Crossing cultural boundaries with graphic novels

Cathy Sly, author and consultant, provides insights and teaching ideas to use graphic novels for English. Cathy's recent PhD thesis investigated graphic novels from a narratological perspective.

Portrait photo of Dr Cathy Sly
Image: Dr Cathy Sly

Revered Japanese mangaka (comics artist), Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) claimed, ‘My experience convinces me that comics, regardless of what language they are printed in, are an important form of expression that crosses all national and cultural boundaries …’ (cited in Schodt, 1983). In recent times, readers in the Western world have shown an increasing interest in Japanese comics (manga) as well as in a variety of indigenous, multicultural and transcultural comics and graphic novels. Publications of this type offer a forum for voices rarely heard in conventional Western children’s literature.

Growth in the number of graphic narratives that cross cultural boundaries indicates that creators, publishers and readers are recognising the inherent worth of the comics medium for expressing voices and ideas that differ from those which generally dominate Western culture. Graphic narratives such as ‘Palestine’ (2001) by Joe Sacco, ‘Persepolis’ (2003) by Marjane Satrapi, ‘Pyongyang’ (2007) by Guy Delisle, ‘Aya’ (2007) by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie, ‘American Born Chinese’ (2008) by Gene Luen Yang, and others in this vein, exhibit and celebrate cultural difference. They present less familiar voices and, as Frederick Luis Aldama suggests, they utilise the elements of comics to ‘cue, trigger, and move reader-viewers to engage with complex schemas of race and ethnicity’ (2010, p. 20).

Two compelling Australian graphic novels that present transcultural narratives are ‘Shake a Leg’ (2010), a collaborative work by Aboriginal Australian storyteller Boori Monty Pryor and non-Indigenous illustrator Jan Ormerod, and ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’ (2011), the first volume in a trilogy by Aboriginal Australian writer/illustrator Brenton E. McKenna.

Given that graphic novels simultaneously show and tell, it can be argued that they have some affinity with the oral tradition of storytelling which often involves facial expressions, body movement and dance, or pictorial images. The oral tradition has enabled Aboriginal Australians to pass stories from generation to generation over many millennia. Books, such as the ones presented here, demonstrate the merit of visu-verbal storytelling.

Comics theorist, Rocco Versaci asserts that being a somewhat marginalised medium, sitting on the borders of literature and art, has allowed comics/ graphic novel creators the freedom to experiment and produce ‘representations that are both surprising and subversive’ (2007, p. 12). Following on from this idea, it is possible to suggest that this unorthodox ‘literary’ format has provided a new and unique forum for minority voices that have often been neglected in mainstream literary formats.

In ‘Shake a Leg’ the writer and illustrator use the language of comics to integrate Anglo-Australian, Italian and Aboriginal Australian cultures to express an identity that has been formed within and between the different cultures. This publication is appropriate for a wide age range, but will be investigated here in relation to Stage 2 students.

The lengthy, more complex ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’ is a substantial text which focuses on the Western Australian town of Broome, and the zany activities of a ragtag gang of adolescents from different cultural backgrounds. This publication is more suited to Stage 4 and beyond. A close examination of these two graphic novels will demonstrate the rich teaching and learning potential of quality narratives created in the comics mode.

Becoming familiar with the ‘language of comics’

For those who are not already familiar with the language of comics there are several instructive guides to this mode of communication. Some especially useful resources include:

Baetens, J. & Frey, H. 2015, The Graphic Novel: An Introduction

Cohn, N. Visual Language Lab

Eisner, W. [1996] 2008, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative

Hart, M. 2010, Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom Grd 4-8

Kukkonen, K. 2013, Studying Comics and Graphic Novels

McCloud, S. 1993, Understanding Comics

Monnin, K. 2010, Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom

Rudd, D. 2010, The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature

Sly, C. 2014, ‘Empowering 21st Century Readers:Integrating Graphic Novels into Primary Classrooms’ in K. Mallan (ed.) Picture Books and Beyond

The language of comics can be quite challenging for the uninitiated as it involves deciphering visual and verbal codes simultaneously. It also requires a reader to be mindful of medium specific codes and conventions which occur within the fundamental elements which include:

  • panels – the framed, or unframed, portions of visual and perhaps verbal information that are placed within a sequence to convey aspects of the story
  • layout – the size, shape and placement of panels and spaces between them
  • transitions – movement in place, space and/or time from one panel to another
  • balloonics – including speech balloons, thought balloons and caption boxes
  • additional aspects, such as font variation, onomatopoeia and other non-linguistic sounds, facial expressions and physical gestures, visual stylistics, colouring, and incidental ‘pictorial runes’ (Kennedy, 1982) like speed lines, movement lines, and flourishes depicting the quality of an object or the emotional state of a character.

