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October 14, 2009

Why we should be teaching comics: wherein I preach to the choir

First, thanks to John Hogan at Graphic Novel Reporter for getting the word out about Reading With Pictures, a new not-for-profit organization working to get comics into classrooms and to make resources on comics literacy available for educators and researchers. This is a huge and very necessary undertaking, and I can't think of anyone better suited to head it up than Josh Elder, Peter Gutiérrez, David Rapp, and John Shableski. (Katie Doland, Director of Operations, I don't know you, but I hope I will soon!)

You can help support this project in a number of ways, but for starters, how about you head on over to IdeaBlob.com, and vote for this project to win a $10,000 grant! Go, register, vote! I understand voting ends tonight at midnight, so don't delay.


This excellent project got me thinking, a little, about what it means to teach (with) comics. I don't claim to know much about the pedagogical or developmental advantages of getting kids comfortable with the language of comics. I'd be shocked to learn that there aren't a number of them, but I'm no expert.

But what I am an expert in, like many of you, is reading and loving comic books. And that's in large part possible because I've been reading comics since before I could read. I probably learned the language of comics - the visual idioms and rules of order and symbolism and meaning - before I learned to read my spoken language of English. I can't remember a time when I have not felt utterly comfortable diving into a well-written, well-ordered page of comics; I love that feeling of being in harmonious communication with the creator of a comic.


It's easy for me to take this for granted, because so many of the people I spend my time with - friends, co-workers, and family - are in the same boat: comics-literate and comics-loving. We speak a common language, and view the world through rosy, speech-balloon-shaped glasses in which comics naturally take their place in the pantheon of the arts along with poetry, music, painting, dance, etc. Obviously in the context of American society at large we aren't there yet, but in my little personal microcosm, we sure as heck are.  

Which is why it's always a bit of a shock - and a pang - to find myself in conversation with someone who doesn't know how to read comics. Not just "doesn't read comics" but doesn't know how. "Oh," the conversation usually goes, "they make my head hurt. I can't figure out what the order is, I don't know where to look next. It's just too confusing."

For a while this sort of thing just baffled me. It was like talking about food with someone and having them say, "Oh, I just can't figure this 'eating' thing out. Where does it go? In my ear? My nose? It's just too confusing."

It. Blew. My. Mind.


But I got to thinking about it, and, well, okay. Comics have a language, a symbol-system. It's easier to figure out than hieroglyphics, but that doesn't mean you can just dive in and enjoy yourself if you've never looked at a comic before, never taken the time to work out the rules of order and sequence and visual symbolism. It's like trying to do the New York Times crossword puzzle if you don't know that an answer is always the same part of speech as its clue. Either someone explains it to you, or you figure it out after a while. But you can't instantly intuit these rules any more than you can instantly intuit the rules of comics. 

Kids figure these things out faster, and internalize them better, than adults, with those crazy-flexible brains of theirs. But an adult who's never read any comics - never learned the language, never became literate in this idiom - she isn't going to be able to pick up Fun Home and effortlessly sink into it. It's going to be a labor, maybe enough of one that she's going to give up after a few pages and go back to reading novels, or poetry, or science journals, or sheet music.

Or maybe she won't, maybe she'll persevere, and make it through Fun Home, and go on to Persepolis, and Scott Pilgrim, and The Photographer, and French Milk, and maybe a comics reader will be born.


But that's sort of like taking someone who's never read a line of poetry or looked at a painting and handing them Musée des Beaux Arts and waiting for a poetry or art lover to be born. Maybe it will happen! It could! But it probably won't, not with someone who hasn't had at least some kind of early exposure to these art forms. Our brains get all crusty and stiff, when we grow up. (Yes, that's a scientific fact!) It's harder open yourself up to new languages of expression, as the years go on.

All right, but so what? Who cares? I mean, comics professionals care, because it translates to fewer readers (and fewer creators). But why should novel/poetry/data/music-reading Jane Doe care that she never learned to read a comic? She's a teacher/poet/astronaut/farmer/conductor. She doesn't need comics to enrich her already rich life.



There are things you can say, things you can do, with comics, that you can't say or do any other way, just as there are things you can say or do with music or literature or an elegant proof that you can't say or do any other way. There are comics that can change your life. And you'll never know about them if you can't even read them.

There's nothing fundamentally different about teaching comics literacy to kids than teaching them the basics of poetry, art, music, math, science, reading - even running. When we educate children, we are giving them the tools to educate themselves. To find the things they love. To experience the world more fully.

And as long as there are people making amazing comics in the world, anyone who lacks the basic tools to read them is missing out. Big time.


Photos taken without permission from:



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Wow, what a great think piece, Calista! Of course I'm an easy mark for this kind of thing, but I still know quality when I see it.

And thanks for getting the word out about Reading With Pictures... expect some more exciting news very soon!

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