Teaching Comics in Medieval and Early Modern Classrooms

Forrest Helvie (Norwalk Community College)

It’s difficult to avoid the buzz comics and graphic novels are generating in high school and college classrooms today. It’s no longer an uncommon occurrence to hear students exclaim their excitement for their assigned reading—much to the relief of their English teachers! And yet, it can be difficult knowing how to navigate the field of sequential art or graphic literature, as comics are often called, unless one is already familiar with the territory.[1] Many teachers find themselves at the mercy of Amazon recommended reading lists or the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble with little to guide them in selecting relevant and worthwhile sources to supplement their course reading lists. This problem is further compounded for those teaching medieval and early modern literature, as there are few sources available to enhance high school and college classroom reading experiences, and comic books that merely contain swords, wizards, and passing references to King Arthur aren’t necessarily going to pass muster.

While there is a surplus of comics in the superhero genre, the body of works available is more limited for teachers looking to draw upon comics when discussing historical nonfiction and medieval and/or early modern literature. This leaves those same teachers in one of two possible situations: either they find comics are neither compatible nor relevant to their courses or they opt for less appropriate and engaging comic selections. Therefore, the aim of this article will be to provide help in deciding whether or not a graphic novel or comic may be right for either high school or college courses. Additionally, I review both positive and negative examples of comics and graphic novels related to a number of medieval and early modern sources frequently taught in high school and college classrooms to illustrate that not all comics are created equal.

Before launching into a review of both recommended and problematic sources of comics and graphic novels for medieval & early modern literature teachers, it’s important to be clear on what comics are—and are not. My definition of comics borrows heavily from that of Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. To be considered a comic book, the work must do more than merely incorporate pictures into its narrative (McCloud 20). Instead, visual images in comics must be arranged in a meaningful order to help drive the narrative, and language may or may not be used to aid in this process. It is for this reason that McCloud discounts a single drawn picture from counting as a comic in and of itself. Many other comic scholars such as Robert Harvey would argue against this exclusive notion.[2] Many conventional books of the medieval and early modern periods included pictures to enhance the reading experience, such as John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs, which included a significant number of woodcuts, or illuminations, as were often hand drawn into monastery bibles. Looking at John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, for instance, there are a number of woodcuts where there is a sequenced layering of both image and text to produce a single narrative all within one panel. One might fairly interpret this as a form of early comics; and McCloud certainly references such works as early influences on the medium. Additionally, medieval tapestries also provided people with the ability to experience an early form of sequential art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York provides numerous examples, such as the unicorn tapestries, which highlight the hunt for the mythical beast. Additionally, tapestries often included historical sequences, as best exemplified in the Bayeux Tapestry, which provided a visual narration of the events surrounding the Norman conquest of England. While these examples are not necessarily comics in the contemporary sense, they can be viewed as precursors to this medium.

Finally, we must consider how the reader plays a collaborative role in the creation of the story alongside the writer and artist. In order for the graphic narrative to make sense, the reader must piece together the pictures and language on a page and construct the sequence of the story, using his or her imagination to fill in the gaps between the panels (McCloud 70-72). This makes the reader integral to the telling of the story, and sets the comic apart from more conventional texts. While this is certainly an abbreviated definition for comics, for our purposes, it will help differentiate comics from other picture books and novels that contain illustrations.

So how does one decide what sort of comics to include in a class focused on medieval and/or Renaissance literature given that comics are a recent literary development? There are a few key things to look for when deciding whether or not a comic book or graphic novel would complement a source that is hundreds of years old. Perhaps the most important point of consideration is whether or not the comic is a graphic adaptation or translation of the source and how faithful the comic is to the original source material. I believe comic adaptations make for much stronger choices as the points of departure can provide fertile territory for teachers and students to engage in critical discussions and analyses of where the writers and artists take some creative liberties in adapting the source material into comic form. However, one drawback to comic adaptations is that some comics may drastically alter events and characters from the source, and this can prove problematic when students (and teachers!) try to account for the various changes. The result could be an entirely different text altogether. On the other hand, there are comics that provide literal translations of their text-based sources and strictly reproduce the primary elements from the source material without adding any sort of unique artistic vision.[3]These comic translations will generally serve as visual summaries for students as they read the primary text. For struggling readers, this can be a beneficial supplement to the original text through providing them with mental models, which they might otherwise have difficulty creating in their minds. For stronger readers and upper-level classes, however, this type of comic may not add very much to the discussion.