The style of reading for graphic novels also differs from print texts in that the reading is not simply linear. Instead, it involves a freer style of ocular roaming in order to gather information by alternating one’s vision from the whole page to focus on specific panels and details within the panels, and thereby integrating information derived from images and words. The cultivation of visual skills and a more flexible style of reading is of great importance to young readers of today who are increasingly required to make meaning of the profusion of visual cues that abound in contemporary

media. Graphic novels can play a significant role in cultivating and refining capabilities relating to multiliteracy.

Introducing Shake a Leg

Apart from its value for younger readers, ‘Shake a Leg’ can be used in learning and teaching for older students, especially if they have limited knowledge of the comics narrative style and have minimal awareness of the metalanguage required to critique works in this medium. While the analysis and teaching suggestions offered here are pitched at Stage 2 students, teachers can readily adapt them to suit older groups.

In brief the story centres on three young boys who go to buy a pizza in a country town in far north Queensland. They are a little bewildered when Bertie, the pizza chef, greets them in Italian and yet affirms his Aboriginal background. While preparing the pizza, Bertie explains his own cross-cultural experiences and engages the boys in some intriguing Aboriginal stories and other cultural activities. The visual images offer depth and richness to a seemingly simple tale, and this visu-verbal narrative caters to cross curricular priorities and capabilities such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, intercultural understanding, and critical and creative thinking.

‘Shake a Leg’ is a versatile narrative that can be linked to a number of teaching concepts. By way of example, this article will focus on the English textual concepts: Code and convention, and Connotation, imagery and symbol. As with most well produced books, the cover captures the essence of the story within. Through an initial focus on the cover image teachers can involve students in discussing questions such as:

* What is depicted in the cover illustration?

* In what ways is the boy in the centre different? What do these differences suggest?

* What type of activity are the boys on the cover engaged in?

* Why do you think the boy in the cap is looking at the boy on his left?

* What is the significance of the dominant colour scheme? (yellow, red, brown/black)?

* What might the ‘misty’ brush strokes of white paint at the bottom of the picture imply?


* justify interpretations of a text, including responses to characters, information and ideas


* identify and interpret the different forms of visual information, including maps, tables, charts, diagrams, animations and images


* discuss literary experiences with others, sharing responses and expressing a point of view (ACELT1603).

Questions like these indicate how different connotations of an image lead to meaning making. In a similar vein, the endpapers rely on symbolism to convey a good deal of information, and students can be asked appropriate questions about the relevance of the world map, its uniform earthy colouring, and the double headed snake linking Italy and northern Queensland. Some images from the book and an overview of the story can be seen in the YouTube book trailer that has been created for ‘Shake a Leg’. Images from the trailer, like the one included here, can be used as a focal point for class discussion.

Focusing on code and convention

Graphic novels use the codes and conventions of the comics medium as cues to understanding. By looking at the first two pages of the story students should be able to identify certain aspects of the comics mode. For instance there are panels depicting particular places, moments in time, characters within the story, people they encounter and things they see. Between the panels are blank spaces called gutters and it is up to a reader to imagine what happens in the gutter as the action transitions from one panel to another.

A teacher can use any segment of a graphic novel and ask students to suggest what they think happens in the gutters. Also included in the panels are captions such as in the first panel of the story that depicts the main street of a country town and has a caption which delivers the voice of an external narrator who sets the scene, ‘Three hungry boys are hunting for pizza in Far North Queensland’ p. [2].

[Editor’s note: Creators and/or publishers of graphic novels sometimes do not include page numbers. However, as research necessitates drawing attention to particular sections of a work, assumed page numbers for ‘Shake a Leg’ have been counted from the title page, which includes the names of the writer and illustrator, being designated as page [1] and subsequent page numbers follow consecutively to the end of the book.]

