A few years ago, Wissahickon High School social studies teacher Tim Smyth, a by-the-book AP instructor who had earned himself a reputation among students for being “very challenging,” did something unexpected.
He started handing out comic books in his classes. Lots of comic books.
Sometimes they’d be purely historical comics, books that illustrate a famous battle from the Hundred Years War or examine the American civil rights movement. Other times, though, they’d be Amazing Spider-Man comics, or Captain America comics, or Batman.
Occasionally the books would be hybrids of fact and fiction, “where Batman is in the French Revolution or Superman is in the American Civil War,” explains Smyth, 42, sitting in his classroom on a recent Friday afternoon, wearing a royal-blue Captain America necktie. “It’s kind of a neat hook,” he found. The students would be drawn-in by the heroes, but then class conversation would turn to the historical event itself.
It didn’t take long for the teacher to realize he was onto something. He brought in even more comics, populated entire shelves in his classroom with them. He hung up posters. He brought in figurines — Darth Vader and Superman statuettes, an inflatable Spider-Man — and arranged them all over the room.
Comic books became a standard part of his lessons.
What Smyth soon found was that not only did comics get his students thinking about class lessons, it got them thinking about the world around them. It also got them reading for the pleasure of reading. Kids would ask to borrow his comics, either for extra-credit writing assignments or just to read them in full at home.
And while the idea of teens reading for fun might not seem so extraordinary, recent studies have shown that a large number of modern American high-schoolers don’t spend much free time doing it.
According to a 2014 report by Common Sense Media, 45 percent of 17-year-olds surveyed say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times per year (a significant jump from 19 percent in 1984). With the exception of the occasional Hunger Games or Harry Potter book binge, it seems there isn’t a whole lot of pleasure-reading going on with modern teens.
Smyth says this is something he heard often when he was in graduate school, particularly regarding boys: “When I was in my master’s program [at Gwynedd Mercy University] as a reading specialist, the people were saying boys don’t like to read. And statistics backed it up.”
But when he looked over the typical reading lists for high school students, the teacher thought, “I don’t like to read [those books] either. ‘Anna Karenina’ almost killed me in high school. I was a kid who was reading Stephen King in middle school. Not everybody likes to read the classics.”
It was around this time that Smyth remembered the words of comic artist Art Spiegelman, whose landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust series Maus awakened many critics and readers to the narrative possibilities of comic books. “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy,” Spiegelman said.
Keeping those words in mind, Smyth decided to integrate comics into his classes, little by little, at first just testing the waters.
“The reaction from the students was very encouraging,” he says. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
‘That’s how we connected’
“Comic book heroes are like our mythology, they’re our Greek gods,” journalist and Black Panther comic-book author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently told NPR. He’s not wrong. For the better part of the 20th century, comic-book heroes like Batman, Iron Man and The Hulk have steadily evolved into more than characters in paper cartoons; they’ve become fictive celebrities, icons known to generations.
They’re part of our culture’s common language.
In recent years, superhero films have consistently raked in millions of dollars at the global box office — the six films featuring Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man alone have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide since 2008 — and Comic Cons all over the country attract hundreds of thousands of fans. Multiple reports, including one by the website Comic Beats and another conducted by online ticketing platform Eventbrite, suggest that comic book readers, as well as convention-goers, are split pretty evenly between men and women.
Comics and their film counterparts have wide appeal, and Tim Smyth, in his classes, began to understand that wide appeal firsthand. The teacher found that comics were not only useful tools for engaging students in lessons and getting them interested in reading; they could be helpful in connecting with a diverse group of kids.
This idea took shape for Smyth during an encounter with a student a couple years ago, an African-American boy who “I really wasn’t able to connect with and get involved in the classroom,” he says.
During class one day, the boy noticed a comic on Smyth’s shelves, a book featuring an African-American Spider-Man by the name of Mile Morales, “a character who looked like my student,” as the teacher would later write. The comic issue that the student found, Smyth explains, is “a powerful comic, when [Morales] stands up and you see his full face and he says, ‘I am Spider-Man.’”