A third and final option one might also consider is using comics that tell different stories from the original sources but incorporate similar story arcs and tropes. These comics can provide students and teachers with opportunities to engage one another in higher levels of critical thinking and discussion as they compare and contrast the original sources to these contemporary comics. As Tom Shippey stated: “these media are also a legitimate object of study, if often intertwined with more traditionally scholarly topics” (Shippey). Additionally, it can illustrate the longevity of the appeal of these medieval and early modern sources, as their stories are retold in new ways for new audiences.

Having looked at what constitutes comics and a few important considerations to keep in mind when deciding upon whether comics may or may not be of interest for the medieval or early modern classroom, I’d like to begin looking at some comics and graphic novels that deal with some popular publications. In 2007, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery wrote the screenplay for cinematic adaptation of Beowulf, which Caitlin Kiernan would later adapt into comic format —what some critics dubbed “Jolie-wulf”—that left many readers and audience members familiar with the original poem dissatisfied, to say the least. The plot deviates from the original source material in ways that play more to contemporary audiences’ interest in postmodern anti-heroes corrupted by power and sex, but who redeem themselves at the story’s end. For some readers of the original poem, however, this adaptation took too much creative license in its retelling of the classic warrior epic.

And yet, for all its faults, I believe there is potential for incorporating the Beowulf comic in the classroom, particularly in relation to the early scenes with Grendel that deviate less from the source material. Even if the liberties taken do differ from the original spirit of the poem, they can help readers unfamiliar with Beowulf to better appreciate this often assigned reading. Further, teachers can help students better understand the Beowulf poem through appreciating the ways Gaiman and Avery deviate from the original epic. For a source that more faithfully renders the overall narrative of Beowulf—with only some exceptions (Wiglaf’s portrayal being the most notable)—Gareth Hinds’s comic may be a better choice. Hinds splits this work into three distinct parts and varies his artistic style for each in order to best complement the content of that part of the poem. In this instance, the form is not merely incidental; instead, it serves to help drive the narrative. Again, comparing these two contemporary portrayals of the original source can help produce some engaging discussions about the different interpretations of this definitive Anglo-Saxon epic.

Two other comic series that deal with Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture that may be of interest are Brian Wood’s Northlanders (2008) from Vertigo Comics (a subset of DC Comics) and Ivan Brandon’s Viking (2009) from Image Comics. Both series provide readers with fictional stories that, while not drawing directly from original source material in the way Hinds adapts the Beowulf story, provide readers with the opportunity to view ways in which contemporary writers envision these periods. Additionally, Wood’s first volume of Northlanders can also provide students with the opportunity to pick out other medieval and early modern sources, whose influence can be felt throughout Sven’s story. Viking might prove worthwhile for teachers looking to find common connections from the period of Viking raiders to the early 20th Century through the present day. As Brandon mentioned in an interview from 2009: “The parallels with modern organized crime became immediately obvious…and once that clicked with me, I spent way too much time looking for different ways those particular streams crossed back and forth” (Sullivan). Of course, teachers for students in high school will need to keep in mind the graphic nature of the content in Brandon’s work before selecting this series for inclusion in their classrooms.

Another medieval source that would seem to lend itself well to the comics medium would be Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It contains a number of individual tales whose content ranges from the ridiculous and bawdy to the metaphysical and romantic. Chaucer exposes readers to one end of the social stratosphere with the noble knight to the lowest of the low with his deplorable Pardoner. Yet, despite the differences between these characters, they are all unified under the framed narrative of their pilgrimage to Canterbury. If the ideal comic is one where readers can pick up one single issue and follow the story from beginning to end, this work would surely seem to provide fertile ground for exploration.