Other panels contain different verbal cues such as direct speech that is contained within speech balloons (a well-known comics convention). Each speech balloon has a tail pointing to the particular speaker. These balloons encode both the words and the vocal nuances of each speaker.

Extract from Shake a Leg, p. [3]
Image: Extract from Shake a Leg, p. [3]

When Bertie greets the boys his words, ‘Ciao! Benvenuti alla mia pizzeria, ragazzi’ are in italics as they are not spoken in English, the dominant language of the text. His use of the Italian word ‘Si’ meaning ‘Yes’ enables a homophonic play on words as two of the boys think they hear the English words ‘Sea’ or ‘See’. This little interlude coupled with one on the following page relating to ‘source’ and ‘sauce’ can lead to discussion about homophones, different spelling, words in other languages and the importance of context to meaning, especially in oral interchanges.

Like the Italian words and phrases, Aboriginal words also appear in Bertie’s conversation. They are also presented in italics and are glossed by Bertie as he speaks. The written and implied spoken language is one of the ways cultures are fused in this graphic novel.


* recognise homophones and know how to use context to identify correct spelling (ACELA1780).

Breaking conventions for effect

‘Shake a Leg’ also offers useful examples of the way authors can break or experiment with conventions for effect. By the seventh page of the story, Bertie has started to recount an Aboriginal tale about a boy and a crocodile. In this and other stories told by Bertie the style of the visual images changes. The smooth, flat, poster-like style and bright colour pallet of the day-to-day world panels are juxtaposed with a textured, more expressionistic, earthy-coloured painting that depicts the action in Bertie’s dance stories. The panels overlay a painted background making the gutters less distinctive. Speech balloons are also altered from rounded to angular shapes, and they do not include speaker identification tails. These differences are evident in the direct contrast between the two panels on page [9].

Extract from Shake a Leg, p. [9]
Image: Extract from Shake a Leg, p. [9]

There can be a good deal of speculation about the significance of these stylistic differences and students can be encouraged to present their own interpretations.


* explore the effect of choices when framing an image, placement of elements in the image, and salience on composition of still and moving images in a range of types of texts (ACELA1483, ACELA1496).

One way of deciphering these visual cues is to argue that when Bertie tells a story his voice becomes fused with ancestral voices that have preceded him – voices that have carried the tales from one generation to another. While the images seen by the reader are visual interpretations of Bertie’s stories, the particular focaliser of these images is unclear. They may be interpreted as being glimpses into Bertie’s mental recollections, into one of the boys’ imaginings, or to the inspiration of the external visual narrator.

Such ambiguity and slipperiness, often found in comics style narratives, are aspects of the medium that evoke deep and creative thinking, and have the potential to lead to the exchange of fascinating inferences.

Reading direction

Another important convention in the comics mode relates to reading direction. As with the reading of print text there is a left to right orientation, following a course from the top to the bottom of the page.

However, the comics medium elicits and expects more fluidity. Comic’s scholar, Charles Hatfield explains,

Panels on a comics page … have the potential to function both linearly and globally at once, so that, for the reader, there is a teasing ambiguity between reading through the page as a series of images and taking it all in as one image.

Hatfield, 2008, p. 135

Meaning making as well as aspects such as connotation, imagery and symbol derive from the interplay of the ‘linear’ and ‘global’ upon a page. On turning a page in this type of visu-verbal story, a reader’s first observation is the global page, or double page. In these first moments there is an immediate, even unconscious connection with all the elements on the page(s) which can evoke an affective response in a reader.

Narrative theorist Suzanne Keen makes the point that the sequential art mode provides a ‘fast track’ to narrative empathy. She explains that ‘[i]n comics and graphic narratives, illustrations of faces and bodily postures may capitalize on the availability of visual coding for human emotions, eliciting readers’ feelings before they even read the accompanying text’ (Keen, 2011).

Focusing on connotation, imagery and symbol

In graphic novels both images and words go beyond the literal. As mentioned above, they readily create mood and evoke feelings. Images, words, sounds, silences and gaps inform each other and produce a variety of connotations, images and symbols.

