By Ben Boruff
In May of 2016, I participated in Chicagoland's This Is My Brave event. Actors, essayists, and storytellers of all types shared memories about mental illness with a live audience. This Is My Brave, Inc. is a national organization that strives to "end the stigma surrounding mental health issues by sharing personal stories."
Several months later, I gathered a binder's worth of materials to defend the teaching of an award-winning graphic novel in a high school classroom. I argued that many comics and graphic novels offer unique reading experiences in which symbolically rich visuals fuel the potency of multifaceted narratives. One page in my binder included a quote often attributed to French-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard: "Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form."
Last week, I wrote a quote from Maus, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, on the board in my classroom—"I want to tell your story, the way it really happened"—and I asked my students one question: What is the value of telling stories? One student noted that stories provide context. Another student argued that writers use stories to communicate complicated morals and ideas. And another student explained that stories help us empathize with others, that storytelling breeds understanding.
Finally, the question: Is a graphic novel—a novel with cartoonish images and a simplistic storyline in this case—an effective way to discuss consent in the context of sexual interactions?
Stories have power, and graphic novels offer accessible storytelling experiences. What Does Consent Really Mean? is a graphic novel that uses the straightforward interactions of a few fictional teenagers to explore a variety of topics, including child exploitation, sexting, pornography, aggression, pressure, hegemonic masculinity, sexual orientation, and consent. The characters are not particularly nuanced, but their conversations address these issues with honesty and sensitivity. Writers Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis present each topic as a somewhat polished problem for the teenagers, and then the characters work through it together. The novel reads like a slightly edgy after-school public service announcement for suburban teens, but the story's stylistic deficiencies help to create a uniquely approachable aura, making the novel safe for all readers. The characters are basic, but the stories they tell will connect with readers. And the issues they discuss are important topics for everyone.
In an age of aggressive ignorance, this graphic novel seems startlingly optimistic, but I appreciate the writers' commitment to positivity. All eight characters in the story—four guys and four girls—learn something, and all eight characters adapt effectively to their new understandings of appropriate sexual interactions. A few behavioral missteps are peppered throughout the characters' early interactions, but each character is more enlightened by the end of the story.
And that is why the story's optimism works. The characters better themselves because they listen to one another, which is a surprisingly simple task, as it turns out. Near the end of the story, one character asks, "But how do you know if you're the one with the power and the other person's too scared to say anything?" His friend promptly responds, "You talk about it."
The best thing about this graphic novel is its commitment to continuing the conversation. The last several pages of the novel are filled with links to credible articles and organizations that help young people (and everyone else) effectively discuss these issues. And the conversation needs to continue. Rape and sexual assault are harrowing problems in the United States and around the world.
The comic's last panel features a big brother looking at his younger sister. "I hope you grow up being able to choose what you want," he thinks.
Let's do more than hope. Let's make that a reality.
What Does Consent Really Mean?
Writers: Pete Wallis, Thalia Wallis
Artist: Joseph Wilkins
Publisher: Singing Dragon