Why Inmates Should be Taught how to Write Comics

Author: Kimberly Fortson

Many might underestimate the relationship between artistic work and inmates. Some research has focused on working with inmates in prose writing (Appleman, 2013; Larson, 2011), some with music (Rio & Tenney, 2002), but there is a lack of research and attempt to understand graphic novels, which helps combine both technical training and artistic training by the teachers and allows inmates to express themselves in ways that are not accessible with prose, alone. This is unfortunate because some people require artistry to take their stories and themselves out of their environments.

Graphic novels have been historically snubbed among academics because these works are seen as children’s stories, nothing more. While there is no truth to this- stories such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and The Killing Joke- are written for an adult audience, it is even possibly more insulting that this medium is brushed away as being only for children. As if children’s stories cannot be worthwhile and speak to both adults and children.

Children’s stories such as Avatar: the Last Airbender, Dr. Seuss books, and Harry Potter present very adult themes to children in a simple way for them to understand and adults who were raised with these works understand the more complex undertones and walk away with the lessons they have learned. Avatar, the Last Airbender, showed children both the lives lost in war and how cultures are affected and changed by imperialism. Dr. Seuss discusses racism, fascism, the Cold War, and laissez-faire capitalism. Harry Potter alludes to the rise of Hitler and has themes of being part of a master-race. There is even a Spider-Man comic that shows children 9/11 (Straczynski et al., 2001), and the famous villain Venom is allegorical for addiction (Bouchard, 2016).

Since 1985, there has been more of a push to develop antagonists psychologically by creators, making them more relatable and human to the reader (Patrick, 2016). This is arguably a good change, as it demonstrates that those who commit crimes are still people, capable of terrible things, but oftentimes have needs that cannot be pursued because of a system in place that failed them, or an adverse and traumatic experience that fundamentally changed them as a person, or are sometimes just evil. Still, frequently the motivations that developed are limited. And certain comic heroes, like Batman, are famous for their mentally unstable villains that, after a thorough and brutal beating, are tossed into an asylum, only to break out and commit more crime.

Even casual readers of Western comics understand that almost any mainstream superhero comic they will pick up at the local store or download online will reference undeveloped evil people with limited motivations and probably a hint of a mental health issue. Why not allow inmates to learn how to write compelling dialogue, fleshed-out characters, and create beautiful artistry, all at the same time? One common theme found in superhero comics is that the superhero has a tragic life story (it is practically a joke at this point), and the villain does, as well, though it is left simplistic and sometimes framed in such a way that the hero, according to the villain, is partially responsible for the villain’s damage. This usually exists if the villain is not “crazy” or just evil. These are just stories, and not every villain needs to have a very complicated backstory that references all kinds of different research, but both inmates and the mentally ill are marginalized in America and comic creators either do not know or do not care.

The intellectual walls that have kept comics out of academia do not acknowledge that comics are what developing boys are more drawn to reading nonfiction books or fiction books with more traditionally male-centered themes (Schwanenflugel & Knapp) and that boys are falling behind girls academically (Guo, 2016). They also do not acknowledge that comics have helped people through some brutal mental health issues, family dysfunction, and other adverse experiences. If the majority of the books in circulation have limited, if any, backstory for their often mentally ill villains, then there should be a window for those “villains” to have a voice.

In addition to social justice reasons, making comics could be useful for inmates. There is no research on this that I could find, but it should start being researched, especially among juveniles. Not all inmates enjoy writing or reading prose. Some do, but some do not, and they should not fall through the cracks of artistic rehabilitation because they do not fall into convection. One interesting graphic novel sympathizing with an offender’s standpoint is Kaijumax, which is about giant monsters all being sent to prison and coping with prison life (Cannon, 2016; Martin, 2017). He has to battle prisoner abuse, racism, and other issues faced every day by prisoners (Martin, 2017). This book was picked precisely because it is sympathetic to prisoners and their issues while in prison.


  1. Appleman, D. (2013). Teaching in the dark: The promise and pedagogy of creative writing in prison. English Journal, 24-30. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/nctefiles/resources/journals/ej/1024-mar2013/ej1024teaching.pdf

  2. Bouchard, M. (2016). Venom: A Metaphor for Addiction. https://comicsverse.com/venom-metaphor-addiction/

  3. Cannon, Z. (2016). Kaijumax Season One: Terror and Respect. Portland, Oregon. Oni Press.Comic Book/ Kaijumax. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/ComicBook/Kaijumax

  4. Guo, J. (2016). The Serious Reason Boys Do Worse Than Girls. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/28/the-serious-reason-boys-do-worse-than-girls/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c91c6bda3863

  5. Martin, J. (2017, October 04). Comic Book ‘Kaijumax’ Is a Colorful, Jarring Portrait of Life in Prison. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/ComicBook/Kaijumax

  6. Larson, D. (2011). Abolition from within: Enabling the citizen convict. Radical Teacher, (91), 4-15,80. Retrieved from http://proxymu.wrlc.org/login?url=https://search-proquestcom.proxymu.wrlc.org/docview/889970764?accountid=27975

  7. Rio, R. E., & Tenney, K. S. (2002). Music therapy for juvenile offenders in residential treatment. Music Therapy Perspectives, 20(2), 89-97.

  8. Patrick, M. [The Film Theorists]. (2016, August 12). Film Theory: Batman's Three JOKER Theory pt. 1 (Suicide Squad) [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=If2RbK9vUhU&index=5&list=PLnTnu8s1FVjBDLL-qoyJ-Qx0t5QoRghUl

    Schwanenflugel, P. & Knapp, N., F. What is it with Boys and Reading? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reading-minds/201803/what-is-it-boys-and-reading

  9. Straczynski, J., M., Romita Jr., J., Hanna, S. Studios, A., Kemp, D., Starkings, R., Abbott, W., Alonso, A., &  Miesgaes, J. (2001, December). Amazing Spider-man, 2(36). Retrieved from https://imgur.com/gallery/83xZp

Ashleigh Diserio Consulting works with individuals and organizations, assisting them in gleaning insight into a person’s life, motivation, and past and future behavior, so certain areas of behavior can be understood with a high degree of accuracy. We provide services in the areas of criminal and intelligence investigations, management support, threat assessment, insider threat support, and education and training.