The following is an excerpt from The Rosemetal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature, (available July 2023) edited by Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart, reproduced here with permission from the author and press. 

Why Graphic Literature

The first time I asked students to make comics in a creative writing class, I had never made a comic, never taught a graphic novel, and, if I’m being honest, never even read a graphic novel. It was 2007, and I was a relatively new creative writing professor teaching a course called “The Art of Imitation.” The format was that students would study literary works and then create imitations of those forms. I’d heard good things about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and decided to add it to my syllabus. By the end of the semester, I was hooked on graphic literature, and my students had made comics!

That experience was both a happy accident and isolated incident, and it would be years before comics would become central to my teaching, not to mention my own storytelling. In the nearly two decades since then, I’ve taught introductory, advanced, and graduate-level creative writing courses at my university, and long before that I taught English at the high school level. Over the years as a professor, I’ve developed courses in narrative collage and comics—an evolution in my teaching that has felt like a revolution. I know that many creative writing instructors are interested in teaching comics but also uncertain, so I’d like to share a few reasons why I believe it’s worth trying, along a few suggestions for overcoming perceived obstacles. I’ll start with its many advantages.

First, the synchronous aspect of graphic literature—the ability to take in information at a glance—allows for an immediacy of responses and feedback in the classroom. When I project an image of a student’s comic or collage on a screen, classmates can provide feedback about elements like composition, color, tone, and visual style even before reading any words.

Second, there is something powerful and personal in creative work made by hand. As Art Spiegelman says of graphic novels: “It’s more intimate than a book of prose that’s set in type […]. The quirks of penmanship that make up comics have a much more immediate bridge to somebody” (quoted in Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women). After years of reading papers and stories written in Times New Roman or, god forbid, Cambria, I welcome the personality of a student’s penmanship.

Third, graphic literature demands a specificity and mode of seeing that helps train a writer’s eyes. Drawing a setting, whether a cityscape or an interior, demands a level of visual precision that can be helpful to writers. A paragraph might mention a sofa, but a panel requires the sofa to be a specific size, shape, and style (mid-century modern? Victorian?), drawn in relation to a roomful of other objects. Flannery O’Connor created cartoons for her college newspaper, and Kelly Gerald, editor of Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons, reflects on O’Connor’s advice for writers:

Many disciplines could help your writing, [O’Connor] said, but especially drawing: “Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.” Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything that the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.

This “seeing” can be especially true of literary devices like metaphors. For example, when a student invokes a real or metaphorical “monster” in a written text, my feedback is often a request for more specificity: What kind of monster? It’s not that I personally have a huge urge to know whether it is a Frankenstein-type monster or an Abominable Snowman-type, but in some cases I sense that even the student doesn’t know and is using “monster” as shorthand for a concept they have not yet fully imagined. When a student draws their metaphorical monster, I know exactly what it looks like.

Fourth, graphic literature helps students understand and practice literary techniques. For example, to visualize abstract concepts like rhythm and pacing, a student can draw a series of empty panels in various shapes and sizes. Even without words or pictures, we can ask: How do larger panels invite readers to linger? How does a series of smaller panels speed things up? What happens when they are filled with (empty) speech bubbles? What can these things tell us about sentence and paragraph lengths or dialogue in stories? Likewise, to understand the function of a literary motif—the way a repeated word or image works symbolically and accrues meaning—a student can try drawing a meaningful object in a variety of contexts throughout a comic or collage.

A fifth and final advantage of teaching graphic literature in the creative writing classroom is that it’s really fun: the happy result of collaboration, concentration, and experimentation. Students respond surprisingly well to being asked to tell a story or compose a poem in a different way, and to being encouraged to create in a more vulnerable and playful state. There is a gorgeous energy in the room when students are absorbed in making something with their hands, whether it’s drawing and painting or cutting and pasting. They are engaged individually, but there is also a communal element when they share supplies (“Does anyone have glue stick?”), collaborate on a collage, or praise one another’s work. (This energy happens in online courses too!)

Obstacles—and How to Overcome Them

For all the benefits of teaching graphic literature in creative writing classes, in talking with students and faculty, I have identified a few perceived obstacles that I believe can be overcome.

The first is curriculum limitations. Our curricula are based on sometimes helpful but often limiting ideas about expertise and “coverage.” Thus, in universities we teach what we know and what we were hired to teach, which is usually one or two of the traditional genres—e.g., fiction, nonfiction, poetry—covering what is required for the program or major. In high schools, which may take a broader approach to creative writing, graphic literature still might not make the cut. So, instructors rightly think, “Where I would I fit a course in graphic literature in this curriculum?”

The bureaucracy and territorial battles involved in curricular change can seem daunting if not insurmountable, but they can be overcome, sometimes by starting in the classroom, as I have. Rather than adjusting an entire curriculum, instructors might begin with making small changes in individual courses, such as adding a four week comics-making unit. In my General Education course on Arts, Aesthetics, & Creativity, I have adapted the writing and poetry assignments into collage and comics-making exercises. More dramatically, I recently transformed the entire semester of my advanced and graduate Creative Nonfiction Workshops—comprised of English majors and master’s students and usually dedicated to writing memoirs and essays— into a class devoted to graphic nonfiction. Students who are accomplished writers but very inexperienced in drawing made wonderful and moving comics, several of which were published in our campus literary journal. One graduate student went on to create our department’s first Master’s thesis in comics!

