Once Upon a Midnight Dreary...
Doré Ripley is a lecturer at Cal State East Bay and an adjunct professor at Diablo Valley College. She specializes in intensive writing. You can visit her on the web at www.RipleyOnline.com.
I knew I could get students to read graphic novels, but I never thought I could get remedial students to read Edgar Allan Poe. Nevertheless that’s just what happened when I assigned Nevermore: A Graphic Adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Stories (Sterling, 2008).
Nevermore features “reset” visual adaptations of nine of Poe’s scariest tales, which seems like a slam-dunk, but for most of my students, Nevermore serves as an introduction to Poe’s originals, originals that were not read, as many assume, in junior high or high school. Nevermore opens with “The Raven,” so I began by having students follow along with Poe’s original text as read by Vincent Price. Afterward, we navigated the most difficult prose and poetic allusions, then reread “The Raven” using the graphic novel as James Earl Jones “pondered…a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” on The Simpsons.
In addition to unpacking Poe, students have to learn how to read visual rhetoric. How do pictures in combination with words convey meaning in social contexts? Students who have never read comics tend to skip the visuals and just study the “text” written in the form of dialogue, sound effects, and narrative commentary. To push students to analyze visual works, I start with a single panel from a graphic novel without written text and ask them to write a summary—to tell the picture’s story using the reporter’s questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why? This really isn’t as hard as it sounds because it is how humans are wired. As Brian Boyd of The Evolutionary Review puts it, “Language, especially in written form, suffers from a lack of the sensory immediacy our minds have mostly evolved for…. Comics appeal especially to our dominant sense, vision.” But just because the human mind has evolved with a preference for visuals, that does not mean students know how to “read” comics. This lack of technical reference must be taught, and so that leads to defining comics, beginning with Will Eisner’s “sequential art” and ending with Scott McCloud’s "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” a definition that also needs to be explored word-by-word in the remediation classroom. But after coming to an agreement on how to read and write about comics, students are ready to analyze sequential art.
The class had to compare and contrast every Nevermore graphic story with the original text. Students made assessments about themes, themes thatinclude justice, being buried alive, the locked room mystery, detective novels, mourning, watching, mental illness, and the guilty conscience. They also speculated about the artist’s choice of setting, which ranged from the present day to a distant future. Other questions for appraisal included Did the graphic story change the original plot? If so, why? How about character motivation? Were the character’s impulses the same as the source? Were they different? How can you tell?
Close reading of both Poe’s originals and the graphic adaptations of his works enable students not only to compare the original to the graphic novel, but also to discover the importance of rereading. When taking a second look, they encounter more that is familiar and this achievement builds students’ confidence, making them amenable to working on deciphering Poe’s archaic language to gain even more understanding of a difficult text, a lesson that will serve college students well throughout their academic careers. And it was the graphic novel that facilitated that second look.
Character motivation and its effect on the reader intrigued students. How can a reader relate to a cold-blooded murderer like the narrator in “The Black Cat”? Maybe being able to understand a character’s motives says something about you, or maybe it dredges up unwanted memories about alcoholism and/or mental illness. Students were often struck by how the pictures they created in their heads were scarier than those rendered by the different artists in Nevermore. This level of critical thinking goes beyond summarizing panels. It creates cognitive dissonance and some intense personal narratives leading to excellent analysis papers. When students shared their findings, there were often spirited discussions about Poe’s original versus the graphic novel.
In other words, in order to prove their points, disagreements chased students back to Nevermore and Poe’s original texts, and a second or third close reading is something that warms any teacher’s heart. I enjoyed hearing students argue that the ape in the original “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was just acting out of fear, an animal instinct, while the ape in Nevermore is really the dead husband trapped in a simian body, and that his human consciousness was motivated by revenge.
But after all the effort put into understanding visual texts, it was not just enough for students to write their own “horror” story—in the form of their scariest childhood memory—they also had to create their own graphic novel. Narratives are good introductory warm-up papers, but the idea of writing visual texts always sends shockwaves through the classroom. As a student wrote, “When we were first assigned to create a graphic novel, my stomach churned at the thought of having to create a work of art by myself. The idea of making my own graphic novel seemed exciting, but I was skeptical as to how I would be able to transport the visuals in my head onto paper”—or, more correctly, transfer the already written narrative into a visual narrative.
Some childhood fears experienced by these students were being left home alone, fear of clowns or spiders, being locked in a dog crate, and being threatened by a gun-wielding drug addict (see student example). Artistic efforts ranged from computer comic book generators to hand-drawn compositions and collages. We outlined this project in class and explored computer programs in the lab to give students a successful grounding. This project is peer-reviewed twice, so students can get help from their cohorts if they’re “stuck.” Students are forced to make choices they never have before. As one student noted, “Visual essays require filtration of language, requiring the main points to be emphasized and breaking down details to avoid confusion to make the story flow nicely. At the time, it seemed like the pictures were unprofessional and childish, but in the end they effectively told the story in a different way.” Students learned how a childhood fear could be converted into a “horror” story rivaling the visual literary examples they studied in Nevermore.
Honestly, without Nevermore I would not use Poe in the remediation classroom. His antiquated prose can be frustrating, but the graphic stories captivated students’ prevailing visual sense, and, as I discovered, made Poe’s pre-Victorian English accessible. One thing that came out again and again was how the graphic novel helped students better understand Poe’s original texts. As one student put it, “I discovered that visual language can deliver a greater understanding for the viewer in a new and exciting manner through the use of pictures instead of words,” and greater understanding is the goal of any instructor.