This one’s about Moon Knight.
If you’re less a geek than me, feel free to stop reading now, or at least be warned that these are the musings of a middle aged educator…about comic books. Dulce est desipere in loco.
Not long ago a tweet floated across my computer screen asking about comics. It came from Gwyneth Jones, a librarian and educator I respect, and asked for help for a teacher. The call: “HS ELA teacher wants straight-up comic books. Any ideas?”
As a former English teacher, now principal, I miss the collaboration I had with colleagues around what books to teach and ways we could help students connect with literature. Our conversations could be spirited, offbeat, and inspiring. This request smacked of such adventure and I fired off a quick response: “This may be a little nutty, but the new Moon Knight (and old) could prompt discussion.”
Then I got thinking.
The phrase “straight-up comic books” stuck with me. I couldn’t shake the creative bug that buzzed in my brain every week of the thirteen years I taught English.
I’ve written about teaching graphic novels before, and even about one of my favorite comic book heroes, Moon Knight. Fresh off reading the latest collection of “The Fist of Khonshu,” the daring librarian’s tweet got me thinking about what it might really look like to use “straight-up comic books” in the classroom today.
As a first year teacher I used a copy of a Batman comic that reprinted the character’s first appearance and then retold the same story in a contemporary style. Juxtaposing the two versions of the same story prompted a discussion of narrative view and characterization that parlayed into the other literature we were reading. I thought it was a neat lesson, but truth be told, it was a bit of a throwaway.
A decade later I tried to use an Avengers comic to set up The Scarlet Letter, but the less said about that the better. It was not one of my more successful adventures.
As I thought about the notion of using comic books today, not graphic novels (those purposeful volumes that blend text and images and are designed to be book length, not episodic) but “straight-up comic books,” two things struck me as rich with possibility: comic books are serial, and at their best they invite unbridled creativity.
Enter Moon Knight.
I grew up on comic books, Fantastic Four, Batman, and the rest, and I remember the first time I saw something that blew apart the standard and felt different: Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight.
Theirs were odd and interesting stories, unafraid to vary in length, eschew the mores of superhero monthlies, quote Blake, explore religion, stretch the boundaries of a comic page, and present real issues from child abuse to mental illness. …all under the guise of a comic book.
Like many superheroes, Moon Knight went through phases, the ‘90s and early 2000s turning him this way and that, dragging him closer to conventionality than his earlier incarnations, occasionally sliding him toward ridiculousness, but in 2014 he sprang back with a retro vengeance as Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire brought back the spirit of innovation that had typified the comic in the gritty 70s and experimental 80s.
As a (recovering) English teacher, it’s both the richness and complexity of this history that adds layers of depth to the possibility of using Moon Knight in an English class.
What then, to do with it?
I’m more than a little out of practice with lesson planning, so for any teacher types still reading, imagine this as my end of a discussion we’re having while on a hike in the woods. We’re walking along a trail, trees reaching up all around, and as we fall into conversation about how we could teach “straight-up comic books,” I suggest that…
I’d start, as all good comic stories do, with brief intro of the character’s origin story, succinctly told. We’d look at the first renderings of Marc Spector’s death and rebirth beneath the statue of Egyptian god Khonshu; his adoption of not one, but three identities outside the white suit: mercenary Marc Spector, cabbie Jake Lockley, and millionaire Steven Grant; and the cast of characters who form the stable of support for the character: Marlene, Crawley, Frenchie, and Gena.
We’d talk about the standards in a superhero story (capes, secret identities, and other expectations) and look at how those expectations can be turned upside down. I’d follow with the class reading “Hit It” to see how that story explodes convention, mirroring perhaps a poet who interrupts the contract with the reader to break a sonnet or upend an established form.
Because comics are visual by nature, a brief foray into art makes sense, and an article on negative space in one of the most recent runs of Moon Knight does a nice job of capturing the importance of the choices illustrators make. As the author of the article notes: “The utilization of all that negative space is not just a brilliant visual concept, it’s also an exceptional thematic choice. Held in a mental institution and informed that his entire life is a fabrication, Marc Spector must reevaluate everything he thought he knew about Moon Knight, Khonshu, his other personalities, and himself.” Thoughtful analysis of a comic book? Yep. And for those young artists in my class, a nice opportunity to talk about the finer points of another discipline.
Armed with this history, possibility, and artistic vernacular, the students would be ready to engage with new texts, and it would be fun to provide different groups with different versions of the silver and jet hero.
Neatly packaged are the four most recent story arcs of Moon Knight as well as some of the best of the Moench and Sienkiewicz issues in the collection Shadows of the Moon. Six copies of each could provide a half dozen groups of students in (comic) book groups with enough to talk about to make things interesting.
Helping to frame their group reading and discussion, I’d need to come up with some guiding questions and challenges that apply to all the collections. What this would look like would take some conversation with fellow English teachers. Certainly students would benefit from noting the real-world issues they see reflected in the stories. It would be smart to ask them to look for motifs either visual or thematic. Art. Color. Language.
