Deep thinking in graphic novels

Jeff McLaughlin on philosophy and the graphic novel. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Graphic novels have provided their creators with a golden opportunity to express themselves in very adult ways – even if they are doing so by telling stories with talking animals (for example Art Spiegelman’s Maus which deals with the Holocaust). Some of these works can provide philosophy instructors with the opportunity to enhance the learning experience of their students. But what is a graphic novel and how can it provide pedagogical support for philosophy classes?

The term “graphic novel” is not the best term for capturing what they actually are, but like pornography, most people know it when they see it. Graphic novels aren’t typically graphic in the sense of being explicit (one notable exception being Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls) nor are they all novels. You will find many graphic novels that are non-fiction (Joe Sacco’s Palestine), autobiographical (Alison Bechdel’s Funhome), and even governmental reports (Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s The 9/11 Report). Indeed, Will Eisner’s The Contract with God, which popularised the term “graphic novel”, is a collection of three short-stories. (There are earlier works that we would now describe as graphic novels, and strictly speaking the term was already in limited use before Eisner’s work appeared.) Graphic novels are really just comic books without the negative connotations.

Comic books themselves look more like magazines than books, and to think of them as being comical is to dismiss the vast majority of them. Some people like to say graphic novels are thought of quite differently, because unlike comics they are complete stories with a beginning, middle and end. This however does not take into account so-called “one-shots” or “mini-series” and even self-contained story arcs within comic book series. Sometimes these self-contained stories or limited series are published as a collection – but these are rightly called trade paperbacks and not graphic novels. Hence, an acclaimed work such as Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore is rightly called a trade paperback and not a graphic novel, because it was originally printed as ten separate comic book issues. Anyway, other popular art forms including movies, plays and dances, all have beginnings, middles and ends.

Although many graphic novels have been turned into movies they should not be perceived as “frozen films”. The action takes place in illustrated panels (i.e., the “movie frames”) as well as in-between the panels. With a film every person in the audience witnesses only what the director (and other members of the film team) wants to show. With a graphic novel the audience actively personalises the experience by, for example, imagining the voice of each character. They can linger over images and revisit any image or text. They can go to the end before they start at the beginning or they can jump from page to page. A movie forces the viewer to sit passively and watch that world unfold, but the graphic novel actively engages the reader/viewer. Such active participation parallels when a student reads a philosophy essay – superficially perhaps – but at least he or she retains control.

It is apparent that the almost universal acceptance of the term “graphic novel” goes hand in hand with the general acceptance of their being worthy of a person’s time and money. Graphic novels are not just illustrated stories or picture books but a series of sequentially organised panels that blend text and image in a way that makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. But if you just want to refer to them as fat comic books that is fine too.

Some individuals just don’t like graphic novels or understand their appeal, while others just have difficulty following them. These are valid perspectives, but if a person is able to spend some time with instructional books such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, he or she won’t be wasting his or her time. Together these two works help explain what makes comic books and graphic novels distinctive and fascinating.

When it comes to appreciating and accepting graphic novels, we are at the early stage that once was occupied by film theory and criticism in the 1960’s. That is, movies were once rejected as being unworthy of study on the grounds that they were merely entertainment and could not provide sufficient content in two hours of viewing time when compared to a book. Now film studies is a standard program area at many universities. And just as with movies, books and plays, not all graphic novels are going to be good, let alone considered enduring classics in the history of popular culture.

The good ones or, more correctly, the useful ones, can help students learn about a variety of topics in an unintimidating way. By bringing the relevant content to the forefront, the instructor can for instance literally and figuratively show how philosophical ideas that were discussed and debated for centuries are still prevalent and relevant today. Most students are familiar with graphic novels (or perhaps a movie or two based upon them) and making students aware of another level of understand in something that they already are comfortable with is a wonderful way to get them to visit (or re-visit) the material with a new appreciation. Doing so creates a bridge between what is new (and sometimes overwhelming) with something that they already know.

