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Ours is an increasingly image-based culture, and visual literacy has become a necessary skill for understanding the modern world. It is integral that young people develop the abilities necessary to engage critically with visual media and the world they inhabit. Scholars such as Bitz (2008), Murray and Nabizadeh (2020), Schwarz (2010), and Crawford and Weiner (2005) have found comics to be an excellent vehicle to teach these skills.

Comics provide an innovative, creative educational tool that enhances student learning, engagement and skill development. They are accessible and inclusive, as they accommodate different reading levels and language abilities. Through reading comics, students develop multiple literacies simultaneously: as the text of a comic is incomplete without the accompanying images, students must slow down and actively engage in a sophisticated synthesis of the two to understand the comic. This way, students learn to sustain attention and strengthen their comprehension skills, while the subjective openness of comics encourages them to learn how to handle ambiguity in a text and meet it with intellectual generosity. Comics promote critical and creative thinking, allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, challenge preconceived notions, and find inventive solutions to problems.

‘Comics promote critical and creative thinking, allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, challenge preconceived notions, and find inventive solutions to problems.’

Bramlett and colleagues (2017) demonstrate the history and tradition of comics across the world as well as the breadth of the genre. Comics cover a wide range of topics including race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality as well as issues related to justice (see Donavan & Ustundag, 2017), human rights (see Carano & Clabough, 2016), and power (see Chun, 2009). They have been used in education in Africa, North and South America, Asia and Oceania, and Europe.

Building on the long history of the use of serious comics in education, the AHRC-funded ‘Drawing on Forced Marriage’ project aimed to demonstrate that comics are an effective tool to educate young teenagers about forced marriage and to equip them to raise awareness about the practice and act as allies to those at risk or already experiencing it.

To this end, we created a series of comics about forced marriage that tell stories about different types, causes and consequences of the practice, focusing on possibilities for resistance and intervention. The stories are grounded in existing research (see for example Anitha and Gill, 2009; Chantler, Gangoli et al., 2009; Gangoli et al., 2006; McCabe et al., 2022; University of Bristol, 2023), echoed, underscored and illuminated by the knowledge and experience of the project team.

We trialled the comic in two UK secondary schools and later converted our lesson plans into a teaching pack that includes suggestions about how to create safe learning environments and information about support for educators and students. In the trial sessions, the comic proved to be an effective tool to teach male and female students aged between 13 and 16 from different ethnic and religious backgrounds with different learning needs. Their responses to anonymous Likert-scale self-assessment questionnaires demonstrate that they gained a better understanding of forced marriage and became more likely to raise awareness about the practice and act as allies to those at risk or already experiencing it (Baumeister, 2024).

While forced marriage can be a distressing topic to teach and learn about, comics offer a unique opportunity to deal sensitively with it while protecting the emotional wellbeing of educators and students. This is due to the visual nature of the medium. For example, in our comic, Emina, the protagonist is calm and thoughtful in a peaceful environment. A reader can thereby learn about the dangers of forced marriage without being confronted with real trauma in a way that could stifle their learning experience.

Indeed, we found that all students engaged respectfully, empathetically, critically and creatively with the material and the topic. Rather than withdrawing from discussing a tough topic, they wanted more information, either in terms of clarifying character backgrounds, depicting future events, or even an explicit statement as to who were the villains in the text.

‘I want to know more about [the future-husband] and if he’s like evil or yeah.’ (Workshop Participant)

Intentionally leaving the comic open with ambiguities inspired enquiry, and students engaged in rich and complex discussions with their peers. It also encourages students to ponder the storyline beyond the classroom. For example, they may question: Does Emina believe what she is told? Does she want to get married? Will her husband support her, or limit her independence? Does he want to get married? Who are the villains in the story? Do they know they are villains? Are they really evil?

Connecting learning with real life, our comics equip students not only with visual literacy skills in education, but with critical thinking skills in life. The comics teach students how to identify the warning signs of forced marriage, as well as the tools they will need to thrive in a visual and sometimes difficult world.

Future research could explore how well, if at all, the comic translates into education in countries other than the UK and whether it could be used purely as a means to disseminate information about forced marriage.


Anitha, S., & Gill, A. (2009). Coercion, consent and the forced marriage debate in the UK. Feminist Legal Studies, 17, 165–184.

Baumeister, H. (2024). Drawing on gorced marriage: Teaching tough topics through comics [Data Collection]. Liverpool John Moores University.

Bitz, M. (2008). A rare bridge: The Comic Book Project connects learning with life. Teachers & Writers Magazine, 39(4).

Bramlett, F., Cook, R.T., & Meskin, A. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge companion to comics. Routledge.

Carano, K. T., & Clabough, J. (2016). Images of struggle: Teaching human rights with graphic novels. Social Studies, 107(1), 14–18.

Chantler, K., Gangoli, G., & Hester, M. (2009). Forced marriage in the UK: Religious, cultural, economic or state violence? Critical Social Policy, 29(4), 587–612.

Chun, C. W. (2009). Critical literacies and graphic novels for English-language learners: Teaching Maus. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(2), 144–153.

Crawford, P., & Weiner, S. (2005). Using graphic novels in the classroom: A guide for teachers and librarians. Graphix.

Donovan, C., & Ustundag, E. (2017). Graphic narratives, trauma and social justice. Studies in Social Justice, 11(2).

Gangoli, G., Razak, A., & McCarry, M. (2006). Forced marriage and domestic violence among South Asian communities in North East England. School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. 

McCabe, H., Stickle, W., & Baumeister, H. (2022). Forced marriage and modern slavery: Analysing marriage as a ‘choiceless choice’. Journal of Modern Slavery, 7(2), 35–57. 

Murray, C., & Nabizadeh, G. (2020). Educational and public information comics, 1940s–present. Studies in Comics, 11(1), 7–35.

Schwarz, G. (2010). Graphic novels, new literacies, and good old social justice. ALAN – The ALAN Review, 37(3).

University of Bristol. (2023, May 18). Pioneering research exposing scale and danger of forced marriages calls for urgent reform to protect victims [press release].