‘Shake a Leg’ makes use of the sustained metaphor of hunger, food and being fed. The hungry boys go in search of pizza, which they procure at Bertie’s Pizzeria, but it becomes evident that apart from their hungry bodies the boys also have hungry minds. They consume a crocodile shaped pizza along with Bertie’s crocodile story. After Bertie’s first tale they ask for another story and Bertie asks, ‘You are still hungry for more?’

Students could be asked what being ‘hungry’ means to them and if we can feel ‘hungry’ for things apart from food?


* interpret text by discussing the differences between literal and inferred meanings.

Food symbolism also comes into play when the boys are assisted with the application of special body markings prior to their involvement in the shake-a-leg dance. The ceremonial paint for the boys is referred to as ‘Italian ochre’ as it is made from flour and water with the addition of tomato sauce, which are similar ingredients to those in the pizza they devoured earlier.

Extract from Shake a Leg, p. [20]
Image: Extract from Shake a Leg, p. [20]

Language of movement and gesture

The Indigenous stories presented in ‘Shake a Leg’ are dance stories. In this sense, dance operates symbolically to convey narrative. At the conclusion of the stinging bee story the storyteller explains, ‘Because different mobs speak different languages, those boys needed to make up a warning dance to tell others about this new stinging bee’ p. [13]. As a group activity, students could be guided to explore the idea of communicating a tale or event through movement and sound without the use of written or spoken language as can be seen in the YouTube clip ‘Corroboree’.


  • discuss how people from different times and cultures may respond differently to characters, actions and events in texts
  • respond to and appreciate how Dreaming stories form part of an oral tradition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Language of words and images

Another symbolic aspect evident in ‘Shake a Leg’ is the linking of words from English, Italian and Aboriginal languages. Respect for the different languages operates as a cue for cross-cultural understanding and harmony. Guiding the boys to participate in a lesson on the shake-a-leg dance, Bertie says, ‘Let’s warrima – dance – ballare!’ combining the languages of the three cultures that feature in the narrative. It can be explained to students that words (either written or spoken) are symbols and while these word symbols differ from culture to culture they can express similar things.

The visual track of this book makes use of a variety of symbols that suggest cultural crossing, especially later in the story when the three non-Indigenous boys join in the warrima. As an example, the double page spread on pages 24-25 is rich with symbolism, beginning with the background displaying an earthy yellow map of Australia set against a textured blue backdrop, which may be construed as ocean and sky.

The next level shows Aboriginal dancers as shadows. Such symbols evoke ideas about the vast history of the Aboriginal peoples and the links they have with the land and their ancestors.

In the middle ground the three non-Indigenous boys appear to be absorbed in the activity of the dance. In the foreground on the left is Bertie’s son, Jai, playing traditional Aboriginal instruments, the didgeridoo and tapping stick. The strong diagonal line of the didgeridoo creates a vector that leads a reader’s eye to Bertie’s white shoes then up his body following his dance movements as he soars like an eagle above the earth.

Symbolically this figure of Bertie synthesises the elements of the story. He is a ‘Murri fella’ p. [5]. He displays the ceremonial body paint of his culture, but he also wears Western style shorts, t-shirt and cap. Finally, he has the apron of an Italian pizza chef which is adorned with Aboriginal style hand print art. In this way Bertie embodies the theme of the book in showing how different cultural traditions and practices are to be valued and, through mutual respect, can be brought together in new and interesting ways.

With teacher direction, students should be able to make similar inferences about connotation, images and symbols in other sections of this visu-verbal story.


* interpret text by discussing the differences between literal and inferred meanings

* justify interpretations of a text, including responses to characters, information and ideas.

Introducing ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’

An action-packed, vibrant sequential art narrative, ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’ is set in the late 1940s in the township of Broome, in northwestern Australia. The coastal town has been the hub of a flourishing and profitable pearling industry and the area has attracted people from many different cultures. A recent arrival is Sai Fong, a Chinese girl who is suffering from an unknown illness. She has travelled with her uncle, Yupman Poe, in the hope of finding a cure in the new land.

On their arrival, Ubby, a streetwise Aboriginal girl and her motley gang, known as the Underdogs, soon befriend Sai Fong, and under their dubious direction the Chinese girl learns some of the quirky customs of the town. This first full length graphic novel by an Aboriginal author and illustrator not only crosses cultures but also shifts between the mundane and the mythical as Sai Fong’s presence awakens the elusive Sandpaper Dragon from its slumbers, thereby unleashing a multiplicity of dangers and challenges to be overcome. The Underdogs need to contend with problems from both unscrupulous people and malevolent spirits that inhabit the story world.

