by Drego Little
There is a long and well-documented history of prejudice against comics and what educators think they might represent. Despite this history, comics have a strong following among writers and other serious artists. Sadly, this admiration for comics and their creators has not been widespread among educators. There are many reasons for this, but the most prominent of them is that most teachers either don't know what comics do, or aren't familiar enough with the medium to make good choices. It is important for teachers, especially teachers of reading, to understand the opportunity that comics represent.
The Nuts and Bolts of Comics
Comics are still not considered "reading" by too many educators; an attitude that persists even though when a student is reading a comic (especially a good one) he or she is actually reading on three different levels. Comics present powerful stories in a way that appears simple at first, but is actually a complex cognitive task. Three intertwined, but overlapping, phenomena occur while reading a comic: Closure, the mind's ability to make incomplete pictures complete and to fill in incomplete images. Narrative density, the amount of information a single panel can convey. Finally, what comics guru Will Eisner (1985) called amplification. Eisner's amplification referred to the use of words to enhance the narrative flow of symbols (pictures), in an educational or literacy sense, pictures and words scaffold one another to aid overall comprehension.
Closure provides most of the action in comics. Because the pictures don't move, your mind fills in the action. Most of the work in comics is done between the panels by your mind (McCloud, 1994). Closure is a powerful aid to understanding. It is a natural form of the kind of active reading that is good literacy practice. When we realize that closure takes place with or without words, the power of comics becomes all the more clear. If the structure and pacing of panels in a comic encourages the type of active, engaged reading that we want students to do, comics should have a place in any good teachers' arsenal.
Narrative density enables an artist to say a tremendous amount with a single panel. This is important because in the more sophisticated comics there is likely to be vocabulary a reader is unfamiliar with. Because so much information can be contained in a single panel, images can be read as text. And because the images and the words in a comic are both working to convey the same story arc, comics provide a type of literacy support no other medium does. Words help to more fully amplify the content of comics but in many stories they are used to provide only the finer details of the story and to guide readers to background information not covered in the panels. The arrangement of panels to fit a script makes for carefully structured interactions between pictures and text (McCloud, 1994). All of these elements combine to form types of texts that speak to many different levels of readers in ways that are both deceptively simple and artistically complicated at the same time. However all this discussion grossly misses the point for students. Any student reading comics will provide the most crucial insight about the medium: fun.
Causative evidence is elusive, but internationally the countries with high youth literacy rates also have vibrant comics cultures, notably Finland and Japan. In all international surveys of the literacy choices of pre-teens and young adults magazines and comics figure prominently. The scientific/academic explanation of reading choices still eludes distinguished scholars and adults who are unable to separate form content in their consideration of comics.
If reader interest is important in literacy (it is) and if the way to better and higher levels of literacy for all children is the goal, any text that appeals to millions of young readers around the world deserves to be taken seriously. Comics have only recently been embraced with the kind of serious consideration they deserve. Still, they are not widely used in classrooms. As stated earlier, this is partly due to ignorance, but a subtle, and often-unstated factor in educator's devaluation of comics has to do with antiquated, misguided beliefs about rigor.
Rigor, generally stated, is the practice of forcing kids to write things only adults can evaluate; read books only adults deem worthy, and to view literature as a "closed canon of venerable works" (Myers, 2002). Fun has no place in this equation. The goal appears to be to get kids reading the canon as soon as possible whether they really understand the works in it or not. Nothing is more damaging to the love of reading than the belief that it is something you do primarily for someone else. Yes, there are basic concepts and information that students need to know. Yes, teachers are held liable for how well (or not) students learn this basic information. However, it does not necessarily follow from these facts that comics are "bad" because kids like them, or that all comics are trash. Before teachers make judgments about comics, they should read them and consider this: every universal theme found in literature has been done well in comic form. This is becoming true as well for non-fiction comics focused on content areas like history and science. Before we get to specific recommendations, a few words on what comics do are in order.
Comics present complex stories and information in a format that often has on-board scaffolding for readers. Text bubbles are less intimidating to struggling and reluctant readers. The pictures, narration, and placement of text in comics allow readers multiple opportunities for successfully navigating texts.
Because they are written by an increasingly diverse group of individuals, comics offer diverse stories that have gone far beyond the white male power fantasies associated with the Super Hero genre. Art Spiegelman's Maus was only the beginning of what non-fiction comics can, and have done to enhance the way important stories can be told.
