From Superheroes to Syrian Refugees: Teaching Comics and Graphic Novels With Resources From The New York Times

Here is the background, as explained by Jake Halpern, the author and journalist who created it with Michael Sloan, an illustrator and artist:

Two brothers, Jamil and Ammar, fled Syria in 2012, with their wives and children. After four years waiting in Jordan, they finally received a visa and traveled to the United States as refugees. They arrived on Nov. 8, 2016, which happened to be Election Day. It was, of course, a loaded moment. In effect, the brothers and their families landed in one country and woke up the next morning in another.

Since then, I have been reporting their stories and creating a “true comic” about their lives in America. I went to their mosques, schools and job-training programs. I was also there when Ammar’s family received a frightening death threat, which ultimately forced them to flee their town. Today the illustrator, Michael Sloan, and I bring you the final installment in their story.

In a Times Insider article, “Times Journalists Use Words, Photos, Graphics and Video. And Now, a Comic Strip,” Bruce Headlam, the editor, explains more about how the team works:

Every few weeks, the writer, Jake Halpern spends hours with the families in their homes in New England (we have deliberately kept their locations secret and given the families pseudonyms for privacy reasons), reporting out their experiences. Jake then confirms the details with translators, sponsors, police and other people in contact with the families. He and Michael Sloan, the artist, render those experiences in comic form for the Sunday Review.

We’d hoped the comic strip would give readers new insight into the everyday experience of refugees. We didn’t imagine those experiences would involve a serious threat on their lives.

Read and respond to the series

Invite students to read the complete series, noting specific aspects of or moments in it that seem especially interesting or meaningful to them. Then discuss in small groups or as a full class:

What do students learn about this family and their background?

What does the comic help them understand about what it’s like to make the transition to a new place where you don’t know the customs, laws or language?

How does the series show the ways United States policies and politics directly affect the lives of this family?

How do the creators handle difficult topics like the death threat, or the torture Jamil, one of the fathers, underwent in Syria?

In his Times Insider article, Mr. Headlam says that, as a print editor, the challenge of editing a visual story was very different — and he recommends a book that many other comics experts recommend:

Editing the strip turned out to be a fascinating, sometimes frustrating experience in visual storytelling. I’d grown up on comic books — Stan Lee pretty much taught me to read — but I hadn’t realized just how concentrated the form is. The average Opinion piece is about 1,000 words. “Welcome to the New World” typically has fewer than 200. (For anybody tackling a comic strip, or any kind of narrative writing, I can’t recommend “Making Comics” by Scott McCloud highly enough.)

Mr. McCloud mentions all of the following as key topics his book covers. Invite your students, in pairs or small groups, to choose one as a lens for analyzing the art of “Welcome to the New World” and finding examples that show how that aspect was done especially well:

• Choosing the right moments — what to include, what to leave out.

• Framing actions and guiding attention.

• Choosing words and images that communicate together.

• Creating varied and compelling characters with inner lives and unforgettable appearances.

• Understanding body language and facial expressions.

• Creating rich, believable worlds for your readers to explore.

Pair it with reporting

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