This evocative, multifaceted graphic novel provides a quality text for Stage 4 students through which they can explore English textual concepts such as Code and convention, and Connotation, imagery and symbol. It also offers appropriate content to address cross curricular priorities and capabilities including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, intercultural understanding, and critical and creative thinking.

Given that ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’ is a substantial book to read and that reading pictures can be slower and more intense than reading print text, teachers might like to use the book trailer ‘Ubby’s Underdogs by Brenton McKenna’ by way of introducing the graphic novel. The brief YouTube video sets the scene, introduces the artist’s vibrant style, offers cameos of the vast array of characters, and hints at the intrigue within the narrative.

Focusing on code and convention in Ubby’s Underdogs

Apart from the customary codes and conventions of the comics medium, McKenna integrates aspects of other literary modes. For instance, in the peritext, or opening pages, the author includes segments of prose and a dramatis personae style character list, of the type that is often included in a theatrical program. He provides the reader with a comprehensive visual and verbal guide to the characters who will appear in the story. There is a good deal of pre-reading lesson material contained in the preamble.

Images, colours, panel placement, and encoded verbal utterances aid in generating meaning in a sequential art narrative. As students become more familiar with these codes and conventions they will develop a deeper understanding of stories delivered in this medium and be able to discuss and critique elements of graphic novels using medium specific metalanguage.

The opening pages are followed by a visu-verbal prologue which recounts a backstory of tribal wars in ancient China. It reveals how a brave young Phoenix Dragon protected the peaceful mountain people against their enemy and was injured in the battle. The ailing Phoenix Dragon had to seek help from the mighty Sandpaper Dragon and the Warrior Woman in a vast desert land in the south.

[Editor’s note: ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’ does not contain page numbers. Where it is necessary to draw attention to particular sections of the work, assumed page numbers have been counted from the Prologue page being designated as page [1] and subsequent page numbers follow consecutively to the end of the book.]

In relation to the prologue, students can be asked how the colour, panel frames, detailed line drawings, use of caption boxes and other elements contribute to meaning making in this prologue segment. They could also suggest ideas as to why the final panel in the predominantly sepia sequence includes another colour.

By the end of the Prologue, students should be able to identify the narrator of this section of the story.

(It is interesting to note that, while it eventually becomes clear that the written text can be attributed to Yupman Poe as the oral storyteller, the person ‘seeing’ the visual track is unclear. It could be inferred that the visual images represent the legendary tale as perceived through the mind’s eye of the listener, Sai Fong.)


* explore the effect of choices when framing an image, placement of elements in the image, and salience on composition of still and moving images in a range of types of texts (ACELA1483, ACELA1496).

At the beginning of the main story, the author/ illustrator makes use of a prose passage and overhead diagrammatic map of the town to convey the setting, and then launches into a vibrant visu-verbal tale. McKenna’s blend of a multiplicity of styles including prose, the dramatis personae, verbal and visual comics format, and conventions adapted from Western comics and Japanese manga style comics operate as a way of encoding the multicultural nature of the Broome community. By melding high-action adventure with history, myth, slapstick, and scatological humour McKenna creates a story world that is rich in ideas on culture, ethnicity, class, customs, individual talents and cross-cultural friendships.

Students could consider how visual aspects of the characters encode elements of race, culture, temperament and so on and then see how these introductory character sketches are supported or subverted by the story as it unfolds.


* explore the ways that ideas and viewpoints in literary texts drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts may reflect or challenge the values of individuals and groups (ACELT1619, ACELT1626)

* investigate texts about cultural experiences from different sources, for example, texts from Asia and texts by Asian Australians, and explore different viewpoints.

Concerns about characterisation in the medium of comics

In terms of visual coding, comics often rely on stereotyping to relay information. In some instances this can be of concern because, as comics theorist Derek Parker Royal contends, ‘in comics and graphic art there is always the all-too-real danger of negative stereotype and caricature’ (2007, p. 8). However, it can be argued that McKenna does not fall into the trap of simplistic caricature nor the type of negative stereotyping which, as Royal suggests, ‘dehumanizes by means of reductive iconography’ (2007, p. 8). Instead, McKenna creates unique individuals who are distinct, endearing and memorable.