Looking down at the book in his hands, the student found a hero he could connect with on a personal level.
“He saw the comic and he asked if he could borrow it,” Smyth says.
After that, the teacher noticed a change in his student: the boy began to engage in class lessons and even formed a friendship with Smyth, who started buying him comics. “By the end of the year, that’s how we connected,” the teacher says.
“I began to regularly share each new issue and his engagement, both in class and with me, changed drastically,” Smyth would later write for PBS. “I began to see how comic books could not only convey historical topics, but also help students to see themselves in our lessons.”
In his classroom recently, he adds, “And that’s the thing you want with a kid. Whether someone likes Notre Dame or someone likes the Eagles or something. For [that student], it was a comic book and because Spider-Man looked like him. It was neat, because now he and I talk in the hallway all the time.”
‘Then you’re not depicting the world’
For those familiar with comic-book culture, it comes as no surprise that, for a long time, superheroes were not very diverse. Despite their wide appeal, comics often failed to feature people of color as the heroes of their stories. The typical hero was white, straight, and male.
Even when publishers began to change that trend, there were still deeply-rooted problems with how women and people of color were being depicted. The former was frequently scantily clad, and the latter was just as often paired with some racial descriptor.
“In the ’90s there was Milestone Comics,” Smyth explains, “and it had African-American titles: Black Lightning, things like that. Unfortunately, white characters would be called Lightning, but if it’s a black character, it’s got to be Black Lightning.”
In recent years, comics have become much more diverse, with series featuring a female Thor, an African-American Captain America, a gay Iceman, and a Korean-American Hulk (just to name a few).
More contemporary comic authors, like G. Willow Wilson and Ta-Nehisi Coates, are now not just creating strong heroes of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds but gearing those heroes toward a younger audience, in effect designing role models for adolescent readers who might lack many options.
Wilson’s version of Ms. Marvel is a female, Muslim-American teenager from New Jersey. A particular favorite of Smyth’s, the superhero has grown in popularity among younger readers since her debut in 2013.
“My kids can relate to her as a 16-year-old,” Smyth says of Ms. Marvel, who is Marvel Comics’ first Muslim character to headline a series. “It doesn’t matter that she’s Muslim. She’s got parents that are overreaching, she’s got weird holiday traditions just like some of the other kids do.”
In short, she’s relatable.
Then there’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of Marvel’s most controversial author hires, if only for the fact that he’s not a comic writer at all. A working journalist, Coates contributes to The Atlantic and recently published the best-selling memoir “Between the World and Me,” an award-winning examination of institutional racism in the United States.
Marvel hired Coates to reinvent one of its legacy heroes, Black Panther, a prince from a wealthy African nation who moonlights as a leather-clad crime fighter. The Black Panther character made his film debut in this month’s box-office hit “Captain America: Civil War.”
Smyth says Coates is “a very well-known, very literate writer” who “lends a lot of credit to what he’s trying to do” with Black Panther.
In an April 6 interview with NPR, Coates said, “I think diversity is a storytelling imperative. If you’re not at least grappling with diversity, then you’re not depicting the world. And while the world of comic books is not literally the true world, why would there not be gay superheroes? Why not?
“I feel like the people who don’t do it actually are the ones that have to defend the argument,” the author continued. “You know? Why does that not exist? Why would there not be black superheroes? Why would there not be Asian-American superheroes? If this is our mythology, why would our mythology only be straight, white males?”
The first issue of Coates’ Black Panther series debuted at #1 on April 6, having already sold more than 300,000 copies before its release. It’s remained at the very top of the comic-book charts ever since. To many, the immediate and overwhelming success of the comic indicates how hungry readers are for more diverse heroes with strong voices and personalities.
‘Fills me with a lot of hope’
When Art Spiegelman referred to comics as a gateway drug to literacy, perhaps the artist’s claim fell short. For authors like Coates and teachers like Smyth, it seems that comics can also serve as a gateway to confronting some of society’s most pressing issues.
