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Teaching graphic novels as literature: The Complete Maus enters the curriculum

Next year, senior students in Victoria will be able to study a graphic novel, The Complete Maus, as part of the prescribed English curriculum. As a literary and artistic form, graphic novels combine the…

A graphic novel has been added to the year 12 English curriculum. Graphic novel image from www.shutterstock.com

Next year, senior students in Victoria will be able to study a graphic novel, The Complete Maus, as part of the prescribed English curriculum.

As a literary and artistic form, graphic novels combine the visual with text to create rich and complex narratives. But they also require a different kind of “reading” than the school texts students might be used to.

Setting this text as part of a high stakes, centrally examined curriculum invites a new examination of kinds of literacy and its demands on teachers, students and examiners.

Choosing texts for study

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) provides a list of approved texts for study as part of English and English as an Additional Language. The text list includes a selection of texts in a range of categories - novels, short stories, poetry or songs, plays, non fiction texts and, from 2014, “multimodal” formerly the “film” category.

Next year, this category includes two films, but teachers are also able to select the graphic narrative if they chose.

Texts selected for inclusion on the VCE English/EAL text list, published annually by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, have to meet a number of criteria. These include the need to have literary merit, to be an excellent example of form and genre, and to be able to sustain intensive study, raising interesting issues and providing challenging ideas.

The Complete Maus by Art Spigelman. Flickr/Chiva Congelado

All texts chosen for study must be taken from this list. Teachers chose texts from the list according to a set of guidelines that include the need to strike a balance between different forms – at least one needs to be “an imaginative text”, and at least one must be Australian.

Texts are chosen that will enable teachers to create a course that meets common curriculum priorities and examination requirements, and the needs and interests of their students.

A shift from the norm

The move to expand the category “film” to “multimodal”, and to provide teachers and students with the opportunity to study a graphic novel, is significant. For some time now, teachers and education bodies in Australia have been conscious of the changing nature of literacy, and the need for students to be confident and competent users of traditional and more contemporary forms.

At lower levels in the school, from the Foundation year through to year 10, schools have increasingly incorporated multimodal texts into the curriculum, in response to state and national guidelines. Policy documents for English and literacy, such as the Australian Curriculum: English, recognise the diversity of ways in which meaning is made in the twenty first century.

The decision to set The Complete Maus as a VCE English/EAL text suggests two significant shifts in thinking. First, the graphic narrative now stands alongside plays, poetry and novels as a sophisticated and complex text form worthy of study and close analysis; meeting the common criteria for all texts on the list.

The Complete Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, surviving in Hitler’s Europe. The Complete Maus by Art Spigelman p133-4, Penguin Books

Second, graphic novels are recognised as unique forms in their own right, with their own forms of logic and organisation which differ significantly from both print based genres and from film. This means that teachers and students will have the opportunity to explore and analyse the text, but also recognise the importance of the visual elements of the story.

The distinctiveness of graphic novels

Pages in graphic novels and graphic narratives are made up of words, images and panels. To read them effectively, and to understand their complex and subtle meanings, requires attention to the ways in which both images and words work independently and together. Each has its own logic and way of organising meaning.

In writing, one thing usually follows another. Theorist Gunther Kress describes the “logic” of writing as about time and sequence. With images, on the other hand, lots of information is presented at once. The “logic” of the image is of “space and simultaneity”.

Graphic narratives are quintessentially multimodal, and require new ways of reading that call on both visual and verbal modes. As the field has matured, a canon of sophisticated, multilayered graphic novels and narratives has developed. They are well worthy of study at senior secondary English alongside other forms of literature in more familiar print and multimedia genres.

In setting The Complete Maus, the VCAA has broken into new territory in providing students with the opportunity to study an outstanding text at the most senior level, and to take on the challenge of embracing both contemporary and more traditional forms of literacy.

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39 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    Well well........so it's art as literature.

    Why not a more well-known comic (sorry graphic novel).

    Not saying this isn't a worthy addition to any curriculum, but more as social comment rather than literature.

    Surely the novels of great Australian writers should be preferable - Winton, Malouf, Carey etc.

