Teacher characters in comics are almost as ubiquitous as flowing capes and tights — but they’re often relegated to the background of stories about the lives of students, like a piece of furniture or a potted plant.
As a familiar example, the teachers in Peanuts never appear in the panels but are only implied as distant voices, while even Snoopy is given the odd thought bubble. Teachers in comics therefore rarely have much of an inner world.
Even if certain figures — such as Ms. Grundy of Riverdale High in the Archie comics — are immediately recognisable, you would be forgiven for thinking she has no life outside of her job. Only rarely do readers see Ms. Grundy doing something out of the ordinary, such as taking a skydiving class on the weekend or preparing a lecture for her students on women’s rights.
As a professor who educates teachers-to-be about learning to build a sustainable teaching life, both in and out of the classroom, and a researcher who has examined teachers in comics, I read comics set in school with an inquiring eye about what readers are led to implicitly accept about the emotional lives of those who teach.
While as noted, some comics artists have rendered teachers as background filler, that’s not always the case. Through examining some depictions of teachers in comics, we can gain insight into real-life challenges of teachers related to negotiating their identities and feelings in the classroom.
Black Lightning / Mr. Pierce
In the classroom, as Mr. Pierce, he is committed to making a difference in his students’ lives, despite the obstacles they may face: “I came here to teach,” he once exclaimed, “and I can do that whether I’m in a classroom or a locker room — or out on the street.”
This double life, however, takes its toll, and leaves Pierce with hardly a moment to rest. In one story, after spending the night out as Black Lightning, he remarks, visibly exhausted: “Schoolteacher Jefferson Pierce still has some English papers to grade before morning.”
For such characters, the stress of a double life reveals the impediments that teachers may encounter when trying to maintain out-of-school interests and identities. To greater or lesser degrees, these may be at odds with mainstream western cultural expectations and cultural myths about teachers — such as the view that teachers are rugged individualists and self-made experts, as noted by education researcher Deborah P. Britzman.
Johnny Thunder / Mr. Tane
First appearing in 1940s western comics, much of cowboy superhero Johnny Thunder’s story line involves a struggle between his desire to enact vengeance and justice at gunpoint, and his wish to teach children about civic duty in the classroom as Mr. John Tane.
The comics’ narrating voice describes this confusion of identities as a “dual post as fighter with books and bullets for justice” in a 1951 issue of All American Western (Issue 120). Tane’s father is also the local sheriff, and often humiliates his son for working as a teacher: “Teachin’s for womenfolk!” he says, “An fightin’ for justice a man’s job.”
Education researchers Shannon D.M. Moore and Melanie D. Janzen have examined how campaigns by governments that criticise teachers or the teaching profession, and seek to justify underfunding education, rely on gendered projections that suggest patriarchal surveillance over teaching devalued as “women’s work.”
Though he has his suspicions, Sheriff Tane never does discover his son’s secret identity, nor does he come around to respect his work in the classroom, a fact that leads his son to feel understandably confused about who he actually is.
For example, in one image from All-American Western, violent reverberations of Tane’s face, rendered by multiplying its outline more than 15 times, indicate the degree to which his own identity lacks coherence. Indeed, after reading through every single issue of this character’s run, I’m left unsure about whether to consider Johnny Thunder or Mr. Tane as the character’s true identity.
The split identity struggles of Black Lightning and Johnny Thunder resonate with themes that education scholars Dennis Sumara and Rebecca Luce-Kapler have noticed in beginning teachers, who often join the profession experiencing a sense of “dissonance between their pre-teaching lives and their lives as experienced teachers.” Unsurprisingly, they find, this is especially true for teachers from marginalised groups, including racialised teachers, immigrant teachers and gay and lesbian teachers. (Other research notes LGBTQ+ teachers struggle to find safe space in schools to be themselves.)
Just as Pierce has trouble fitting both his lives into the larger frame of “teacher,” and we aren’t sure who Tane really is, so may novice teachers be forced to negotiate between what Sumara and Luce-Kapler name as “conflicting remembered, lived and projected senses of identity.”
A surprising example of a character able to balance her life in and out of the classroom is Barbie. (Yes, that Barbie!) In a 1990s storyline, Barbie decides to pursue a career as a teacher, even though she is already well-known as a model.
Her sentiments may be a little saccharine and naïve — “I hope I’ll be a good teacher,” she thinks to herself, “and that the students learn a lot from me.” Yet, it’s also refreshing to see her able to express such inner thoughts, and to admit emotional concerns as an important component of who she is as a teacher.
As education scholar Debbie Sonu and colleagues indicate, it is only by admitting “the elusive qualities of emotional life” into the classroom that teachers may also grapple with challenging topics, like social justice and social inequity, as “part and parcel of education, and not the opposite.”
If teachers are able to encounter themselves as emotional beings, they will be more readily able to encourage such moves among their students as well.
Comics help imagine, examine unconscious life
In my own work with those who are learning to teach, I have explored making comics with students to allow them to represent and read their own dreams of life in the classroom. Doing this is one means of side-stepping what could otherwise entail imposing a predictable and prescriptive script of expected outcomes and methods in teacher education.
Such imagining can help ensure new teachers’ versions of teaching may be grounded in their broader lives and identities, and that their knowledge and personal appropriation of professional methods don’t work to render such identities invisible and silent.
Since comics seem to offer a valuable lens into the social unconscious of educational life, perhaps counter-intuitively, we should also learn to trust what comics imply about the everyday life of teaching and learning.
Featured image: Strong feelings and hidden identities seem to be part of the teaching life in comics. (‘Batman and the Outsiders’/DC Comics/ 6 January 1984)