Gay rights. Gender equality. Institutional racism. Police brutality.
“We talk about Black Lives Matter” in class, Smyth says. “We were talking about Ferguson last year — things that aren’t in the pen-and-paper curriculum, but things that, as a history teacher, you need to talk about.
"I think that once you set that tone, then these kids who were talking about this in the lunchroom or tweeting about it, now they’re having these conversations in the classroom.”
One of those gateways opened when a comic book series introduced an African-American Captain America, Smyth says.
“Some media outlets blew up because Captain America became black and, ‘well, you can’t do that, because Captain America is supposed to be Caucasian and Christian.’ So we talked about the symbolism of who is Captain America and what is he supposed to represent?”
He adds, “Unfortunately sometimes when you watch the news — the half-hour news media — they want us to [think] we’re either all this or all that. The message I want in my classroom is that most of America is somewhere in the middle.”
Polarizing class discussions can be difficult terrain for a teacher to navigate, but Smyth seems up to the challenge.
“We have some disagreements,” he admits, but “the idea is always to encourage the kids to send me an email, talk to me after class if you don’t feel comfortable saying something. I want everybody’s voice to be heard.”
To have real dialogues in class, where students take on tough topics yet still feel comfortable enough to hear each other out, is exhilarating and encouraging, the teacher says.
And parents seem to agree.
“The number one thing parents say to me is, we never talked about this when I was in school,” says Smyth. “And me neither. Everybody is excited that we’re able to talk about these things.
“Being from Philly and going to public schools, the diversity was everywhere, but we never talked about it. Here, it’s every day. It’s awesome. Transgender issues? We never would have talked about that. LGBT issues? We have a club to try to help bridge the gaps between people. This generation fills me with a lot of hope."
‘BOOM — it’s out there’
Back in 2013, when Smyth first started bringing comics to class, he took to the internet in search of other teachers with whom he could share his ideas and findings. He admits he didn’t have many colleagues at Wissahickon who understood what he was doing.
“I’m kind of on an island. There’s nobody who really shares my passion. So I was kind of shy about it. Then you find all these other people [online] who are involved in using comic books," he says.
Eventually, Smyth started a blog called Using Comics in the Classroom, where he’d write about his experiences. He’s been updating it since September 2014.
A few months ago, an editor from PBS NewsHour “just happened to read one of my posts on Twitter” and invited the teacher to pen an article for its education series The Teachers’ Lounge.
In the article, titled “How I use comic books as a learning tool in my social studies classroom,” Smyth wrote about the student who found comfort in Miles Morales’ African-American Spider-Man, about the impact Ms. Marvel has had on his students, and how comics have fostered a more open and accepting environment in his classroom.
He wrote in the PBS article, “... My classes are surrounded by images of diverse comic book characters, which allows my students to see themselves in these titles. Many students learn to see past the idea that comics are about superheroes in tights and learn instead to recognize the current issues the stories seek to explore.”
Below the article, in the comment section, students both past and present wrote endorsements of Smyth.
“I learned that comic books can help people of all ages to learn about history and current events in a totally new way,” wrote one student, Crystal Li.
The article got Smyth quite a bit of attention, and he was recently invited to give presentations on teaching comics in the classroom at the upcoming Philadelphia Wizard World Comic Con, on June 4, and the San Diego Comic Con in July, “and I put in for a Harrisburg social studies conference in October,” he says.
In only a few years, this experiment of sorts has grown beyond Smyth’s classroom.
“it’s become this thing,” he says. “All of a sudden, it was like, BOOM — it’s out there.”
For a guy who used to spend so much of his time reading G.I Joe and Transformers comics when he was kid, this is all pretty surreal. It’s easy to see that visiting Comic Cons and presenting to his fellow nerds is a thrilling concept for the teacher. But it’s also thrilling for his students.
“The kids are seeing our conversations in the classroom go out to the real world,” he says.
“They’re so excited to see that.”