Great Power, Great Responsibility: Accessible Pedagogy for Teaching Comics

Great Power, Great Responsibility:Accessible Pedagogy for Teaching Comics

Written by Amanda Athon with Art by Joe Hemmerling

Written by Amanda Athonwith Art by Joe Hemmerling

Inclusive Teaching of Visual Media

To make comics accessible and to foster discussion of inclusion, writing faculty might develop lesson plans that make these issues a focal point. Comics are often thought of as visual, but they are multimodal—these concepts are not the same. Scott McCloud's (1993) Understanding Comics, an important text for many who use comics in the classroom, defined comics as "sequential art"—but not necessarily art that is visual. As long as there is a relationship between these modalities, it's a comic. For example, according to McCloud, even early Egyptian art is a type of comic, as are Ikea assembly instructions. There's a relationship defined by a specific modality. The nature of the medium—one that challenges our assumptions about what makes a text—makes a great case for challenging what we think about access. In her essay "Teaching (Dis)Abled: Reflections on Teaching, Learning, Power, and Classroom Community," Nicole E. Green (2010) recalled her experiences with ableism, where she chose audio books over print books due to her vision impairment, and she often had to convince educators that this was still reading. She wrote that those who are "unwilling to reconceive existing notions of learning or literacy, can bring those attempts at mutual understanding and knowledge-making to a halt" (p. 87). Inclusivity benefits all students and opens discussion of what literacy means, as Green pointed out.

A benefit of teaching comics is that it easily fosters student discussion of these issues and invites all to consider the nonlinear nature of text, emphasized by lesson plans that focus on accessibility. With this in mind, one potential lesson is to have students create a comic in a form of their choosing. After reading McCloud or other texts that discuss the pairing of text and art, students can apply these principles either through an analysis of a comic of their choosing or by creating their own short comics—by providing either a hard copy of the comic itself or a short web comic. (Some examples of comics to teach in the classroom are listed on the sample assignment sheet below.)

This would open up discussion for what "accessible" means in a variety of formats, both in terms of content and modality. Students can read existing comics to develop a shared vocabulary and to analyze what does or does not make a piece of visual rhetoric inclusive. In the author's classroom, some students feel they are inexperienced with comics as multimodal rhetoric and prefer to analyze a work created by someone else. However, many students choose to create a comic of their own. This also establishes multiple access points for the teaching of comics, since students have a choice of multiple modalities.

Below is a sample assignment sheet based on these principles. Students are assigned to create a comic, but with all major assignments in this particular course (in this case, Advanced Composition: Multimodal Rhetoric), students are welcome to pitch alternative assignments that fulfill the same assignment objectives. While many students enrolled in this writing course create comics, others have developed video analyses, YouTube channels devoted to discussing comics, or VoiceThreads breaking down the relationship of sequential art in various comics (PDF). Students developed individual composing processes to create their project drafts. While some of these projects began with a text-based draft, others strictly used digital tools to brainstorm, draft, and revise.

Assignment Sheet
Project #3: Analysis of a Comic

This semester, we have studied how visual and digital composition advances traditional writing practices. To better understand how various mediums do this, you will create a comic of your own. The comic should be complete but does not need to be in color. You may use any of the formats we discussed in class, including audio. It should also tell a story or illustrate an event (for this reason, avoid non-sequitur transitions).

You should pair your comic with a 500-word (double-spaced) analysis of your own comic, explaining the tools you used, the choices you made, and why they are effective.

Your analysis will be similar to a rhetorical analysis in that you describe and evaluate the features of the comic in order to justify your thesis, which is whether or not the comic uses features discussed in Understanding Comics effectively. You will not, however, talk about rhetorical appeals in this assignment. Some things you might discuss:

Where to Begin: Regardless of the medium you choose to complete your analysis (VoiceThread, Word document, wiki, etc.), I highly recommend you begin with an outline to organize your thoughts. I'd be happy to review this.

What to Include: Typed documents should be about two or three double-spaced pages. Electronic versions should be the equivalent (covering the same amount of information in a digital format).

Due Dates:
Peer Review:
Final Draft:

Suggested Reading List

Digital Comics


Super Heroes



Children's/Young Adult


Providing students with a range of texts and composing approaches may help avoid what Jay Timothy Dolmage (2017) argued is a narrow range of accommodation for select students: "The major 'defeat device' in teaching, then, may be our own magical thinking, or self-congratulation, or willingness to insert ourselves as more expert than students or disability officers" (p. 74). Allowing students agency in the process of creating and analyzing texts can possibly mitigate this conceit. Because students can either create or analyze a comic, there's built-in differentiated instruction. Students who are more proficient in visual literacies may choose to create, while other students may prefer to analyze the elements of an existing comic, either audio or visual. Giving students multiple options for genre and modality fosters a culture of access in the writing classroom, and it also allows students to consider the rhetorical nature of audience—for both creator and consumer of the text.

Although the comics industry still needs to give much more attention to accessibility, these new tools—such as audio comics and comic readers that can categorize metadata—are steps in a positive direction. By making assignments and activities open to a variety of mediums we can include these important discussions of disability and access in the writing classroom.

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