Who is your superhero? I recently posed this question to my first year English students. Their responses revealed so much, but their comic strips revealed even more.
My appreciation for comic strips and graphic novels grew after teaching high school art for a few years and recently reading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The medium has the power to engage the mind of both reader and artist in a meaningful way. I would often encourage my avid cartoonist students to explore the connection between story and image in the form of comic strips. Much of their work would then appear in the high school newspaper and sometimes even our town paper in Pagosa Springs. Even though I don’t, some people see the world in storyboard frames.
Fast forward to Spring 2011, I was in my second semester teaching English to college freshman here at Guizhou University. I began to realize that my students live in a culture where it is not appropriate to talk about societal problems. The result is the suppression of a lot of emotion and thinking about such things, so I decided to get my students to create superheroes. We discussed popular superheroes in pop culture, the powers each held, and why they were created. Next, I had them brainstorm five major problems or concerns around them and then choose one to fight. Then they had to create a superhero to “save the world.” They had to formulate a name, power, age, appearance, gender, major flaw, and arch enemy. Once they had the skeleton, they write their superhero’s creation story. Who, what, when, where, how? After the introduction of Aristotelian plot structure, we discussed the division of their stories into comic strips. At this point, many of the students were ready to finally jump into drawing it out.
Last year, their comics had to have at least 5 panels, but this year I gave each student an 8 panel template for a bit more structure. The students were energized by the project. The results were everything from futuristic fantasy to art therapy to environmental psa’s. The only requirement was that their superhero fight a real problem that was a personal concern. The potential for this project is huge as it allows people to see the world in a new way while giving them a platform for their voice to be heard. There is a long history of cartoons and comics being used throughout the world to try to make sense out of a sometimes chaotic existence. A picture is worth how many words?
Student Portfolio: (Click on the images to see them at full resolution.)
Ice Melt by Nina
Two young boys must save the polar ice cap from melting and the world from eventual doom.
Percy by Erica
Percy takes on the plastic loving villain, Glory. In the end, love triumphs to rid the world of the reckless use and non-recycling of plastic.
King Egg by Emma
An average egg becomes the powerful King Egg. Watch out evil persons, the egg will get you.
Magic Bird by Renee
This particular student was terrified to speak in class. When she presented this comic to the class, it was a brand new day for her. She created the superhero, Magic Bird, for herself, and it seemed to give her more agency. Of course, she still struggles with shyness, but now she’s created a new way to access her own voice. After this project, she was much more active in class and much more willing to work collaboratively with other students.
Xiaoxiao’s Happy Journey by Hillary
The smiling cloud saves a village from deforestation. “Smile is power!”
The amateur sociologist in me is thrilled after reading my students’ work. Students reveal their unique paradigms which have been shaped by experiences and realities completely different from my own. I get a little too confident in my own limited knowledge, and I think it is really refreshing to be jolted back to the reality that I still have so much to learn. This project also reaffirms my belief in the power of art to help people access parts of their culture and experiences that often go unnoticed.