My mother told me as a kid “I don’t care if you’re reading trashy romance novels, just so long as you’re reading” and it a message I took to heart both in my life as a reader and also as a teacher and parent. As it turns out, I was not reading trashy romance novels. What I was reading however has had just as much stigma (if not more) thrown its way over the years in terms of genres. I’m an avid comic book reader. Or fanboy. Or whatever you want to call it.
I read comics. And I likely owe my love of reading to comics.
It’s safe to say that comics have come a long way in terms of public relations, but they’ve always had an intrinsic power—one of literacy, controversy, visual stimulation, and controversy. Did I mention controversy? For some reason, comics have always managed to touch on the rawest nerves of the staunchest American political ideologues, parents, and educators. In the 1950’s, the horror and pulp comics of the age were paired with degenerate juvenile delinquency, perversions, and illiteracy. Imagine, there was a time when young people reading was considered a gateway to illiteracy. What would the creators of the Comics Code Authority think of today’s media?
There could be nothing further from the truth then, and even less so today. As a teacher, I see with alarming regularity the apathy with which today’s kids approach the prospect of long form reading. They much more vigilantly approach brief transiently trending articles from the internet and often succumb to the less than standard spellings of internet shorthand and meme-lingo. While elementary school teachers are encouraged to create text rich environments, the world itself has become a text rich environment by way of wifi, smartphone, ubiquitous computers, and an inordinate amount of marketing at every turn. Its no wonder they seem apathetic to the experience of an imageless endeavor in reading motionless words—the level of stimulation surrounding written words in every other format is so abundantly sensory that it is easy to become desensitized.
In fact, the same can be said for in-classroom non-negotiables such as word walls, lesson charts, student friendly rubrics, sentence starters, graphic organizers, labels, standards displays, bulletin boards….enough! Its too much, everywhere, and no focus. I’ve personally never seen a student utilize a word wall in the way they are intended to be used and it’s likely because our children are over stimulated with visuals and text and every turn. And one could argue that comic books are the very embodiment of that over-indulged visual…but I don’t. In fact, I contend that they operate very differently and to an opposite effect almost entirely.
You see, while we’ve been figuring out ways to hammer information into kid’s brains and build that every elusive and osmosis like automaticity for reading, we’ve likely just been turning many kids off and wearing away at their attention spans. The more we approach learning in general as a war—with “word attack strategies” and “classroom behavior modifications—the less love of learning we instill. While this is largely part to supervisor-centered rather than student-centered pedagogy rooted in so-called accountability measures and testing culture, kids in my experience have been trained to see reading as a chore rather than as a liberating experience. Once you pull away the curtain and expose kids outright to the man pulling the levers, there’s no magic in it. But for me, comics were and still are a gateway to all those wonderful skills we teach in our ELA periods with none of the jargon.
Reading graphic novels and comics is a rewarding practical examination in utilizing all those reading skills we try to instill in students in a cold and laboratory friendly manner. Often times, in classrooms we force kids into inauthentic reading practices. Kill and drill, test prep skills are among them…these inauthentic opportunities suck the life out of reading and the meaning out the practice we look to teach. Students have to learn to love reading because reading is something to love—a highly personal experience of independent learning that you can share and interpret with others or keep to yourself.
I needn’t make too much of an argument for picture support, I’d wager. Relating text to image and image to text is the fundamental skill exercised in enjoying any comic book. In fact, often the art might be so fantastical that it is indeed the text that describes the image rather than the other way around. Directionality is certainly tested in reading a comic book. Depending on the layout of the art for a particular spread of pages, a reader has to ascertain not only which direction the story is going, but which way to move the book; a good two page spread will take several problem solving strategies because they tend to center around a central image with secondary panels floating around to explain it.
In terms of decoding skills, superhero and sci-fi/fantasy comics in particular have their fair share of nonsense words, decodable words, suffix and prefix patterns, and large multisyllabic words that require any number of word attack strategies. Breaking down, understanding, and mastering these words is far more rewarding than putting together unifix cubes with words printed on the side or coloring in a picture of a hat. In addition, continued exposure to these words augments the reader’s vocabulary in ways that are almost immeasurable. My whole life I’ve had people ask me where I pick up words that use conversationally, and time after time I’ve told them comic books and inappropriate television. Between the two I managed to pick up and retain a lot of words as a kid…and I still do to this day. Many comic book stories are great science fiction and expose the reader (myself included) to a variety of advanced or theoretical scientific ideas , concepts and theories. Additionally, they are often full of historical and cultural references and offer a richness and depth to a student’s background knowledge.
