A Serious Use for Comic Books

February 22, 2012

By Magdalena Stuehrmann, Class of 2015

For teenagers who are victims of abuse or maltreatment, the child welfare system can be confusing and overwhelming.

George Washington University students are working to make the process easier for these teens through an easy-to-understand source: the comic book.

GW Assistant Professor of Writing Phillip Troutman is leading a new service-learning University Writing Program course called Serious Comix, designed for students with an interest in graphic novels and comics. This semester, Dr. Troutman’s class is partnering with local nonprofit organization Safe Shores: The D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center to produce comic-book-style informational booklets designed to help teenagers understand the legal system, prepare to appear in court and educate them on issues such as self-esteem and dating violence.

Safe Shores was founded in 1994 to help provide a child-friendly approach to the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in the District of Columbia. The organization is designed to offer a safe and supportive environment for their clients throughout the legal and investigative process, which can often be traumatic and bewildering for children and teens. Safe Shores is involved in as many as 1,100 cases each year.

The majority of Safe Shores clients are preteens, but teenagers are involved in about 10 percent of the cases, said Jessica Galimore, senior victims services associate at Safe Shores. The organization provides informational booklets to children, parents and teens about the processes that they can expect to go through and educational resources for moving forward.

But while the organization has age appropriate materials for children and adults, the material it has for teenagers would be far more suitable for a younger audience, said Dr. Troutman.

“It’s such a problem that I don’t think they even use the booklets anymore,” he said.

Serious Comix is designed to fill this gap while providing the students with an academic and service experience. Students will spend the semester learning about comics and graphic novels as art forms. Students will also write about comics in an academic context and learn how to synthesize information gleaned from texts such as comics. By the end of the semester, students will have produced booklets designed for teenage clients at Safe Shores.

Ms. Galimore said the comics will fill a need by providing critical information and helping facilitate discussions between teens and their parents or guardians.

“After a teenager becomes involved in a case of abuse or maltreatment, there can be difficult conversations surrounding everyday life,” said Ms. Galimore. “We intend for the materials created by the GW students to be a resource utilized by our clients after their experience with our victim services program during their case investigation.”

Serious Comix is both a service-learning and a University Writing Program course. Service learning at GW consists of academic courses in various disciplines that have community service incorporated into their curricula. The University Writing Program is a mandatory first-year writing program in which students learn the basics of college writing. Classes are offered on subjects as varied as Harry Potter, film noir, the inner workings of the human brain and country music.

Last year, Ms. Galimore asked Dr. Troutman to incorporate the course he was teaching about comics with Safe Shores’ need for better informational brochures.

Katherine Mead, a service-learning scholar with the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, worked with Dr. Troutman and Safe Shores to create a syllabus for the service-learning course and act as a liaison between the class and the organization.

“I think this will be a great opportunity for the students, but it will also really help the community too,” said Ms. Mead.

The use of comics might seem unusual, but Dr. Troutman said the form could be an excellent way to reach a teenage audience.

“Safe Shores thinks that short comics might provide an accessible medium, one that could treat the issues seriously, but with something of a light touch,” said Dr. Troutman. “The idea is that these comics might serve as a conversation piece for later on.”

Connor Delaney, a freshman student taking the course, is looking forward to the service-learning experience and is eager to help.

“I want to create something that could help facilitate discussions between parents and teens,” he said. “I want it to be something that Safe Shores can really use to help these teens.”


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