On our imaginary hike, it’s on this point that I’d listen most and try to capture the ideas beyond my own that raise teaching and learning past what any individual teacher can come up with.
Along with each collection, I’d ask students to read a bit of non-fiction, an interview, or analysis of the work they are engaging with. I could point them toward an overview of the Moench and Sienkiewicz years, an interview with Declan Shalvey, a discussion with Cullen Bunn, or a Q&A with Greg Smallwood.
I’d also push them to make connections between the books they’ve read in class and the comics they are reading. I could see students finding parallels between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Moon Knight collection Lunatic or between In the Night and Edgar Allan Poe.
Beyond links to fiction or nonfiction texts, Moon Knight comics have a long tradition of addressing real-life issues, and prompting students to make connections between the story arcs they read and issues like mental illness, political crises, or fanaticism would be a worthy adjunct activity. Dead Will Rise, for instance, takes on issues suggested by homeland security and Guantanamo Bay. In the Night covers a range of topics, providing rich catalysts for discussion and thought provoking hooks on which to hang research into everything from religious belief to animal cruelty.
Any of the collections, particularly From the Dead provide a good source of allusions, and just as I’d pair up the Bunn and first Smallwood groups, I’d have the Moench team work with those reading Ellis to see the many connections drawn between the two.
Much as I ran “Bistro Days” as an English teacher, a day of tablecloths, croissants, and conversation, during which students had an opportunity to talk about independent reading books that shared common themes (as they sipped coffee and listened to accordion music), I’d invite students to take a class period and cross pollinate, explain their reading to others from other groups, and find the connections between the various versions of the lunar avenger.
Each of these slim volumes has enough story, characterization, and innovation to spark discussion and prepare the students to make one last literary jump, to the present.
Comics are our twenty first century version of serial stories. Read “live” they force readers to finish a segment and wait a month to see what happens next. Like Dickens’ or Collins’ Victorian audience, the contemporary comic book reader has time to mull over what has happened and anticipate what will happen next. With the 2016 run of Moon Knight, prediction is nearly impossible.
The current run of Moon Knight, as of me writing this today, is a whirlwind of storytelling, part homage, part fever dream, all unexpected fun. Following the issues collected in Lunatic, the story of Moon Knight has veered into a mashup of religion, mental health, and unreliable narration.
After our collective introduction to the character, their group interaction with a specific Moon Knight text, and the discussions that brought them up to date on the character’s story, we’d be ready to take a look at the current story as it is being written. A lesson or two could catch us up with issue #9, which sees the various personalities of Moon Knight and his alter egos in confrontation. Some might notice that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened in the Moon Knight canon; back in 1982 the fellows in Moon Knight’s head scrapped a bit; meet the new boss same as the old boss.
But the new boss isn’t simply reworking old stories. Even as he pays homage to the legacy of the character, writer Jeff Lemire is fashioning a story as trippy as it is innovative. For old Moon Knight fans like me, who appreciate the nods toward the past, and for new readers alike the question of “what happens next?” looms large over every panel.
Taking the students up through the story arc so far and then allowing them a few months to experience the dynamic storytelling of a monthly comic would be a nice way to extend our discussion of narrative, perspective, and author (and illustrator) voice.
It would be fun to teach a living text as it was being written, a text that could be downloaded every month and shared with the class. Discussing what we anticipate will happen, while none of us (even the teacher) can know what that will be, would be energizing and (it seems to me) have that tightrope feel that good teaching and learning often does.
Maybe all this is dreamier than it is possible. I honestly don’t know. It’s days like today that I realize how long I’ve been out of the classroom and how invigorating it can be to be a part of a dynamic teaching community.
That kind of professional and creative connection really is, in its twitterish way, what the tweet that started this all invited. That, and it invited the inner comic book nerd in all of us to come out.
Are there lots of comic books that would be great in the classroom? Sure, and I’d wager that teachers far, far more insightful than I am have a thousand ideas of comics that would work brilliantly with students. I wish I had a few hours with each to talk capes and masks and teaching over a pot of coffee. Thanks, Gwyneth Jones for your question, and thanks teachers everywhere willing to acknowledge their inner geekiness, try new things in the classroom, and swing into action like a superheroes!
For only the nerdiest of us…
Seriously, deep geek here…
I’ll note that I’d ignore the earliest versions of MK, back in his werewolf fighting days, when his cape was still connected to his wrists. I gloss over his time wearing armor, carving moons into foreheads, and living in LA. West Coast Avengers? Nope (though I dug those comics as a kid). There’s something to be said for some sort of discretion after all …though for that one student, and there’s always one intrepid soul, who digs a little deeper, I’d be ready for a lively, old school discussion of The Committee, The Slasher, and Stained Glass Scarlet!