Studying comics and setting students up to be thoughtful and creative composers

by Ashley K. Dallacqua, PhD

As a small group of seventh-grade students sit down to a working lunch, they immediately peer over each other’s shoulders, admiring the work on the desks. Walking by the room one might see students hunched over paper with colored pencils or pointing at another’s work exclaiming “Oh wow!,” “I like that too!,” “How long did that take you?,” or “I like your faces!” There is an energy to their composition practices and a thoughtful and supportive attention to detail. During a year-long inquiry around comics and graphic novels, these students were invited, regularly, to be composers. As they worked to create both informative and aesthetic comics responses, students made choices as writers and as artists. This was work that students valued. As one middle school student shared with me, reading and composing comics “was like a weight off of my shoulders to be able to express what I like to do and to get to do something that I enjoy.”

I had the opportunity to co-teach and observe a social studies classroom that invited the comic The Black Death into the curriculum while studying the plague. Fueled by their enthusiasm around comics and their growing understanding of comics structure, students engaged in thoughtful and creative writing and composing.

As a class, we read The Black Death and worked to draw information from the text as well as consider the comics medium. While it was a familiar text form to many, students valued considering the parts and pieces of the comics form. For instance, we considered the symbolism of the flowers, blue skies, and bright colors, representing the healthy part of town. Students also recognized foreshadowing of repeated images of characters alluding to death brought on by the plague. In this way, students were not only noting the artistic choices (like color and image framing), but the information those choices gave us about the narrative and about the plague.

Together we analyzed the structure of the comic. Students then had the option of responding to the text through writing or through composing a comic themselves. Below I will share one example of a comics response. Ultimately, the analysis of and responses to The Black Death not only supported students’ content knowledge understandings of the plague, it also positioned students as knowers and doers who can respond to such texts and historical events in a variety of ways.

How We Analyzed Comics

Our analysis of The Black Death included examining structural components such as the panels (the boxes on each comics page) and gutter (the space in-between the panels), as well as how color, framing of images, and spatial arrangement were used on a page to communicate information. We asked questions such as What are our eyes drawn to? Why do we think that is? Is there a clear mood? What do we know about tone of voice? Does anything fall into the gutter space? Why do we think the author/artist made that choice? We took our time asking and answering these questions. The purpose of this work was twofold. First, students began to see the many ways a single page, and even a single image, may be interpreted. Second, we established a slow and deliberate reading and analysis pace that continued through the students’ reading. By reading slowing and purposefully, we also began to see how the comic artists created narratives and provided information through words, images, color, and spatial arrangement. And this influenced students’ own writing and composing choices. After a whole class analysis session, students were placed in small groups to read and continue their analysis of the entire comic. Students were asked to take note of the setting, plague references, and other visual details as they read.

Visual Responses

By considering artistic choices we had been studying, students’ visual responses opened the door for authentic and emotional responses to this time period in history. One student, for instance, provided information about the rats carrying the fleas that transmitted the disease through a close-up panel of a rat looking out at the reader. “I feel as if the rat’s piercing eyes are staring into my soul,” the text narration states. In this way the student not only places her main character, but also her reader, into the path of the plague. We, as her audience, are also being stared down by the plague-infested rat, forced to relate to her character’s tragedy and fear on an authentic level.

Dallacqua Image

One student’s comic on The Black Death

This medium and the artistic choices it allows also provided opportunities for students to subtly, but critically question events in history. Returning to the example comic assignment, in the second panel the student writes, “It’s so empty…  All people who are sick have been thrown overboard… To drown.” This sentence is punctuated by what appear to be blood stains. A small rat stands next to the printed text. Not only are we receiving factual information about plague victims, but the student/author also positions her words and images purposefully, giving them weighted meaning. She chooses to show the empty ship, the lack of passengers, rather than the bodies in the water. Further, the student pauses with an ellipsis before noting that those thrown overboard are “To drown.” This highlights not just the loss of life, as illustrated by the empty room, but suggests the student’s distaste in the act of throwing the sick, but not yet dead, away.  Therein, the student is providing readers, as well as her peers and teacher, with information and proof of content understanding, while drawing on her creative skills and emotional knowings and critical opinions around this content.

Why Invite Comics into Classrooms?  

Whether students are using images, alphanumeric texts or a combination, including comics in the classroom and attending to both their content and structure, provided opportunities for students. For many students, they were able to engage with texts they enjoyed. (Other favorite comics from the from this school year included Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, and Max Axiom. Additionally, I recommend Drowned City and The Great American Dust Bowl, El Deafo, and The Arrival if you are looking for a great way to start working with comics). Through analysis, students developed opinions and gathered information, fueling them for writing and composing. This work invited thoughtful and creative responses that supported students’ emotional understandings of this historical event as well.

Reading and composing in multimodal ways like the comics form invites many students to draw on their own interests and expertise outside of the classroom, making the in-classroom work not only enjoyable, but relevant and authentic. However, there is much more to working with comics in classrooms than enjoyment and engagement (although those characteristics are not to be underestimated!). Reading and writing in different mediums provides opportunities for students to learn and to know in new ways.  

As a way of inviting comics into this classroom, we created these steps to guide students through the comic composition process, which includes possible prompts and directions. While some are directly connected to The Black Death, all could be easily adapted for other comics and topics!

Create Your Own Comic!

Step One:  Choose from the following prompts in order to create your comic:

  • What do you think was happening right before the first page began? Create a panel or page that would go before page 3.
  • What do you think happens next in the story? Create the next set of panels for this book following page 20.
  • What would it be like for the plague to be in our town today? Create a comic at would show a modern version of this story.
  • This book takes place in the town of Genoa and it begins by keeping a ship out at sea. What do you think it was like to be on that ship? Create a comic that explores what could have been happening.
  • Create a comic that might go in an informational or advice pamphlet telling readers about the plague and how to keep themselves safe.

Step Two: Create a comic (a minimum of FOUR panels, but no longer than ONE full page) that addresses the prompt of your choice. You may want to make a rough draft / sketch before starting a final copy.

Step Three: As you are working, think about the choices that you are making as a comic artist. On the back of your work, list at least three choices you made and the reasons for those choices. Make sure your work adds to your comic story.

Example from The Black Death:

Artistic Choice Purpose
Black Gutters They create a dark, depressing mood, which is appropriate for such a horrific topic as the plague.
Close up on hands This choice brings the readers’ attention to how easily disease can be spread.
On page 12 – the first / top panel is a shot from up above and far away This shows how empty the outside of town has become, because of the plague.  It also may symbolize how lonely her journey will be.

Ashley K. Dallacqua currently resides in The Land of Enchantment as an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico.  Her research interests include multimodal and multimedia literacy, and much of her research revolves around comics and graphic novels. She can be reached through email.


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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


4 thoughts on “Studying comics and setting students up to be thoughtful and creative composers

  1. Pingback: A Year in the Life of Writers Who Care | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  2. I found this post to be very insightful;. I have been trying to get some inspiration on how to incorporate creative writing into the classroom for future reference and I thought this was a great idea. Students are not always able to express their creativity in school, especially in what they write. They are often not taught how to express this creativity through writing due and emphasis on the kind of writing used for test taking instead. I think the ideas given were extremely interesting. I also agree with the fact that introducing this kind of learning into the classroom not only helps students to expand their creative horizons but it also keeps them engaged.

  3. Thanks so much for your comment! I really was impressed by the ways this student studied the comic we read as a reader and writer / creative composer. The comic became a writing/composing mentor text. Good luck with all the creative writing and composing work you hope to do in your own classroom!

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