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    1. Nick McIvor

      Illustrator

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I definitely recommend you read "Maus" before you write it off - it is a unique take on the holocaust story that could not be told in any other form.

      Graphic novels may not be "literature", but they can be just as literary.

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Sorry "great Australian writers" is as subjective as your comment about graphic novels and Maus.

      I could similarly ask why the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy isn't on the curriculum. It has a lot to say about society and has entered the lexicon, which is more than can be said for any of the authors you have mentioned nor the graphic novels you have shunned. I could say the same again about Superman or Spiderman, which have implanted ideals and phrases of morality into society, regardless of whether people have read those graphic novels or not.

      I personally welcome any work into the class that will encourage kids to read, think and learn. And to anyone who derides graphic novels, they are clearly saying they don't or haven't read any.

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Ness Steadman

      That may be so, but my bigger point was that literature = words.

      This is art with captions.

      Not disputing that it may be hugely popular or good (even great)...
      but literature it ain't.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      So I named three contemporary Australian writers - call me subjective.

      I am not knocking the (art) form...just that it (to ME) is not literature.

      Your opinion is obviously as valid as mine......don't get huffy.

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    5. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      My reply wasn't huffy, it was pointing out the flaws in your entire previous statement.

      Also, graphic novels, with very few exceptions, are composed of words. They also use graphics, but that is often a collaboration between the writer and the artists they work with. Thus, by your own definition, they are eligible to be classified as literature.

      Now, as to my own examples, you seem to have completely missed the point I was making. You made a subjective list, so I put together some examples…

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    6. Matthew Thredgold

      Software Engineer/Secondary Teacher

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Maus is mighty fine, if harrowing, literature and for me was a springboard into the wonderful world of the graphic novel.

      I've given up on prose fiction and movies and newspapers. I used to read Australian literary fiction, but who has the time or patience nowadays. I still read non-fiction.

      I now read online news, science magazines, and graphic novels without superheroes, watch only whole TV series on BluRay, science docos on YouTube, and listen to a variety of podcasts.

      No TV ads, no radio ads, very few print ads.

      Newsagents, television, radio, the cinema, record shops, book shops, video rental places are all dead to me.

      I think the VCAA has chosen well and their reasoning is sound as literacy has certainly changed.

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    7. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Matthew Thredgold

      Oh well......says a lot about declining standards in education.

      No wonder kids have a problem reading - "do you want pictures with that"?

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    8. Nick McIvor

      Illustrator

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The point is it doesn't need to be "literature" to be worthy of study in senior English courses - And a graphic novel can be literary without being "literature".

      seriously Mr Ralph, pick up a graphic novel and maybe you will change your mind. "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi or maybe even "Epileptic" by David B would be good starting books.

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    9. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      spigelmann got a pulitzer for maus. did the judges make a mistake there, did they take a wrong turn at albuquerque and leave their envelopes with the m.c. at the comics convention? why shouldn't a pulitzer prize winner be on the english lit. curriculum?

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  2. Nick McIvor

    Illustrator

    I welcome this decision, but I'm honestly surprised its a big deal - that graphic novels haven't made it into curriculum already.

    Good graphic novels are as literary as they are visual . Moreover, they are the perfect bridge between the literary and the visual; a place to reconcile the different ways the word and the image can communicate. They are as unique and dynamic as any other narrative form and deserve consideration.

    And as for the decision to choose "the Complete Maus" specifically - that is a singularly wonderful piece of storytelling and the curriculum can only be richer for it. I would also recommend anything by Joe Sacco, Craig Thompson, Charles Burns, and of course Harvey Pekar. There's plenty of room for graphic novels in our school courses, and hopefully this is just the beginning.

    English (the subject) isn't just spelling and grammar, it's also communication and expression.

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  3. Helen Sykes

    Retired publisher and teacher

    This is hardly new. Raymond Briggs' graphic novel When the Wind Blows has been on the NSW HSC for many years.

