Opinion: Why ‘Black Panther’ and other comic books belong in the classroom

With the massive success of “Black Panther,” the latest blockbuster from Marvel, the time is ripe for educators to embrace comic books as legitimate teaching and learning tools.

The movie is based on the superhero created by comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, first appearing in “Fantastic Four” #52, released in 1966. In that issue, for what turns out to be a defensible reason, the Black Panther, or T’Challa as he is also known, single-handedly takes down each member of the powerful all-white superhero team. During the height of the civil rights movement, this was a powerful statement indeed, providing a clear allegory to the tumultuous time.

Fantastic Four #52 comic book panel from July 10, 1966, in which Black Panther/T’Challa knocks out the Thing/Ben Grimm, the strongest member of the Fantastic Four. Photo courtesy of Marvel Comics.

My high school history students know how much I love Wednesdays, when new superhero titles are released. But as much as I enjoy getting my geek on, I’m also looking for comics that will help engage learners on important social issues, something comic books have been known to explore head-on.

Marvel’s 1979 Iron Man storyline, “Demon in a Bottle,” explores how a superhero struggles with alcoholism. If a person with a flying, nearly indestructible suit of armor can hit a low point, nobody is above asking for help. In the recently released Supergirl #19, DC Comics tackles school bullying and a non-binary teen opening up to her parents.

Of course, comic books, even those about superheroes, also deserve scholarly scrutiny as legitimate sources.

For example, I’m eager to introduce students to “The Uncanny X-Men,” originally released in 1963, also by Lee and Kirby. The comic features Professor X (a paraplegic and the world’s most powerful psychic), who, with his team of super-powered beings—mutants known as the X-Men—works toward a peaceful coexistence with humanity. The team often faces off against Magneto (a manipulator of magnetism) and his Brotherhood of Mutants, who resort to more aggressive means to achieve peace for their kind.

We need heroes, even if fictional, that reflect our values and how everyone looks.
With the civil rights movement in mind, my juniors will consider how Xavier and Magneto correspond to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. With this creative hook, students explore sources to further enhance their learning. I can’t take credit for this lesson, as other pop-savvy teachers also use it, and I’m uncertain where or from whom I borrowed the idea. What’s clear, though, is that comic books intensify student interest.

But don’t take just my word for it.

I connected with Carol L. Tilley, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, whose scholarship focuses on comics, libraries and youth.

“Although comics have been making in-roads into K-12 classrooms and libraries in the past decade — following many decades of unnecessary disparagement and condemnation — we should look for opportunities to accelerate that embrace. If more young people can be spurred to engage with topics like colonialism and racism because of comics, we’ll be richer for it,” said Tilley, who was also a judge for the 2016 Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards, the Oscars of the comic book world.

read more: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/opinion-why-black-panther-and-other-comic-books-belong-in-the-classroom


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