To date, there has only been one comic adaptation of The Canterbury Tales: the graphic adaptation produced by Seymour Chwast in 2011. Unfortunately, many teachers may find that there are a number of problems that outweigh its benefits for inclusion in either a high school or college classroom. One of the greatest strengths of The Canterbury Tales is the vast array of character sketches where Chaucer painstakingly describes his characters—both in personality and in body. From the roguish Squire to the androgynous Pardoner, the exterior descriptions often provide clues and insights into the makeup of that particular character’s interior self. Referring back to Scott McCloud, he discusses different artistic styles comic artists will use depending on their subject matter (McCloud 24-59). The first style is iconic and the second is realistic. The iconic style strips an image “down to its essential meaning,” (30) that is, the barest essentials for a cartoon character to still be recognizable. Through removing these individual details, the artist allows anyone to self-identify, or identify someone else, with this image. However, when an artist provides more details, then the picture is seen as being more realistic, and a picture of an individual would be more recognizable as a specific person. Considering The Canterbury Tales focuses its attentions on a very specific group of nuanced characters, it would make the most sense to implement this style as a means of taking advantage of the comics medium to capture and emphasize the detailed descriptions Chaucer provides for each of his pilgrims—both the high born and the low brow. Yet, Chwast eschews this style in favor of a more simplified, pared-down, cartoonish approach. There is little in the way of details that aid in readers being able to differentiate one pilgrim from another, except in the broadest sense. For example, one can only tell the difference between the Prioress and the Wife of Bath due to the cross around the nun’s neck and each woman’s headdress. The difficulty distinguishing between male characters throughout the book is even more pronounced (Chwast 48).

One character who would be exceedingly interesting to interpret visually is the problematic Pardoner, who is both feminine and yet a male. Chaucer describes his “heer as yelow as wex,” and “a voys he hadde as small as hath a goot. / No berd hadde he…smothe” (Chaucer I 675, 688-90). The narrator questions the Pardoner’s gender when he then states “I trowe he were a gelding or a mare” (I 691). Chaucer could be suggesting a number of different ideas in this statement: either the Pardoner is a castrated male, or he is an effeminate male, referring to (or including) his sexual preference for men. We also know the Pardoner is described as a “compeer” to the Summoner, whose description immediately precedes his own (I 670). One variation to the word “compeer” is “comper,” which could imply the companionship between these two individuals possesses an “intimate quality” (Oxford English Dictionary def. 1b).

I point to the Pardoner because he is arguably the most unsavory and yet intriguing of all the pilgrims Chaucer introduces the readers to in The Canterbury Tales. Yet, when looking at the “Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale” in the Chwast adaptation, none of these distinct character traits comes through. His entry in the General Prologue, like all other pilgrims, is so heavily reduced that it is almost not worth including. His tale provides very little evidence of the original, spiritually decrepit church official, and the artwork does even less to truly indicate the depths of his moral depravity. Instead, the tale—again, like all others—provides readers only with the most basic plot line that would provide students with a strictly superficial understanding of what happened. The only real evidence of a lecherous character is his leering gaze and the pile of mashed potatoes that appear to look like an erection. Although Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery’s screenplay and comic adaptation of Beowulf incorporated a number of changes that deviated from the spirit of certain elements of the original poem, at least their work attempted to take advantage of the visual nature of the medium to communicate themes and ideas that contemporary audiences would be able to relate to more readily. The only noticeable contribution Chwast makes to his graphic adaptation of Chaucer’s masterpiece is to have the pilgrims conduct their journey on motorcycles. Although I believe this is meant to add to the comedic tone, there is no rationale for this anachronistic addition, nor does it factor into the framed narrative in any meaningful way.