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Helen Sykes

      yes, indeed. its heartening to hear briggs is there today, since late last century. people are reacting to this like marshall mcluhan never predicted the end of the gutenberg era. like it or not, the dominance of the book in the world is over forever. its high time, or later, to start sensible adaption to the media ecology settling in around the internet. in my opinion this work is valuable in itself and its presence on the curriculum is a welcome development if a bit overdue. -a.v.

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  4. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Surely the whole point of literature is that the reader has to imagine the scene described, the way words are spoken, the implications of what is said and much more. It's all in the mind, which develops through reading.
    A graphic novel presents the words and pictures with almost no imagining required. The number of words is hugely reduced to give way to often wasted space. In the example above there are 21 words, which if in normal lowercase type could be written in 10% of the space.
    Sorry I'm not convinced graphic novels have any merit for senior students.

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    1. Nick McIvor

      Illustrator

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Firstly, senior English does not solely concern itself with the study of literature. It has included film and theatre for some time. Senior English is generally most concerned with communication and ideas (or semiotics if you want to be fancy), and from this perspective graphic novels more than qualify for serious study.

      Secondly, your comment suggests you have no actual first hand knowledge of graphic novels. "The number of words is hugely reduced to give way to often wasted space." - Not only is that wrong, but it also misses the point. A single page can have as many as 300 words per page, and as many as 300 pages per book. Most importantly though, the number of words doesn't dictate the importance of the text for study in senior English - like I said before, it's all about communication.

      Lastly, you should really just read Maus if you can find a copy. It might just change your mind.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Nick McIvor

      Indeed, many of the later Bond novels read like film scripts.

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    3. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Shakespeare's plays give stage directions and poetry is often deliberately obscure, how is that given to your narrow definition of what literature is?

      Also, your second paragraph shows you haven't read many, if any, graphic novels.

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  5. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    You could write:
    'Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery'

    Or you could draw a fish.

    One of these is literature.

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    1. Chris Rice

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Citizen SG

      "Think of it, Netley: "Dionysiac Architects". What contradiction with the god of instinct and unreason thus evoked by Architects, most sober, Pipollonian of men. Yet they knew the unconscious was the inspiration whence their towers of reason sprang. Thus, harnessing its power symbolically was their sublime accomplishment.
      Their symbol was the dreaming moon enclosed by seven stars that represent Arithmetic, Music, Astronomy, Rhetoric, Grammar, Logic and Geometry, the pillars of Masonic thought."
      Also literature. And from a graphic novel.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Citizen SG

      I would appreciate an illustrated Gerard Manly Hopkins.
      With many artists' interpretations.
      Wouldn't stop anyone reading the poetry.

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  6. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    I don't know about senior high school students but I learned to read through comics before going to school.
    Perhaps the best of these books can help those adults whom the school system has left illiterate.
    The French are heavilly into "adult comics" with some exemplary artists.
    Let's get on with the adult literacy program, illustrations and all.
    And let some of those adults be in senior high school.
    Yes eightteen year old men and women are adults, and some of them are in School.
    Hope they are not treated as children, because they aren't.

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    While I'm in the mood for alienating folks, let me also say that this is a good example of dumbing down literature.

    Give the kids a picture with limited words and maybe they'll get the idea.

    Don't kids these days have the attention span to read a novel?

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The last graphic novel I read was 480 pages long and took many hours to read. It covered sexual identity, morality, the greater good argument, do evil deeds make us evil, etc, as issues.

      The last "literature" novel I read was about a woman who manipulated people to get what she wanted. It was ~300 pages long and took many hours to read.

      Your argument is typical of people who have a snobbish attitude to something based upon pure ignorance of the topic. Similar statements to yours have been made throughout time, decrying the dumbing down or declining standards of today's youth. Oddly enough it is proven false again and again only to be spouted once more. http://xkcd.com/1227/

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    2. Ness Steadman

      Director

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Ha ha ha! Now that's below the belt. The kids of today. No attention span. A picture says a thousand words. So a picture with one word would be a thousand and one. And what about what happens. . .

      between the panels?

      [ Boo ]

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Ness Steadman

      Gee I nearly laughed.........