Students can be asked to write detailed definitions for ‘stereotype’ and ‘caricature’ and then discuss what Derek Parker Royal means by saying that negative stereotyping ‘dehumanises by means of reductive iconography’.

With reference to visual images of different characters in ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’, students can discuss the extent to which the characters are, or are not, stereotypical and can identify devices in the visual coding that McKenna uses to avoid ‘dehumanising’ or ‘othering’ his characters. Arguments should be supported by reference to images of particular characters in the narrative.


* analyse and understand the ways techniques of representation in multimodal texts are used to present alternative views of the world, people, places and events.

Code and conventions of layout

Another important aspect of comics coding is paneling, that is the size, shape and placement of the frames which contain visual and often verbal information. The size, position and arrangement of panels orchestrate reading pace with large panels slowing the pace and smaller panels accelerating the pace.

Students could be asked to select two segments of the story – one that shows a slower panel pacing and the other that shows faster panel pacing. They can then explain how and why the paneling differs with reference to aspects of the narrative that are being conveyed.

A more challenging task would involve selecting less conventional examples of paneling such as the use of diagonal gutters, or overlaid panels, and asking students to consider the significance of these artistic choices within the context of the story.


* understand and use conventions of storytelling in a range of modes and media, for example, digital storytelling

* discuss aspects of texts, for example their aesthetic and social value, using relevant and appropriate metalanguage (ACELT1803).

Focusing on connotation, imagery and symbol

Applying aspects of the English textual concept of Connotation, imagery and symbol to ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’ can also be especially fruitful. A myriad of individualised characters with their striking facial expressions and their demonstrative physical gestures dominate the panels. Backgrounds are very minimalist. It is through colour symbolism and suggested items, such as timber huts, fences, wooden boats, a leafless tree, palm fronds and so on, that McKenna elicits associations to imply the hot, arid setting of the Broome township. His simple, but astutely rendered backgrounds exude the atmosphere of place which he describes as ‘a dusty little pearling town where people are as rugged as the rough red-red dirt country that surrounds them’.

Symbolism of colour

Colour, or the lack of colour, has a significant symbolic role in graphic novels. Just as words in written texts invite associations (connotations) in responders, so too do colours in visual texts. Although the symbolic meaning of colour is culturally determined, the chart below offers suggestions of the ways colour may be interpreted.

Using a copy of the colour chart as a guideline, students could work in small groups to investigate how colour is used to enhance meaning in selected sections of the graphic novel. In their chosen section, they should consider how colour impacts on a reader’s understanding of such aspects as:

* character

* mood

* atmosphere

* emotional impact

* symbolism

* contextual relevance

Chart suggesting the symbolic meanings of colours
Image: Chart suggesting the symbolic meanings of colours

Symbolism of language

Another element that McKenna uses for symbolic effect in this graphic novel is to encode alternate modes of spoken language. By focusing on the verbal track, readers will discover nuances that provide information about characters and their differences. Although the font remains much the same throughout the story, varying accents and dialects are created through the use of non-standard spelling. Most characters in the book communicate in standard colloquial English, but some, including Gabe, Ubby and Safa exhibit idiosyncratic dialects. The allusion of different modes of speaking is achieved through deliberate manipulations of word spellings. The use of non-standard orthography and unconventional syntactical patterns enables McKenna to create Gabe’s lisp, Ubby’s idiosyncratic phraseology and Safa’s Afro-Caribbean dialect.

According to sociolinguist Dennis E Preston (1985) respellings as a character device can ‘denigrate the speaker’ and lead to the ‘defamation of character’. This line of argument is supported by research carried out by Alexandra Jaffe and Shana Walton (2000) who claim that it is ‘almost impossible to avoid stigma in the non-standard orthographic representation of others’ low-status speech varieties’ (p. 582-3).

However, in contravention with this line of thinking it can also be argued that, like his visual characterisation, McKenna manages to avoid simplistic stereotyping. As with the construction of characters, McKenna uses language devices judiciously to create a multicultural and polyvocal community in which the supposed underdogs are the protagonists and heroes of the narrative. In this way, the rich, multifaceted and transcultural tale operates to demystify difference and extend readers’ understanding and appreciation of distinction and multiculturalism.

