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Vickroy: Marvel Comics on Austen: Or Lizzy on Love, Loss, and Living

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Updated: March 20, 2013 6:10AM



Anyone who’s ever contemplated burning their eyes out while reading certain classics — ahem, Thomas Hardy, Geoffrey Chaucer — will appreciate this.

In the Marvel Comics version of “Pride & Prejudice,” Mr. Darcy broods in full color, his stern, serious demeanor clearly communicated through illustrated panels.

Via word bubbles, the dapper Mr. Darcy trades barbs, witticisms and, finally, romantic gestures with the independent, seemingly disaffected Elizabeth Bennet.

Welcome to 21st century high school lit class, where students bury their faces in comic books and come away versed in classic literature.

Jane Austen’s best-seller is hardly the first classic to be adapted for graphic form. Others titles include “Treasure Island,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Kidnapped.” But given the 200th anniversary of “Pride & Prejudice,” what better time than the present to embrace literature’s Romantic Period in a jazzed up way?

Like its predecessors, Marvel’s “Pride & Prejudice” cover reads like the cover of a teen magazine. Teasers scream: “Bingleys bring bling to Britain,” “Lizzy on love, loss, and living,” and “How to cure your boy crazy sisters!”

What teen could resist? And that’s the point.

“It’s a visual world,” said Eric Kallenborn, English teacher at Shepard High School in Palos Heights. “The graphic novel is not a replacement for classic literature but a supplement, a way to get through these complicated themes in a faster, more memorable way.”

For many romantics, no one hit the love story out of the park the way Austen did with “Pride & Prejudice.”

The hate-turned-love relationship between Darcy and Bennet, complicated by English society’s sexist attitudes and unreasonable expectations, has been the basis of many subsequent teen books and movies.

As Kallenborn said, “Marriage and courtship may have changed but the pursuit of happiness is eternal.”

First printed in 1813, the novel continues to be a popular choice among the reading public 200 years later. Its longevity has been attributed to its universal theme and its relatable characters. But today’s youth might add its “approachable, modernized’ format to that list.

Last week, students in Kallenborn’s and Jeff Vazzana’s AP Language and Composition classes read the Marvel Comics version and then met for a Socratic discussion on the work.

Seated in a circle around a select group of their peers, the students talked about the continued relevance of Austen’s themes, the enduring relatability of her characters and the ease with which they arrived at their own conclusions compliments of Marvel. When the students in the periphery agreed with something a member of the select group said, they raised both hands and snapped their fingers repeatedly in approval.

“It took me less than two hours to read this,” said Mike Perett, 15, of Alsip.

Not only is the graphic version a faster read, it totally held Briona Allen’s interest.

“I was mad when the bell rang and we had to stop,” said the 17-year-old junior. “I think the book version would have been boring.”

Enrique Montoya was happy not to be bogged down with unnecessary details. When pictures are included, you don’t need so many long sentences with endless clauses to describe a scene, an outfit or the expression on a character’s face.

Anyone who’s ever labored through Thomas Hardy or Geoffrey Chaucer can certainly appreciate that.

But, I had to ask, did the students wonder if they were missing out on anything in the translation?

Bridget Curry, 17, said, “I did feel like I might be missing some of the details.”

But, for her, the graphic version proved a fitting segue into the original. “I am inspired to read the novel now. I might not have if I hadn’t read this version.”

Kallenborn said he tries to incorporate one or two graphic novels a year into his classes. Last year, his students read the Marvel version of “Spiderman.”

“The kids loved it,” he said.

And, he added, content scores on AP exams were about the same among students who read graphic novels and those who read the original works.

He also suspects students may actually develop better vocabularies by reading books that include pictures.

“I think images help to support vocabulary,” he said. “Visual literacy is much more memorable and relatable.”

Struggling readers may benefit the most from the graphic version of classic novels, he said. The format opens up doors on works that might have otherwise been too intimidating or difficult.

“They are way more apt to pick up and get through a graphic novel than some of the original classics,” he said. “For someone who struggles, being able to complete a classic is a major sense of accomplishment.”

The graphic format reaches a whole new audience, he said. And that’s a good thing because the classics are still relevant, of course, in terms of ideas, themes and character development, just in need of an updated presentation. This format is much more palatable and may even help with vocabulary development and retention, he said, because there are photos attached to feelings, moods and situations. Photos make words more memorable.

For purists, who might be tempted to rush to judgment on the topic of graphic novels, may we remind them of the lessons learned in “Pride & Prejudice.”

Kallenborn said one of the reasons we keep reading this book is because the central ideas still exist. The tendency to judge without full knowledge and to make assumptions based on previous experiences are human nature, he said.

So while it’s fine to be proud that you made it through a complicated hard-to-read novel, don’t pre-judge those who opt to take the express lane.

Look what happened when Darcy and “Lizzie” finally overcame their negative first impressions and gave each other a closer, more honest study.



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