I was recently asked to suggest some graphic novels or comic books for a Young Adult Literature course by a colleague at another university. The professor wanted books that would be exciting for future high school teachers to use and intriguing and interesting for students to read. After providing a lengthy list of various books both within and beyond the superhero genre and knowing full well that some of the more “mature” oriented storylines of Vertigo and some independent presses may find inhospitible audiences with the parents of such children (which is why you teach college students, not high school students–no parents!), the professor settled upon Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis.
My first suggestion, regardless of the book being used, was to presume that many of the students in this professor’s class may have never read a graphic novel before and therefore may not be comfortable with the sequential format. I think for any teacher, high school or college, who wants to use graphic novels or comics in their classes, he or she needs to read Scott McCloud’s Understading Comics: The Invisible Art, especially the sections on panel creation (size, author sign posts, organization, etc.). Incorporating McCloud into your teaching will not only help your students better understand the readings, but also make you a more critical observer.
Second, you must provide some short, cultural history of the medium and the genre. Students need context and nothing occurs in a social, political, or cultural vacuum. Just like Upton Sinclair and Charlottle Perkins Gilman epitomized very different strains of Progressive Era American ideologies, comics and comic authors are shaped by their times. This can be ascertained from many of the books listed in the Bibliography section of this site. Third, focusing a graphic novel alone is probably going to be difficult, especially if you are trying to convince future teachers to utilize a graphic novel teaching unit in their own courses. I would suggest choosing a central theme and then assigning two or three suggested readings in addition to the course required reading. This allows for creative paper projects and presentations for the students, and exposes them to other comic authors.
Fourth, I would begin the discussion with the following quote from Meltzer about the series: “The murder is really just plot. To me, what the book is really about is the cost of being a hero. People always assume that the villains should be scared if they see a man in a cape—but to me, the person who should be terrified is the person putting on the cape. Identity Crisis let’s me bring a little more “man” to the ‘super.'” There is an excellent interview with Meltzer on NPR that can also be helpful.
Finally, I devised the following questions for lecturing ideas and discussion topics:
- How does the design, arrangement, style of the panels convey issues of time passage, scene change, emotion, and importance. Did you have any problems engaging the book and interacting with it because of the graphic sequential format (i.e. figuring out what happens first, second, next, etc.)? Is this your first foray into the sequential medium? If so, what struck you most about the style and format as opposed to traditional, strictly narrative texts. If not, how does this work compare with others you have read?
- Although the “Big 3–Superman, Batman, & Wonder Woman” are iconic characters known internationally and have become symbols and mythic icons in their own right through television and film, how did you engage with the second tier characters such as Flash & Green Lantern, or those other lesser known? Do you have to be a “comic geek” to know these characters, know their origins, and know their motives within this story? Who do you believe Meltzer’s audience is and what knowledge base do you think they would possess prior to reading this book? If you were to use this in a course, what do you feel your students would need to better comprehend the book?
- What does the title Identity Crisis signify and reveal? What are the multiple identities these characters possess and which shocked or surprised you the most, why? Could the title be directed more at the readership than the story itself, i.e. shattering the innocence readers associate with these iconic characters or the nobility and near sacred values many attribute to these pillars of truth, justice, and the American Way?
- How have the images and depictions of superheroes changed and transformed since their inception in the late 1930s and early 1940s from what we see on television, film, and in Identity Crisis?
- How do you define a superhero? What makes a superhero good and a supervillain evil. What are the shades of gray? While the themes of rape, murder, and the erasure of memories by members of the Justice League complicate our portrait of superheroes, does Meltzer’s story modernize these characters at the expense of their intended origins (superheroes=good only) and destroy our myths and symbols in the process, or does his story transform these characters for modern audiences raised in a post-Vietnam, Reagan-Era?
- What about the relationships portrayed in the book–father & son, mentor & ward, hero & sidekick, husband & wife–stood out for you and why? How might this relationship also reflect the “identity” in crisis within the story?
- Are there any other superhero or non-superhero genre graphic novels you could utilize alongside Identity Crisis to deal with the themes we’ve discussed? Do you think your students would respond more to recognizable superheroes or other non-superhero graphic novels that deal with similar themes? Why? Do superheroes hold the same power today as they did 10 years ago? Why or why not.
These are merely my own suggestions from having taught graphic novels in some of my own history and popular culture courses. I would appreciate hearing from anybody who has taught graphic novels or comics before and ask you to share your advice and experiences as well.