One has to admit that philosophical texts are not the easiest things for students to read. Students have to learn how to approach them differently than reading history or science. However, many students read novels, they play video games, and they watch movies and surf the Internet. As such, they often possess a high level of visual literacy. They (perhaps more so than instructors) are acutely aware of how graphic novels work, so the new challenge is to get students to see beyond what they might have perceived as simple entertainment. If the student is able to “see” beyond the words and pictures then they are open to grasping the philosophy.

The graphic novel can act as a thought experiment on paper. For example, in one of the stories in Concrete: Complete Short Stories by Paul Chadwick, a character imagines what it is like to “think like a mountain”. This famous expression taken from the environmental philosophy of Aldo Leopold is a difficult concept to grasp. Ask students to “think like a mountain”, and they will find the task quite daunting, because obviously it is impossible. However, by showing them imagery where a woman’s body blends into nature; her fingers stretching out and transforming into living roots, students can literally see the sense of biotic connectivity and community that Leopold (and Chadwick) is trying to achieve.

Graphic novels are intended to provide enjoyment, and if they manage to do that then it follows that their creators have achieved their goal. However, some creators also intentionally or unintentionally provide something more, and thus readers/viewers can benefit by returning to look at these works again. Any of the works cited in this short essay fit this description. Nevertheless, although you may find various philosophical messages or themes in graphic novels, they are not university lectures. Accordingly, it is unreasonable to expect any graphic novel to map perfectly onto every topic of philosophical enquiry.

Graphic novels as philosophical texts are first and foremost literary/visual works of art, they are not ‘how to’s, they are not manuals on how to live the good life. They are not tomes regarding existence, or argumentative dissertations. Graphic novels are not going to replace the words of the philosopher or the guiding wisdom of an instructor. For some instructors this may make them too vague and open to broad interpretation. Yet, even a weak graphic novel provides the instructor with another teaching and scholarly opportunity: correcting the mistakes and showing the right way.

Socio-political philosophy seems to be the most common subject that can be found in graphic novels. There are a lot works to work with, ranging from an imaginary fascist London England in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta to the very real Iran during the Islamic revolution in Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis. Trade paperbacks such as The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn can be seen as treatises about humans in the state of nature, while Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man deals with gender warfare.

Pick up any superhero graphic novel or trade paperback and you are bound to discover matters of justice, power, and moral responsibility. Religion and matters of faith are dealt with in such works as Blankets or Habibi, both by Craig Thompson, and even The Book of Genesis gets the graphic novel treatment by renowned underground comix artist Robert Crumb. Whether it is about epistemology or metaphysics, reading and seeing (and hearing) situations, or characters in graphic novels provide lessons that are outside the confines of a text only book.

There is no philosophical area that cannot potentially be given a graphic novel treatment. For example, you wouldn’t think that logic and the philosophy of mathematics would easily transfer to graphic novels, but they are exceptionally well-treated in Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna.

Doxiadis was intrigued by the quest for secure foundations of mathematics in logic. The fact that many of those involved had spent time in asylums provided the added drama. Since Bertrand Russell not only played a large role in this pursuit but was also an interesting individual in his own right, he became the focal point upon which to pin the Logicomix story. With a strong background in the field (he studied mathematics at New York’s Columbia University at the age of fifteen and then did graduate work at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris) Doxiadis spent hours dissecting the claims and comments that were found in the papers and writings of the very real people that populate the work. His teaching of the subject to other members of the creative team provided the backbone for the self-referential elements that the work is also lauded for. In doing all this, Doxiadis overcomes the potential alienation of the dry university lecture. As he explains the basic concepts to his team, he is therefore also doing the same for the reader/viewer.

Logicomix is neither a history textbook nor a biography, and so some historical alterations were accepted for dramatic purpose. In cinematic terms, Logicomix is “based on” a factual story – the essential truths are maintained. For Doxiadis, who is eager to hear from those who have already used the graphic novel in their courses, the benefit of using Logicomix alongside primary philosophical materials is that students can learn about complex abstract concepts within a dramatic narrative. Indeed, when one uses a graphic novel in a course, students learn that the pursuit for answers does not materialise magically and without any context; rather it is grounded in who we are and what we do. We cannot separate ourselves from our philosophy nor should we.