Student activities in relation to these linguistic devices can include:

* finding examples of the ways McKenna uses respellings to create the different voices of Gabe, Ubby and/or Safa and discussing what they add to the understanding of character

* discussing whether or not the non-standard orthographies denigrate characters or not, and why?

* considering the overly formal and precise utterances of Yupman Poe and Sai Fong for whom English is a second language.


* understand how conventions of speech adopted by communities influence the identities of people in those communities (ACELA1529, ACELA1541)

* understand and explain how combinations of words and images in texts are used to represent particular groups in society, and how texts position readers in relation to those groups (ACELT1628).

By engaging critically and personally with the text, students should be able to discover other examples of imagery and symbol that assist in a deeper understanding of the issues raised in ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’. For instance, Ubby’s gang of Underdogs, made up of youngsters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, operates as a microcosm of the township of Broome that houses ‘a cocktail of nationalities’. McKenna extends the transcultural experience in his narrative by melding ancient Chinese and Aboriginal legend. Research on myths and legends from both these cultural backgrounds can bring new levels of meaning to this graphic tale.

In conclusion

There is a great deal that can be explored in relation to each of the texts mentioned in this article. The thoughts, ideas and questions presented here offer only some of the investigative possibilities open to students when connecting, experimenting, engaging critically, engaging personally, understanding or reflecting on well-chosen graphic novels.

Extolling the virtues of quality graphic novels, literary scholar Stephen Tabachnick contends that, ‘the new hybrid visual and verbal reading [is] different from traditional reading but fortunately no less subtle, intelligent, or, in its way, demanding’ (2007, p. 26), a claim that is certainly upheld by graphic novels like ‘Shake a Leg’ and ‘Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon’.

References and further reading

Abouet, M. & Oubrerie, C. 2007, Aya, Drawn and Quarterly, Canada.

Aldama, F. L. 2010, ‘Multicultural comics today: A brief introduction’, in F.L. Aldama (ed.) Multicultural comics: From zap to blue beetle, University of Texas Press, Austin.

Bradford, C., Sly, C., and Xu D. 2016, Ubby’s underdogs: A transformative vision of Australian community, Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, vol. 24, no.1, accessed 22 October 2017.

Baetens, J. & Frey, H. 2015, The graphic novel: An introduction, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Cohn, N., Visual language lab, accessed 22 October 2017.

Delisle, G. 2007, Pyongyang: A journey in North Korea, Drawn and Quarterly, Canada.

Eisner, W. [1996] 2008, Graphic storytelling and visual narrative, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Forceville, C., Veale, T. & Feyaerts, K. 2010, ‘Balloonics: The visuals of balloons in comics’, in J. Goggin & D. Hassler-Forest (eds), The rise and reason of comics and graphic literature, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, USA.

Hatfield, C. 2008, ‘How to read a ...’, English Language Notes, pp. 129–149.

Hart, M. 2010, Using graphic novels in the classroom Grd 4-8, Teacher Created Resources Inc., USA.

Jaffe, A. & Walton, S. 2000, ‘The voices people read: Orthography and the representation of non-standard speech’, Journal of Sociolinguistics, Blackwell, UK/ USA, pp. 561–587.

Keen, S. 2011, ‘Fast tracks to narrative empathy: Anthropomorphism and dehumanization in graphic narratives’, SubStance, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 135-155.

Kennedy, J. M. 1982, ‘Metaphor in pictures’, Perception, pp. 589-605.

Kneller, M. 2007, ‘Serious comics: Graphic novels for the classroom’,YouTube, accessed 22 October 2017.

Kukkonen, K. 2013, Studying comics and graphic novels, Wiley, UK.

McCloud, S 1993, Understanding comics, Kitchen Sink Press, Northampton, MA.

McKenna, B. E. 2011, Ubby’s underdogs: The legend of the phoenix dragon, Magabala Books, Broome, WA.

Monnin, K. 2010, Teaching graphic novels: Practical strategies for the secondary ELA classroom, Maupin House Publishing, Florida, USA.

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How to cite this article: Sly, C. 2017, 'Crossing cultural boundaries with graphic novels', Scan, 36(4), pp. 11-22

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