ENGAGING STUDENT CIVIC ACTION: How to Use Comics to Inspire and Engage

Updated: Aug 3

[Note: The piece below is an excerpt of work commissioned by the New York City Department of Education for their Civics for All Initiative. It is an overview detailing why comics are powerful tools for change and how you might use them. Please check for future posts where I will share actual lessons I wrote for this initiative.]

Image: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Civic engagement entails seeing outside one’s personal/immediate needs and recognizing and acting upon the needs of the larger community. It’s not, for example, “What will I eat next?” But, “Does everyone have available/sustainable food?”

Marilyn Price-Mitchell (2011) [1] identifies three ways teachers inspire active citizenship:

1. Engaging students in real world service activities: thinking, planning, organizing;

2. Empowering students to believe in themselves by: encouraging discourse; setting high expectations; fostering self-decision making/ and providing multiple problem-solving perspectives.

3. Modeling how to push comfort zones and exploring strategies and means for overcoming life’s obstacles.

Comics are particularly effective teaching tools because they enable readers to see the expanded world around them. Research shows that the brain processes visual images faster than text and that readers empathize and react more quickly and deeply to visual stimuli. Further, the pairing of visual and verbal information creates multiple memory channels, making storage and retrieval more efficient. Equally important, research shows comics are highly motivating and engage students of varied skills and affinities. Furthermore, comics have a rich history of informing readers and impelling them to action.

History of Comics and Civil Action

From their inception (in the early 1930s through the cold war in the '40s and '50s), comics incorporate themes of justice and hard work to explain an increasingly confusing and dangerous world. They reflected patriotic fervor through World War II and the Cold War (encouraging the purchase of war bonds and engaging in civic and war-related events).

In the late 1950s and 60s comics turned to criticism against foreign policies, unpopular wars, human rights, and government abuses and misuses of state power. To this day, comics continue to reflect our evolving culture and values.

Since the 1960's comics have dealt with racial inequality, intolerance and bigotry. X-Men, introduced in 1963 was about a team of teenage mutants encouraging co-existence (between mutant and non-mutant). In 1966, Black Panther, a black superhero, was created as an explicit statement on civil rights, tolerance, and acceptance.

Comics were also integral to teen culture as teens developed their own participatory cultures focused around them. They shared, discussed and created comics in “fanzines” to fuel conversations and connections on themes that mattered to them (Carol Tiley, 2014)[2]. One of many examples of comics motivating student civic action dates back to 1945 where teens from a Youth builders Citizen Club, NYC were motivated to take action against racist imagery in Captain Marvel where the only African American character, a valet named William Steamboat, was depicted having nappy hair, swollen lips and apelike features.

Comics Encouraging Civic Action in Today’s Classrooms

Today’s comics and graphic novels have a special place in our classrooms. They lend themselves to close reading and deftly make content come alive as characters look at us and invite us into their stories.

Overall, graphic novels can be used to:

  • Understand and evaluate events/factors leading to historical decisions and/or legislature;

  • Encourage empathy, open-mindedness, and discussions of cultural diversity;

  • Define, discuss, model, and practice citizenship;

  • Define and discus the powers and challenges of governance and the roles we can play to shape and influence them.


Close Reading. Comics can be closely read and analyzed or even acted out, much like a play. Their paired visual/ verbal content enhances reader empathy and engagement, motivating readers to explore their civic themes and topics and gain a deeper understanding of critical historical and/or cultural turning points that influenced legislation, community responses, and/or changes in accepted rules of behavior. Discussing ramifications of options taken and not taken, aids student problem-solving and understanding of their own potential to navigate and shape the world at large.

Analyzing Cultural Influences: Aside from close reading, another teaching option is to assign a specific comic book superhero to your class or to groups of students to more closely evaluate. Have them analyze a designated superhero over time, studying how her/his/their persona(s) and perspectives changed with the times and may have influenced readers and responsive civic action.

Creating their Own Comics. Students can create their own scenarios, scripts, or comics detailing what might have happened if characters reacted differently or telling the same story from another perspective, encouraging self-efficacy and modeling problem solving. Or, have students create their own “fanzines” critiquing and commenting on content they’ve read in their favorite comics.

Analyzing Multiple Perspectives. Study graphic novels or graphic novel sets that relay more than one, or alternate, perspectives of historical events. Two examples of such works are: (a) Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, a dual-set of books relaying the Chinese Boxer Rebellion for each side. (b) The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix which powerfully explains how Hitler was able to rise in Germany and sensitively relays the internal struggle of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and patriot torn between his love of country and love of God, deciding whether to follow Hitler or join an assassination plot to kill him.

Modeling Civic Action. There are also graphic novels in which characters take civic action. Have students read and study the characters and then create their own community/civic project. Three graphic novel examples are: (a) Babymouse: Cupcake Tycoon by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm where after inadvertently flooding the school library, Babymouse spearheads a fundraiser to replace the damaged/lost books. (b) The Plain JANES by Cecil Castellucci and Jimm Rugg where after surviving a terror attack, Jane and her friends decide to beautify their neighborhood to make life there less scary. (c) A Fire Story by Brian Fies recounting the devastating California wildfires of 2017, relating the grief and loss suffered and how relief did and did not work.

These are just a few suggestions. Below are resources you can use to continue exploring how to engage your students in the greater politic.

· To find a list and description of over 200 graphic novels appropriate for classroom use, please visit: https://www.meryljaffe.com/recomendations

· To find close looks at over 30 graphic novels lesson suggestions and resources for teaching with each one, please visit: http://cbldf.org/?s=using+graphic+novels+in+education

· Creating student comics that explain climate change and inspire community action to save/improve the environment: https://www.discoverdesign.org/challenges/comics-civic-responsibility

·Compilation of comics (from Mickey to Maus) tracing how comics brought issues to life: https://www.vulture.com/article/100-most-influential-pages-comic-book-history.html


  1. [1] Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “How Society Grades Teachers:” Psychology Today blog (11/12/11 at: (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-moment-youth/201111/how-society-grades-teachers) [2]Carol Tiley “Comics: A Once Missed Opportunity” YALSA blog (5/5/2014 at: http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2014/05/comics-a-once-missed-opportunity.


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