Its Creation and Characters, a Symbol of Hope
With a sudden flash of light or descent from incredible heights, our comic book heroes have leapt off the pages
of Marvel and DC’s action-packed pages onto the big screen and made new in-roads into our collective imaginations. However, the legacy and impact of comic books, often underestimated, has not been lost on artists, writers, and creators at St. Leo Catholic School and other students across the Durham Catholic District School Board. Whether it was at St. Leo’s on-going Comic Book Club, which is now happening virtually over EDSBY, or with this past summer’s literacy and design initiative with Special Needs Students on an I.E.P., the creation of heroes and villains, secret hideouts, and fantastic origin stories captivated students of all abilities and delighted their parents. Participants and observers never had any doubt about enthusiasm, but the real revelation was in academic engagement and a revival of the writing process, reading skills and overall engagement.
Throughout the past school year, prior to March, the following announcement went out every Friday morning: Comic book creators assemble in Mr. von Vulte’s classroom during lunch recess. If you leaned into the hallway at that very moment, you could hear a chorus of cheers as St. Leo’s Comic Book Club eagerly awaited another dynamic session of the school’s largest student organization, including athletics, averaging 35 to 40 participants! Students from Grades One to Eight could be seen rushing toward the north end of the school with pencil crayons, rulers, and comic book templates in hand, complemented by bursting imaginations, ready to create their own heroes, villains, and adventures. A lofty goal for literature is that it should take its readers by the hand; however, in this case, the authors and their dreams took care of that all by themselves.
During the summer of 2013, I had the great fortune of having breakfast with Marvel Comics creator and living legend, Stan Lee. As a Language Arts teacher, I only had one pressing question for him: “What is the process by which you create your stories?” As I brushed away the veil of bashful fandom and made every effort to record his response, what he said truly surprised me. “I think of the character first, what they wear, look like, their history and motivations, and from there the story emerges.” Comic books provide multiple examples of how characters are structured, based on a back story, motivation, reaction to setting and place, and movement through plots as minor and major characters. They also introduce what it means to be an antagonist and protagonist, and why this relationship has developed. They offer a blueprint for the identification and replication of advanced storytelling techniques. It was astonishing how students began using terms like the aforementioned plot devices and how brainstorming was symbiotic and simultaneous to character creation. Stan Lee was absolutely correct. The process of creating a character allowed the door to narrative storytelling to be reopened in a truly equitable and natural dimension. The comic book club’s characters began to take their creators by the hand.
In accordance with the axiom of character conception, as defined for the ages by Stan Lee, club members began most sessions by creating their characters first or continuing their development. Every observer of the club, whether the principal, Mr. Malleau, other staff members, or even parents, witnessed characters jump from the minds of all students on to the front page of their comic books or manifesting themselves in the clay models which guided their imaginary quests.
The prospect of writing a book would be a daunting endeavour for most people, and, on the surface, a comic book would present an additional layer of deterrence, as the art component would cause even the most competent of illustrators to bristle at the thought. Fascinatingly, these broad concerns seemed to be no match for the power of imagination and the sheer will of creativity. Students know what aspects of stories and characters spark their creative mind’s eye. It seems that the concept of a hero or villain rests within all of us! Language Arts teachers have incorporated, as best practice, a greater emphasis on process and organization, using graphic organizers and other teaching resources to define the path toward narrative writing. This paradigm certainly has its benefits but still rests heavily upon plot sequences that incorporate a planned chronology, which ultimately drives the tale. Comic book creation offers students struggling with traditional approaches in English a viable alternative: character creation.
Of course not everyone saw themselves as an artist, but regardless of this reality, club members always tried their best and worked with each other, often across the grades to ask for help spelling the right words in a speech bubble, drawing that cape and boots to perfection, or simply sketching giant bubble letters to catch the attention of their readers and peers. Perseverance and trust in one another proved to be important character traits which emerged from this experience. Language Arts teachers and parents alike commented that their children were once again drawn to telling stories and had the tell-tale signs of improvement in writing and reading skills, which included a rapidly evolving vocabulary and the surprising use of technical words like antagonist and protagonist, even at the Grade One level. Comic book character and story making had not only delivered upon its promise of educational engagement but also, as a secondary effect, rekindled and captivated a love of literacy for many students.
Could poignant memories and experiences be generated and become part of the meaningful learning as they pertain to comic book creation for student of all abilities? I was pleased to see students building incremental content and competencies (academic and social) as we progressed from week to week. The students’ emerging characters and comic books acted as a means of engaging their inherent sense of prediction and revision at the same time, by following sequential design and character evolution. These are competencies which are often underutilized, underdeveloped, or unrecognized by both reluctant writers and their teachers. Learners of all abilities are able to visually flip back and restore an immediate visual hit again and again. This informed memory access (I.M.A.) and renewal is central to learning English in its colloquial and contextual element.
The great tragedy of Language Arts is that even while best practices continue to be improved and incorporated into learning, there are many students who remain resigned to the status of reluctant readers and writers. Ironically, the long-considered outlier of acceptable literature— the comic book—might be the fulcrum on which the axiom of student success, given the correct supports and interventions, might rest. The revival of comic books and their creation by students themselves can be married to the inclusion of a variety of texts that go both below and beyond a student’s current ability. Comic books and graphic novels are gateways to success in literacy, at any level of proficiency.
Much like Superman’s inevitable and steadfast recovery and resistance to Kryptonite, so too has St. Leo’s Comic Book Club weathered the storm of Covid-19. One could almost hear the opening lines of John Williams’ iconic Superman
March when it was announced through a brilliant poster, a morning announcement, and a posting to parents that this most popular of clubs had once again returned and remained ever-vigil in the minds of students. It is now virtual and on EDSBY, with a membership of twenty student creators. Secret hideouts, colourful panels, and, of course, heroes and villains abound online and on a board in one of the school’s hallways. Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, once said of their own hero and troubled time, Our character is a symbol of hope and a challenge to the darkness from the light. This is also the enduring spirit and call to creativity of St. Leo’s Virtual Comic Book Club.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manfred J. von Vulte
Manfred J. von Vulte B.A., B.ED., M.A., OCT is the published author of numerous articles, as well as two children’s works, a history book, and an educational guide on the use of comic books and experiential learning for parents and teachers. Manfred has been teaching for over twenty years and has been with Durham Catholic District School Board since 2017. In 2019, he was recognized with the Distinguished Catholic Educator Award by his peers at St. Leo Catholic School where he runs a Comic Book Club and Animation Studio. The Ontario Insurance Teacher’s Plan (OTIP) awarded him and his students $5,000 to develop this animation initiative. Manfred was also recently profiled in an alumni spotlight by York University’s Faculty of Education. He is the Director of the Comic Book Project Canada and was featured on the Space Channel, the Global Television Network and at Fan Expo Toronto. Manfred’s passion is to help reluctant writers and readers through the medium of comic books.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2021 issue.