Comics are rigorous. Many writers with deep content area knowledge are choosing to present their information in the comic book format. Everything from evolution and physics, to world history and the Civil Rights Movement are explored by talented writers using the medium to educate young readers.
The format, flow, and methods of graphic storytelling align well with that other popular youth medium: the internet. Students have come to expect more-visually-from information media. The increasingly graphics heavy content of non-fiction books (see Dorling Kindersley Publishers) attests to this fact. In spite of what many lament as the MTVing of young American minds, comics can provide the opportunity to bridge teacher expectations and student interests in important ways.
Starting anything new in education is always difficult. Good materials speak for themselves in ways that no article can. The following recommendations represent excellent starting points for anyone who wants to learn more about-or just enjoy-comics.
Bone by Jeff Smith
Recently republished by Scholastic in a smaller more affordable format, Bone is an all-ages masterpiece. The story follows the three Bone cousins on their journey after being exiled from their hometown of Boneville. This story works on many different levels; there are sly references that adults can appreciate (Melville & mythology) and much that children aged 8 and up will enjoy.
Usagi Yojimbo by San Sakai
Shogun for 5th graders, only better. Usagi is about a ronin (masterless samurai) rabbit whose lord was disgraced during a great battle. Usagi now works as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Everything you ever wanted to know abut feudal Japan is explored in these books. Sakai uses anthropomorphism (animals who behave like people) to great effect as well: the Mogura (mole) ninja tunnel under their victims' homes to attack! Themes of honor, duty, and compassion are prominent throughout, though Sakai never comes off as preachy or didactic. A word of caution for those working with younger children: this series does involve the conflict of the feudal period. Depictions of sword fights and talk of beheadings are not uncommon. To Sakai's credit, the fight scenes are never gratuitous or gory.
Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh
If you could only buy one of these books, start with this one. It's essentially Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, all of Roald Dahl and Joseph Campbell rolled into one brilliant book. Courtney moves with her parents into her crusty old uncles' house in the suburbs. Along the way she confronts bullies, snooty rich kids, indifferent parents and . . . werewolves? After discovering her uncles' mysterious library books with spells in them, things get interesting. This is the first book of three volumes. I made the mistake of buying only one of each for my own classroom and quickly had to start a waiting list. Adults with an exception to magic may not like this story.
The Cartoon History of The Universe Vols I-III by Larry Gonick
All the stuff you're supposed to know about the world but leave to The History Channel: The Big Bang, Roman Empire, Greece, Chinese Dynasties, Patriarchy, The first college town (Timbuktu), and the status of women in the "great" civilizations. Do non-fiction comics get better than these? Any educator that doesn't find something useful in these books either hasn't read them, or just hates comics, period. Private schools around the country have taken to using these books in their world civilizations curricula. If there were only one non-fiction comic that should be read by all, this is it.
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Another masterpiece. A comic book about comics. McCloud ties the graphic storytelling medium to ancient cultures (hieroglyphics, pre-Columbian cave artwork, tapestries about the Norman conquest) and demonstrates that pictures were our first language. This is a book that would make the most ardent skeptic think twice about using comics in a classroom.
Comics have never been better than they are right now. They have gone so far beyond Archie and Casper that it is hard to describe how good they really are. Recent Hollywood adaptations aside, comics still examine the universal themes that are most often engaged in classrooms through novels. Imagine a history book students can't put down. Imagine a science lesson that students keep and give to their friends. Nothing can be gained from the kind of adult obstinacy that devalues anything associated with "youth culture." A whole new world awaits the educator brave enough to step outside of the canon for just a moment. The rewards just might be powerful, rigorous . . . and fun.
Eisner, Will. (1985). Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, FL.: Poorhouse.
McCloud (2000). Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing and Art Form. New York: Perennial Currents.
McCloud, Scott (1994). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial.
Myers, B.R. (2002). A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. New Jersey: Melville House Publishing
New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of social multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60 – 92
Norton, B. (in press). The fantastic motivating power of comic books: Insights from Archie comic readers. Reading Teacher.
About the author
Drego Little is a graduate student in the Language, Literacy & Culture program at the University of Washington. He teaches in the Rainier Scholars and hopes to have all kids read at least one comic some day.
University of Washington
College of Education
Language, Literacy & Culture
122 Miller Hall
Seattle, WA 98195
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