Comic book readers also have a strong sense of literary concepts—even if they don’t always know them by name. When you read ongoing series such as Spider-Man, Batman, or Superman you are dealing with complicated story continuity, involved plots, character development that sophisticates and the core of a character, and a strong sense of communication between the author and the reader. In particular a character like Superman or Batman that has been running continuously for 75 years or better allows for longevity in reading and attention span. Many fans will “go on a run” and pick up a particular author or artist’s stint on a title, or a particular story arc straight through. Others read religiously from month to month, or week to week, or day to day following a series ad infinitum if possible. The highly serialized nature of periodical comics allows for a long relationship with characters and Marvel and DC particularly, having integrated character universes allow for exploration of worlds of fantasy through words and pictures that no other genre or medium can offer.
In terms of content, comics also have a lot to offer—far more than the medium’s detractors tend to give it credit for. Many works extend the depths of the capes-and-tights genre for thoughtful, dark, and politically charged works such as Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Sin City, V for Vendetta, Sandman, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, and many others. Art Spiegleman’s incomparable MAUS and MAUS II, for example, saw the subject matter of real personal, ethnic, global, and political strife meet literature through the misunderstood medium of “the underground comix” format. Will Eisner of explored New York tenement life in A Contract With God. More recently we’ve seen author/artists like Craig Thompson push personal, spiritual, and emotional boundaries with stories like Blankets and Habibi. Publishers also tend to offer a variety of younger-reader friendly material that has sparks a high quality of interest and manages to push reading boundaries—Uncle Scrooge comics from Disney is a good example as “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” is probably one of the best character biographies in comics, despite being about the world’s richest anthropomorphic duck.
The literary value of comics and graphic novels has not been entirely overlooked in education though, as Bone is often included in upper elementary and middle school libraries but these works are the exception rather than the rule. Instead students are often offered inauthentic attempts at comics fare with adaptations of works into the medium—attempts that seem to contracted specifically for the purpose of creating a graphic novel adaptation of another work. I somehow doubt there was a creative team out there aching to make the comic book version of Nancy Drew in a Japanese Manga style, but these are the types one might most readily find in a school or classroom library.
I suppose, the argument against the comics some would consider to have literary value would be the level of violence many comics contain but even that is an almost moot point. Many children’s books contain the same level of violence. The Harry Potter books contain murders, magical bouts, and physical violence. Twilight and the Hunger Games do as well…nobody questions the inclusion of these works into student’s reading diets. Perhaps sexual undertones and overtones? I’d redirect you to the same volumes for your concerns. Instead I’d argue that it is the visual nature and a stigma still held against comics that keeps them from being truly utilized, authentically, in many school settings…even though they certainly generate high interest for both boys and girls, across a variety of titles.
Certainly, comic books are not the panacea for all the reading and literary woes in schools, but offering reading material for students that is exciting visually, and offers escape doesn’t automatically preclude the positive aspects by virtue of the often less than academic subject matter. The world that we live in is visually stimulating and supposedly full of “inappropriate” content for kids. The Common Core Standards are pushing away from fiction and heavily weighing in on non-fiction texts which is all well and good, but ultimately runs the risk of being very dry. Children’s imaginations can be sparked for non-fiction through good fiction and while we tirelessly define an education with academics, we are losing out on arts, creativity, and the transformative power of the daydream.
Reading, like most things, is about striking a balance. It shouldn’t be entirely recreational or escapist, but it can’t be entirely cold either. Teaching reading skills directly without ever throwing kids into the fire to just do it with a high interest text or highly visual book is killing the love of reading…at least reading literature. Words and written language are everywhere, so the question becomes more about instilling a love of reading for self rather than as a utilitarian act to follow directs and ascertain which train stop you’re at, or which toothpaste to buy. Not all kids will love comics as ferociously as I did, nor will others love the same genres anyone else did by that merit alone…but dispelling the genre in authenticity when there are such benefits and such a lifelong richness of reading and interacting with stories possible seems shortsighted and irrational.
In the end, my mother was right. It doesn’t matter what kids are reading—whether it be trashy romance novels, non-fiction, comic books, or anything else. If they are avidly, actively reading for their own enjoyment then we’re all better off. Open up the avenues of possibility. The more of them we close the poorer their imaginations and knowledge will be…and the less likely they’ll be to know the difference between a bird, a plane, or Superman.