Overall, some teachers might find Chwast’s less than dynamic approach useful in through challenging students to compile a list of personality traits and physical characteristics Chaucer provides his readers that Chwast either minimalizes or leaves out altogether. In doing so, students would be forced to conduct close analyses of the various pilgrims and better understand the three-dimensional nature of Chaucer’s characters through having them fill in the missing gaps that Chwast’s work creates.

Instead of Chwast, I would recommend using David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard (2010), particularly for middle and high school classes. Although an anthropomorphic tale of mice, Petersen adopts a very similar frame to his work, just as Chaucer does: A group of travelers who come together in a storytelling contest with the proprietor deciding who the winner will be. The stories, like the characters telling them, vary in nature: Some are comedic while others are romantic; there are also fables and poems in addition to stories of knights and stories of good folk outwitting the greedy and corrupt. And while I would not assert The Canterbury Tales was a direct influence on Petersen and his co-collaborators, there are a number of parallels that would provide fertile territory for academic exploration. Further, there is a noticeable variety in the artistic techniques employed to convey various elements of the story to the readers. This is due, in part, to the fact there were over thirteen different artists working on each of the stories, with Petersen providing art for the framed portion of the book. Although it is a much faster read than The Canterbury Tales, students might appreciate the opportunity to apply their analytical skills to a text that affords them a unique means of engaging in discussions centered on texts that are more traditional.

Like Chaucer, other established medieval and Renaissance writers and their works have undergone comic treatment in recent years. Seymour Chwast published his adaptation of The Divine Comedy in 2010, and much like his telling of The Canterbury Tales, Chwast’s work provides a visual summary of the primary elements of the original source. However, this work does not provide much creative insight or innovation in the ways he chose to adapt Dante’s writing. Arguably, like his rendition of Chaucer’s work, The Divine Comedy is more akin to an abridged visual translation that focuses only on the most important plot points in favor brevity.

Teachers and students may find greater benefit in Joseph Lanza’s adaptation in which he incorporates the classic images of French artist, Gustave Doré, whose work was originally published in the early 1860s. Lanza arranges the images in sequence and then places Dante’s words onto the image using traditional comics speech bubbles and text boxes. Lanza provides readers with an abridged version of The Divine Comedy that is far more visually engaging, and that provides a point of discussion on how later generations responded to Dante’s best-known work. Additionally, students may be familiar with the recent console video game adaptation of The Inferno published under the title, Dante’s Inferno (2010). This game was then adapted into comic format, and might prove a useful point of discussion about the ways popular culture sometimes co-opts original material. Of particular note is the way in which Beatrice is represented as a damsel in distress who needs the now-Templar warrior, Dante, to rescue her from the pits of hell—a clear shift to her much more empowered representation in the original poem. As Teodolinda Barolini observed in an interview in Entertainment Weekly, “Beatrice is the human girl who is dead and is now an agent of the divine. She is not to be saved by him, she is saving him” (79). While students may often look back at earlier periods of time as being more patriarchal than today, this comic—when placed against Dante’s original work—could offer teachers and students an opportunity to challenge notions of how we view the past and the present.

Other sources worth mentioning are Mice Templar by Michael Avon Oeming and Bryan J.L. Glass, as well as the graphic adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet. Mice Templar is a comic book series (now compiled in four volumes) that makes regular use of tropes and motifs from King Arthur, the legends of Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumahill), and the arc of the hero as discussed in the works of Joseph Campbell—all of which Oeming and Glass reference in the afterword to vol. 1 of the series. The comic book follows the story of a young mouse, Karic, who arises from unremarkable circumstances to being marked as “The Chosen One” who will bring order and peace to his land and people. Again, students would have the opportunity to trace the ways the original sources influenced these later creators and provide both a thought-provoking and visually-engaging interpretation of the tropes.

