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Meanwhile, Back in the Library...Comics: Issue 1: Using comics in academia

In this issue, someone learns!: Comics in academia

This issue is celebrating the comics, graphic novels and cartoons we have in the library: but what are those comics doing in an academic library in the first place? We're not saying that everything should be in comic form, any more than everything should be videos, textbooks or interpretive dance: but comics have their own role to play alongside other formats.

So why use comics?

Why use comics in academia?

By Dr Harriet Earle,
Department of Humanities

 Let’s just make this clear: comics are not a new thing. Using images to tell stories and convey information has been a ‘thing’ since before written language existed. We can trace the ancestors of the modern comic back a very long way; think of pictographs and cave paintings as being the grandparents of comics, just as ancient Greek and Roman  theatre grew and developed into modern drama, performance and film. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because, at the very least, you are interested in comics and image narratives: you may not have read many comics texts before and that’s not a problem at all. But what you may not know is that you probably read comics every day. The comics form exists across the narrative and educational spectrum, including texts from the Bayeux Tapestry and ancient Egyptian tomb paintings to IKEA furniture instructions and those leaflets used on airplanes to give safety instructions.

But why is this important? Why should we care about comics in academia and how they work?

1. We all learn in different ways. For some, using image-heavy material that we have to read in a non-typical way can massively improve the way we take in information and the amount of it that ‘sticks’. Dr Paul Aleixo, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at SHU, has written extensively on the use of comics as textbooks, mapping the ways in which the transfer of information from comics to student is different than in text-based books. In STEM subjects and for dense and complex theoretical topics, comics can make visible and legible subjects that otherwise may be impenetrable.

My research is about how comics can be used to represent traumatic experiences (especially conflict and war) in ways that allow the reader to feel and be a part of the story in ways we don’t get from literature or film. I’m hoping that my research will feed into conversations on writing and art as therapy and how comics can be used to give people a way to speak about their own experiences, especially those who have witnessed horrific events. There are huge numbers of comics that discuss traumatic events (including war and conflict, sexual assault, illness, and bereavement) that are providing readers a ‘way in’ to talking about big topics.

Comics Studies is one of the most inter- and trans-disciplinary areas of study around. When I’m researching, I’m spanning literary theory, cultural history, art history, psychology (and sometimes clinical psychiatry), visual narrative and all manner of associated theories. My colleagues work on areas as diverse as human geography, medicine, classics, modern languages, and economics. The comic book is like a conduit; it’s a meeting point for a wide-ranging array of fields and it can open up new conversations we never previously considered.

2. Who wants to read yet another text-based book? Part of the joy of academia is learning new things and opening our minds to different ideas and ways of doing things. Comics is another facet of that. There’s no reason why a subject has to be ‘done the way it has always been done’ to remain valid. We use Youtube, audio-visual resources, podcasts, websites, blogs and wikis: why not use image-based print media too? (And, while we’re at it, web comics and online image narratives.)

3. Have you ever noticed that images are everywhere? We’re constantly reading images in advertising, shops, instruction manuals, on transport and in entertainment. Visual literacy is a massive part of us and yet so often we don’t even realise it. Moreover, even if we’re not regular readers of comics, most of us are able to read them with very little problem. We’ve been doing it our whole lives without noticing. Understanding how and why we read images can be an immensely valuable question to ask when we’re moving into university, where a good awareness of how we read and engage with the wider world is a useful research tool.

4. It used to be that comics were (apparently) only read by teenage boys in their bedrooms but it’s likely that’s never been accurate. Unfortunately, this image has been a hard one to shake and for many people, comic books are for children (and, at a push, young men). But now perceptions of the medium are changing and the humble comic book has become a work of intrigue and intense artistic skill, as this exhibition will demonstrate. It is no longer shameful to admit to reading comics, nor is the comic book shop an entirely male-dominated space. The form is claiming its place in the literary and artistic canon. It is achieving academic status, opening up new avenues of writing that were long-since untapped. As I write in my book on war comics, the only things comics isn’t is a laughing matter.


Gene Luen Yang: TEDxManhattanBeach: Comics belong in the classroom

You can find out more about how and why comics belong in the classroom by taking time out to listen and watch Gene Luen Yang present at TEDxManhattanBeach.

You may also like to follow up by taking a look at one of his book,  American Born Chinese,  that we have in the Adsetts Library which we have handily linked here for you! .

How to find out more about using comics or graphic novels in an educational setting

Here is the search strategy we used to create this search: comic* OR "visual storytelling" or "graphic novel" OR "graphic novels" OR "sequential images" AND student* OR education* OR universit* OR school*.

The search could be altered e.g. add more terms for schools, add a date range, alter the content type or broaden the search to all fields. This search is a title field search.  Happy reading!

Comics set in the world of universities

Take a look at how comics have made it on to the silver screen!

This is just a selection of the media items we have related to comics. You can find out more by searching Library Search and using the Audio / Video filter. Happy audio and visual viewing...or you can click on this link to a pre-run Library Search.

However, we may have recorded something since we created this link...go on run the search from scratch!

Comic sources: curated by university libraries

We're not the only university library with an interest in comics: here are some collections of useful academic resources assembled by other libraries.

Why use comics...because they cover most subjects an can be another way into your studies!

There are a lot of comics out there, both fiction and non-fiction: the chances are that there's something out there to support your discipline, whatever you're learning or teaching.

You can find some of subject-specific comics we have on our Meanwhile, Back in the Library reading list online (a handful of which are below): health and media have so many titles that they have their own sections, and will be explored in more detail in later issues on the guide.

Why not take a look at various networks and collections to support using comics within certain subjects, such as these:

And if there's not a comic to cover exactly what you want, we even have materials to help you create your own.

Why use comics...because we're already using them!

SHURA is an open access repository containing scholarly outputs and publications of researchers at Sheffield Hallam University. The following are some of the work that at Sheffield Hallam that either researches comics themselves, or uses comics as part of their research.

Happy research reading!

Why use comics...because we're not the only place using them!

We're certainly not the only place using or promoting comics . For example, comics can be used by researchers to disseminate their research, such as these comics produced by the Wellcome Centre on the seemingly unlikely topic of parasites...

...or comics can be used to promote special collections, as Newcastle University have done for their archive of material from the archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell...

...or universities can simply produce guides to help students and staff find, use and research comics.

A really interesting blog post from The Sociological Review about the use of comics to disseminate research.

Why use comics...because they're interesting in their own right!

Comics can also be an interesting subject of study in their own right: as a world-wide, centuries-old medium which ranges from small-press, single-creator works to vast international transmedia corporations, comics provide fertile ground for the study of visual literacy, popular culture and genres.

We have several dedicated journals and resources to support the study of comics.

Why use comics... because they're really good!

There are, of course, good comics and bad comics: but some of those good comics are very, very good indeed, and a match for anything in any other media. If you have an interest in literature, art, design or communication, they can be key texts.

You can find which of these classic titles we have in stock on the Meanwhile, Back in the Library reading list online, organised by writer.

Recommend something for the Library

We are always looking for new publications to support your learning and teaching, and to keep the library collections up to date with high-quality materials.  If you think we're missing something crucial though, we'd like to hear about it.  

You can suggest a purchase to the Library using the Suggest a Purchase link below.