Another strategy for overcoming curricular limitations is to tap into graphic literature’s interdisciplinarity. At my own university, many colleagues across campus are interested in comics and graphic literature. My colleagues in Fine Arts teach courses on the history of comics and have students make comics too. My colleague in Biochemistry has been making drawings of proteins and animals that he pairs with instructional anecdotes. I was surprised to run into one of our Psychology professors at a comics conference where three of his students presented papers. Health Sciences is a fast-growing field on my campus, and I have made sure to share with administrators the work being done in Graphic Medicine. While it may take some work to find others on your campus, there can be curricular power when departments work together for interdisciplinary education.

Another obstacle is the concern many creative writing instructors have about teaching graphic literature. I’ve often heard things like: “I was never taught to make graphic literature, and I don’t make it myself, so how can I teach it?”

It’s easy to feel like an impostor in the classroom, but, if my experience is any indicator, educators are often called upon to teach subjects they don’t already know, and the transferable skills we do have prepare us for such moments. As a fiction writer, I was hesitant to teach poetry, but it was part of the curriculum and part of my teaching assignment. And I learned in that early semester of teaching Persepolis that both the students and I knew more about comics than I’d expected. It might come as a surprise that in Making Comics Lynda Barry admits: “I hesitated for a long time before teaching a comics class.” Even though she had been creating comics for decades, she didn’t feel equipped to teach it because she had learned to make comics, as she says, “by copying other people’s work.”

There’s an obstacle to teaching graphic literature in the creative writing classroom that may be even bigger—metaphorically—than curriculum or instructor training: fear of drawing. At the beginning of a recent semester, I asked students in my General Education course on Arts, Aesthetics, and Creativity to write down any concerns they had about the class, and a common theme quickly emerged: I’m worried I can’t draw well enough. I’m concerned about the drawing. My question is will our drawing affect our grade? I’m afraid my drawing isn’t good. I don’t know how to draw. I read their responses aloud (anonymously) so they would know that everyone shared the same concerns, and I assured them that their grades would be based, not on talent but on effort. (It’s amazing how talented students become when they put forth effort!)

Over the years I’ve return again and again to the following three principles, which have become foundational to my teaching of graphic literature:

1. Drawing is a learned skill that can be improved with practice.

Many of us, having been told or decided that we were no good at art, stopped drawing long ago. Even Lynda Barry says, “I never developed a fast, easy style and was often told I couldn’t draw.” But, as Barry has demonstrated, drawing is a way of seeing that improves with practice and concentration. Thus, I start each of my graphic literature classes with a short drawing exercise: cartoon faces, upside-down objects, imitations of comics characters and panels, loose contour sketches, cross-hatching exercises, non-dominant hand drawings, etc. On one beautiful fall day, I told all my students to go outside and choose a leaf to draw. (As a bonus, we used my “plant identifier” app and practiced lettering with the scientific name!)

2. Drawings don’t have to be “good” to make effective comics or graphic literature.

Barry addresses the idea of “good” and “bad” drawings with humor. In her book Syllabus, she writes in block letters, “WHAT IS A BAD DRAWING?” Then, in text blocks adjacent to sketches drawn by her students, she writes a series of questions: “Is this a bad drawing? Is this one? How old do you have to be to make a bad drawing?” Barry’s implied point is that drawings do not have to be traditionally “good” or technically perfect to communicate story and emotion. Scott McCloud takes it a step further, arguing that, in fact, a simplified cartoon image, what many might call a “bad” drawing, invites readers to see themselves in and connect more with a character. And as Kristen Radtke said in a talk I attended at the Tin House Summer Workshop: “You don’t have to draw what something looks like, you draw what it feels like.”

3. You don’t actually have to draw to make graphic literature, and if you do, you can “cheat.”

I kept this point until last because I want to encourage people to draw! But the fact is that graphic literature can be created with collage (both analog and digital), erasure and altered pages, photography, and even by tracing (again, both manually with tracing paper or digitally with a computer tablet). In fact, in a short video about the making of her graphic memoir Good Talk, Mira Jacob says, “I had never drawn a book before and frankly, I didn’t even know how to draw.” She drew the characters in Good Talk by digitally tracing over photographs.

Incorporating graphic literature into the creative writing classroom can be a means to end: a fresh way to engage students with both writing and observation. In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says, “For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” Asking students to observe through drawing can change the way they view their subject matter. Working with the elements of comics—including panels, speech bubbles, illustrations, and narrative captions—helps to defamiliarize traditional literary techniques such as pacing, dialogue, description, and exposition. By creating collages and erasures, students create fresh juxtapositions of language and image.

But teaching graphic literature in the creative writing classroom doesn’t have to be merely a means of enhancing literary skills. Graphic narratives, poetry comics, and literary collage are all forms of creative writing that can take central stage in our classrooms, as it has in mine. And graphic literature assignments not only complement the goals and learning outcomes of the creative writing classroom, they can also fulfill them.


Kelcey Ervick

Kelcey Ervick

Kelcey Ervick is the author  and illustrator of the graphic memoir, The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law That Changed Women’s Lives.  Her three previous award-winning books of fiction and nonfiction are The Bitter Life of Božena NěmcováLiliane’s Balcony, and For Sale By Owner. She is co-editor, with Tom Hart, of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature

Kelcey’s stories, essays, and comics have appeared in The RumpusThe BelieverWashington PostLit HubColorado ReviewPassages NorthQuarterly WestBoothNotre Dame Review, and elsewhere. She has received grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and New Frontiers in Arts and Humanities at Indiana University. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and is a professor of English and creative writing at Indiana University South Bend.    

This article copyright Kelcey Ervick and Rose Metal Press. All rights reserved.