In the “No Fear Shakespeare” adaptations of Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet, teachers will be pleased to see the comic stays faithful to the core of the plays, even if some of the dialogue is updated to reflect contemporary English. While some teachers might view the comic adaptations as “lighter fare” compared to the language-based sources, these adaptations expose students to a visual representation of much of the expository prose and stage direction that was originally meant to be seen and not read. Furthermore, all of the artists in these comics—Mice Templar and the Shakespearian tragedies—expertly make use of page layout, colors & shading, and a bevy of visual cues to help convey key points of the narrative, requiring students to infer details that would otherwise be conveyed directly. Although the source material is faithfully rendered, there is a sense of artistic vision ensconced within the story as well. This underscores the strength of comic books as viable supplements for inclusion in medieval and early modern literature classes—even if they don’t necessarily apply the same artistic style from those periods.

My final recommendation is a somewhat more practical one. In 2012, Seven Studios published a collected anthology edited by Russ Kick entitled, The Graphic Canon vol. 1. This particular volume contains portions of over 55 Western and Non-Western sources from the classics up to the Renaissance—including contributions from some of the creators mentioned earlier. Considering comics and graphic novels can often carry a somewhat more expensive price tag than many more conventional texts, this single source is an excellent place to begin familiarizing one’s self with the many possible options comics provide teachers and students without the financial burden of having to buy each of the many individual titles.

The truth is we need more medieval and early modern sources in graphic novel and comics format—either adaptations or translations. It is a dynamic medium that gets people excited to read and engage in discussions about the subject matter in ways that are more accessible to a wider audience. Students of medieval and early modern literature would benefit from sources that were translated into this format as well, particularly struggling and disinterested readers, as well as English Language Learners who may already struggle enough with modern English alone. But it’s a mutual relationship: We need to create a space in our classrooms for these types of works; and if they do not meet our standards or expectations, we need to call out for more creators to give us stronger works. The best way to inspire better adaptations and translations of medieval and early modern works is to show comic artists and writers that we want more.

Works Cited

Barollini, Teodolinda. “An Ivy League Professor Weighs In: Expert View.” Entertainment Weekly. 26 Feb. 2010. 79. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales, 3rd Edition. ed. Larry Benson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

“comper.” Oxford English Dictionary. def. 1b. 30 May 2012. Online.

Chwast, Seymour. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. Print.

—. The Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Glass, Bryan J.L. and Michael Avon Oeming. Mice Templar vol. 1. Berkley: Image Comics, 2009. Print.

Kick, Russ. The Graphic Canon. New York: Seven Studios, 2012. Print.

Kiernan, Gabriel Rodriguez, Neil Gaiman, et al. Beowulf. New York: IDW, 2007. Print.

Lanza, Joseph. The Divine Comedy. New Arts Library: Belleville, 2012. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. ed. Mark Marton. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Petersen, David. Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard. Los Angeles: Archaia, 2010. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Art by Neil Babra. New York: Sparknotes, 2008. Print.

—. Macbeth. Art by Ken Hoshine. New York: Sparknotes, 2008. Print.

—. Romeo & Juliet. Art by Matt Weigle. New York: Sparknotes, 2008.

Shippey, Tom. “Introduction.” International Society for the Study of Medievalism, 16 May 2012.http://www.medievalism.net/ (May 16, 2012).

Sullivan, Michael P. “Ivan Brandon Conquerors Image with “Viking.'” Comic Book Resources. N.p., 26 Feb. 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

[1] The term “comics” is generally used to describe all forms of sequential graphic narratives (comic books are published in single issues on a monthly basis and are often collected in trade paperbacks, whereas graphic novels are comic narratives that are novel-length and standalone).
[2] See The Language of Comics: Word and Image (2007) edited by Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons.
[3] Classics Illustrated was a popular series producing comic translations of classic literature from 1941-1971.

Forrest Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is a full-time professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut, and he will soon complete his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His professional interests are broad-ranging from Arthurian literature and 19th-century American literature, to pedagogy and comics studies. He has also presented at numerous conferences and contributed to a number of different publications related to these fields of study. Most recently, Forrest won the prestigious 2012 Lent Award in Comics Studies from the National Popular Culture Association.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume XI, Issue 1, Spring 2013  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Spring2013Comics.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies