Graphic Novels for MBAs

Over the course of the two-year program at Harvard Business School, an MBA student will read over five hundred case studies. They range in length from a single page to over 50, but their format is ...

Over the course of the two-year program at Harvard Business School, an MBA student will read over five hundred case studies. They range in length from a single page to over 50, but their format is typically the same: a description of an ambiguous scenario that forces students to read actively and decide for themselves what exactly is going on.  But “Apple’s Core,” a 2014 reimagining of an original 2008 prose edition by Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman, would be almost unrecognizable to many of those students. Not because of what it contains—a study of the origins of Apple and the conflict between co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—but because of how it’s presented. This may be a case study, but it’s also a graphic novel.

“Apple’s Core” begins with a page split into two large panels, like a title slide on a PowerPoint. The top of the page features a diptych of two photorealistic covers of Time magazine, side by side: one shows a computer being named “Machine of the Year,” the other Steve Jobs. In the bottom, larger panel is a ruggedly handsome Steve Wozniak; we know he’s Steve Wozniak because stamped in a text box across his chest are the words “Steve Wozniak: Co-Founder of Apple.” He stands outside the frame, staring angrily into a space beyond both the panel and the reader, speaking to a gaggle of reporters. A three-tiered speech bubble stretches diagonally from Wozniak’s gaping mouth: “Steve Jobs did not do a single circuit, design, or piece of code.”

Graphic novels and business school case studies seem like very unlikely bedfellows. Case studies are a corporate genre, designed to teach proto-professionals how to become the man; comics are an underground, avant-garde art form, tied to countercultural movements that want to stick it to him. Yet both comics and case studies often assume the role of teacher-cum-therapist, demanding that readers engage directly with the text to fill in the blanks and complete the psychological dramas.

Case studies in graphic form join the growing trend of the comification of textbooks. Classics Illustrated, a series of comic book versions of literary classics, began publication in 1941 with The Three Musketeers. The adaptations, which feature gleefully garish covers and art of dubious quality, were immediately popular; from 1941 to 1962, the series sold 200 million copies. In the 1960s the series stopped putting out new titles due to competition from cheap paperbacks and the rise of CliffsNotes. But comics versions of texts in other genres have become prevalent again recently. The 9/11 Report was given a graphic adaptation in 2006. Comic book author Gareth Hinds reimagined Beowulf as a graphic novel in 2007. The “Graphic Freud Series,” which launched in 2012, adapts some of Freud’s most notorious works, such as “The Wolf Man” and “Studies in Hysteria,” in comic form. The show-and-tell nature of comics invites readers to step in and play diagnostician, providing visual as well as verbal cues to what Freud encountered. The Classics Illustrated series itself has seen a revival: in 2011, the comic book adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby was released, the series’ first new title since the 1960s.

Case studies might seem like the last genre seeking formal innovation, but what better way to keep students engaged that than through comics? To date, Harvard Business Publishing has released four case studies in graphic treatment: “iPremier Co. (A): Denial of Service Attack” (2009); “Jazzed Up: A Global Strategy Manga Novel” (2013); “Eureka Forbes Ltd.: Managing the Selling Effort (A)” (2013); and “Apple’s Core” (2014). To be sure, a group of four comics, compared to the thousands of traditional case studies, barely qualifies as a needle in a haystack, let alone a drop in a bucket. Yet the fact that these graphic adaptations exist at all allows us to ask what might seem like an incongruous question: what can comics do for the case study, and what can the case study do for comics?

Readers who might struggle with a traditional textbook are more likely to become engaged with the multidimensional presentation; we’re primed to have fun with comics.

As comics expert Hillary L. Chute has pointed out, comics have a long history in education. “I think comics have always been part of an explicitly didactic tradition, because they literally enact a ‘show and tell,’” she wrote to me. ABC books are ür-comics: the reader must make the connection between the text “A” and the image of, say, an apple, or an alligator, and the juxtaposition of both the image and the text creates meaning. As comic book author and theorist Scott McCloud writes in Understanding Comics, his now-classic 1993 tome on comics as a form, “From stained glass windows showing Biblical scenes in order to Monet’s series paintings, to your car owner’s manual, comics turn up all over when sequential art is employed as a definition.”1 (The emphasis is McCloud’s, but since his book is in comic form, and heavily emphasized text is so de rigueur in comics—think about the WHAM / BAM / KAPOW of superhero comics––you only really notice the emphases outside of the context.) Comics are diagrams; IKEA instructions are wordless comics. In 2013, McCloud wrote a graphic novel to announce and explain the launch of Google Chrome. Ironically, for a web browser, the graphic novel was printed on actual paper.

Jeremy Short, a professor of management at the University of Oklahoma, has become a proselytizer for the use of graphic novels as textbooks. “Business students are good at memorizing frameworks and formulas,” he said to me. “The challenge in business school is: how do we teach creativity?” Creativity, in the business world, is revered as the it factor, the secret sauce that catapults a company from a couple of guys in an Oregon garage to Apple Inc. Everyone wants to figure out a way to teach creativity, but, of course, once you codify it, it’s not creative. According to Scott, graphic novels “push the envelope” to get students engaged and interacting dynamically with the material. Tales of Garcón, one of Short’s graphic novel textbooks, teaches students about managing a family business through a narrative depicting how the Garcón family operates its hotel. Rather than frog-marching readers through a laundry list of concepts, Tales of Garcón embeds us directly in a story. Short’s textbooks aren’t as formally freewheeling as texts such as Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History books, which are rife with visual jokes while managing to stuff in historically accurate information. But Tales of Garcón gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that readers will relate viscerally to an illustration as well as to a story, and that readers who might struggle with a traditional textbook are more likely to become engaged with the multidimensional presentation; we’re primed to have fun with comics. “Students hear about [“iPremier”], and sometimes ask about it, or tell us they’re looking forward to it, before the class begins,” Robert Austin, a professor at Copenhagen Business School who co-authored “iPremier,” told me.

Short told me that a medical doctor enrolled in the MBA program was one of his most enthusiastic proponents of the graphic novel form, suggesting that it might be used as a tool to further medical training. Others have had the same thought. Graphic medicine, as Jared Gardner described in Public Books, is a rapidly growing field, with many sophisticated comics versions of medical narratives.2 The Graphic Medicine Manifesto, published in 2015, demonstrates how textbook comics can be witty as well as didactic. In a panel of the comics-style introduction to the Manifesto, in which each author introduces his or herself in illustrated fashion, one of the authors depicted has a caption that reads, “I’m an internal medicine doc who spends a lot of time thinking about ethical issues in healthcare.”3 The doctor is pictured naked, seated, in the pose of Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker.” The reader isn’t meant to take the doctor’s nudity literally, and the text never makes reference to the drawing’s visual wink. But the graphic novel form gives the same credence to an act of wild, associative imagination and an act of reality, creating a space where the imagination and reality can permeate each other, as they do in daily life, but as they rarely can in a traditional medical handbook.

Traditionally, case studies, like comics, present information in a form that appears familiar, but the content requires more interpretation than is immediately apparent. As Chute wrote to me, “I also feel like comics are accessible-feeling, and often accessible-looking, as a form, but they aren’t always actually simple in a problem-solving way (ambiguity of gutter, etc.), so that makes it interesting for a business school context.”

Of the four case studies that Harvard Business Publishing has put out so far, none use the graphic novel in a formally innovative way. “iPremier” and “Apple’s Core” both deploy black-and-white, representational drawings that essentially illustrate the scenes being described in the case. “Eureka Forbes” is a curious amalgam of scrapbook and comic: this “photonovel version,” as the case is subtitled, reads as though it’s a collection of stills from a silent film, or a “candid” photo shoot of people trying not to mug for the camera as they recreate each aspect of the case. The photographs capture people mid-action, with arms akimbo and mouths all too realistically half-open, and these stills are captioned with improbably long, comic-book-style speech bubbles emanating from the half-open lips, or with an offset explanation of the scene that is extradiegetic to the events portrayed. The photonovel form is endearing in theory, and there’s something charmingly retro about the low-budget aesthetic of these awkwardly re-staged scenes. The “Eureka Forbes” photonovel does allow for the incorporation of other visual elements, like charts and PowerPoint slides, directly into the flow of the narrative, rather than shuttling them into a detached appendix. In practice, however, the graphical treatment reads like a poorly abridged board book in comparison to the original version, which is not only rich with facts and figures but is written in lucid, efficient prose.

In 2008, Noam Wasserman wrote a case study about the founders of Apple, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, and their early disputes. “Apple’s Core” is written colorfully, containing dialogue and quotes from the founders, and is one of Harvard Business Publishing’s most popular cases. In 2013, Thomas Alexander, a professor at the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines, wanted a version of “Apple’s Core” that would be easier for international students to absorb. With the help of an illustrator, he created a graphic treatment of the case, drawn in manga style; Alexander uses this version, not the prose one, in the core assigned reading for the course. Most panels feature speech bubbles protruding from Graphic Wozniak and Graphic Jobs, who both have wide, expressive eyes and leonine hair. The two illustrated Steves say essentially the same things that they say in the prose version, amplified with exclamation points and interjections for verisimilitude (“Hey!” “Dude!!!” “EH!? REALLY!?”). “[The case] also has an important visceral/emotional side,” Wasserman wrote to me in an email, which he described as “great for the graphical approach,” since clumsy descriptive phrases such as “he looked upset” in prose can be rendered succinctly in illustration.

The graphic version of “Apple’s Core” doesn’t maximize all aspects of the form: it’s more of a graphic rendition of a prose case than a full-fledged graphic novel. Nearly all the drama gets narrated to the reader in the characters’ speech bubbles, or in explanatory sidebars. Yet in this kind of personality-driven case study, in which emotion and psychology play a huge role in how students are meant to interpret the situation, one could imagine how a treatment of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,” as McCloud defines comics, could immerse readers in a nonlinear way that still allows them to put together all the information. What if Jobs and Wozniak were originally drawn in exactly the same style, but gradually, and without textual explanation, began to be drawn in increasingly divergent ways? Or, when Jobs tells Wozniak about a trip to an orchard and suggests that they name the company Apple, one can picture Jobs in a flight of fancy as Isaac Newton, under a tree in the orchard, awaiting the “eureka” moment. Instead of telling the reader about Jobs’s train of thought, in other words, graphic novels afford the opportunity to take the reader there directly. The prose version of “Apple’s Core” packs a great deal into its efficient and compulsively readable eight pages. The graphic version feels like a draggy adaptation of the tight case, weighted down by illustrations rather than pushing the reader forward into a newly immersive experience of the case.

“Jazzed Up,” a case study about an exercise clothing company, is the only one of the four of Harvard Business School’s graphic case studies that isn’t an adaptation of a study previously written in prose. It’s the most formally innovative of the bunch. The format still consists mostly of talking heads, but we do get to see scenes that move things along through icons and other elements beyond narration and dialogue. As a woman is running, for example, we see arrows pointing to her sweatshirt with icons telling us all the fancy statistics it’s measuring. These don’t get repeated in the text of the story; rather, the visuals and the words take the opportunity to convey complementary rather than identical pieces of information.

By comparison, cartoonist Lynda Barry’s “activity books” serve as an example of the graphic case study in a fully realized marriage of form and content. In What It Is, a nonnarrative comic about a writing workshop she teaches, Barry takes readers directly into her mind. Like case studies, which present a deliberately ambiguous situation and require students to make choices based on the fragments provided, Barry compels readers to enter directly into the meaning-making process. Yet unlike graphic novel case studies, which essentially translate narrative cases into illustrated versions, Barry uses a collage-like arrangement of images and pictures to build a nonnarrative, associative space. “Take a look around this image. Picture the car in your mind’s eye,” she writes, “then answer the questions below.” It is unclear whether they are actual or rhetorical queries: “Where are you?” “Why are you there?” “What time of day or night does it seem to be?”4

Comics do non-pedantic didacticism well, and readers respond. The comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly has sold over 135,000 copies of What It Is; a typical title from the publisher sells about 5,000.5 Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which is cleverly bound to look like a marble composition notebook, splices Barry’s syllabi for her workshops with student work and her own musings to explore what it means to create images and how we perceive the world. Everything is hand-drawn, and crudeness in style (a circle with a few protruding squiggles represents a body) is celebrated. There are no right or wrong answers: the only way to be wrong is to leave it blank. Barry’s books are didactic in the sense that they show and tell, but they turn tradition on its head, subverting the form to invite readers in.

When the case study method was introduced in Harvard Business School in the 1920s, the practice cracked open the traditional pedagogy.6 Rather than a professor bequeathing a lecture to hundreds of silently scrawling students, a class based around case studies allows the students to lead discussion and requires them to become both academically and psychologically invested in the material. Similarly, the graphic novel presents a way in which the case study itself might be able to innovate radically. If case studies are about presenting information and emotions in a nonlinear fashion, and about actively immersing the reader in the situation, comics, which operate through juxtaposition and have enormous capacity for multiple narratives, seem ideal for presenting case studies that intentionally dangle red herrings or leave crucial parts blank.

The case studies that exist today in comics form haven’t gotten to Barry’s level yet. I’d rather read a prose version perfect in its form than a loose, baggy comic. But the unlikely friendliness of the comics form with case study content and purpose—the mix of public and private, the nonlinearity, the necessity for tangential ideas and details that may or may not become significant at any given moment—suggests that, if nothing else, change may well be afoot. icon

  1. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (William Morrow, 1993), p. 20.
  2. Jared Gardner, “Show Me Where It Hurts: Parts One and Two,” Public Books, November 15, 2015 and February 1, 2016.
  3. MK Czerwiec et al., Graphic Medicine Manifesto (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), p. 9.
  4. Lynda Barry, What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008), p. 144.
  5. Dana Jennings, “25 Years of Drawn & Quarterly, Champion of Female Cartoonists,” New York Times, June 12, 2015.
  6. David A. Garvin, “Making the Case,” Harvard Magazine (September–October 2003).