are currently proposing a minor in film and literature studies, just more evidence that visual arts and the written word go hand in hand.


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