Comics as artifacts

I finally did it!  I integrated comics into my social studies classroom in a formal and meaningful way.  As an admitted A-type, follow the rules, critical reading/writing type of teacher, it took me awhile to give myself permission to use comics in the classroom.  I didn’t use them as a – hey look, this is cool – Batman is in a comic about the French Revolution  stand-alone lesson – instead, I will be using them as a historical resource – tied to standards and the curriculum.  Now that I have begun to use comics in earnest, a new excitement and passion has come forth and it shows in my classroom.  I have decorated my room with comic heroes and even some important comic books themselves.  The biggest surprise has been the new group of students that I have been able to reach and engage in different ways.  I will post future endeavors and most welcome what you have done as well.  Below is the first lesson plan I incorporated this year into a ninth grade Western Civ class and AP European History.

My thought – how to teach history students to be, well, historians?  I have several artifacts in the room (helmets, ration books, WWII gas mask, etc.) and we also include pictures, art, poems, music, etc — why not comic books as historical artifacts?  What can comic books teach us about the society in which it was published/written?  Below is the lesson plan/questions – I found myself snapping pictures as students were engaged in reading comic books (in class!) and passionately discussing original and creative connections from text to life.  I had to laugh at myself, as only a few years earlier, I would have been a hypocrite and confiscated comic books if I saw them out in the classroom.

Do Now –

•On the index card, answer the following:
•1. What is a historical artifact?
•2. For what can historians use these artifacts?
Students pair/shared their answers.  After I showed them some helmets, WWII currency with Hawaii printed on the back, WWII civilian English gas mask, etc – we discussed what these items can tell us about a society.  I then asked them to consider the use of comic books as historical artifacts.

Step 1 – answer the following questions

1. If you have a favorite superhero, comic series, or graphic novel, please list below (I asked this so that I can make connections to titles already being read)

2. Overall, what is your opinion of comic books?  Why?  (I was surprised that some students had never before read a comic book)

3. As a class of historians, is it acceptable to use comic books as historical artifacts?  In other words, can we learn about social studies through these sources?  Explain why or why not – be sure to include specific examples (we can learn about ____________ by reading comic books.  We cannot learn about history through comic books because ____________).


I was surprised that many students had never read a comic book before – but many were into the movies.  Many students were passionate about comics and upset by my obvious Marvel bias – I don’t have any DC posters in the classroom – I will have to change that soon.  Some students thought comics were “stupid” and others thought that they were for kids.  I made some coverts by the end of the lesson.  Also – some huge comics fans found it difficult, as did I initially, to see them as serious reading material.



Part II.

Students were each given a random comic – I went to the dollar bin at my local comic book store and brought in a variety of titles.   I tried to mix them up as much as possible – different decades, genders, DC and Marvel, etc.

1. Title:

2. Author and Illustrator:

3. Publishing company:

4. Copyright date

I used the above to teach about finding bibliographic information for research sources – I forgot how non-uniform comics are in placing their information.

5. Let’s pretend that a reader can learn a lot about a society by reading its comic books.  What can your comic tell you about the society in which it was published?  Bullet SPECIFIC examples from the comic to showcase your findings.  Be sure to look through the ENTIRE book – advertisements, letters to the editor, art, etc.  Try to comment on different aspects of the society – gender roles, technology, themes, etc.

Part III

Directions: when you have finished critically analyzing your comic book, pair/share your information with a partner.  Answer the questions below.

1. What is your partner?

2. What is your partner’s opinion about comic books?

3. What information did he/she give you about the comic book that helped you analyze the society?  Did your partner give you any new insight in how to analyze your comic book?

4. What do you and your partner think about using comic books as historical resources?  Explain.

Part IV

Once the students all had their say, I showed them a powerpoint with some of my ideas –

Some thoughts:

*I have to give a quick mini-lesson on how to read comic books – some students had never read one before and were more accustomed to linear reading. We demonstrated how to follow panels and why, even for long-time comic readers, it is necessary to back-track when the page is not making sense.

*Some students just do not like comic books – BUT – I did win most over by the end of the lesson – if not to love comics, then to see their importance as a window into society.

*I was fearful of potential parental issues when they heard students were reading comic books in class.  I decided to be proactive and introduced the lesson at back to school night before having the students complete it.  The parents gave positive feedback – besides, it is now hard to hide my passion for comics due to the decorations/posters in my room.

*This proved to be a great lesson plan for the beginning of the school year – it was a sneaky way to introduce historiography, critical analysis, research methodology, etc.

*Being able to bring a personal passion of mine into the classroom was uplifting to my mind and soul – I took pictures of students diligently reading comics in my classroom and then when they were holding them up – in the middle of a heated conversation – to prove a point.  I actually had the thought – wow, and I get paid to do this?

*Students who “do school” well – that is – test well, complete all the work, study the “right” answers, etc. seemed to be challenged the most in this lesson.  Many students really had to stretch their analytic skills as this lesson was based in the abstract.  This is how I teach this course – not so much about “right” answers, more about analyzing multiple sources and defending an informed opinion.