‘Holy hot course, Batman!’

Graphic novels prove good reads for artists and 'ravenous readers'

Senior Stephanie Bricero loves that the graphic novels course combines English and art

Senior Amber Ching has two folders filled with drawings of colorful, expressive, Anime-style people and animals. They could make perfect characters in a graphic novel.

But Amber likes the idea of creating graphics specifically for a story, complementing the plot and theme, as she’s noticed graphic novelists do that as they combine artwork and the written word.

“People tend to change their art style because of how they want to have the story written,” she said.

Senior Josh Ypma reads ‘Maus’

Students in Wyoming High School English teacher Kevin Mulvihill’s Graphic Novels class – many who read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books and superhero comics as youngsters –  are eagerly turning the pages of books that cover many different topics and genres through narratives and drawings. Like Amber, they are learning the different techniques and thoughts behind words and images.

The semester course was introduced last year, along with Mythology and Science Fiction classes, as a way to bring more English elective options to students and expand their reading horizons. Worth half a credit, Graphic Novels appeals to artsy students and superhero fans as well as English-language learners, who study language through pictures and words, and those who need to catch up on credits.

Senior Amber Ching draws characters that could be used in graphic novels

Sketchy Selections

Students are required to read 10 books, seven of their choice and three as a class: “American Born Chinese,” by Gene Luen Yang; “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, the first graphic novel awarded a Pulitzer Prize; and “My Friend Dahmer,” by John “Derf” Backderf. Choice books must come from the categories of superheroes, nonfiction, coming of age, retelling a classic, and science fiction/fantasy/horror.  Students create their own mini-graphic novel for their final exam.

Graphic books are not necessarily easy reads, said Mulvihill, who also teaches English 101 at Grand Rapids Community College. Many of them, like the required reads, present heavy themes. Many include lots of text. Plus, superheroes and their adversaries are advanced in all ways. “These villains have a big vocabulary,” Mulvihill said.

Mulvihill was interested in teaching the course because he knew of the popularity of graphic novels among students — and he loves them too.

“I learned how to read by reading comic books when I was a little kid,” he said. “In the summer, my brother and I would ride our bikes to Argos Book Shop in Eastown and get the 5-cent comics out of the 5-cent comic bin and just read. I kind of just never stopped.”

Some students in the course hope to pursue careers in art, graphics or 3-D and animation.

“I’ve always liked to draw comics,” said senior Stephanie Bricero, who is planning to attend Kendall College of Art and Design next year for graphic design. She said she especially likes reading superhero and horror graphic novels. “English and art are my two favorite subjects. By putting my two favorite things together, I can learn about both.”

Kaitlyn Bernatowicz, who graduated last spring, created a graphic novel last school year

Electives Add Choice

Principal Nate Robrahn said adding new English electives provides students with more choice, gives staff more freedom in instruction, and exposes students to the type of specialized courses they may take in college. Plus teachers love sharing their passion for books.

“I have some staff that are ravenous readers and it’s fun to see that carrying over to the kids,” Robrahn said.

Students are eager to have courses that lead them to books and topics they might seek out on their own.

“The kids have responded well,” said Robrahn, who has made it a priority to stock classrooms with books. “I see them engaging more with books and then having more discussion around them. That’s been pretty exciting.”

The high school has also added Reader’s Workshop, a course for which students read books from various genres, have discussions and post on Goodreads.

“You see more kids carrying books and more and more kids reading,” Robrahn said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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