People: Christina Angel

Denver Comic Con co-founder Christina Angel uses comics to spark student creativity.

By Mike Pearson

Publish Date: September 4, 2013

If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, how does one value a comic book?

To hear MSU Denver English Lecturer Christina Angel tell it, comics can be priceless as an educational tool.

For several years now, Angel (B.A. English ’98) has been using graphic novels in her English classes, introducing students to classics such as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” or Homer’s “The Odyssey” through a literary style once regarded as the province of, well, kids.

But Angel also uses her love of comics in other ways. She’s co-founder of Comic Book Classroom, an after-school program designed to improve the literacy of 5th through 8th graders in Denver Public Schools. Her third hat is convention director for Denver Comic Con, the nation’s fourth largest gathering of the geek and chic who come together in celebration of all things pop culture.

“A graphic novel is a fancy way of saying a comic book, although for me a graphic novel is a story-length comic book as opposed to a serialized comic. Most people use the terms interchangeably,” she says.

Angel says there are definite advantages in using visuals to help students learn.

“I think at the college level it really piques their interest. It feels easier, even though in some ways it can actually be more challenging. It opens the door for a different kind of visual learning, and just across the board it’s an inviting medium. It’s something you pick up and you want to find out what it’s all about. In a very practical sense, it’s also faster to read.”

She dismisses the notion that graphic novels mark a radical shift in how teachers teach.

“I don’t think it’s as new as it seems,” she says. “Higher ed has embraced graphic novels for a good 20 years, especially with some of the more mainstream works like ‘Maus,’ which won the Pulitzer Prize. But the widespread use of it is fairly new, maybe the last five years or so where a lot of universities have built more courses around graphic novels.”

An added bonus, she says, is the way the medium spurs student creativity

“It’s way outside the box in the sense that you take something very classical like ‘Metamorphoses,’ which a lot of students may think is old and disconnected.

And then you take a story like ‘Watchmen’ and pair the two,” she says. “It opens up a conversation you couldn’t have without it, especially with something like literary allusion.”

Angel is particularly proud of the educational roots of Denver Comic Con, which this spring saw more than 60,000 attendees at the Denver Convention Center over three days.

Denver’s Comic Con actually began as a way to fund Comic Book Classroom, a program she helped to develop five years ago with Lafayette, Colo., middle school teacher Illya Kowalchuk to introduce literary concepts to younger students by having them read and then create their own comic books.

“We actually created Comic Book Classroom and then wondered ‘How are we going to fund this?’ So we created Denver Comic Con. The two things have expanded far beyond our wildest dreams.”