Why comics and graphic novels like ‘Maus’ are effective teaching tools

A father and son look at a graphic novel
“Kids feel empathy reading graphic novels,” says Northeastern professor Hillary Chute, who helped bring Boston Kids Comics Fest to Curry Student Center on Saturday. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

Hillary Chute’s academic career was transformed by “Maus,” the serialized graphic novel that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for its story of a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. 

“I read ‘Maus’ in a graduate seminar when I was getting my Ph.D. in English,” says Chute, a Northeastern distinguished professor of English and art + design whose work has focused on comics and graphic novels. She has written and edited several books exploring the form, including two centered on “Maus,” and she started writing columns for The New York Times Book Review in 2018.

Chute’s vocation has helped her appreciate the power of comics and graphic novels to connect with kids, helping them make sense of their own circumstances and the larger world around them.

Headshot of Hillary Chute
Hillary Chute, Northeastern distinguished professor of English and art + design. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“There’s something really important about kids being able to see images of people like themselves, and that includes people who are struggling with issues of identity,” Chute says. “Kids feel empathy reading graphic novels. They feel not so alone when they see people who are having similar experiences. And I think that the power of visualizing something and the effect it can have on kids is really key.”

Chute says she still finds herself explaining—“mainly at parties with people I meet here and there”—that comics go far beyond the superhero genre. 

“Comics are about everything,” she says. “In the case of ‘Maus’ I was so fascinated that there was this powerful story about the Holocaust, and so interested in the question of why this kind of story in this kind of form works so well.

“What I’m interested in is how comics can address themselves to important contemporary issues—about what it means to have an identity that’s accepted,” she says. “And what it means to be a person who feels heard and feels seen in today’s society.”

Proof of the form’s effectiveness is offered by Luke Landherr, a distinguished teaching professor and associate chair for undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Northeastern. Under the pseudonym Dante Shepherd he has helped create STEM comics to encourage interest in math and science at all levels, from K-12 to universities and adult learning. 

“I started making comics as a way to try to help my students grasp the difficult concepts,” Landherr said at the Boston Kids Comics Fest, which drew about 1,000 visitors Saturday to Northeastern’s Curry Student Center. He was selling copies of his comic series, “PhD Unknown,” at an exhibitor’s table promoting his engineering education research group, Science The World, which is home to dozens of comics covering data analysis, gene therapy, refrigeration cycles, momentum transfer and other complex topics. 

“I’ve seen exam grades go from 62 to 80,” Landherr says of the effectiveness of the comics as a university teaching tool. “Over the course of a couple of semesters I’ve had students make their own comics as an assignment in the class, even though it’s an engineering class.”

Chute recently taught a class on the overlap of comics and health care, another sphere that helps extend the medium’s reach.

“There are some amazing fictional graphic novels that are about picturing illness and trying to provide better accounts of what it feels like to be struggling with COVID or with a long-term illness,” Chute says. 

The ideal of engaging with young people on their terms was on display throughout the festival. Next to Landherr sat Dan Mazur, who leads the Boston Comics Roundtable, a community of creators that has been meeting weekly for two decades. The Roundtable has published a half-dozen issues of “Boston Powers,” a kid-friendly superhero series set in Massachusetts.

Around the corner sat Benjamin Murray, a rising seventh-grader at West Somerville (Massachusetts) Neighborhood School and author of a comics series based on the animated TV character Bill Cipher

“I’ve been doing comics for my whole life pretty much,” he said. “I write them for fun. I have a group of friends who are obsessed with Bill Cipher.”

There was a full-circle dynamic to the presence of kids as both consumers and creators at the festival.

“To see kids selling their own work and being valued for their creative stuff alongside adults, that’s huge for them,” said Chute, who helped bring the festival to Northeastern. “And it is very heartening to see all of these families here.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at i.thomsen@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.