As I stated earlier, just as with movies and plays and books there are good and bad graphic novels. Logicomix is one of the most successful ones for philosophy classrooms. You can read it and appreciate it as an excellent example of a graphic novel, and you can study it for the philosophy that’s in it. Imagine a class where math and logic students learn about art and art students learn math and logic; and neither group is alienated. That such an initially strange blending of interests can be brought together reveals the breadth, depth, importance and inescapability of philosophy – and this is achieved through the graphic novel.

Most of the artists and writers of graphic novels are not going to possess degrees in philosophy – but they are experts in conveying interesting ideas and concepts through words and images. Any superficial treatment of philosophical materials will be disappointing, but they can be partially forgiven given the nature of the beast. The fact that the Auschwitz Museum and the Anne Frank Foundation publish graphic novels that depict real tragedies during the Holocaust suggests that this form of delivery is becoming accepted as a viable and valuable way to reach people without sacrificing content. Clearly, these institutions would not pursue anything that would be considered inappropriate or wanting in this area. They would also not want not to have the readers/viewers think that The Search or Episodes from Auschwitz: Love in the Shadow of Death is all there is to say. Instead these graphic novels are used in part to reach a broader audience and to elicit in them an interest to learn more. If one of the reasons for teaching philosophy is to get students to become knowledgeable and to seek and to question, then the right graphic novels, when taught and interpreted the right way, can help nudge students in the right direction.

Jeff McLaughlin is professor of philosophy at Thompson Rivers University and editor of Comics as Philosophy (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

  1. Jeff,

    Great eye opening piece, thank you. Like many people I was really into comics when young, but ‘grew out of them’. It’s only occasionally I’ve looked to some graphic books as sources of philosophy, having instead relied on literary novels as the main alterative to explicitly philosophical books.

    From some of your examples I’ve clearly underestimated the range of material: particularly the approach to reports, such as The 9/11 Report. We like to see the occasional graphic in our news reports to illustrate what is often difficult to describe in words, but I’d have never thought the whole concept could be switched to that extent.

    You mentioned the difficulty some students have with philosophy books. Certainly with young students the idea of graphic books to explain anything from science to religion has been around for a while; but from what I’ve seen its the fundamentalist religious educators that have really grasped this idea for adults, such as some of the creationist ones that draw dinosaurs with people, or perhaps rather demonized portrayals of Dawkins.

    The last point on Dawkins demonization also applied to what I could see of the ‘Look Inside’ preview of The 9/11 Report at Amazon. It seems to make it very clear who are the bad guys, so I wonder to what extent you feel the artist might be imposing a philosophical or political agenda of their own, as almost a subliminal message rather than the explicit content of the speech bubbles. Not that bias and presupposition can’t be conveyed in written work, as I’ve tried to point out in comments here:

    But thinking of the benefits, it seems a pity that the concept can’t be pushed more in adult learning, if the unwelcome stigma of reading ‘comics’ can be overcome. The less literate already suffer guilt and embarrassment from the implied infantile status of being illiterate, without the affirmation of that view by being seen to read ‘comics’, so I guess it’s an uphill battle.

  2. I think that the key is less the narrative than the conversation. Philosophizing has worked as conversation since Plato. The graphic novel supports the conversational structure and adds the characterization that keeps the voices engaging.

  3. jeff mclaughlin

    Thanks so much for both your comments! I think there are benefits not only in using them to teach philosophy but they can be studied on their own merits as well – just as you allude to Ron regarding 9/11. I hope to do a guide on GN for philosophy but need to find a forward thinking publisher. I think also Ron that it’s more a case of older people making judgments about the quality of GN – my students are quite accepting of them…

    Likewise, lee (?) if GN or comics can get people having a conversation, even if that conversation is ‘GN aren’t very good in conveying complex concepts…’ (which I would disagree with – just look at Logicomix) then they are useful…Indeed, we’re talking about them here!

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