      Kids can look at a picture but can't think of a thousand words these days. lol........

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  8. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    I know statistics can be twisted to suit any logic, but here's an item from The Australian last year -

    Rankings highlight problems in reading levels for Australian primary schoolchildren
    BY:JUSTINE FERRARI, NATIONAL EDUCATION CORRESPONDENT From: The Australian December 11, 2012 8:00PM

    PRIMARY students have a "substantial problem" in reading, with 25 per cent failing to meet the minimum standard for their age in international tests, while maths and science skills in primary and high school…

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    1. Nick McIvor

      Illustrator

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      This certainly highlights a need to overhaul primary school English (and probably school-parent relationships more broadly), but it still has nothing to do with high school English courses. The inclusion of a graphic novel in the EAL text list, and the content of that list in general, will have no impact on basic reading comprehension levels amongst students - it isn't supposed to.

      We can improve basic reading, and broaden the more sophisticated skills of our senior students at the same time.

      Get over it.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Nick McIvor

      Doesn't worry me greatly - I don't have kids and have limited hope for the future anyway.

      I see it as another thin edge in the wedge. Today one comic book, tomorrow only one REAL book.

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    3. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Happily, Dale Bloom and Craig Minns have been expunged from TC.
      What is it exactly Stephen, that makes you prefer the likes of Winton et al. over Speigelmann?

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      I loved comics when I was a kid.......I am not decrying them now.

      My preference is irrelevant - my opinion is however that graphic "novels" are comic books and not literature.

      Now if I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but let's move on.

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  9. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    woodcuts illustrated fiction in gutenberg's time. illustrated novels were common in the nineteenth century. tastes have changed. but contemporaries of dickens, meredith, thackery, trollope, hardy, and wells read them first with illustrations. students studying the contemporary graphic novel would be well served to be presented with a module which exposes them to the classics of the literary canon in their original illustrated editions. -a.v.

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  10. john tons

    retired redundant

    I last taught English over twenty years ago. I continue to be surprised and indeed baffled at arguments about some sort of literary canon. When I started teaching I introduced kids to poetry by getting them to listen to the Sounds of Silence - later I encouraged them to come to grips with Rap. In England I aught Canterbury Tales by taking the kids on an excursion that followed part of the Canterbury way - by the time they got back into the class room they realised that they had not just been following…

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  11. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I feel sorry for the kids - Maus is dreary, tendentious and morally bankrupt, but because it is about the Holocaust the kids will have to say wonderful it is.

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    1. Nick McIvor

      Illustrator

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      "Maus" is definitely dreary and tendentious, but then its a personal accounting of a holocaust story.

      As for the claim of moral bankruptcy - It gets criticised by some people for contentious uses of its anthropomorphic device, but most of that criticism misses the point. The story in "Maus" isn't supposed to be an objective accounting of history, its a biography. It chronicles the events of Vladek Spiegelman's life, and it reflects his point of view, as ugly as that can be sometimes. It provides a deeper understanding of the man first, and the history second.

      There are some pretty objectionable ideas about race and gender in a lot of the "classic literature" that kids already study, but that doesn't discount their value. we can be exposed to ugly ideas in art and still learn something from them.

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  12. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    I didn't teach MAUS or MAUS II but had them on my bookshelves - the first one after a review in the SMH Oct. 3, 1987 - by Ian JACK - the other I found on a trip to the UK in the mid-1990s. Stunning literature. During the latter 1990s while living and teaching in western Japan - whenever my tertiary students evinced interest in Indigenous Australia - I would bring out my set of Streetwize comics on "Reconciliation" - a number of stories on aspects of the past and then then contemporary situation for…

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  13. Chris Reynolds

    Education Consultant

    Well, this has given rise to a complex and fascinating debate. There are at least two aspects I would rather belatedly like to comment on.

    The challenge for upper secondary English studies in all states/territories is to acknowledge that the range of genres and text types "out there" in the universe of texts so to speak has changed and continues to do so. If a curriculum (i.e.; the recommended/approved learnings for the target cohort) is to continue reasonably to reflect these inevitable changes…

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